Panel Discussion Recap

"Arab Women: Asserting their Rights, Deciding their Future"

Washington, DC | www.adc.org | November 3, 2011 – This week, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) welcomed guests to the ADC Heritage Center for the second event of the 2011-2012 Arabesque Lecture Series, a panel discussion entitled, “Arab Women: Asserting their Rights, Deciding their Future.” Moderated by ADC Legal Fellow Alyaa El-Abbadi, the panel included: Dr. Fida Adely - Assistant Professor and holder of the Clovis and Hala Maksoud Chair in Arab Studies at Georgetown University; Dr. Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah - President and Managing Director of Kommon Denominator, Inc. and Advisory Board Member of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University; and Ms. Dina Guirguis – an attorney, activist on Egyptian democracy, member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association (EARLA), and the former Executive Director of Voices for a Democratic Egypt. Members of the community enjoyed a thoughtful and enlightening series of presentations by the panelists, who each shared her own perspective in contemplating the dynamic between Arab women activism and the current social and political backdrop of the Arab World. 

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Dr. Fida Adely began her presentation by noting that, historically, women in the Arab World have been involved politically, including taking on leadership roles. She suggested that women in the region are often more prominent in their societies than is conveyed by the popular culture in the West. For example, Dr. Adely recounted, despite women appearing in U.S. media footage showing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt this year, commentators would often ask, “where are the women?” From her vantage point, being a witness to the rapid political developments in the Arab World from Amman, Jordan, she found her experience to negate much of the stereotypical rhetoric about the downtrodden Arab woman. In Jordan, she pointed out, there are many ways in which women are participating and advancing in civil society. Of note, is women’s involvement in labor and teachers’ unions. Also, she reported that more and more Jordanian men and women are achieving higher levels of education. And as much as Jordan has not itself been swept into the wave of the Arab Spring, Dr. Adely suggested that the expectations of a better life through achieving higher education coupled with the frustrations of not reaching it could create the kind of tension that would lead to eventual unrest.  

Ms. Dina Guirguis focused her remarks on women in the Arab Spring in Egypt. She first asserted that the “Egyptian revolution shattered stereotypes, especially those on the role of women.”  Indeed, Egyptian women play an active and vocal role in Egyptian society.  Yet in contextualizing the position of women in Egypt she argued that the women’s quota in Parliament that had been maintained under former President Mubarak and the government agency on motherhood & childhood directed by his wife, Suzanne Mubarak, exemplified measures that only served as “rhetorical lip service” for the issue of women’s rights. The presence of female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual harassment on the streets, and the disparity of the quality and accessibility of education between boys and girls tell a different story.  Ms. Guirguis stressed that in the revolution however, women had great latitude in taking part. It was during the 18 days in January 2011 of popular protests across the country, which ended in the fall of Egypt’s president, that a visual image was painted of women being physical agents of change. Ms. Guirguis highlighted the involvement of notable women in the revolution, such as Israa Abdel-Fatah and Asma Mahfouz, who both helped to galvanize the masses to action. It was through their use of social media that women were able to reach society directly and have their voices widely heard. But the struggle for recognition and increased rights for Egyptian women continues. Under the current ruling system, what Ms. Guirguis terms as a military dictatorship, attempts have been made to compromise women’s involvement. Ms. Guirguis gave the example of the women protestors, who were rounded up and forced to undergo “virginity tests” as a means of silencing and humiliating them. Ms. Guirguis argued that such methods backfired, however, when women, far from being silenced in shame, exposed the tactics of the military by vocalizing their ordeal in detail. 

Dr. Abdul-Hadi Jadallah began her remarks with a quote from an article in the Guardian published on April 22nd, 2011: “Women may have sustained the Arab Spring, but it remains to be seen if the Arab Spring sustains women.” She explored the Arab Spring from the position of conflict resolution, noting that conflict often arises from unmet expectations or incompatibility of goals. She therefore stressed the importance of managing expectations. Similar to Dr. Adely, she also noted that brave women who have emerged in the Arab Spring are not considered representative of Arab women in general, with people arguing that “these are the exception.” Highlighting the transformations happening across the Arab World, Dr. Abdul-Hadi Jadallah asked, “how do we deal with this change?” Her answer is: carefully. For women in the Arab World, she stressed the need for working alongside men, enabling them to be a part of the solution, and not attempting to bypass them in achieving women’s rights. She emphasized the need for the general inclusiveness of groups in moving forward, in keeping the dialogue constructive and respectful. Dr. Abdul-Hadi Jadallah also spoke in some detail about the role of the diaspora community, suggesting that in the midst  of Western hegemony, which she said continues to be a challenge facing the Arab Spring, it is essential that our community approach the region with sensitivity, rather than from the presumption of superior knowledge. It is also the community’s opportunity, she suggested, to leverage funding for projects of aspiration in the region. Also, we need to be mindful of the impact of trauma, she reminded the audience, and how it can impeded people from achieving their goals. 

An engaging Q&A session followed the panelists’ remarks and light refreshments were served during a brief reception afterward, with panelists, attendees, and ADC Staff enthusiastically continuing the conversation.

Join us next month for the third event of the Arabesque Lecture Series, in which we will explore the position of Christians in Palestine.

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NOTE TO EDITORS: The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which is non-profit, non-sectarian and non-partisan, is the largest grassroots Arab-American civil rights and civil liberties organization in the United States. It was founded in 1980 by former Senator James Abourezk. ADC has a national network of chapters and members in all 50 states.