State of Arab women lamented at Women Deliver 2013
BY SAFAA ABDOUN Cairo – At a high-powered gathering of thousands of women in Kuala Lumpur, Shereen El Feki, writer, broadcaster, academic and expert on social change in the Arab world lambasted how marriage in the region has become an exercise in “conspicuous consumption.”
Author of “Sex and the Citadel”, El Feki said that sexual and reproductive health in the region was in “an abysmal state of ignorance”.
If you don’t get married, she said, you enter the realm of suspended adolescence, “no sex, most certainly no children and can’t move out from your parent’s house, especially if you’re a girl.”
El Feki spoke to an audience of more than 4,000 delegates from all over the world attending the third Women Deliver conference (May 28-30), which tackled a range of issues spanning the gamut from women’s rights to health and family planning. The need to invest in girls and women were among the prevalent themes in a gathering which included doctors, activists, lawyers and filmmakers.
Women Deliver is a global advocacy organization calling for action to improve the health and well-being of girls and women by working globally to generate political commitment and resource investments to improve maternal health and achieve universal access to reproductive health and rights.
Guests of honor included the Princess of Denmark, Princess of Norway, First Lady of Sierre Leone, Melinda Gates, Chelsea Clinton, Barbara Bush and Mandy Moore, among others.
“Investment in early childhood education pays huge dividends to the nation and the two prerequisites for wealth and growth is success in health and education,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Delegates from the Arab World and Egypt discussed the situation of women in light of the ongoing political turmoil.
Egyptian Mervat El-Tallawy, head of the National Council for Women, slammed the “anti-women wave in the country” during a panel titled “Strategizing for a Culture of Gender-Inclusive democracy in the Middle East and Northern Africa Region.”
“It’s a general move by the people not the government, which is frightening,” she said.
The gloomy economic conditions are curtailing women’s job opportunities, while the security situation prevents them from going out for work or school, she said. Furthermore, the value of education is minimized in the minds of the people, especially the new generation who find it more fashionable to drop everything and get married at a young age.
“Not very long ago women were competing at work and pursuing higher educational degrees, but now girls are fixated on getting married. It is no longer forced marriage, as it’s accepted by both the families and the girls,” explained Tallawy.
She pointed out that girls begin to feel inadequate when they find their friends and cousins getting married but they’re not.
“It will take lots of work to change mentalities,” she said.
However, speaking from experience in her own country, Iran’s former Minister of Women’s Affairs Mahnaz Afkhami, said that the problem isn’t in Islamist rule but in patriarchy and implementing patriarchy in the name of religion.
However, she emphasized the proactive role women must play, in the true sense of democracy, which is participation and rights.
“Culture is a product which women have a lot to do with as they are the creators, implementers and sustainers of culture,” she said, adding that if they focus on bringing up a generation that respects women’s rights then there will be change.
Regarding sexual and reproductive health, El Feki painted a drab picture of a region seeped in injustice.
According to studies, she said, “What exists is the 40/80 gap, where 40 percent of females surveyed said they’ve had sex, while 80 percent of males said they did … an indication of how society places a huge burden on the virginity of females while turning a blind eye to the man’s.”
Young people are sexually active but not sexually informed, she continued. For example, sexual and reproductive health in Egypt is confined to a single lesson at school and studies show that the young generation is not satisfied with the level of sex education they’re receiving.
“The Middle East is one of the only two places in the world where the number of HIV patients is rising as well as the number of deaths [from it]. Sexual and reproductive health must be on the governments’ agenda as fertility is rising and family planning resources have dried up,” she said, adding that “the closing down on sexual life is part of a larger closing down on political, economic and cultural life in the Arab World.”
On a revolutionary note, Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahawy emphasized how real change takes courage and people who refuse to be silenced, referring to the case of Egypt.
“The revolution travels with you [so] stand up to hate, [be] fierce in fighting hate, [be] fierce in fighting silence,” she said.