Arab women continue rights struggle

from International Development Research Centre
Published on 01 Feb 2013 View Original

A campaign that won legal recognition for Arab women’s citizenship rights in nine jurisdictions is providing inspiration and tactical lessons for women facing growing discrimination across the Middle East.

With support from IDRC, the Beirut-based Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD.A) launched a regional research effort in 2002 to examine how women’s lack of citizenship rights leads to the denial of a host of other rights.

Their findings led CRTD.A to launch the Arab Women’s Right to Nationality campaign. They sought to create public awareness of the ways that Arab women’s inability to transfer their citizenship to their partners and children created grave hardship for those families.

Many women who had married foreigners came forward with stories of how their children were forced to live as “strangers in their own country.” Cut off from the benefits of the woman’s citizenship, spouses and children were denied the right to health care, education, employment, political representation, or to travel freely within the country.

Growing public concern

“We saw how the denial of this one right — the right to nationality — led to the denial of a whole range of other rights,” says CRTD.A Executive Director Lina Abou-Habib.

“This is far from a simple administrative concern. It means in practice that women are inferior to men — they are not considered as full-fledged citizens. They are denied the fundamental social and economic tools to keep their families and children from living a life of poverty and social isolation.”

These families’ stories of hardship and injustice struck a chord in many Arab countries. The campaigners brought the human impact of discriminatory citizenship laws into public view by producing three documentaries — My Child the Foreigner, My Lebanon, and All for the Nation — and organizing public protests across the region.

The resulting political debate led Egypt to change its citizenship laws in 2004. Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza, and Yemen later followed suit.

Unfinished business

Elsewhere, the work continues. In Lebanon, pressure from the campaign led to the appointment of a ministerial committee in 2012 to study ways of strengthening women’s legal rights. Women involved in the campaign are now mobilizing support for candidates in parliamentary elections who support expanding women’s rights.

More broadly, however, women in the region face grave challenges.

“The Arab Spring has proven to be a serious setback for women’s rights and human rights in general,” says Abou-Habib. She cites fundamentalist-influenced governments in several countries that have signalled their intention to reverse women’s gains.

Resisting this rising tide, Abou-Habib believes, will require a renewed commitment. The past successes of the nationality campaign provide important lessons.

Now, says Abou-Habib, “we have more knowledge about how research can create a public dialogue as well as change policy. And we know better how to communicate the lessons that come out of that research.”

Stephen Dale is an Ottawa-based writer.