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Arab women demand equal opportunities

Women's treatment across the Arab world varies widely By Caroline Hawley in Cairo Nov 2000 BBC

A meeting of prominent Arab women has ended in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, with a call for equal opportunities for women and legal protection against violence.

Queen Rania of Jordan, Suha Arafat, wife of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, the Sudanese President's wife, Fatima Bashir, and Lebanon's First Lady, Andree Lahoud were among nine First Ladies who took part.

A final declaration of what has been billed as an historic summit also expressed strong support for the Palestinians and called for further such gatherings every two years, with another special summit next year.

Never before have the problems facing Arab women taken centre-stage quite as they have over the past three days.

Queen Rania of Jordan wants justice for women. "Development will not achieve its goals unless women participate in it as complete and effective partners in all fields.

Illiteracy and stereotyping

One by one the Arab First Ladies, some veiled, some bare headed, took to the floor to talk about the achievements of women and the challenges ahead.

The host, Suzanne Mubarak, said the summit was a voice of protest from half the Arab world's population against what was happening to Palestinian women and children.

She also emphasised the challenges to women posed by "ideas received and unfounded fears, resulting from outmoded traditions and social customs".

Princess Lala Mariam of Morocco, the king's sister, spoke about the problem of female illiteracy and negative media portrayals of women.

The various speakers and official delegations dalso discussed their concern over discriminatory legislation.

Their final declaration called for services to be provided to allow women properly to combine careers with family life and for them to play a greater role in political decision-making.

Suha Arafat urged Israeli mothers to act.

It said Arab countries must try to project a more positive role of women in the media and it called for legal protection for women against violence.

The wording was vague, but in many Arab countries men who kill women thought to have brought shame on their families go unpunished and domestic violence is sometimes condoned, even by women themselves.

Contrasting experiences

Activists hope the summit will give a push to efforts to redefine women's role at the start of a new century.

At present, women's experiences vary enormously across some 20 Arab states.

Tunisia, for example, which bans polygamy, has the region's most progressive legislation for women.

But a plan to ban polygamy in neighbouring Morocco has been adamantly opposed by Islamists.

Libya's leader, Colonel Gaddafi, is protected by female bodyguards, whereas Saudi Arabia, which is not attending this summit, enforces strict segregation and forbids women to drive.

Egyptian women have been allowed to vote since the 1950s; Kuwaiti women still cannot.

Egypt's first lady blames outmoded traditions

Scepticism

And in the past year, after hard campaigning, Egyptian women have won further rights, reversing laws that prevented them from obtaining divorce and traveling abroad without their husbands' permission.

But some activists have been disappointed that the summit came out with no concrete commitments.

Haifa Ezzi, a Saudi researcher, said some of the speeches "were full of unrealistic rhetoric".

Not is it clear whether and how the participants will be able actually to put their cause into action.

The summit was attended by about 2,000 delegates from 19 countries, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Algeria the only Arab League members not officially represented.