Grassroots Campaigns, Alliances, and Religious Lines of ReasoningSeveral Arab countries have had new constitutions following the Arab Spring of 2011. This has proved to be a golden opportunity to consolidate women’s rights, but women’s organisations have also witnessed strong opposition from conservative political forces. A handful of KVINFO’s partners from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Jordan convened in Tunis in order to share experiences of how to achieve maximum influence during the processes of constitutional reform.
The Yemeni delegation arriving at the conference in December in order to discuss best practices in furthering women and equal rights when rewriting new national constitutions is disillusioned. While they managed – under considerable duress – to score a number of significant victories during the National Dialogue, which preceded the formal committee on constitutional reform, the politicians on the committee are now apparently reneging on their promises.
”Several male politicians are ready to make compromises resulting in a limitation of women’s rights”, says a visibly frustrated Bilqis Abu-Osba. She is a professor of Political Science at the University of Sana’a and head of Volunteers’ Alliance for Women’s Rights, an umbrella organisation of various Yemeni women’s groups working to promote women’s rights.
The way Tunisian – and to some extent Egyptian – women managed to put a decisive stamp on their respective countries’ new constitutions concerning equality and women’s rights is an inspiration to Abu-Osba and several other participants at the meeting.
Dialogue Rather than Confrontation
At the conference, Anware Mnasri from the host organisation, LET (League of Female Tunisian Voters), explains how the Tunisian women’s organisations made a number of strategic choices from the outset.
“We decided to avoid confrontation. Instead, we focused on our ideological opponents”, she says. Anware Mnasri offers an example from a workshop, where a conservative woman from the Islamist Ennahda Party, who had initially believed in a constitution based solely on Sharia, or Islamic law, came around to suggesting that a process of dialogue concerning the new constitution should be initiated with various parties.
We decided to utilise their own lines of reasoning while focusing on the positive aspects. They were fascinated and impressed by the strength of our position, she explains in the presentation. She relates the example of how the women’s groups employed a passage from the Qur’an in which a woman is berated – not for her being female, but for her lacking belief in God. This passage demonstrates how, according to the Qur’an, there is no obstacle to female governance.
“We upheld the principle that Islam and human rights are fully compatible”, states Anware Mnasri, who is a trained legal professional.
Religious Lines of Reasoning are Highly Effective
The approach is recognised by the non-Tunisian participants: e.g. while the Jordanian Women’s Union operates on a secular platform, the Union often presents a religious line of reasoning.
“It is more efficient to use the same sources and to counteract a religious line of reasoning by another religious statement”, explains Hala Deep, a lawyer with the organisation. She and Hala Salem from Al Quds Centre for Political Studies also emphasise how Jordan is more similar to the traditionally tribal Yemeni society than countries such as Tunisia and Egypt.
”It is not easy to find enlightened, Muslim scholars of Islam in Jordan. We are forced to apply our own interpretations, which may cause problems. People are used to the imams”, says Hala Deep. And the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is not open to debates on women’s rights like in Egypt.
Everything has generally moved at a much slower pace in Jordan. There has been no revolution, only slight changes to the constitution.
“We have to focus on minor reforms concerning the most important questions”, she says. “And we must prioritise questions which impinge upon everyday life.”
Grassroots Involvement: A Campaign Mainstay
In order to bring the debate beyond the affluent strata of society in the capital, the impact on ordinary citizens has also become one of the mainstays of the campaigns of LET and other women’s organisations in Tunisia. “You will not get very far if the grassroots engagement is lacking”, concludes Anware Mnasri. Hence, their focus on women in rural areas and the development of tools to further dialogue and communication.
”We tried to further a sense of creativity”, she says. LET has, in collaboration with local organisations, held events using creativity such as singing and painting, enabling the participation of illiterate women and their children in classes on rights, health, and voter participation – all based on the women’s own experiences. They also particularly tried to target youths in this work.
A Campaign Against Women
Yemeni Bilqis Abu-Osba explained how the non-confrontational tactics had also been successful during the National Dialogue in Yemen.
“It was our strategy to lower our tone of voice and avoid confrontation. Confrontations would have destroyed us. By lowering our tone of voice, we successfully promoted a quota for women during the National Dialogue”, she says. During the National Dialogue, they organised workshops in order to further the recognition of women’s rights without, however, engaging in direct confrontation with their political opponents.
This strategy has incurred decisive results – not least the decision to apply a 30 percent quota for women during future elections and appointments – though the religious right by no means reciprocated the conciliatory tone.
”Many women were blazoned as Atheists. They were disrespected”, she explains when talking about the campaign against several female participants in the National Dialogue. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, this has led to a disjuncture between more liberal women’s groups and religious and conservative women in Yemen. Some politically active women have concurrently chosen to prioritise party loyalty at the expense of the women’s political agenda.
”We ended up divided into two groups of women. We have attempted to cool the conflict and convince the others of the necessity of banding together – because otherwise we will achieve nothing”, she says.
The Egyptian and Tunisian activists at the conference stress the importance of political activists and women’s organisations banding together and building alliances with other interested parties, including male politicians and activists and groups of women in other organisations.
”It is a reality that some feminists are Islamists. The legislative assembly included female members of the Muslim Brotherhood. And we comprised liberal and leftist, young and old. We all agreed on a minimum platform”, says Maissan Hassan from the Women and Memory Forum in Cairo. And they ensured consistent viewpoints in order for their political opponents not to be able to exploit any inconsistencies in statements from the various women’s groups.
”Legal assistance helped us communicate clearly. We made sure to always use the same – convincing and legally sound – terms”, she says.
Bilqis Abu-Osba fears that the broad statements of the National Dialogue in Yemen will eventually be diluted into a toothless version for the final draft constitution. This could see the 30 percent quota for women on all candidates’ lists or public appointments relegated to the chapter on interim provisions. So far, the quota for women has not even been applied to the nominations for the Constitutional Convention.
The process regarding the Constitutional Convention has been similarly opaque – making it difficult to keep up-to-date on developments and to respond appropriately to new turns of events during the process.
Shifting Political Sands
The situation for Yemeni women is not made any easier by the application of force by other political entities. Since the conference in Tunis, the Houthi militia has gone on the offensive, installing their own government in the capital of Sana’a, and fighting has spread across the country. The Houthi militia – among other changes – demand a reshuffle of the Constitutional Convention and alterations to the almost-finished draft Constitution. Though the details remain unknown at this point, they are bound to be disadvantageous to women.
While it is impossible to predict the final outcome of the situation in Yemen, the conference in Tunis offers experiences with navigating political sea changes.
”The situation changed fundamentally when the Muslim Brotherhood gained a majority in the Constitutional Convention”, explains Maissan Hassan when referring to the first post-revolution elections in Egypt in 2011. The women’s organisations received notification that gender issues would be excluded from the new constitution and that inheritance laws would remain unequal.
”They were not open to our demands. But we agreed, that we had to cooperate with whomever were in power in order to promote our cause.”
And while they achieved little with regards to the constitution instituted during the administration of the Muslim Brotherhood, their thorough groundwork paid off after the military removed President Morsi in 2013 and subsequently relauched the constitutional reform process.
The military regime asked a group of judges of a patriarchal bent to write the new draft constitution, which was presented during a hearing of a 50-member committee afterwards.
“The first success was to promote an experienced member of the committee”, says Salma El Naqqash from the organisation, Nazra for Feminist Studies, as she explains how a concerted campaign has succeeded in the promulgation of several important amendments.
”There is a decisive gender aspect to the constitution”, she says with reference to a number of promoted rights and the progress on article 11 of the constitution which clearly states the equality between men and women.
This is thanks to substantial advocacy by the women’s organisations”, she insists.
The daylong conference in Tunis is succeeded by a two-day advocacy workshop primarily aimed at the Yemeni conference participants. The numerous delegation is composed of members from Bilqis Abu-Osba’s coalition and the youth organisation, Generations Without Qat, a regional organisation, which also cooperates with KVINFO. Several members of the latter are quite young, and both women and men from the organisation attend the conference in Tunis.
Despite frustrations with the political process in Yemen, the mood is upbeat and playful during the workshop, which consists of various exercises and role-play. Among other tasks, participants are asked to identify the sequence of processes involved in efficient advocacy, a catalyst for animated debate.
The groups eventually reach a number of conclusions: It is necessary to have access to data before devising a political message. It is necessary to anchor one’s coalition to a single target and message before carrying out the campaign.
The following exercise is a role-play, in which the various groups are awarded a function in accordance with a scenario in which the women’s organisations campaign against child marriages. One group play the parliament, another is the government, one is the president and his advisors, one of whom is married to a child bride, one group represent the media, another the international donor community etc. The women’s group is tasked with changing the law while various other groups attempt to further their own political and financial interests.
Once more, the exercise unleash a frenzy of energy and boisterous laughter – not least when one of the youngest female participants is asked to play the role of the advisor married to a child bride. It is however, also a clear demonstration of the complexity of the field – with various actors and numerous potential stumbling blocks – in which the women’s and youth organisations must operate.
Putting Experiences into Practice
The aim of the advocacy workshop is to enable the Yemeni participants to transform the inspiration from the daylong conference into a qualified plan of action and offer them fine-tuned tools to making the most impact during the chaos of the current political process.
During the conference and the workshop, the Yemeni participants are repeatedly expressing their admiration for the results achieved by the Tunisian women. The respect and admiration is however, reciprocated by the Tunisian participants due to the unfailing efforts of the Yemeni women’s rights advocates under difficult circumstances.
After her presentation on the first day of the conference, one of the Jordanian participants spontaneously declares Bilqis Abu-Osba as Queen Bilqis, which is the Arabic name for the Queen of Sheba.
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The comparison unleashes much laughter, and she requites with a modest but self-assured bow.
Finally, for Bilqis Abu-Osba, the most important takeaway from Tunis is neither the recognition nor the experiences of the others, or the practical training sessions:
“This meeting has instilled new hope in me”, she concludes after the conference.