A Mental Revolution is Needed!

The 15th New Faces Conference on “Transitions in Egypt and Tunisia through the Prism of Gender Equality”

02/02/2012 - 05/02/2012 | 19:00 | Kairo | Invitation only

Category: Near and Middle East/North Africa, Democratization/System Change

One year after the toppling of presidents Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, developments regarding gender equality in Tunisia and Egypt are sobering. In Egypt, only two percent of the recently elected members of parliament are female and even liberal, secular parties lacked many female candidates. Ongoing developments, especially the strengthening of Islamist parties, suggest that things will probably get worse before getting better.

The 15th New Faces Conference organized by the DGAP’s EU Middle East Forum (EUMEF) aimed to reflect upon the transformation processes in Egypt and Tunisia through the prism of gender equality. 16 young women and men from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, and Turkey came together for three days in Cairo. All participants showed strong professional and personal engagement with the topic.

Enhance the Legal Conditions

There was consensus among the group that quota systems on every political level are indispensable to foster women’s participation in the political process and to bring forward the topic of gender equality. This is especially true for patriarchal societies such as Egypt and Tunisia. It is up to the state to create an appropriate framework.

One election observer said that even in Tunisia, one of the most progressive countries in the MENA region regarding gender equality, it was only after recent elections that people began realizing that the parity law between men and women should have also been applied for the highest positions on the party’s electoral lists.

As participants from Morocco highlighted, legal reforms alone are not sufficient. A mental revolution is needed within society. A reform to the current family law—which has triggered social injustice and an inferior image of women—would support such a change of mentality, according to two Egyptian gender experts.

Education as a Key to Gender Equality

Misogynistic images and stereotypes have to be fought through education. The male participants of the conference highlighted the fact that reaching males is fundamental.  The group emphasized that schools in particular must be subject to reforms. To this end, it is important to use different language in rural areas versus urban areas because women in rural areas often regard the idea of equality as a threat and a burden. As a human rights trainer explained, they mainly request justice instead.

To develop a legal framework and fasten societal change, it is important to create alliances between parties, NGOs, and the media. In that respect, the European Union could also make an important contribution. Nevertheless, the media were heavily criticized by the North African participants for their insufficient and often counter-productive reporting on women’s rights.

The Controversial Role of Islamic Feminism

When it comes to the topic of gender equality, the conservative-religious character of societies in Egypt and Tunisia becomes evident. Islamic Feminism is an approach to foster women’s rights by placing it in a religious context. It reinterprets the Quran and the Prophetic tradition concerning the role of women.

There was disagreement among the participants on this point: The opponents of the approach, particularly the participants from Tunisia, argued that the approach was much too narrow and will always be limited by religion. Supporters on the other hand see it as a chance to reach women for whom secular feminism is too much of an alien concept. Among the latter group, there was agreement that Islamic Feminism can only be used complementary to international conventions and the universal concept of human rights.

The gap between supporters and critics of the role of religion in developing a constitution and making laws became evident at this point; despite the fact that the conference participants were rather moderate. Accordingly, the idea of dialogue with Islamist forces was discussed critically. But all participants agreed on the necessity to influence Islamist groups regarding gender equality.

The 15th New Faces Conference was held in cooperation with the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the German Foreign Office, the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa), the American University in Cairo, and the Cairo office of the Freie Universität, Berlin.

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