(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Arab women’s conference calls for greater expression

[Egypt] Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), Cairo, May. [Date picture taken: 2005/05/21]
IRIN

The seventh international conference of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), entitled “Creativity, Dissidence and Women” ended on Monday in the Egyptian capital Cairo, with calls for Arab women to be more visible and vocal in expressing their views.

The conference, organised by influential Egyptian feminist and novelist Nawaal El Saadawi, brought women from all over the world together to address common problems. Conference issues included Arab women in the media, the role of the family and a number of other topics.

However, the main focus was on the right of Arab women to express themselves openly, often in the context of societies where free speech is limited.

El Saadawi said that the conference was organised to encourage change in the Arab world. The title of the conference was her idea because “Dissidence is the cornerstone of change but dissidence needs creativity,” she told IRIN in Cairo. She added that in many Arabic countries, women are expected to remain silent.

Speaking in front of an Arabic banner reading, “Women’s power includes lifting the veil from their intellect,” feminist and editor of the Lebanese women’s magazine Hasnaa, Nadine Abu Zaki, addressed the conference.

“Even though the situation of the Arab woman has improved during the second half of the 20th century, she still does not enjoy many of her rights,” said Abu Zaki. “The struggle against violence and the right for education (among other rights) are still pending issues. Laws are still patriarchal and maintain discrimination against women,” she continued.

In the presence of religious extremism, high unemployment, a host of educational and social barriers and insecurity in parts of the region, Arab women are facing difficult times. A report issued last week by the World Economic Forum (WEF) had Muslim countries topping a list of nations where women are most oppressed.

Sherif Hetata, Saadawi’s husband, argued that the key to improving social inequality lies with families.

“The first school in life is the family. The family can create a true democratic soul or the perfect opposite,” he told the conference. He added that Arab societies’ lack of encouragement of creative thought is to blame for extremism and other social ills that currently plague the region.

“It is not a privilege, it is the right of children to be creative,” he added.

El Saadawi concluded that the three day conference was successful in drawing together like-minded people. People attended from as far away as the US, Nigeria, India, and Europe in addition to Arab women from the region.

“Two hundred people came to this conference, bought their own tickets, paid for their own hotels and all this despite the perceived dangers of the Middle East. This is a very progressive group,” said El Saadawi

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