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Panel Discussion with Activists on Women's Rights in the Middle East

Aired March 08, 2010 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, what do the film "The Hurt Locker," women, and the Iraqi election have in common?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

It's International Women's Day and a big day for women across the globe. The first to ever win an Oscar for best director is Kathryn Bigelow. She directed "The Hurt Locker," a powerful movie about an American bomb squad in Iraq.

And the award came on the same day as the first parliamentary election in Iraq in five years, an election with nearly 2,000 female candidates. We'll be talking with an activist in Baghdad who's been working to get more women elected.

And we've also gathered an impressive panel to dissect the struggle for equality across the Islamic world.

But first, people flocked to the polls in Iraq's latest election. Final results won't be in until the end of the month, and women are amongst those who are closely watching the outcome. We're joined from Baghdad now by women's rights activist Basma al-Khateeb.

Thanks for being with us, Basma.


AMANPOUR: So tell me, the election has come and gone. People flocked to the polls. What did it mean for women? Was there a heavy female turnout?

AL-KHATEEB: Yes, actually, there was. And there was big anticipation, also. And during the campaign for the blocs, we've seen lots of photos, posters for women candidates from all blocs with veil, without veil, with details, mostly professional women.

The Iraqi women completely sometimes control nearly 60 percent of each ministry, but they do not have rights to the heads of departments. They do not (inaudible) legislation of their own right (ph).

So I believe that Iraqi women during this whole struggle, especially after 2003, are really willing to make their mark now, whether voters or candidates.

AMANPOUR: So -- so tell me, Basma, what then launched this heavy turnout of women? What do they precisely want now after this election?

AL-KHATEEB: I think (inaudible) change. You see families going -- daughters, elder women, participating. Also, they've started looking not like 2005 and previous elections. They're not just following who's telling them. They're looking around. They're searching for the history or the bios of the candidates.

I'm not talking -- I'm not saying that it's everywhere, but at least now in our networks of, you know, civil society and communities of local departments, we see this happening. And we train a lot...

AMANPOUR: So tell me what is going to -- as they look towards the final result, does it make a difference in terms of women's rights which groups get the biggest majorities in parliament? Is there a difference between, for instance, who might impose a stricter or less strict version of Islamic law? What in that regard are women looking out for now?

AL-KHATEEB: One of the important issues I think women in Iraq are concerned with is the personal status law. It's one of the -- the articles that are debated -- to be debated in the next parliament, so I think Iraqi women are truly interested to keep this current personal status law.

But without training, even professional candidates who are -- will be in parliament on how to lobby, how to make their own bloc, women bloc -- Iraq has a quota, women quota. It's two-edged sword for us, yes, but it has to say, because we've seen the difference.

AMANPOUR: Let's just take those point by point. First of all, what is the personal status that they're -- that they're interested in looking at?

AL-KHATEEB: Actually, it's what's regulated our lives for the past six decades. It was issued in 1959. It's considered one of the most advanced family laws in the region. It depends -- and based on Sharia law, but it takes the best for the benefit of women and family.

So I think it was very difficult for us, as Iraqi women, in 2004, when they tried to issue Order 137 to demolish this law. The personal status law paved the way to mixed marriages, to more rights for women, and we need to develop it.


AMANPOUR: Basma, has the quality of women who presented themselves for election, in terms of professionalism and qualifications, has it improved since the last round of elections?

AL-KHATEEB: Well, we've seen many of them have improved with many of them, but with many who have very strict, mainly the conservative blocs, it -- it was very hard, even negotiation, always the priorities of the bloc comes first.

Pushing for a bloc for women inside the parliament that's formed from different blocs was very difficult, but this is actually what we intend to do.

AMANPOUR: All right. Basma al-Khateeb, thank you so much for joining us from Baghdad today.

And next, we'll be talking to our special panel. While women in the Islamic world have made great strides in recent years, they still face major barriers.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Women are still the majority of the world's poor, unhealthy, underfed, and uneducated. They rarely cause violent conflicts, but too often bear their consequences. Women are absent from negotiations about peace and security.

NAVI PILLAY, U.N. HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: In the name of preserving so-called family honor, women and girls are shot, stoned, burned, buried alive, strangled, smothered, and knifed to death with horrifying regularity.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over): Dr. Isra Tawalbeh is Jordan's first female forensic expert. She says she sees around 20 cases of honor crimes a year. All the murderers, often male family members, have no remorse.

DR. ISRAA TAWALBEH, FORENSIC DOCTOR: He's convinced that he's a hero, you know, and that he protect the honor of the family.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In some cases, she says, the killers proudly turn themselves in.

TAWALBEH: I record a case that he cut the head of his sister and he bring just the head for the police station.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Until recently, many of those standing trial for crimes like these pleaded guilty under a Jordanian law that recognizes crimes committed in a fit of fury. They serve just six months in prison.

TAWALBEH: We are always in breaking the silence for the victim, either alive or dead body, and we are going to start to talk on behalf of them.


AMANPOUR: The honor killings we just heard about are just one example of women's struggle for equality in parts of the Islamic world. Women's rights have advanced in many Muslim countries, but women still suffer from more inequality than anywhere else.

Joining me now, three women who've made it their mission to promote gender equality: the president and CEO of the Women's Learning Partnership, Mahnaz Afkhami, she's a former minister for women's affairs in Iran; Asma Khader, who is secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women and a former culture minister; and Lina Abou Habib, executive director of a Lebanese organization that tries to empower women.

Ladies, thank you so much for joining us on this Women's Day around the world. You've just been participating in the U.N. conference, Status of Women, 15 years after the first, Beijing. Where do you think women's issues and women's rights and gender equality stands today compared to 15 years ago, briefly, Mahnaz?

MAHNAZ AFKHAMI, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE WOMEN'S LEARNING PARTNERSHIP: I think we have reached a much higher status than we had 15 years ago.


There are many, many more women in power, in politics, in high-value decision-making. Many, many women, younger women are working. Even in the Middle East, where rights are challenged, there are sometimes more women in universities than men, such as in Iran, 60 percent university attendance by women. So we have come a long way.

AMANPOUR: So those were all the good things.

AFKHAMI: Good things.

AMANPOUR: Lina, what are some of the places women are still lagging behind in your region?

LINA ABOU HABIB, WOMEN'S RIGHTS ACTIVIST: I think they're still lagging behind in terms of legal reforms. Our laws are still discriminatory vis-a-vis women. I think the family laws, were not going fast at all, actually, in some places, not even moving on family laws, and that is going to be a serious concern for women.

AMANPOUR: And, Asma Khader, in Jordan -- and we just saw that clip of something that unfortunately Jordan has been associated with, and that is honor killings. They also happen amongst Muslims in places like England, for instance.


AMANPOUR: And many other places. But it's a big problem.

KHADER: But there is really good news now. There is a new specialized female court that is reviewing these cases. And the latest judgments were all of them over 10 years imprisonment.

AMANPOUR: And that's real, is it?

KHADER: It is a real, real improvement in the situation.

AMANPOUR: And does that legally protect women against honor crimes?

KHADER: Well, partly yes, because the judges at the courts have this flexibility to use the litigation sentences reasons (ph). But -- but still, we are lobbying for raising the minimum sentences in the law itself. And I think it's coming.

AMANPOUR: So lobbying and greater political activism by women in the region is paying dividends. I want to ask you, Mahnaz Afkhami, because Iran during the election of June 2009 was a showpiece of what women wanted and what they were trying to do. During the election, they were demanding gender equality and women's rights be at the top of the agenda.

AFKHAMI: Well, actually, this is the situation in Iran, which has a very sophisticated civil society with a very primitive set of laws, and the women have been extremely successful in their efforts, even though they haven't particularly been able to change specific laws.

They were actually very good at participating in spaces that were allowed during the election and in being able to put their wishes on the platform of at least two of the candidates, who had not necessarily had feminist views, but they were sold...


AMANPOUR: They -- they recognized the power of the women's vote...

AFKHAMI: The power of...


AMANPOUR: ... just like anywhere else, the power of participation...

AFKHAMI: That's right.

AMANPOUR: ... was heard loud and clear. Lina, we want to play a piece of video. It's a report about your own organization in Lebanon. Let's just play a piece and we'll ask you about it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In this small office in Beirut, rights activist Lina Abou Habib is waging a war for equality. She heads an NGO that's fighting to change the nationality law, a law that allows only men to pass their Lebanese citizenship to their children and spouses, even though the country's constitution says all Lebanese are equal under the law.

HABIB: The current nationality law is one of the most straightforward case in point in discrimination in all our laws.


AMANPOUR: A case in point in discrimination in all your laws. How to change that? And is it possible? Are you doing that?

HABIB: Yes, indeed. We've been doing this as part of our international partnership since 2002, 2003. And the first realization was that women in the Arab regions are not considered to be equal citizens, because you've got straightforward laws which says men can pass on nationality, women cannot.

That is an indication that our states do not consider women to be citizens. It is possible to do so, yes, since the massive mobilization that we've had in working with the media and working -- talking with politicians and decision-makers. We've had -- we've seen three Arab countries change their laws.

Egypt has changed its law in 2004, followed by Algeria in 2005, Morocco more recently in 2008.

AMANPOUR: So the women can pass on their nationality?

HABIB: Indeed, in these three countries. This tells us, if you allow me, that there's a slogan that all of us use in the women's movements in the region that change is necessary and possible. So this whole idea that this is static, this is culture, this is religion actually has no basis.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me point that out. You say it has no basis, but Dr. Israel (ph) in Jordan actually said these people believe they're heroes. That means the culture, the education, the religious sensibility in some cases has told them that this is right. How do you change the culture of impunity that leads to gender inequality?

KHADER: It's to first strengthening the law, get in key women's human rights, women's rights according to the constitution, and then adopting and raising awareness about progressive kind of interpretation of the religion, because there are different type of interpretation.


And Jordan adopted, through (inaudible) for example, the interpretation of Islam that is pro-women rights, dignity of everybody, and equality.

AMANPOUR: But there still is a problem. The UNDP for several years now has put out significant reports about women's rights and their empowerment and the reality. Arab women's economic participation remains the lowest in the world.


AMANPOUR: No more than 33 percent of women are in the economy, in contrast to 55.6 percent, which is the average around the world, and that disempowers the whole region, according to the U.N. What can be done? And is anything being done to increase that?

HABIB: Indeed. I think, in the case of the region, there's more awareness that one of the major problem is that women are not in the economy. They're not movers and shakers of the economy.

So one of the things that is being done is actually looking at why and understanding that women work all the time for free, at least in this region. In the case of countries where you have conflict or post-conflict, one of the reasons why communities are sustained, one of the reasons why there's livelihood in these communities is because women work for free almost all the time. And I think this is coming up quite strongly nowadays.

AMANPOUR: So now they're demanding to be paid for their work?

HABIB: Not paid for their work, acknowledged for their work, protected for this work, and also acknowledged for the fact that, because they do all this work for free, the burden is far more on women in case of economic crisis than on men.

And I think we are witnessing -- one thing that's positive that we're witnessing in this region is the fact that women's economic contribution is way higher than what we thought it would be and that women need to have access to social security, to insurance, et cetera, even if they're not employed in the conventional sense of the word.

AMANPOUR: And let me -- let me turn to you, Ms. Afkhami, because one of the other issues, especially from the Beijing conference, was that there should be a certain number of women in parliament, in political positions. The global average of women holding seats right now, 18.6 percent, is way far from the target of 30 percent that was set in Beijing in the declaration.

AFKHAMI: That's true. It is -- it is one of our main goals even now, because we have come to believe that every other thing, whether it's violence against women, whether it's peace and conflict resolution, it has to do with politics, it has to do with power, with women being where they should be. And that's why our partnership -- we're all part of a partnership -- has to do -- really worked very hard...

AMANPOUR: Does it depress you a little bit that at this rate it'll take 40 more years to reach gender parity?

AFKHAMI: We don't believe that.


AMANPOUR: You don't believe it?

AFKHAMI: Because the way we're working, I don't think it's going to take any -- we're thinking 2020.


AFKHAMI: By the end of this decade, you know, we're thinking that we're going to be reaching some sort of if not parity, at least...


AFKHAMI: ... an -- a great increase.

KHADER: As an example, in Jordan, in the elections for (inaudible) councils, for example, 2007, we have a quota system that occupied 20 percent for seats for women, but then when women run to this election, 27 percent of the seats were occupied by women. So we are about...


AMANPOUR: So that's a success story?

KHADER: Yes, of course. We are about to reach the average. But, of course, we think that 50/50 is a goal.

AMANPOUR: We've been talking about -- we've been talking about the whole issue of democracy, culture, and tradition. Many, many Muslims are in Europe, and there seems to be a lot of tension right now, particularly over dress, sort religious nationalism. And the most recent has been the idea of wearing full-faced burqas, full-faced veils in public.

Does this cultural clash resonate in the Middle East? Or is it just purely European?

AFKHAMI: The immigrant populations are usually the most conservative.


AFKHAMI: They have a reaction. They sort of get...


AMANPOUR: They feel on the outside, too.

AFKHAMI: They feel on the outside culturally, and so they -- they react much more extremely than back home.

HABIB: And if I can add an example, for instance, in 2004, 2003, there was a radical reform of the family laws in Morocco, which was as a result of decades of activism. Now, it's amazing if you look at the communities of Moroccans in Europe, there's a huge difference between -- it's as if this reform hasn't -- hasn't reached the communities abroad.

And that is quite important. So that's why, in response to your question, it's really related to communities of immigrants abroad, to their own situation, to the situation of integration versus exclusion, which we may not resonate that strongly in our countries.

AMANPOUR: On that note, we're just going to take a break, and we will be back. And to watch a discussion we had on this program about France as it moves closer to a partial ban on the burqa, log on to


You can watch a heated discussion between a former Dutch lawmaker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an Islamic scholar, Tariq Ramadan, and a Syrian-born Danish lawmaker, Naser Khader.

In a moment, there's a world of possibilities for women in one place where the doors of opportunity are wide open.



AMANPOUR: Now we want to expand our "Post-Script" segment to talk about at least one country in the Middle East that for decades has made women's equality a centerpiece of its national character, education, medicine, and even in the law, a profession that's traditionally shrouded in the black robes of men.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In Tunis' law courts, it's another day of paperwork and appeals, commercial disputes, personal litigations, Judge Reem Khalimi (ph) presiding. Female judges are a rarity elsewhere in the Middle East, but in the city of Tunis, more than 60 percent of the judges are women.

This profession was once monopolized by men, says Judge Khaldi (ph), but now women want to challenge men and prove they can practice law. The proof is in her courtroom.


AMANPOUR: So can Tunisia set an example for the rest of the Islamic world? Joining us again, Mahnaz Afkhami, Asma Khader, and Lina Abou Habib.

You're a lawyer.


AMANPOUR: So what do you make of Tunisia, for it's made gender equality its raison d'etre for so many years?

KHADER: Yes, for sure. Tunisia played a model for the rest of the Arab countries, especially when it comes to the family law, the reforms of the family law. But, also, having woman in the law profession is very important. Today, we are celebrating in Jordan, in the occasion of 8th of March, Jordanian woman achievements in judiciary and law profession.

AMANPOUR: Are they judges?

KHADER: We have 48 judges now, acting judges, and one of them is leading a court. She is the chief of the court. We have a woman judge in the International Criminal Court for Rwanda. She's a female judge, also.

AMANPOUR: A Jordanian female judge?

KHADER: She is a Jordanian female judge. And we also have the opportunity to have more than 60 percent female judges in the coming few years, because more than 60 percent of the judiciary institute students are female now.

AMANPOUR: Doesn't this go to the heart of the matter? Without women in the law, practicing the law, sitting on the bench, you will not get legal reform?


AMANPOUR: Why -- if it's -- if it's Tunisia, why was it Tunisia and not the rest of the Arab world?

HABIB: Let me -- before answering that, let me go back a little bit before. History has shown us -- the history of the women's movement worldwide -- that often the judiciary was the main challenge, the main obstacle towards reform. And, therefore, I think more and more women in the judiciary, more and more women in the legal profession has changed -- has changed just a little bit.

Now, Tunisia, I think, has to be put in the -- in the geopolitical historical context, first independence, the influence of Bourguiba and his visionary vision of a modern Tunisia.

AMANPOUR: Actually, what's interesting is that it's not considered very politically emancipated. I mean, there are people who leave Tunisia...

HABIB: Indeed.

AMANPOUR: ... for political repression.

HABIB: We cannot look at gender equality without a context of democracy and freedom. And this is, I think, the trick for all our countries.

AMANPOUR: Well, what does that mean for Iran, for the women of Iran, in view of their legal rights?

AFKHAMI: Well, unfortunately, in Iran, we have a theocracy that has as its definition of the role of women complementarity, rather than equality.

AMANPOUR: But there are female lawyers.

AFKHAMI: There are female lawyers. They're acting very strongly and well within the civic area. But the government where the laws are coming really does not put forth the ideal of equality, so it's an uphill battle for the women.

We have had judges in the past. The whole reason why there's such an extraordinary women's movement right now in Iran, why they're the engine of the democratic movement, is the history of activism that they have had and they have shared and their sophistication that has come about as a result of that.

And I must also add, as we look to the future, Iran is one of the countries, but the other members of our partnership are also looking to that.

It's the possibilities and the potential of technology, of communication, of sharing, of solidarity-building, the kind of work that we do together, sharing experiences and examples and good practices, and that's what makes us stay hopeful for the future.

AMANPOUR: Thank you so much, all of you, for coming here on Women's Day, International Women's Day.



AMANPOUR: Thank you so much.

And our three guests from this program have agreed to continue this discussion online with a hash tag debate via Twitter. So please log on to This is a fascinating discussion. Send in your questions and we'll continue using the hash tag "AmanGlobal."

And that's it for now. We'll be back tomorrow. In the meantime, catch a podcast of this program on For all of us here, goodbye from New York.