ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Arab Women: New Voices

Cairo played host to the first Arab women’s summit between November 18 and 20. With more than 400 delegates in attendance, it was a historic occasion that wentvirtually unreported by the Indian media.The conference, which had ‘Challengesof the present and prospects of the future’ as its theme, was jointly organised by the Arab League’s general secretariat, Al-Hariri of Lebanon and Egypt’s National Women’s Council (NWC). It brought together, for the first time, women leaders and gender equality campaigners from 19 Arab League member countries to focus on the condition of Arab women and their role in coping with the issues facing the Arab world. The dominant motif, not unexpectedly, was solidarity behind the ongoing Al-Aqsa intifada waged by Palestinians against Israeli occupation. Al-Hariri, one of the summit’s organisers, was set up in 1979 to work for Lebanese reconstruction, focusing on social equity and equal opportunity in a nation torn by years of war with Israel and internal conflict. The summit’s “voice of protest”, as chairperson Suzanne Mubarak said in her opening address, represented “the angry voice of half the Arab world’s population – its women – against violations committed against the women and children of Palestine”. Other speakers similarly voiced moral support for the mothers of Palestinian ‘martyrs’. The final statement – designated the Cairo Declaration – reaffirmed support for the Palestinian intifada and called on Israel to withdraw from all occupied Arab lands in Palestine, the Syrian Golan Heights and areas still occupied in southern Lebanon. The summit urged the formation of a humanitarian committee under the UN to extend financial and other relief to Palestinian women and families and demanded that the Israeli war generals responsible for the aggression be brought before an international tribunal for their crimes against humanity. The summit also served as a forum for delegates from Iraq and Kuwait to air their political grievances. The Iraqi delegate complained that the international sanctions against her country continued and the Kuwaiti representative called on Arab women “to intercede with the Iraqi authorities to free 605 Kuwaiti prisoners of war”. The final declaration, however, merely affirmed the summit’s “solidarity with Iraqi women in their suffering and Kuwaiti women in their difficulties”. While politics occupied centre stage, the six working papers presented at the summit concerned women in Arab society, the impact of tradition and morals on women’s role in contemporary society, the impact on women of the ongoing economic changes and the need for enhanced women’s participation in public life. With the onset of the communications revolution, the media’s role in giving the Arab woman the image of a full partner in building societies and advancing development was stressed. Jordan called for the setting up a satellite channel directed at non-Arab audiences in a bid to change the stereotypical depiction of Arab women and Arabs. The conference saw a unanimous emphasis on revolutionising educational curricula to instil the principle of equality and eradication of illiteracy – out of the 65 million illiterates in the region, it was noted, 45 million are women. It was affirmed that women’s “low status was due to the prevalence of illiteracy and ignorance of true Islamic values and its tolerant rulings that equated duties and rights of both women and men”. The Cairo Declaration designated 2001 as the ‘Year of the Arab Woman’. It was agreed that the summit would reconvene every two years, with a different theme for each meeting. The document asserted the importance of promoting Arab women’s solidarity and exchanging experiences and information on women’s issues to link feminist movements across the Arab world. A proposed women’s committee, comprising the summit participants, would establish an Arab women’s fund to promote research on women’s situation all over the Arab world

A Kumar

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