By: Rafia Zakaria
ON March 10, more than halfway through the meetings of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, delegates that had come together from countries all around the world had failed to reach an agreement on a joint statement.
This statement, normally issued at the end of the meeting, reiterates and renews commitments of governments to women’s issues. This year the negotiations had been thwarted by numerous obstacles. Foremost among them were the issues of reproductive rights, gender and militarism and alleged “traditions” that some nations claimed were being violated by the language of the proposed declaration. The objectors included, among others, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, Poland and the Vatican.
Their differences and the possibility that the meeting could end without any agreement prompted the New York Times to publish a scathing editorial criticising the progress of the negotiations.
Beginning with the mention of Malala Yousafzai, the editorial decried the callousness of those stalling talks and lamented the use of the familiar excuse of “religion, custom and tradition” as a means for governments to duck their responsibilities to eliminate violence against women.
Much of the opposition, noted the editorial, came from the usual suspects: conservative American Christian religious groups who oppose abortion rights and conservative Muslim countries.
Four days later, there was good news. At the conclusion of the 57th session on the Commission on the Status of Women, it was announced that agreement had indeed been reached, and a document detailing the conclusions of the session was released.
The agreement reiterated the global nature of the problem of violence against women, proclaimed a commitment by all the delegates to eliminate violence against women and to promote and protect women’s rights and fundamental freedoms.
At the same time, an analysis of the dividing lines along which negotiations stalled provides some crucial insights into the challenges before women’s rights activists around the world, particularly in Muslim countries.
The meeting was attended by representative of nearly 6,000 NGOs from around the world. Most of these delegates do not have direct access to the negotiations and are housed instead in a building across the street from the UN building itself.
Here, the women who work in women’s NGOs around the world have to watch the representatives of their countries present gender issues in ways they know are inaccurate.
Members of Iranian NGOs, for example, have to watch glossy presentations by their representatives that tout progress in women’s rights. This goes against the ground realities which they have witnessed.
This year, the dividing line among those actually negotiating at the UN focused on religion, with countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Yemen, the Vatican and several more opposing various references.
The basis of opposition by the Egyptians was highlighted in a statement released by the Muslim Brotherhood on March 13, just before the meeting ended. According to the Brotherhood’s statement, the proposed document’s title Eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls was “deceptive” and “included articles that contradicted the principles of Islam and its ethics”. The Brotherhood criticised the document’s treatment of women who practise sex outside marriage as legitimate and equal to women who do not do so, and accused it of “protecting women who work in prostitution”. The Brotherhood also found it objectionable that the document took the right of divorce “away from the husband”, handing it instead to the judiciary.
The disagreements of the Muslim Brotherhood are not surprising as their views on the issues are well-known — as are those of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran that have long opposed the empowerment of women.
What is more troubling, however, is remembering that in the Egyptian case, all these views are being presented by representatives that have been selected via the electoral process by populations that know full well their perspective on women’s rights.
Given this, not only do they bring with them the legitimacy of public support, their vehement opposition calls into question their commitment to implementing any of the prescriptions for empowerment negotiated at the UN even previously.
In simple terms, then, the negotiations illustrate two conundrums, the solution of which is crucial to women’s empowerment.
The first is a necessary realignment of those working on empowerment in countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt, where those purporting to be representatives of religion are not allowed to discard women’s rights as being anti-religion.
This must and can be done by NGOs working at the local level to demonstrate that their policies and work are directed towards the welfare of the same women that religious parties purport to represent.
The second is a politicisation of NGO work so that it becomes part of the political and electoral process at the local level and cannot be relegated to the margins at the global level.
The sidelining of NGOs in the UN negotiation process in which only representatives of countries can participate means that if women’s rights are ever to go beyond paeans and promises, they must gain for their constituency some political legitimacy and accountability.
In the Pakistani context this second issue means an urgent need for an umbrella body of NGOs working on women’s issues that must collectively demand from Pakistan’s political parties a set of commitments about the future of women’s rights in the country.
Unless the leaders of the next government can be pinned down now, before elections, to support principles of gender equality, Pakistani women’s rights activists will face the same situation as their Egyptian counterparts whose empowerment priorities have been rudely rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.