Lucy Ashton | 22.05.2003 00:54
Lucy Ashton, Middle East Times, Egypt, May 2003
Out of the darkness, a husband grabs at his wife's shirt, shakes it and then slaps her across the face hard. Her eyes fall to the ground in shame. Next, a man pushes his daughter to the floor, snatches her wrist and taking his shoe beats her about the neck and breasts as her mother watches.
These two scenes from Arab movies were a sharp reminder to the Regional Conference for Violence against Women that domestic abuse is common in the Arab world. Men often beat women and in many countries this is culturally – if not legally - acceptable.
The conference was the first of its kind in the Middle East. NGOs from 17 Arab countries met with representatives of the UN and international aid organizations to discuss how best to stop women being abused in the home, at work and by the state.
"Men have beaten women since forever," said Hoda Badran, head of the Arab Women's Alliance and host to the conference, "but everyone denied it."
No longer. Many governments in the Middle East have signed human rights conventions. NGOs are also asked to give their human rights assessment in 'shadow reports' to ensure that there is no cheating.
The Violence against Woman report has given Arab human rights groups the green light to discuss abuse in the community.
A National Demographic and Health survey in 1995 discovered that a third of Egyptian women had been beaten by their husbands more than once, some during pregnancy and with such violence that they were hospitalized. The 2000 survey did not follow up this issue because of a claimed 'lack of funds'.
It is essential that the local, regional and international agencies communicate if violence against women is to be eliminated.
All the signatures approving the laws are "pointless" said Christina Saunders, the assistant to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, unless people understand their rights.
Female genital mutilation or female circumcision outside hospitals was banned in 1997, after reports showed 94 to 97 percent of women in Egypt were cut, but the legislation, which does not address the cultural beliefs behind the practice, is weak.
Challenging cultural norms and introducing communities to the idea of women's rights requires nerves and patience. In the case of domestic violence, organizations have to go up against many Muslim clerics too.
"There is a Koranic verse that says if you are worried your women will not behave as they should, you can beat them," explained Badran. "Though many scholars agree this is a metaphorical beating, there is resistance to change in traditional Islamic society."
The excuse has permeated into the minds of many women too, to the extent that they accept and believe they deserve to be hit.
Those women who question the legitimacy of their 'punishment' and go to the authorities still have to overcome a patriarchal society.
"Women who have the guts to report domestic violence to the police are often asked 'Well so what?'" said Badran. Many officers tell the woman to take the beating as a just punishment.
The Arab Women's Alliance is pressuring the government to put a policewoman trained to deal with such complaints in every police station. "This is the first step to making a man think twice about abusing his wife," said Badran.
"We have to eliminate the impunity of gender-based violence and make the perpetrator feel guilty," said Saunders.
NGOs are trying hard to make women aware of their rights. A network of 370 organizations is presenting women with movies and holding discussion groups to build a grassroots resistance to domestic violence. Four women's shelters are now in service.
Observers say that many organizations and local authorities do not even know which treaties their governments have signed. To implement human rights legislation, society needs to know what the new laws mean.
"By informing lawyers, judges, policemen and particularly medical practitioners, who are often the first port of call for victims of violence, we can start to change the reality on the ground," said Saunders.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) is hoping to recruit Arab organizations into its National Implementation Project to teach judges and lawyers about international law.
The ICJ wants to help Arab nations, says spokeswoman Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, but it questions the Arab League's commitment to human – especially women's - rights. "The Arab Charter of Human Rights adopted in 1994 provides the minimum of protection for citizens," she said.
The international community only affirmed the simple statement that "women's rights are human rights" at the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Arab nations have moved fast to collect all the relevant human rights conventions, but there is a sense that the certificates mean little in society.
"The Middle East has yet to realise that though men and women are different, their value is equal," said a local observer.