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‘Arab Springs provide momentum for women’

The Arab women are coming! That was Kim Ghattas’s message on 6 March in the 25th Annie Romein-Verschoor Lecture. It won’t be easy and it could take a long time, but they can do it. The Arab Springs have inspired them, and they’re not letting go of that.

Palpable power

Kim Ghattas
Kim Ghattas

The footage shown by Ghattas, daughter of a Dutch mother and a Lebanese father, and currently correspondent for the BBC in Washington, is moving: thousands of women on a city square in Libya singing for freedom. You can also distinctly hear bass male voices singing. The power these women have is palpable. Libya, 2011. 

Kim Ghattas’s lecture is one of hope and confidence, even if it is also interspersed with distressing stories.
She talks, for example, of an Arab woman who reports a gang rape and ends up in jail because sex out of wedlock is a crime. And about women activists who are kidnapped and never heard from again. And the fact that 80% of women in Egypt are subject to sexual or other physical violence.

It's about real life

Arab women are beginning to rise up against legislation that restricts women. Through social media and the Internet they are getting better at finding and mobilising each other - in all sorts of areas. But real life is everyday life, and that’s where many women are busy improving their situation. Women, who are not allow to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, start at home with an Internet business through which they can earn their own money. Reporter Petra Stienen says, ‘It can’t be anything other than a battle “in the bedroom”.’ Women will have to keep on getting better at saying no to things they don’t want, and yes to things they do want. That means a battle from the bottom up.

Critical of the West

Petra Stienen
Petra Stienen

Ghattas is also critical of the West. People in the West are missing the whole point. It’s not a matter of whether or not to wear a veil or whether or not one should be allowed to drive a car. What’s important is that women must be able to do what they themselves want. Large groups of women aren’t allowed to do anything without permission from their male ‘guardians’. They can’t travel, pursue an education, get married or get divorced. What freedom they have is the freedom they have been allotted. And in the extremely varied Arab religious landscape, it’s also a matter of accepting multiformity. Furthermore, according to Ghattas, the Arab world is highly contemptuous about how the West presents women in advertising and the media. Is that what superior Western values are about? And it has just been in the news that one in three (33%) women in Europe above the age of 15 have suffered sexual or physical violence at some point in their lives; and in the past year alone, 8% of women have been affected.

A well-functioning economy is a prerequisite

A well-filled auditorium
A well-filled auditorium

Arab women want freedom, dignity and a better life, but they still have a long road ahead of them. Ghattas cites Hillary Clinton: Women’s rights are the unfinished business of the 21st century. What is most urgently needed, according to Ghattas, are jobs in a well-functioning economy. Chaos and instability are disastrous. Women can see that very well; they can only improve their situation if everybody’s situation improves. Their fight is everyone’s fight. The Arab Springs didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to. But women are holding on to the power of that momentum.

The Annie Romein-Verschoor lecture is held annually on or around 8 March, International Women’s Day

(10 March 2014)


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