Side by Side present at Conference on Women’s Rights in the Middle-East

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In early November 2018, Side by Side presented at a conference in Cyprus on ‘Women’s Rights in the Middle East today: law, culture, and religion’. This was an important conference that brought activists, academics and theologians together to discuss current condition of women in the Middle East, and the factors that impair the movement towards equal rights. Our participation was encouraged by one of the co-organisers, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, President at the Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture, following an introduction by Church of Sweden who funded the conference.

While Side by Side is a global faith movement for gender justice, it is not (yet!) established in the Middle East. This year we have been consulting members working in the region and we saw this conference as an opportunity to further our understanding of the context of religion and gender justice. We were grateful for the invitation to present, as this gave us the opportunity to profile Side by Side with a new and different audience, to share our recent advocacy briefing, to make new contacts from across the region and to discuss with Palestinian participants our early plans for hosting a Side by Side consultation in Palestine and seek their advice. All these objectives were fulfilled, we gained a rich understanding of the context, created new relationships and our movement is now known!

The gathering comprised around 60 participants, mostly women and including students from the Dar Al-Kalima University College. They came mostly from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, with a small number from Europe and the US. What struck me from the start was the clear importance to the participants of the opportunity to come together, from across the region: for a variety of reasons this is sadly not normally possible, and there was an almost tangible buzz as people were able to connect in person – so much energy and passion!

Most of the presentations highlighted from different geographical, cultural and religious perspectives the challenges experienced by women and girls in traditional patriarchal societies. One feature is the existence of parallel legal systems, where religious law governs ‘personal status’ issues and the national, secular, system covers the rest. This means that religious laws are allowed without interference to determine the status and opportunities of women in virtually all areas of their lives. Generally, this means that the oppression of women is perpetuated without challenge. We heard of some notable exceptions, for instance where the Lutheran Church in Palestine had created its own legal system which is far more progressive than the church laws that it replaced. The encouragement from this example is that change is possible.

Nevertheless, the oppression of women continues to be reflected and reinforced in both traditional and social media and a number of speakers addressed this issue with some powerful examples. After what was a fascinating but not altogether encouraging series of presentations, I was able to share the work of Side by Side and its members, and describe how in so many ways faith can be, and already is, part of the solution to gender injustice rather than part of the problem. One of the other speakers told me afterwards that my presentation was the highlight of the conference for her – she’d heard a message of hope, that faith didn’t have to be an obstruction to the realisation of gender justice. That on its own made my participation for Side by Side worthwhile!

Between the sessions there was time for networking and for follow-up conversations with some of the speakers. After my presentation, a number of participants came and asked for further information about Side by Side, saying that they’d been inspired and encouraged by what the movement is already achieving.

I was also able to have some Palestine-specific conversations which elicited information and insights that will be very helpful to our movement as we develop our plan for a consultation to be held in Palestine in February 2019.

My overall reflection on our participation in this conference is that it’s reinforced my conviction that there is an important role for Side by Side as an interfaith global movement working for gender justice. My Middle Eastern interlocutors were struck by the uniqueness of our offering, and of our way of working, and see Side by Side as a valuable and necessary contributor to the work for gender justice. We should be encouraged!

 

Written by Jenny Brown, Side by Side Advocacy Chair

 

The advocacy briefing is currently available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese:

The role of faith leaders in achieving gender justice (in English)

Le rôle des leaders religieux dans la réalisation de la justice de genre (en français)

El papel de los líderes religiosos en la justicia de géneroen (en Español)

O Papel de Líderes Religiosos/as* na Luta pela Justiça de Gênero (em português)

 

Posted by: Rachel Tavernor | Thursday, December 6th, 2018
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