The world is celebrating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women through the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign. Just a week ago, 15-year-old Reem Magdy, Egypt’s wrestling world champion, left this world after her father beat her, pushing her to jump out of a fast-moving car and die on the spot.
Yet, in spite of the efforts made to fight the scourge of violence against women, which is a latent violation of human rights, and in spite of renewing the annual commitment to fight it, the road ahead is a long one for Arab societies. Violations against women and girls in the region happen on a daily basis.
It is time to really acknowledge that violence exists in Arab societies and that we need legislation that will provide real protection to the victims. Societies should work on reshaping the relationship between authority and power, rejecting violence. We must assert equality as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which demands the rights of men and women be recognised without “discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
On the bright side, a number of Arab countries do exert effort into developing laws that reinforce their commitment on a national level to provide protection to the victims of violence and to provide the necessary services to help them through their ordeal. Since the fourth quarter of 2015 we have seen states such as Bahrain issue laws that protect victims of domestic violence. Algeria for their part has amended their penal code in order to protect women from all forms of violence and harassment, whether in a professional setting or a personal one.
A number of other Arab countries have been debating legislation on combating violence. In Iraq and Palestine, legislatures are debating a proposed law that would protect victims of domestic violence. Morocco and Tunisia are also working on laws that would tackle violence against women, while Jordan is seeking to amend the law adopted in 2006 that handles issues of domestic violence.
Unfortunately, many Arab legislators are still hesitant when it comes to several key issues in the fight against violence. This is made clear when you look at the contradictions in many draft laws, which often frame violence against women in the home as a “private right” which a woman may dismiss. This concept in essence protects the offender from being subject to the law, and highlights a major obstacle of any legislative attempt to protect women. Even if legislatures want to combat abuse against women, they must also consider that the issue has caveats which in turn prevent them from seeing the wider impact gendered abuse has on society. It becomes an issue perceived almost solely through the narrow framework of the family. Some drafts laws allow for settlements to be reached between the offender and the victim. While a settlement allows all parties involved to avoid drawn out and complex litigation procedures, when it comes to violence against women it allows social considerations to pressure women into accepting a settlement without recourse or guarantee that it will not happen again.
Despite the varying degrees to which these laws will be able to provide a comprehensive framework to look into these issues, there is no doubt that these developments show that Arab governments are becoming increasingly concerned about tackling violence against women. After analysing many of the proposed laws and amendments, we can see that many countries approach the issue hesitantly, often from the narrow perspective of domestic violence. This in essence allows them to ignore the fact that violence against women is a form of discrimination and a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women. This is made clear in a number of draft laws which have omitted a comprehensive definition of violence with all its forms and dimensions. Many do not even define violence as per the agreed upon definition of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women that was issued by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, which defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
Normally, the comprehensive perception towards protecting women from violence, in accordance with that definition, requires looking at violence practiced against women not only in their home, but also in workplaces, general society, the family, and any private space. It is also particularly important to examine societal reactions to these laws. It seems that a considerable number of Arabs are still convinced that combating violence against women is an issue imposed on them from abroad, one that contradicts their local culture. Moreover, violence against women inside the family is perceived as a private issue that should be kept away from the circles of legal supervision and accountability, and remains a point of contention when it comes to legislation.
The need to develop laws against violence is not related to only international commitments made by the states when they ratified the relevant international conventions. It is also a local issue that needs to consider the conditions of their community, which according to many local studies are often characterised by escalating violence against women. Such acts of violence are often justified in terms of local habits and traditions, but it is not consistent with the authentic culture of different communities or religious concepts that represent an important aspect of these communities’ intellectual and cultural system.
Here I have briefly addressed the observations that have been made by the Regional Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) upon reading the draft laws. The OHCHR as always extends its support in the drafting of such laws. We can contribute to increasing knowledge and allowing the opportunity to exchange experiences between the states to avoid gaps and difficulties faced by other countries in adopting laws on violence against women. We welcome such efforts due to the increasing cases of violence against women in the Arab world and the earth as a whole.
It is about time that we do right by women, and tackle this issue head on.
Abdel Salam Sidahmed is the regional representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).