Activists gather in US to look back on 15 years of progress

Female government ministers and women's rights leaders gather for a high-level session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

NEW YORK // Although Lina Abou Habib said she had been subjected to "vicious attacks" during her quest to end discrimination against women in her native Lebanon, the civil-rights activist was undeterred. Neither was Asma Khader, the secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, who said the Arab world urgently needs to stop treating women as a threat and to implement full rights.

Both women were in New York last week for a gathering of women government ministers and women's rights leaders for a high-level session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The commission will review progress since the 1995 UN women's conference in Beijing and the platform adopted by 189 countries calling on governments to end discrimination in such areas as political participation, employment and human rights.

Ms Abou Habib and Ms Khader said the New York meeting allowed activists from around the world to renew their courage to carry on fighting to improve the status of women back home. "The international women's movement draws its strength from local needs and the local agenda," Ms Khader said. In the Middle East, "baby steps" had been taken in recent years towards reform, Ms Abou Habib said. Egypt in 2004 allowed women to pass on their nationality to children but not to their spouses; the change was not retroactive so many children live in limbo.

She said Algeria, in contrast, underwent a more thorough reform in 2005 to give men and women equal nationality rights. In Morocco, women could not pass on their nationality to their husbands, but the law was made retroactive so all children could be given citizenship. Both Ms Abou Habib and Ms Khader were heartened by the fact there was so much more awareness of the nationality issue compared to when they first started campaigning several years ago.

"More and more men as well as women support us now," Ms Abou Habib said. "Many television programmes have focused on the issue and equality is often listed as one of the top demands when people are asked about this." In 2002, Ms Abou Habib helped found the Collective for Research and Training on Development - Action, in Beirut, which allows women to exchange information through grassroots organisations across the Middle East and Africa.

A recent 18-nation study led by Freedom House, a US-based group that promotes democracy, said Middle Eastern women suffered a "substantial deficit in women's rights". This year is the 30th anniversary of the UN's approval of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. But the United States is one of seven countries not to have ratified the treaty although the US president, Barack Obama, has said this was one of his priorities. The other six countries are Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Tonga, Nauru and Palau.

"Patriarchy uses all religious fundamentalism, even in Christian countries," Ms Khader said.