Discrimination against women in Arab world 'legally sanctioned' agree experts

Sisterhood Is Global Institute
Legal experts found similarities in their respective countries' legislation that were discriminatory towards women.
A panel of legal experts met from ten Arab countries for a three day workshop to examine legislation regarding violence against women in the region.
AMMAN - "My husband always beats me up and I think it is normal, because if he did not beat me up he is not a real man."

Such is what one woman told him during an interview, said Hilmi Sari, sociology professor at the University of Jordan for the past 18 years, to an audience of Arab legal experts on Saturday.

"Women are always taught to be weaker and of lesser value and capability than their male counterparts. As a result, many women are unaware of their legal rights," he said.

"Many Arab scientists describe our communities as `societies of obedience,' and women usually would be expected to be the most obedient to their husbands or families," Professor Sari added.

Sari was presenting a paper on the "Social and Legal Concept of Violence" to legal experts from 10 Arab countries, including Jordan, who are meeting here for a three-day workshop to examine legislation regarding battered women in this region.

Sari said that the solution starts with improving Arab families' financial well-being. "The key answer to women's ignorance of their legal rights is to amend discriminatory laws and introduce legal awareness courses in universities," he said.

Other Arab legal experts from Sudan, Syria and Yemen, who spoke during the morning session, found similarities in their respective countries' legislation that were discriminatory towards women.

"Our laws reduce or exempt punishment against men who kill their wives or female relatives in the name of family honour, and this encourages [men] to commit some form of violence against women," said attorney Hanan Nijmeh from Syria. But what is more dangerous, according to Nijmeh, is the ambiguous clauses offering leniency to individuals who kill their female kin found to be in `suspicious situations.'

"It was proven that most of these women were innocent [of whatever suspicions] and their killers, who escaped with light sentences ranging from six months to two years, had hidden intentions that were never introduced in courts, such as an inheritance or other financial matters," she said.

Yemen University professor Khadijeh Haysmi said women are deprived from many decision making posts, but the most harmful discrimination towards women in Yemen is their inability to enrol in the judicial institute to become judges.

Sudani women, however, seem to face the biggest share of discrimination in comparison to other Arab countries, although Sudan's constitution stipulates that all are equal, according to attorney Nazik Mahjoub.

"The Penal Code turns a blind eye to the inhuman practice of female circumcision in Sudan. In addition, women are not allowed to leave the country unless they provide written consent from their husbands and a marriage certificate," she told the gathering.

Another dangerous law which targets mainly women, according to Mahjoub, was a "flexible clause on `scandalous conduct' which is punishable by 40 lashes.""This is an elastic clause and is applied mainly to women who wear make-up, pants and shirts or who act in an `indecent manner,' which is not specified in the law," she told an audibly startled audience.

In addition to the legal violence against women in Arab legislation, the participants agreed that the second problem Arab women face in their plight to fight domestic violence through tougher legislation, is poor implementation of the laws by the judiciary branch in the respective countries.

"Jordan has one of the most excellent and modern laws protecting women, but the malfunction is in the implementation of these laws [in the courts]," said University of Jordan law professor Mohammad Nijm.

The event, organised by the Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI) and the Arab Resource Centre on Violence Against Women, was financiallysupported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation's Middle East office.

SIGI coordinator Asma Khader said in her opening remarks that "it is not enough to come up with comprehensive laws that guarantee equality and protection for women, but what is important is for women to know these laws and to understand them well."