Legal reforms are necessary to fight against gender-based violence but they must be accompanied by wider social and political transformations, activists said Tuesday.
Gathering in Beirut for a two-day conference, a conglomeration of women's rights groups joined forces in calling for the implementation of civil law and for tougher measures to be taken against domestic violence. A final list of recommendations is now to be drawn up and presented to the Interior Ministry by the end of the week.
“[Adopting] civil law is the solution,” said Joumana Merhi, coordinator of the Arab Women's Forum AISHA. “We must do this without any conditions and without changes on religious [grounds.]
“But we also must change society from the bottom up, we cannot rely on legal reforms alone,” added Merhi, who also heads the Lebanese NGO Rassemblement des Femmes Democratiques du Liban (RDFL).
This view is echoed across the Mediterranean with European female rights advocates calling for laws to be made universal and applied to single and married women as well as non-citizens.
“A lot of voices argue that we must make allowances for religious [or social] sensitivities, but we have always said we will not accept any kind of discrimination, or violence, on religious basis,” said Lilian Halls-French president of the European Feminist Initiative (IFE-EFI). “This is, and will continue to be, a massive fight for us.”
The inaccurate view that Arab women are more passive in the face of violence or family pressure and do not seek equal rights or opportunities prevails in European societies, said keynote speaker Boriana Jonsson, representing Swedish NGO Kvinna. This misconception is even present among some feminists and inhibits cross-regional co-operational, she said.
Preliminary findings from a new report conducted by AISHA and the IFE-EFI and released at Tuesday's event, however, disprove the existence of any inbuilt inferiority complex.
The “Structures of violence against women in peace and war” report indicates most Lebanese women consider themselves equal, or even superior, to their male counterparts in terms of ability.
A third also believes the situation for women is improving, although most continue to underperform in education and the workplace as a result of enduring patriarchal pressures, the report said.
The report compares the situation in Lebanon and Palestine, classified as conflict-riddled countries, with the conditions in France, Italy and Spain, chosen to represent differing peacetime models.
It concludes that peace, education, economic development and legal reforms are insufficient barriers to discrimination, with gender-violence remaining endemic in all cases.
“Peace doesn't exist it is [only] the absence of war,” said IFE president Lilian Halls-French. “Peace is supposed to be the end of inequality … but violence comes with inequality which women everywhere continue to face.”
Regardless of shared challenges, however, the Arab world is additionally weighed down by legal discrimination largely justified on religious grounds.
“The law gives me nothing because I am from another sect according to personal law – [can you] imagine!” said Sahar, a Lebanese divorcee and survivor of domestic violence said, as cited in the report. “I don't have a right to my children or anything! Is this law? You tell yourself that maybe there is a law that can protect you but then you are shocked to find that the law has obstacles to this.”
Certain improvements are beginning to take place in Lebanon. The examples of women who have defied authority and succeeded in winning their independence are slowly inspiring younger generations, Merhi said.
Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud's actions were also praised by women's rights groups. Baroud has introduced draft laws against domestic violence and voiced support for allowing women to pass on citizenship to their children.