The Arab Institute for Women

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Panel Discussion: “Frontiers of Gender Equality in the Arab Region”

On October 9, 2023, The AiW, the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights hosted a panel discussion on Rebecca J. Cook’s edited book titled “Frontiers of Gender Equality: Transnational Legal Perspective”. The event, which provided an interactive platform for experts to engage in critical conversations on the multidimensions of gender dynamics across borders, contributed to the unpacking and analysis of the book’s key findings. 

The panel discussion featured opening remarks by the Director of The AiW, Ms. Myriam Sfeir, and the OHCHR Regional Representative for the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Mazen Shaqoura. In a warm welcome, Ms. Sfeir extended her cordial greetings and encouraged all the attendees to actively participate in the discussion, emphasizing the opportunity to derive valuable insights and learnings. Along the same lines, Mr. Shaqoura expressed his delight at participating in this intellectual conversation and emphasized the panel’s role in engaging everyone in the reflective exploration of the most recent themes surrounding gender equality.  

Panel 1: “The Utility of the CEDAW Convention”

The Director of the Arab Institute for Human Rights in Lebanon, Ms. Joumana Merhy, served as the panel’s moderator. To usher the discussion, she provided few opening remarks, presented a brief overview of the regional functions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and grounded the discussion in context, before introducing the speakers: Distinguished Professor and Researcher, Dr. Rebecca J. Cook; Lawyer and Human Rights Activist, Ms. Manar Zaiter; and Researcher and Member of the Legal Agenda, Ms. Youmna Makhlouf.

In a first intervention, Dr. Cook expressed her gratitude to The AiW for providing a platform to discuss her latest work and main findings. She seized this opportunity to provide a snapshot of the book’s structure and content, giving further recognition to the authors who assisted in the writing, reviewing, and publishing processes. According to Dr. Cook, her book’s rationale has emanated from a need to reestablish new dimensions for gender equality based on contemporary and contextualized definitions of the traditional concepts of equality and inequality. Her elaborate presentation indeed inspired the participants to read the new book and explore its unique themes and ideas. 

Expanding on Dr. Cook’s presentation, Ms. Zaiter offered a quick yet comprehensive analysis of Arab countries’ reservations on the CEDAW convention, highlighting their implications on the possibility of fully advancing women’s rights without limitations. According to Ms. Zaiter, these reservations explicitly reflect the absence of a political will to achieve gender equality in the region. They also hinder any real opportunity for substantial change. This unfortunate reality, she explained, has allowed several Arab countries to circumvent the implementation of influential reforms to the unjust social and legal structures.

Likewise, Ms. Makhlouf provided a thorough overview of how international conventions and treaties, like CEDAW, can be integrated into the legal proceedings of various Arab countries. In this context, she further discussed the temporary nature of countries’ reservations to the CEDAW convention and the need to harmonize its provisions with the unique settings of each country. Accordingly, Ms. Makhlouf brought to attention the existing recommendations to withdraw reservations and objections. As she finally emphasized, to uphold the principles of equality, Arab countries must adhere to international conventions without exceptions.

Panel 2: “The Promises of Gender Equality in the Arab Region”

Attorney at Law, Founder & Executive Director of SEEDS for Legal Initiatives, Ms. Layal Sakr, served as the panel’s moderator. In an opening statement, she presented the panel’s main themes for discussion, encouraged a critical discussion of key propositions, and introduced the panelists: Human Rights Consultant, Ms. Mervat Rishmawi; Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), Mr. Ziad Abdel Samad; and Director General of the Arab Women Organization, Dr. Fadia Kiwan. 

In an extended analysis of her book chapter on “Advancing Gender Equality through the

Arab Charter on Human Rights”, Ms. Rishmawi explained the charter’s role in promoting the principles of human and women’s rights in Arab countries amid recurring social, cultural, political, and legal challenges. As she underscored, the practical implementation of recommendations and principles is critical to foster communities that safeguard and promote women’s rights. The discriminatory thinking against women, Ms. Rishmawi affirmed, shall be completely transcended in line with the provisions of regional treaties like the Arab Charter on Human Rights and international conventions like CEDAW.

Following Ms. Rishmawi’s remarks, Mr. Abdel Samad analyzed the status of gender equality in the Arab region with respect to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As he explained, the SDGs’ diverse targets should together form a cross-cutting rationale for the promotion of gender equality globally and regionally. They can act as a source and reference that guide countries’ efforts towards achieving an absolute recognition of women’s rights, he added. In accordance with global standards, Mr. Abdel Samad finally confirmed, Arab countries shall be committed to redress all forms of gender disparities so as to fully and successfully realize social and economic progress.

Finally, Dr. Kiwan focused her presentation on the transformational impact of collaboration between governmental bodies and civil society organizations (CSOs). As she explained, Arab governments and CSOs should work hand in hand to achieve positive and meaningful developments regarding gender equality. Despite often having dissimilar agendas, Dr. Kiwan still expressed optimism about the potential for mutual collaboration and the available opportunities to bring about tangible change. As she emphasized, substantial progress can only be achieved through joint efforts and continuous cooperation.

The panel discussions concluded with final remarks by Ms. Sfeir, followed by a Q&A session.