A critique of Levantine women rights movements

By Zahra Albarazi · 12 October 2012

Initiatives to achieve gender equality in access to citizenship, alongside accessing various levels of effective citizenship, have been at the forefront of advocacy movements worldwide for decades. The establishment of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 1979, provided the motor for significant advancements on this front. One of the main advancements concerns the specific issue of ensuring that women have the right to pass their nationality on to their children.

Among the human rights movements that have been mobilized across the Middle East and North Africa, the women’s rights movement is one of the most prominent. Arising initially as a reaction against the profound female suppression in the region, these movements have prospered for two important reasons: first, they have been backed by an abundance of international funding, and in addition, there has been a generalized policy amongst dictators to allow some, albeit restricted, space for women’s movements in order to propagate the notion among domestic and international audiences of their regimes’ ‘acceptance’ of certain aspects of human rights. There have, therefore, been a considerable number of significant developments in the past few decades in the fight for the advancement of these rights.

However, in reality, this region remains one of the most blighted by unequal policies and practices, and there is still long way to go before these rights have been achieved. With regard to positive reform on nationality legislation, all the countries in the Levant seem to be stuck in a position of stalemate.

Recently, both the internal mobilization of affected communities and the engagement of the international community have been increasing, with positive effects for the development of these campaigns. However, local and regional NGOs and institutions, which have been in the position of intermediaries and have been part of this struggle for decades, have often been left very frustrated. This article will take a brief look at the stagnating role of the national groups working on women’s rights to overcome the obstacles to female transferral of nationality. By looking at the efforts on the ground, away from the more normative discussions on feminist movements, we will consider how, after decades of frustration in national efforts, these groups are at risk of remaining stuck in a counterproductive cycle.


As Raghda Boutros eloquently highlighted in her last post on Jordan, a growing number of grass roots movements are appearing, advocating for the right of Jordanian women to pass citizenship on to their children and campaigning to end honour crimes. These movements are an essential component of potential political and societal structural changes. To be effective, this needs to be done alongside an established and well-informed network of national initiatives. But, just as international communities are often criticized for being out of touch with the realities and concerns of the population they seek to assist, talking from a position of cushioned privilege, unfortunately the same can often be said for many women’s rights groups in the Levant.

Individuals experiencing problems obtaining access to nationality, are in many cases left voiceless, due to their invisible status. It is through these civil society movements that their voice should be propelled. However, instead of promoting this, these movements frequently speak on behalf of these women. There is often a drowning out of the very voices they are trying to project. This is particularly problematic as they may sometimes be alienated from the affected groups. This can occur, for example, where advocators of women’s rights tend to uphold politically secular beliefs, seeing religious leaders and structures as the obstacle to gender equality reform. This means that they do not strive to engage efficiently with this component of society. Not only do they ignore the fact that engagement with these religious figures would be tantamount to engaging with general public opinion, but they also fail to take into account that religion commonly pervades the lives of the people they represent, who would like to follow a path for reform that is consistent with and represents this.


A significant obstacle confronting many of these movements is a territorial turf war that often engulfs the motives and objectives of the various campaigns. There have been a significant number of regional initiatives to combat the problem of women unable to transfer nationality to their children, but these initiatives occur separately, in each of the countries where this problem has arisen. Anyone who has worked on the issue of access to citizenship will have experienced the problem of competition and will have to come to grips with the intricate politics of who is willing to work with whom. Many who work in these fields are justifiably left frustrated, which explains why there is a wish to be seen to be involved and/or responsible for any achievements gained. But this lack of unification, despite sharing similar objectives, is significantly hindering progress.

It is not only the lack of unity between similar initiatives in different countries that is a problem, but also the lack of co-operation with other human rights groups who may not see women’s issues as their central focus. Women’s issues affect a wide range of causes and consequences, but there is little engagement between groups working on separate but related issues.  As women’s rights in the Middle East is a ‘sexy’ subject both for international donors and for national political interests, the potential for placing it in a broader human rights field is, sadly, often ignored, and as a result, co-operation is limited.

The ‘us/them’ dichotomy

One of the reasons behind this lack of engagement is the problem of the ‘us/them’ dichotomy. The title of Raghda’s last piece, ‘Women as people’ perfectly describes how the situation should be viewed. However, in reality there is often a creation of a highly polarized dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ under the rhetoric of men vs women. Many of the women in these organizations feel they have endured a lifetime of patriarchal suppression which has left them aggravated, an idea embodied in the title of an article written recently by Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahwany in Foreign Policy magazine, entitled ‘Why they hate us.’ However, approaching the subject with this dichotomous framework is not only counter-productive, but it also ignores the realities on the ground. The fact that women are unable to pass on their nationality, one of the many obstacles preventing them from enjoying full citizenship, stems from various issues. It is undoubtedly the case that the patriarchal structure of societies in this region plays an important part in hindering social progress in these matters, but, more often than not, the situation is much more complex. It is not enough to say that there is a ‘war on women’ in the Levant, or that their communities are struggling with poverty, post-colonial challenges and oppressive dictators, amongst other issues, all of which hinder the advancement of human rights. The fact is that women themselves can sometimes be seen at the forefront of hindering their own advancement. We only have to look at the recent unfortunate comments by Leila Al Solh, a prominent and outspoken figure in Lebanon and the daughter of former Prime Minister Riad Al-Solh, who, in August 2012 in a national newspaper, openly declared that she does not support the movement for women to pass the nationality on to their children. Here we have an example of a prominent woman refusing to support this basic fundamental right because of the effect she believed it would have on national politics of the country.

Geo-political issues

This brings us to the final point, which poses the main obstacle to the success of these organisations, namely the failure to situate a women’s rights agenda in a broader agenda of justice and human rights for all. These movements see some of the issues as a purely women’s rights issues rather than addressing them in a holistic manner; they ignore the reality that gender discrimination in matters of citizenship is often used as a tool to suppress or control other larger geo-political issues. Not allowing women to pass their nationality on to their children, not because they disagree with this from a gender equality perspective, but because they believe that this would affect the demographic balance of a nation, is a prime example of this, as can be seen with the Palestinians in Jordan and the Syrians and Palestinians in Lebanon.

Unfortunately this will be one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome for these groups. Only if these initiatives can be viewed as being embodied in a broader human rights perspective, with a unified engagement of all stakeholders, providing a larger platform for the people concerned, where their voices can be heard clearly and not secularised under the discourse of these organisations, will there be a realistic chance of success.

About the author

  • Zahra Albarazi

    Activist Consultant
    Zahra Albarazi
    Zahra Albarazi is the co-ordinator of the MENA Nationality Research Project with the Open Society Justice Initiative, where she also undertakes legal research on statelessness and citizenship in... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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