The most comprehensive of the international gender equality policy framework is, no doubt, contained in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (PfA). The Mission Statement of this document defines the Platform as an agenda for women’s empowerment and seeks to promote and protect the full enjoyment of all human rights and the fundamental freedoms of all women throughout their life cycle, thus highlighting the crucial link between women’s empowerment and women’s human rights.The PfA identifies 12 critical areas where governments are called upon to take measures in order to remove the obstacles for women’s empowerment. In this context, empowerment is perceived as both a means to achieving women’s advancement and an end in itself as an indicator of advancement.

The concept of empowerment is defined and understood in diverse ways.The international women’s movement initially used it within the “women in development” (WID) paradigm. In this context, empowerment was conceptualized as a means for achieving women’s economic autonomy and for meeting strategic gender needs through a bottom up mobilization. However, more often than not, WID practitioners reduced the concept to a utilitarian level.

They perceived women’s empowerment as a means to enhance economic efficiency, primarily because women are known to demonstrate a positive market performance, particularly in areas such as repayment of loans, consumption patterns, among others.The 1995 Human Development Report (HDR) made significant contributions to the debate by focusing on the critical role of gendered aspects of disparities in development work. The report emphasized three dimensions: capabilities, opportunities and empowerment. Empowerment is defined by the HDR as a well-being dimension where women’s disadvantage is located in both political and economic institutions. It is argued that women’s participation in the decision making processes of these institutions can have positive outcomes for their overall well-being.

The HDR argues that growth is not necessary for overcoming gender inequality, however, the two indexes developed for measuring women’s well being – Gender Development Index (GDI) and Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) - both presuppose income and growth. 6 My personal understanding is that, women who have been historically excluded from mainstream power in all societies are naturally self-empowered as they must develop strategies to cope with the challenges of everyday life and negotiate within a disempowering patriarchal system to survive and preserve their dignity.Even under conditions of disorder, such as conflicts and natural disasters, women have to manage some form of order to feed their children and sustain their families. However, in the final analysis, transcending unequal gendered structures requires a transformative understanding of empowerment. This requires, self-empowered women to organize and challenge rather than accommodate the conditions of their life.

In other words, women’s empowerment to cope versus empowerment to change requires different strategies.It is the latter that has inspired women’s collective agency and constituted the basis of international gender equality documents such as the PfA. Today, the literature on women’s empowerment reveals that the concept is perceived as a more comprehensive process that involves the development of women’s overall capabilities7 to enhance their ability –individually and collectively- to overcome or remove the disempowering economic, social, cultural, legal forces that limit their choices and to live a life not only free of violence but the right to reconstruct that life. Women and the United NationsThe diversification of the global women’s movement over the years has enriched our understanding of the complexities of gender inequality both in its universal as well as particular manifestations. Women’s movement thrived theoretically and in practice as women’s diverse experiences gained visibility, “trickling up” from the local to the global.

Women organizing globally and the creation of the UN as a media for multilateral dialogue are two key elements that account for the evolving international gender equality and rights regime, which stimulated – at times modest, and at times impressive - national level pro-women change in all countries.The UN provided women with an international platform to voice their demands and the women’s movement expanded and transformed the UN instruments to become responsive of women’s concerns. In the process, the essence of international relations has changed, which until recently was perceived as the site of “high politics” only. Given the reluctance of most national governments to consider gender issues in social and economic policy, the international arena attracted women from around the world as a viable environment where they could join forces in pursuing their goals for the establishment of gender sensitive instruments and mechanisms.

This has not been a problem free and easy process. Nonetheless, the Organization gradually became moulded according to the rising demands from women, and gender sensitive documents made their way to the intergovernmental bodies for consideration. Once negotiated and adopted by governments, these consensus documents formed the basis of State responsibility against which women’s groups can lobby for change at the national level. In this regard, the gender equality agenda fundamentally altered the doctrine of State responsibility which, in conventional terms, was understood as negative responsibility, i. .

doing no harm.Focus on the violation of women’s human rights imposed a positive responsibility on States to take measures to prevent not only harm inflicted by the agents of the State but also that of non-State actors. 3 Consequently, issues concerning women moved from the privacy of the home and the sovereignty of the State to the international arena where the performance of governments with respect to their due diligence obligation to prevent, protect, prosecute and provide compensation for acts of violence against women is now reviewed and assessed.Women’s rights in the Arab countries Why focus on Islamic women’s activism? Gaining a better understanding of Islamic women’s activism is important for various reasons. Firstly, this activism is analytically interesting. While Muslim women have obviously always been ‘active’, a new, multi-sited and informal women’s movement demanding rights and a voice within an Islamic framework has emerged since the early 1990s (Badran, 2009).

To date, this emerging phenomenon remains largely uncharted .Yet, it is highly nalytically important because it fundamentally challenges dominant liberal and secular ideas concerning the challenges and possibilities of promoting women’s rights and gender equality. Moreover, it also serves to nuance essentialising Western stereotypes of Muslim women as the su? ering victims of an inherently misogynistic and patriarchal Islam. Secondly, and most importantly for the present report, a better understanding of this activism also has important practical and policy implications, not least for external actors who work to contribute to the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality in the Arab world.Traditionally, they have based their activities mainly on a secular, rights-based approach inspired by the UN instruments (notably the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, the CEDAW) and have predominantly collaborated with local actors who base their activism on liberal/secular frames of reference.

However, these liberal/secular local organisations often represent small, urban and bourgeois minorities with limited popular following in an Arab world which has undergone an important Islamic revival in recent decades.Furthermore, postcolonial and anti-imperial sentiment remains vivid among large parts of the population – and they often focus on the question of gender and women’s rights given that ‘the repressed Muslim woman’ served for many years as one of the key legitimising arguments for colonial interference in the region. In turn, the status of women has also become one of the main arguments against postcolonial interference and in defence of local identity and authenticity.Accordingly, ‘civilising’ and ‘liberating’ Western attempts to empower women or alter their situation in society have been widely perceived as part of a postcolonial agenda and an attack on cultural and religious identity and authenticity .

This view has been further strengthened in recent years, where present-day Western military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were both partially legitimated by calls to free Muslim women.It should be highlighted that this ‘(post-) colonial civilising’ vs. ‘authentic Muslim’ con? ict is also played out from within; i. . the ‘battle? eld’ is not only one between foreign/Western and local/Muslim actors, but also plays out between ‘local’ actors.

In the Arab world, local actors arguing for a liberal/secular approach to women’s rights are often accused of representing a ‘foreign’ and sometimes also a ‘neo-imperialist’ approach in their discourse and approaches. Accordingly, in such contexts, arguments based in a religious discourse may pass as more socially acceptable, culturally legitimate and politically viable than arguments drawing purely on a secular frame of reference.Most Arab countries have made relative progress in the status of women in the last decade and many governments have taken some measures to facilitate and accelerate this progress such as creating institutional mechanisms for women’s issues, passing new legislations, appointing women to leadership positions and creating more opportunities for them to participate in the economy. Most Arab countries are party to the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).However, with this rate, many Arab countries will not be able to achieve the Millennium Development Goal number 3: gender equality and the empowerment of women. A recent UN assessment of the situation of women around the world in a number of 8indicators used to monitor progress towards the MDGs proves that the challenges facing Arab women are not necessarily unique to the Arab world, but are rather generic problems encountering women all over the world.

No country, even with high level of gender equality, managed to fully secure equal rights and treatments for women.Despite the universality of gender problems, addressing the empowerment of women needs “cultural-sensitive” approaches that are in accordance with the socio-economic context and cultural and religious settings in different countries. And, the progress of each society in this area needs to be measured by comparing its achievements over time rather than comparing it with another society. Arab women have, already, achieved irreversible improvements in their status in many Arab countries.

The process for their advancement has mainly focused on education as the best way to reach dignity and equality. Many Arab countries have made progress in the elimination of discrimination against women in their legislations, although more efforts are still needed to reform family laws in many countries. The rates of women’s participation in the labor market are steadily improving.Still, the main challenge is the sustainability and institutionalization of these achievements.

Another challenge for you to consider is the lack of support women get to reconcile their family and rofessional roles. Empowering women and respecting their dignity means also their capacity to serve the family and the society through motherhood. In this context family friendly working arrangements, shared family-care leave and redistribution of the burden of unpaid work should be included in policies. Empowering women to take a more visible role in society will permit them to contribute not only to the improvement of their families, but also to wider society. Women have great potential that, if harnessed, can enable them to make great contributions.They can serve as an asset to the Arab world.

The world is full of examples of women who have proceeded to make remarkable contributions to economic, social, cultural and political life. For example, four cabinet ministers of the United Arab Emirates who are women – including Sheika Lubna Al Qasimi, Foreign Trade Minister and former Minister of Economy Planning, who was on Forbes magazine’s 2007 list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. And there are many more to be discovered. One challenge intimately related with the above concerns the common identi? ation of problems and approaches, given the big di? erences between the prevailing discourses and approaches of Western development agencies and those of Islamic activists.

The approach of the former is (typically) secular, liberal and rights-based (relying on international conventions such as the CEDAW) and relies on key concepts such as feminism, gender and equality. In contrast, the approach of the latter (again typically) is religious, communitarian and rights-based (referring to religious texts and arguments) and relies on di? rent key concepts such as equity and complementarity. For instance, local Islamic women’s activists may not consider it to be problematic as such if girls are married at a young age, if daughters inherit less than sons or if men marry more than one wife – all practices that would be judged as unacceptable by most western development agencies. In contrast, the insistence of the latter on women’s rights to, for instance, abortion or to live openly as homosexuals is likely to be judged as unacceptable by many Islamic women’s activists.