From June 28-30, 1995, under the slogan “See the World Through the Eyes of a Woman,” a women’s court on political and social violence against women was held in Beirut. Inspired by similar courts organized by the Asian Human Rights Council, the Beirut court — the first of its kind in the Arab world — was convened in preparation for the Beijing NGO Women’s Conference and the “International Court on Women: World Public Hearings on Crimes Against Women” held in Beijing in September.
The court brought nine judges from various Arab countries together for three days to hear the testimony of women who have been victims of social and political violence. Representing the larger Arab NGO community, participants came from 14 Arab countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.
The court was organized by Al-Taller, an independent Tunisia-based coalition of non-governmental development organizations from all over the world. In addition to Lebanese Popular Aid, several other Lebanese, Palestinian and Tunisian NGOs cooperated in the organization of the court. By moving the issue of violence against women from the private into the public sphere, the court sought to “break the silence” surrounding women’s issues heretofore considered socially and politically taboo.
In its concluding statements, the court cited “tyranny; oppression; the continuation of occupation, armed conflicts and the resultant poverty; the continuous legal and de facto exploitation and discrimination assisted by the prevailing patriarchal culture, traditions and customs; fanaticism and religious extremism in its various manifestations” as “elements that create and aggravate violence against women.”
Lawyers and victims of legal violence against women stressed the need to increase the level of legal literacy and the number of legal aid centers, and to introduce legislation to counter laws that serve the exclusion interests of men. Women experience tremendous problems of citizenship, divorce, child custody, shelter and residency rights. This is especially the case for women married to “foreigners.”
It is admirable and moving to see ordinary women speak openly of their most intimate agonies and pain. They testified about genital mutilation, crimes committed in the name of so-called “family honor,” incest and domestic violence, including wife beating and murder. They spoke of years of violence resulting from polygamy and how, in some areas, young girls are deliberately over-fed to prepare them for marriage.
Women who live under Israeli occupation, who had experienced the Phalangist atrocities of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, who survived the infamous Khiam detention center in southern Lebanon, affirmed that in addition to facing death, displacement, poverty and the loss of loved ones, they were at the same time exposed to crimes of rape and other forms of social violence.
Speakers from Lebanon and Jordan spoke of their experiences in confronting conservatives and religious groups in their governments. These voices of resistance confirmed that women have not reconciled themselves to violence and oppression. Speakers stressed that Islam, a religion of tolerance, has been distorted and in many places manipulated as an instrument of retaining or usurping power. Testimonies of crimes committed by Islamist extremists in Algeria illustrated how such groups feed on social deprivation and national discontent. The court condemned acts of violence committed in the name of Islam, including the Egyptian shari‘a court’s verdict against Nasir Hamid Abu Zayd and his wife, Ibtihal Yunis.
Arab and Kurdish women testified that state-sponsored violence in Iraq is not limited to the political realm. Regimes such as that of Saddam Hussein, by prohibiting the use of contraceptives and encouraging polygamy to meet their insatiable need for soldiers, also profoundly affect the social arena.
The court examined the position of Arab governments on the International Convention of Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The few Arab countries that have ratified the convention — even Tunisia, considered the most progressive Arab country on women’s issues — did so only after submitting fundamental reservations that go against the spirit of the conventions.
Speakers criticized the notion of an intrinsically Arab sociocultural basis for violence against women, arguing instead that the phenomenon is deeply rooted in all patriarchal cultures and societies suffering from social inequalities and economic deprivation.
The court reflected concrete developments taking place among Arab women’s movements. Over the last few years, women’s groups have begun to deal with women’s issues through programs designed to tackle specific problems, such as violence against women, family planning, legal aid and counseling. The number of women’s studies centers, as well as magazines and periodicals dealing exclusively with women’s issues, is increasing. The convening of the Beirut court reflects a general trend in the Arab women’s movement that combines political and social struggle to mobilize and promote the welfare of women around concrete issues pertaining to daily and immediate grievances.