Fighting for Women’s Rights in the Arab World

December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Lilian Tse

At a young age, Hala Deeb loved to argue with others and her parents knew that she was destined to be a lawyer. Deeb enrolled in law school at the Amman Arab University in Jordan and she distinctly remembers a moment that made her passionate about women’s rights. During one of her criminal law classes, the topic was on rape.

“The male students did not want any of the female students to join the class because it would make it awkward for them to ask honest questions. I refused to comply with this. If I have a client in the future who is raped, what will I do if I don’t attend this class?” she asked.

Deeb ignored her male classmates, got permission from the professor and sat in the class. There was only one other female student who was willing to stay in the class with her. Deeb realized that it was crucial for her to stand up for women’s rights in the Arab region. Standing up for women’s rights is about defending her own rights, she said.

Today, Deeb is a human rights activist helping to fight discrimination and violence against women in Arab countries. She works at the Jordanian Women’s Union that is based in Jordon, and collaborates with local NGOs in Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco.  Deeb explained that female workers from poorer neighboring countries often leave their children at a young age and move to Jordon for work. “Many women get smuggled into Jordan with promises to have jobs in restaurants or hotels But when they arrive, they are forced into the sex trade and their families never find them,” she said.

The women who become domestic workers do not have a much better fate. Domestic workers only earn $200 a month and are often subject to a lot of violence and hard labor since they are exempt from local labor laws. The most difficult part about helping trafficked women is that the perpetrators are usually part of a large powerful global organization. Human trafficking is the world’s third most common crime, behind drugs and weapon. Many of the trafficked women end up in Europe, USA, Gulf or Dubai and it’s really difficult to track down the perpetrators, Deeb said.

Deeb also works on larger legal issues that discriminate among all women, such as honor killings that condone murders committed in retaliation for bringing dishonor on one’s family. The United Nations estimates thousands of women are killed annually in the name of family honor. While these laws are much more difficult to change, Deeb has been seeing increasing activity among women and the youth to change these laws.

“It is difficult to change Sharia (Islamic Law) rules. The main challenge  is convincing policy makers to adopt moderate and non discriminatory interpretation of the Sharia. But I do not give up because I know that things will change. It’s just a matter of time,” she said.

Deeb grew up in Kuwait and has very fond memories of the country. Before images of war were associated with Kuwait in 1990’s, the country was a peaceful, vibrant, multi-ethnic place.

“Kuwait will always be my favorite place because it was such a welcoming country. I remember the healthcare and education systems were excellent and there were people from all over the world living peacefully together,” she said.

When Deeb entered college, the second Gulf War broke out in Kuwait. She could not bear to just sit in the classroom as a war was waging against her hometown. “I was always the first one to encourage other students to come and sit in the protest. I was attacked by men asking why I was not behaving like a woman. I just did what I believed was right,” she said.

Deeb credits her father for her sense of activism.

“My father would always let me join the men’s table during family gatherings. He even encouraged me to speak up about my opinions. My mom would be in the background trying to keep me quiet, but my father would always quietly approve,” she recalled.

Deeb came to the United States for the first time this past summer. She received a letter last year that congratulated her acceptance to PILnet, a fellowship program that accepted just nine lawyers from around the world who have committed themselves to public interest law. The program brings their fellows to the United States and Europe for training, internships, and conferences to deepen their skill sets and network.

Erin Carll, the Program Coordinator for the PILnet fellowship explains that this is the first year that the program has expanded to the Middle East.

“Having two fellows from the Middle East has provided a different voice and perspective to the group,” she said.

Deeb’s good friend from the program, Idayat Hassan from Nigeria, remarks that Deeb’s work has really inspired her.

“I thought that it was challenging to improve women’s rights in Nigeria. But when I learned about the strict Islamic laws, I realized that Deeb’s challenges are much more than mine and yet she has no intention of backing down,” Hassan said.

Deeb has two young sons and it was a difficult decision to leave her family and children in Jordan for a year. Her mood lightens as soon as she talks about her children. Deeb dreams that when they grow up, Arab countries will be a place without discrimination. She recalls a quote that she heard many years ago, “Even if the color of skin and eyes are different, our tears are the same color.”

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