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Middle East: Arab Women At Book Fair Call For Social Change At Home

This year, the world's largest international gathering for authors and publishers is focusing on the Arab world. The Frankfurt Book Fair -- now in its third day -- has devoted much of one of its largest halls to displays of books and other publications from the 22 Arab countries. But more is going on here than just the exhibits. The fair is also a meeting place where Arab intellectuals are hosting seminars to discuss many of the region's problems and propose solutions. Among the most active participants are Arab women. They include writers of all kinds -- from authors of popular fiction to sociologists to human rights activists. Their presence at the forum highlights some of the challenges women face in the male-dominated Arab world.

Frankfurt, 8 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Most of the more than 100 Arab authors at the Frankfurt Book Fair are men.

Among the crowd, however, is a sprinkling of perhaps 20 women.

That imbalance illustrates one of the realities of Arab literature. It is a field heavily dominated by males.

But if Arab women at the book fair are few in number, they are highly visible. As Arab intellectuals conduct open seminars to discuss many of the problems facing the Arab world, women are hosting talks focusing on key challenges they face.

Several women engaged in a panel discussion Friday titled "Soft Power: Women's Ways in Arab Politics and Societies." The seminar offered participants a chance to air some of the frustrations they feel with life in male-dominated societies, where a woman's role is usually limited to homemaking.
"I would like to get women to a position where they make valuable decisions, where they are a player in the political and economic sphere."

Bsaisu Lattouf is a Jordanian financial expert who works with UN and World Bank international development programs. She called on Arab societies to find a way to make fuller use of the potential contributions of 50 percent of their citizens.

"I would like to get women to a position where they make valuable decisions, where they are a player in the political and economic sphere. I am a woman. I am a mother. I have three children. And for 20 years now, I have been a working mother. I have been a professional, and it think it is very important to be very clear about, and to make up our minds about, how we want to activate this incredible potential in society. This is 50 percent of the population -- women," Lattouf said.

The speakers noted that, to date, most social reforms regarding Arab women have been limited to changes in family laws. Several countries, such as Morocco and Egypt, have passed new laws making it easier for women to initiate divorces and to enjoy equal rights in divorce courts. But many other Arab societies, such as Saudi Arabia, still accord women unequal status in courts compared to men.

Egyptian human rights activist Laila Takla noted that Arab women have long enjoyed the power to make decisions in household matters.

But Takla, who is also active in politics and president for foreign relations in the Egyptian parliament, said they have yet to gain the right to take a similar role in public affairs. She says many problems can be solved by the stronger participation of women in general civil society.

"There are numerous studies on how decisions are being taken inside the family. And it became evident that women do take many decisions that have an impact on the whole family. And that definitely should be reflected in the general public [life] and general society," Takla said.

As the women in Frankfurt discussed the challenges facing them at home, they alternated between tones of frustration and hope.

That is because the struggle for women's rights in the Arab world remains a daunting one.

A report by the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) released in July found that only 28 percent of Arab women are active in the workforce -- the lowest of any region in the world. That is despite the fact women in the Arab world comprise 47 percent of the population.

The report said the exclusion of women from the workforce is more severe in wealthier Arab countries than in less economically developed ones. It noted that where income and education levels are low -- as in Yemen -- there are more women in the workforce than in the oil-rich Gulf states.

The report also noted that some Arab women have risen to prominence and a degree of political participation in the parliaments of some countries in recent years. But it said they still rarely exercise much authority in government.

A landmark UN-commissioned study of the Arab world by Arab intellectuals in 2002 found that half of the women in the region are illiterate.

The 2002 Arab Human Development Report concluded that Arab societies suffer from three "deficits" -- a lack of political freedom, isolation from the ever-changing world of ideas, and the repression of women.