Karama: women activists across the Middle East

Jane Gabriel
28 November 2007

by Jane Gabriel, who reports from Amman where Karama activists from across the Middle East and North Africa are meeting.

The World Health Organisation's report on Women's Health and Domestic Violence against Women published in 2005 was based on interviews with more than 24,000 women from 10 countries. The incidence of violence by intimate partners ranged from 15% to 71% in each country. But women from countries in the Middle East and North Africa were not included in the survey.

Partly in response to this Karama was formed - an organisation of women in nine Arab countries working to address violence against women. Tired of the incongruity between the intense geo-political activity focused in the Arab world, and the absence of their voices from the international circuit Karama is a network of activists working to "break the cycle of Arab women's absence from the global arena and to generate a base line of information, consolidate networks of activists, and carry out tangible actions by women in the Middle East and North Africa to end violence on our own terms".

If the WHO had included interviews about violence with women in these regions, it would have found that in:

- Egypt 34% of ever married women had been physically abused by a partner or spouse.

- Jordan saw a 20% increase in recorded incidents of gender violence in 2005.

- In the West Bank 52% of women had experienced domestic violence

- and in the Gaza Strip 62.5%.

According to WHO nearly half the world's women who die from homicides are killed by current or former husbands or partners. But in the Middle East and North Africa the trend is differentiated by the number of women murdered by a male relative rather than her spouse. In a study of female homicides in Alexandria 47% of the women killed had been raped and then killed by a relative for loss of "honor". In Lebanon 70 -75% of the perpetrators of female homicides were the victim's brothers carrying out retribution to uphold "honor".

Choosing Karama - meaning ‘dignity' in Arabic, this network of women has a unique way of addressing violence.

Karama, Arabic for ‘Dignity'

    To a western ear, the name ‘dignity' resonates well for an Arab women's anti-violence network. To an Arab ear ‘dignity' carries profound repercussions.

    Dignity is a fundamental social concept in Arab society. It is at the root of many of the Arab world's most remarked-upon social customs including generosity when there is little to share, selflessness in the face of great danger and abundant hospitality. However, it is also invoked for acts of violence against women in the Arab world, particularly ‘honor' killings. Foreign occupations compound a sense of collective humiliation and hardship whose results can be seen in domestic violence, rape and murder.

    In Karama we are rethinking the very definitions and dimensions of violence against women. We question whether violence is indeed a humiliation committed against a woman, her family, her community and her society or whether it might also influence public health and well-being; civic discourse and politics; ingenuity and education; belief and religion; legal protections and the judicial system; creative arts and cultural expression; public discourse and the media; and economic opportunity and advancement.

    We, as women of Karama, believe in our own power, identity, and opportunity to strengthen our societies. In a 2005 survey in eight Arab countries, women's greatest concerns were not the headscarf and driver's licenses, but lack of Muslim unity, violent extremism, and political corruption or violence. We are debating and discussing military violence as much as domestic violence. We find its roots and reach in sectors of our societies that are also awaiting greater progress for women: politics, economics, health, education, and media images.

    We view our mission as one not only to widen the constituencies working to end violence against women, but also to widen the roles and opportunities for women in the key sectors thus strengthening society. Karama is devising a home-grown response to violence against women that takes into account its root causes and social consequences.

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