Casey Co-chairs Hearing on Women and the Arab Spring

WASHINGTON, DC U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, today co-chaired a hearing focused on the role of women in the Arab Spring protests and how the U.S. can help ensure that women’s voices are heard and their rights are respected and promoted as these countries chart their future.

“Countries that encourage women’s participation in civil society are generally healthier, more stable, and more prosperous,” Senator Casey said. “Through trade and partnership, a more prosperous Middle East will lead to more global and U.S. prosperity.  And a stable Middle East means a safer United States.”

The subcommittee heard testimony from:

  • Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, United States Department of State
  • Dr. Tamara Wittes, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and Deputy Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions, United States Department of State
  • Ms. Manal Omar, Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa Programs, United States Institute of Peace
  • Ms. Mahnaz Afkhami, President, Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP)
  • Professor Sandra Bunn-Livingstone, Esq., President and CEO, Freedom³

Senator Casey’s opening statement is below:

I would like to begin by thanking Senator Boxer for co-chairing this hearing, and restate our gratitude to our distinguished witnesses for being here today.  Thanks to our first panel for their enlightening remarks.  Our second panel will provide a perspective from civil society on women and the Arab Spring.

And as we are here to discuss the fate of women halfway around the world, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate that it is not only the Arab world that will benefit from including the female half of its population in the political process.  Simply put, the U.S. will also benefit.  Countries that encourage women’s participation in civil society are generally healthier, more stable, and more prosperous.  Through trade and partnership, a more prosperous Middle East will lead to more global and U.S. prosperity.  And a stable Middle East means a safer United States.

While we are right to be encouraged by the historic political opportunities for women in the Arab Spring, there remain many significant obstacles to their full political participation.  While Tunisian and Egyptian women succeeded in helping to effect democratic change, the new governments in those countries must ensure that women are included in the political process and afforded protections under the new system.  In other countries like Syria and Yemen, women are still fighting, at great personal risk.  I’d like to highlight just a few stories of these heroic Arab women who have faced, and continue to face, persecution for their outspokenness and gender. 

In Syria, women activists have organized women-only protests in towns across the country.  Assad’s government is now targeting them with swift brutality.  Women who participate are killed, beaten, and arrested.  Razan Zaitouneh, a 34-year-old attorney and journalist, has documented the human rights situation since the beginning of the protests. In April, she was forced into hiding.  Her husband was arrested, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for nearly four months.  Razan has been banned from travel outside Syria since 2003.  Similar stories are unfortunately too numerous to mention, but I will be examining these issues in greater depth at a subcommittee hearing on Syria next week.

There are stories of hardship and brutality, but also some of inspiration.  Tawakul Karman, chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains, mother of three, and now a Novel Peace Prize laureate, led protests across Yemen and was instrumental in freeing jailed protesters.  She promotes non-violent methods, and she reportedly known among Yemenis as “the iron woman” and “the mother of the revolution.”  Her arrest last January moved hundreds of thousands of Yemenis to protest Saleh’s regime and demand democratic rights. She is championing her cause worldwide, and has met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

As the people of this region seek to grow their futures from the seeds of the Arab Spring, they will face challenges: the question of who shall rule and how is centuries-old, and societies will strive to perfect the response for centuries to come.  But what we have seen this year in the Middle East is the triumph of democratic process over authoritarianism, freedom over repression, and justice over tyranny. 

Arab men and women fought for these freedoms.  Arab men and women have the responsibility to build their governments and political systems.  And both Arab men and women should benefit from the changes they helped bring about. 

Our witnesses have impressive backgrounds in humanitarian work, women’s issues, and the region.  Manal Omar is the Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace.  She has previously managed programs for Oxfam, responding to humanitarian crises in the Middle East.  She most recently published a book: “Barefoot in Baghdad: A Story of Identity – My Own and What it Means to be a Woman in Chaos.”

Mahnaz Afkhami is president of the Women’s Learning Partnership.  She is also the Executive Director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies and was the first Minister of Women’s Affairs in Iran.  She helped enact legislation that gave women equal rights to divorce and raised the minimum age of marriage for girls.  She co-authored a manual to develop women’s leadership skills that has been adapted into seventeen languages.

Dr. Sandra Bunn-Livingstone, Executive Director of Jus Cogens LLC, is an expert in international human rights law who received her PhD in international law from Cambridge University.  She has worked in China, the U.K., and South Africa, and most recently wrote a book on cultural influences on states’ practice of international human rights law. 

Thank you again to all of our panelists for taking the time to be with us here today and share your expertise on the incredibly important role of women in the Arab Spring.