Ending VAW in Muslim-Majority Countries: A Panel Summary

It was a packed house early on the morning of July 12, 2016, when Global Rights for Women moderated a panel of experts discussing the unique challenges with violence against women in Muslim communities and in the Middle East and North Africa (“MENA”) region. The energy in the room was palpable as more chairs were brought in to accommodate later-arriving guests. After a warm welcome from host Stinson Leonard Street, esteemed panelists Stephanie Willman-Bordat from Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA), Safia Khan from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, and Anse Tamara Gray from Rabata were introduced.

The discussion opened with the panelists providing an overview of the cultural, religious, and national challenges faced by women in the countries of Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Pakistan, and Syria. Each expert highlighted the common misconception that gender-based violence is tied to religion. Rather, in their opinions, the problems are rooted in outdated laws, corruption, family dynamics, and lack of access to resources such as education and healthcare.

Stephanie spoke of her work across the Maghreb and the impact the French colonial history has had on the region. In Morocco, for example, the legal system is based on a version of the French criminal code from 1962. Many of the gender-based violence issues faced in that country arise from sexist issues and stereotypes from this outdated law. Only recently with the advocacy of MRA did that government eliminate a law exonerating statutory rapists if they married their victims.

Safia spoke about the political landscape of Pakistan and limited access to resources for its dense population due to widespread corruption in that country. The violence towards women seen in Pakistan is deeply rooted in patriarchal cultural values and inaccurate interpretations of religion. Safia also highlighted the fact that legal reform work in Pakistan cannot be done in isolation without the infrastructure for those laws to be successfully implemented. For example, the Women’s Protection Act was passed in the Punjab province in February, but it has been met with a lot of resistance and remains in limbo.

The discussion then turned to how the panelists carry out their work in the region and whether they are met with any resistance. Overall, the experts identified attacking the problem from multiples angles at once as the most effective means of doing their work.

Stephanie emphasized that this is long term work, and it is important to cover every angle of the problem at the same time. This includes advocating for law reform; implementing changes in the state response from police, hospitals, and prosecutors; and cultural work in terms of awareness-raising and education. She shared: “The mistake we made [in Morocco] was only doing the awareness-raising first because then you’ve got a lot of very motivated women who know about their rights who then went to the hospitals, went to the police, went to the prosecutors and were told ‘Go home, we can do nothing for you because there’s no law.’ And then you get a lot of disenchanted people, and that’s when the problems really start.”

The panel next addressed why women in the region stay in abusive relationships. Overwhelmingly, the women agreed the problem is lack of resources and alternatives.

Safia reinforced Stephanie’s point about women staying because there are no resources for them and the need to tackle the problem from different avenues at the same time. She highlighted again the lack of resources, corruption, and socioeconomic imbalances that are making the Women’s Protection Act ineffective. Safia added that one of the main reasons women stay is because the world outside of an abusive relationship is also unsafe for them. She said: “I do not know of any woman in Pakistan who is single and goes and chooses to live alone without facing a level of harassment or danger from the society as it exists. When the world outside also is not safe enough, sometimes the safer option for you is to stay in that relationship.”

Anse Tamara discussed the socioeconomic and cultural differences between women living in the cities and villages of Syria. Violence against women is much more prevalent in impoverished villages where victims have limited access to vital resources. Not only do women in the villages of Syria lack the resources they need to leave an abusive relationship, they also feel a strong sense of pride in their house and often possess an attitude that any abuse they may endure to stay in that house is not that bad.

Stephanie explained the unique challenges faced in Morocco with its outdated laws. For example, to even file a domestic abuse complaint, a woman must present a note from the hospital stating she has experienced at least twenty-one days of disability resulting from the violence. Until recently, it was illegal for a woman to disobey her husband and flee her home and to shelter a woman fleeing her home. While those laws have been removed, much of the implementation and mentality remains the same.

In parting, Stephanie discussed the problems resulting from the region’s police state history. With a history of police brutality, women do not turn to law enforcement for help with domestic violence issues. Stephanie added that the Moroccan government believes domestic violence cannot be fixed with state reform because it is a cultural and religious issue. She ruminated: “The day that we have fabulous hospitals, fabulous police stations, fabulous courthouses equipped with trained people ready to deal with domestic violence, and the women don’t come, then you can come talk to me about religion and culture.”

Anse Tamara spoke on the concept of Sharia Law and its textual principles stemming from the Qur’an and the Sunna, which is based on the Prophet Mohammed’s life and works. These principles of faith, life, wealth, intellect, and dignity are the foundation of the law and allow for that law to be rebuilt and rewritten based on the situations of the time and needs of the community. Anse Tamara emphasized this is a legal system like any other, but faith remains very important. She shared: “As scholars, [we must] communicate to the general population that there is only a zero tolerance for violence within the faith. The Sharia laws on the books today need to reflect those principles as they can be held today.”

Safia emphasized the need for a multi-faceted approach to ending violence against women. For example, because women have faced violence at the hands of the police, calling the police is often not an option, so the focus needs to be broader than just the criminal justice system. She shared her belief that “the one thing that will actually make a difference is social-norm change work. We need to do that alongside this legal reform work. We need to make sure we are engaging in primary prevention in our schools at a very young age. We need to really look at a multi-faceted approach and invest our energy and resources in our areas of expertise, and do it at the same time so that no gaps exist as we are responding to these issues.”

It is a key focus of Global Rights for Women to engage our community in eye-opening, thought-provoking dialogues on the lives of women in the world and the critical issue of the global epidemic of violence. Action to end violence against women and girls must happen alongside the convening of individuals, engaged in open, considerate dialogue. Together, through conversation and direct action, we believe we can build a new world where all women are able to enjoy a life free of violence.

Wendy Bratten, an associate at Carlson Capers, is a volunteer contributing writer for Global Rights for Women.

Thank you to Lucy Mathews Heegaard, www.studio-lu.net, for sound editing on the audio recording and to Stinson Leonard Street for hosting this conversation!