By Kelly Haggart
Women in Arab countries are making human rights history as they break down barriers to being treated as full citizens in their own countries. In the past few years, women in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco married to foreigners have won the right to convey their citizenship to their children. Algerian women can also now extend citizenship rights to their spouses.
Before these hard-won gains, women married to foreigners had to apply for temporary residency permits for family members — even their own children — who also faced restrictions in health care, education, jobs, and travel. Research supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) contributed to changing these policies in Egypt in 2004, in Algeria in 2005, and in Morocco in 2007.
Below, three women at the heart of the citizenship rights campaign discuss aspects of the work.
Lina Abou Habib is Executive Director of the Beirut-based Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A), which spearheads the regional citizenship rights campaign.
Nationality has become a big political and media issue, but it wasn’t when we started in 2002. We had found one thing in common in all Arab countries — nationality laws discriminate against women. They basically say that men can transmit their nationality to their spouses and children, but women cannot.
When we started talking to the media, they were interested in facts, figures, and human-interest stories, but we didn’t have any. We lacked hard data. So we went back to square one — research.
With IDRC support, we conducted research in three main areas. We wanted to know how the denial of rights affected the lives of women in the seven countries we studied. We wanted to know how many people we were talking about. And we wanted to analyze the nationality laws and their contexts in each country.
From research to campaign
The findings allowed us to figure out just what it means to be a woman deprived of her rights: if she is married to a foreigner, her children are actually strangers in their own country. The findings allowed us to make the issue visible and to launch a campaign in 2004.
The research produced loads of material that the media just fed on. It gave us an edge over the politicians because we had data. And it empowered women, in terms of talking to the media. Anybody can go out and say: I want to change this or that. But with our ideas backed up by the research, we knew what we were talking about, and we could challenge all the myths around this issue.
Nationality has now become a big issue, a political issue, a media issue. When we started, it was a marginal issue. The research has transformed this completely.
Wajeeha Al Baharna is Vice-President of the Bahrain Women Association (BWA).
We started the nationality campaign in Bahrain in 2005, with the cooperation of CRTD-A in Lebanon. We have a specific demand: the reform of Article 4 of the nationality law, so that it states that a person is Bahraini if born to a Bahraini father or mother.
We wanted to know the size of the problem, so we put notices in newspapers and the outcome was astonishing: 140 women came to our office one day and told their painful stories. Nobody had asked them before about their suffering. The meeting received good media coverage, and helped to raise awareness. BWA now has data on 400 women — with an average of three to four children each — but I’m sure that double or triple this number are affected.
The next step was to lobby Parliament. We produced a 15-minute documentary about some of the cases, and it left MPs speechless. It also reached the final round of the 2008 Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival, held in Doha, Qatar.
Feelings of guilt
We conducted a quick survey on the psychological impacts on women of this unfair law. More than 90% feel guilty. And they’re really sad, because they hear from their family and from society that they are the reason for their own children’s suffering. They cry, and say, “Yes, I did this to myself.” We try to convince them otherwise: “This is not your fault. You did nothing wrong. You have the right to choose your partner — from Bahrain or outside of Bahrain.”
Often we find that women married a foreigner without realizing that they would face problems with their children’s citizenship. Some say: “I didn’t marry a foreigner — he’s Arab!” They thought that other Arabs, from Egypt or Lebanon or Syria, would not count as foreigners.
When their children are in Grade 6 or so, they start to hear from their classmates that they are not Bahraini. Suddenly, they are made to feel like foreigners. We’ve asked some of the affected children to draw freely, showing how they feel about the problem. One nine-year-old boy wanted to join a club. So he drew a club door with a big “X” on it, because the club was for Bahrainis only.
Rakhee Goyal is Executive Director of the US-based Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), which helped internationalize the citizenship campaign in 2006. WLP is a partnership of organizations, particularly in Muslim-majority societies, working with women as they take on leadership roles at family, community, and national levels.
Our approach at WLP is that campaigns should be home-grown, strong, and locally rooted before they attract international attention. The Claiming Equal Citizenship campaign dates back to 2002 in Lebanon, but was launched internationally only in 2006. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that this isn’t only an Arab women’s issue. Women in other countries face similar kinds of problems or have tackled them in the past, so the issue should not be relegated to a particular region.
We created an interactive blog in English, which proved to be an effective way of engaging the diaspora. Some of these families had left their own countries because of their inability to access citizenship. We also helped our partner organization in Lebanon start a Facebook group in December 2007, which already has more than 21 000 members. Individuals in the diaspora have thus become involved in long-distance lobbying, and some have taken up the issue very vocally.
Our Lebanese colleagues have used Facebook to mobilize people to take part in sit-ins outside Parliament. And while those people are gathering physically in Beirut, the diaspora, as well as citizens across Lebanon, take part in a “cyber sit-in.” People go online at the same time and converse among themselves. It’s an act of solidarity.
Much remains to be done. Of the six countries formally part of the campaign, only half have reformed their laws: Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco. The other three — Bahrain, Jordan, and Lebanon — have yet to do so, and law-reform efforts are ongoing there. In the countries where the laws have changed, legal help has to be provided in order for the families to take advantage of the laws. In some cases, the laws are implemented retroactively, but not in other cases; or there’s transfer of nationality to children, but not to spouses.
A lot of idea-sharing and cross-pollination of innovations and strategies goes on within the partnership. We try to foster this learning across countries, and we’ve seen wonderful results. For example, Bahrain organized a children’s art exhibit, and Lebanon held one subsequently that was also very successful.