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2/20/04 - WOMEN AND THE LAW CONFERENCE - 2004-02-20

“The biggest challenge in the twenty-first century is to ensure active and not only symbolic women’s participation in drafting and implementing legislation,” says Jordanian Minister of Justice Salah Bashir. He spoke at the recent Women and the Law conference in Amman, Jordan -- part of the Middle East Partnership Initiative created by the U.S. to promote democratic reform in the Middle East.

Fern Smith is a U.S. judge from California who has worked in the Middle East to expand the rule of law. She says, “While every society is different. . .basic human rights should be transferable.” Equal treatment under the law; freedom of religion; freedom of speech and press; and the right of both men and women to vote are all critical.

Those fundamental rights may at times conflict with certain interpretations of Islamic law, or Sharia. But some Arab countries, like Morocco, are adopting interpretations of religious law that expand the rights of women. As a result, in 2003, Moroccan women were given the right to apply for divorce and to receive equal shares of inheritance. Moreover, the marriage age for girls was raised from fifteen to eighteen.

Cherie Booth-Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, told conference participants in Amman that the struggle for Arab women’s rights is part of the larger struggle for human rights throughout the Middle East. “It remains vitally important that women. . .acquire the power to think and act freely, exercise choice, and fulfill their potential as full and equal members of society.”

In the Middle East, as elsewhere, it will be possible to measure advances toward democracy, the state of law, and modernity, as Moroccan women’s activist Amina Lemrini has said, “by looking at how much is put into practice in terms of meaningful benefits for women.”