The great irony of the recent International Conference on Violence Against Women hosted by the Italian Ministry for Equal Opportunities, is that if the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by 185 countries, or over 90% of the United Nations, were implemented, there would be no need for this conference.

One if the main problems is the distance between laws, international conventions and treaties - and their implementation.

In Islamic countries, for example, although 46 out of 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) ratified it, they did so with “reservations.” It seems there are Muslim intellectuals and human rights defenders who are still ambivalent about pursuing engagement with Islam and Islamic law, and gender equality and women’s empowerment in Muslim societies.

Even though the 1990 Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, the 1994 Charter on Human Rights, and the 2005 OIC Covenant on the Rights of the Child in Islam indicate that the relationship between Islam and Human Rights is crucial - - due to the place of Islam and Islamic law in the social, cultural, political, and legal affairs of states’ parties - CEDAW has more “reservations” placed on it than any other Human Rights treaty. States’ parties identified as Islamic have placed “reservations” even broader in scope and ground, maintaining that they will not implement any article against the principles of sharia. The Convention ends up, therefore, as though they had never signed it.

In October 2000, even the Saudi Government signed the Convention, but now is Saudia Arabia, as someone said, women are not persons: they cannot drive - they cannot do anything - without their “guardian’s” permission. Is this a contradiction? Not at all: Saudi Arabia signed CEDAW with the following “reservations”:

• “1. In case of contradiction between any term of the Convention and the norms of Islamic law, the Kingdom is not under obligation to observe the contradictory terms of the Convention.

• “2. The Kingdom does not consider itself bound by paragraph 2 of article 9 of the Convention and paragraph 1 of article 29 of the Convention."

Paragraph 2 of article 9 reads as follows:

“States Parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children.”

Paragraph 1 of article 29 reads:

“Any dispute between two or more States Parties concerning the interpretation or application of the present Convention which is not settled by negotiation shall, at the request of one of them, be submitted to arbitration. If within six months from the date of the request for arbitration the parties are unable to agree on the organization of the arbitration, any one of those parties may refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice by request in conformity with the Statute of the Court.”

The conclusion is that Saudi Arabia might just as well not have signed CEDAW.

The reservations coming from Arab-Islamic countries are the main reasons for the high discrimination against women in electoral, nationality and citizenship laws.

The Arab-Islamic world tries to look as if it is not closing its eyes to women’s rights, but at the same time it hesitates in modifying and reforming traditions and laws.

For example, “women’s rights and duties” were the main issues at the June 2004 conference at the Center Abd al-Aziz for National Dialogue in Medina, Saudi Arabia to “build and favor a culture of dialogue in Saudi society.” A surface equality was granted by the presence of 35 men and 35 women, however they discussed all issues from two different rooms connected by a closed-circuit television.

The conference concluded with a clear victory for the conservative position, represented by Shaikh Abd Allah ibn al-Munie’s declaration about women’s right to drive: “If women who want to drive were like women at this conference, we would not have any doubt in allowing it. But we are dealing with teenagers… for this reason we shall be firm in our position to protect them from evil.”

Saudi activist Wajeha al-Huweidar’s statement ought to have been the answer: “All Arab regimes are members of the United Nations and have ratified the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, granting justice and equality, duties and rights to all human beings. However in our male chauvinist countries, women are considered a private property of the family. In all Arab countries, without exception, there is open discrimination against women.”

If we want to reach universal rights.

At the same time we should always make sure that when discussing human rights with people of other cultures, such as Muslims, we speak the same language: that the words we use mean the same thing and have the same values. For example, a former President of the National Society for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia once said: “There are people considering some behaviors like a violation of human rights, while we consider them a way to safeguard human rights - for example executions, amputation of the thief’s hand, flogging of the adulteress. There are people believing that all forms of Koranic punishment violate human rights. We, in Saudi Arabia, belong to the world as far general principles of human rights are concerned. But in our country we follow the laws of Allah, so that what for others is a violation of human rights for us is a duty against whoever has committed a crime”.

The Saudi signature of CEDAW with its reservations regarding sharia, is simply no use.

A statement made by a member if the Norwegian government on 16 July 1990, in response to a similar sharia-based justification by Libya remains current: “The Norwegian government will stress that by acceding to the Convention, a state commits itself to adopt the measures required for the elimination of discrimination, in all its forms and manifestations against women. A reservation by which a State Party limits its responsibilities under the Convention by invoking religious law (Shariah), which is subject to interpretation, modification and selective application in different states adhering to Islamic principles, may create doubts about the commitments of the reserving state to the object and purpose of the Convention. It may also undermine the basis of international treaty law. All states have common interest in securing that all parties respect treaties to which they have chosen to become parties.”

Interpretations of sharia other than the Hanbali-Wahhabi one exist. As far as women are concerned, the 2004 reformed Moroccan Code of Family Law (Mudawana) is a perfect example of the way women can be protected and their condition improved in a Code, following the Malikite interpretation of sharia. In Tunisia the 1956 Code du Statutut Personel is a totally secular document - banning poligamy - which has never been considered anti-Islamic.

When debating human and women’s rights we should demand complete respect for conventions like CEDAW -- with no exceptions and no reservations. Further, the West should start asking for total respect for universal human rights before commencing economic and political relations with countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this way the West would help civil society in general, and women in particular, to reach those all-important goals: freedom and democracy.

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