On July 30-31, 2021, the 2nd Conference of Women from the Middle East and North Africa was held in the Lebanese capital Beirut. Nearly 100 women from Lebanon, all four parts of Kurdistan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco participated in the conference under the slogan “With the unity of women we will realize the democratic revolution”. The 1st conference had taken place in Amed/North Kurdistan in 2013. In the eight years that have passed since the first meeting, a lot has happened in the region. For this reason, there was a lot to tell, discuss and analyze.
The conference took place at a difficult time, under difficult conditions. The venue, Beirut, was still heavily scarred by the explosion at the port that happened a year before, lack of electricity and gasoline, empty shelves in the stores and only very poor internet connection. But it is not only in Lebanon itself that the general situation is difficult at the moment. A climate of crisis prevails in all countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The entire region is marked by war and conflict, political and economic crises, flight and displacement, instability and insecurity. Moreover, due to pandemics and bureaucratic reasons, women from all countries in the region were not able to attend.
Many of the women already knew each other from online events organized by the “Our Unity is Our Strength” initiative, a MENA (1) network that organized the conference. Also, an important part of the delegates had already been to the first conference in Amed. But for most, this kind of gathering was something new. After all, it is not often that women from across the MENA region come together at a conference. When they do, they are usually sponsored and don’t really achieve change in terms of content, but rather serve to NGOize the women’s movement in the region. But grassroots, self-financed forums of women that are independent of large NGOs and governments in this sense and that achieve radical change are rarely organized. This made the conference all the more meaningful, both for the participants themselves and for the women from the region who followed the discussions online, live and through the press.
On the first day, discussions mostly took the form of panels. The first panel discussion was dedicated to the role of women in coping with the crises in the MENA region. The first aim of this was to draw a picture of the current political situation in the region. This stocktaking from a women’s perspective is urgently needed, because in recent years there have been major changes and developments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In addition to the so-called Arab Spring, the conflict in Syria, the invasion of the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria and Iraq, the genocide of the Ezidis in Sinjar, the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, which is increasingly spreading to Iraq, the conflict in Libya and the Mediterranean region, the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Turkish occupation offensives in Rojava and South Kurdistan are particularly worthy of mention. These conflicts have cost countless lives in the past few years, forced millions to flee their homes, and led to a high increase in poverty and violence.
The Leading Role of Women in the Region’s Struggles
But these negative developments represent only one side of the coin. On the other hand, there have also been important developments at the level of social and political struggles in recent years. The Rojava revolution represents the greatest ray of hope in this regard. But also the revolution in Sudan, the resistance against fascism in Turkey or the struggle against the Iranian oppressive regime are links in a chain of organized struggles for freedom and democracy in the region. The interesting thing about these resistances is that they are led by women. Whether in Sudan, Kurdistan, Turkey, Tunisia, Iran, or Afghanistan; women are not only standing up for the rights of their gender, but have a leading role in the struggle for democracy. This leading role can be seen less in numbers and more in the impact of women in these struggles. They spread courage, the will to fight and resilience.
This historical role that women are currently playing in the Middle East and North Africa was the topic of the other two panel discussions on the first day of the conference. Here, women from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia, Rojava, Palestine and Egypt reported on their concrete experiences and achievements. The focus was mainly on ways and methods. For example, women from Turkey and North Kurdistan reported on autonomous organizing and the co-chair model. The contribution from Jordan focused on women’s experience in the economic field and the promotion of women’s economic rights. We heard how women succeeded in forming an alliance in the course of the Arab Spring to formulate common demands regarding the new constitution, using Tunisia as an example. The representatives from Rojava, in turn, told how they succeeded in building an alternative model. Women from Palestine told about their role in the resistance against the occupation. Egyptian women, in turn, told us about their struggle against sexualized violence and the role of self-defense.
The second day of the conference focused on joint organizing as the primary approach. Three different workshops explored the questions of what prevents us women’s organizations from the MENA region from fighting together, how to balance local and regional struggles, and what principles and goals a regional alliance should follow. Lively and focused, conference participants both identified difficulties and worked together to find solutions. In the further course of the conference, results of the workshops were presented. Another panel elaborated on the results of the two-day discussions and highlighted the most important findings. Afterwards, the focus was on the future and there was a joint discussion on how to proceed after the conference.
Joint Organizing as a Prerequisite for the Joint Struggle
Because this has been the most important challenge and the biggest point of self-criticism. At the first conference in 2013, a coordination was established to follow up on the implementation of the decisions of the conference. However, this was not functional and fell apart after some time. At the second conference, the aim was to analyze the reasons for this and not to repeat the same mistake. Because all participants without exception agreed that women in the MENA region must fight together for true democracy, freedom, peace and justice and that organizing is necessary for this – coordination alone is not enough. For coordination to gain functionality, there needs to be a substructure whose cooperation needs to be coordinated. The participants of the conference agreed that an alliance should be this substructure. And so the foundation of the Democratic Alliance of MENA Women was announced in Beirut. This alliance seeks to strengthen and organize the common struggle of women from the Middle East and North Africa for liberation, democracy, peace and justice.
This alliance aims to fight together against any form of feminicide and occupation. Besides patriarchal attacks on women, the alliance sees it as its main task to fight against war, displacement, poverty, political assassinations, the destruction of nature for profit and any kind of inequality. Nationalism, sectarianism and sexism will be actively fought. At the same time, relations between progressive women’s groups and movements will be strengthened. Because during the conference we noticed that although we women from the MENA region have a common understanding of identity, which is mainly based on culture, we actually do not know each other well. On the one hand, there is a need for us to consciously identify and define what unites us. On the other hand, there is a need to go beyond our own borders to get to know better the situation and struggles of women in the region. While women from the Arab region are more informed about the situation in their respective countries, partly due to a common language, many were not aware of the important achievements of women in Rojava or Turkey. This showed us how urgent it is to build a common network for information exchange and communication. This would then be another task of the alliance.
The alliance itself will be built up in the course of a six-month phase. The participants from the individual countries have each appointed a representative who will together form a committee which, in the six months following the conference, i.e. until January 2022, is to draw up and write down the goals, working methods, strategic plan and overall perspective of the alliance in accordance with the discussions and resolutions. The results of the workshops will provide an important basis for this. But of course it will not be possible to define everything and find solutions for all problems within a few months. This is because we will only encounter concrete difficulties as we work together. It is in dealing with these difficulties that we will build our joint model.
This represents another important goal of the alliance: to find a form of cooperation and coordination based on an optimal balance between the local and the regional level. In addition, the third dimension is the relationship with worldwide women’s struggles or the global women’s movement. In this sense, a dialectical form of organization is needed that promotes the balance between local, regional and international. This is a challenge for which there are no ready-made recipes. Partly because of the crisis and conflict-ridden situation in the MENA region, women’s groups are often focused on their local agendas. This, however, is mostly an obstacle to lived solidarity and common struggle. In addition, the question arises as to where in the global women’s movement the struggles in the Middle East and North Africa are located.
Every alliance is also a field of political, ideological, social and cultural struggle. Struggle not in the sense of against each other, but with each other to build something new. In our region, too, we women are negatively influenced by Capitalist Modernity and thus separated from each other. Above all, nationalism and sectarianism, along with sexism and scientism, the main ideologies of the capitalist nation-state, reproduce power relations among women as well. Chauvinism, Kemalism, Islamism, etc. must therefore be ideologically questioned, analyzed and addressed, especially from a women’s perspective, so that we can actually create unity. However, we must also become collectively aware of what kind of unity we are striving for or what we understand by unity. Because in addition to many commonalities, there are also differences. Do we really want to wipe away all these differences, or do we want to build a unity of diversities, and if so, how is this even possible both theoretically and practically?
A Democratic Alliance to Overcome Capitalist Modernity
It turns out that building democratic alliances is not just about different organizations coming together and carrying out common actions according to common goals. It is at the same time – and even more so – about building a democratic system that is transformative in nature, transforming political culture. In this sense, the democratic alliance is the place where women challenge and fight patriarchal-capitalist ideologies not only externally, but above all internally. This is all the more important in the Middle East and North Africa, where Capitalist Modernity has systematically fragmented structures for over 200 years. This fragmentation leads to a constant reproduction of violence, conflict and crisis. Overcoming them requires a democratic unity that does not reproduce or recreate power relations. In this respect, building a democratic alliance of women in the Middle East and North Africa is of strategic importance and part of both the regional and global struggle against Capitalist Modernity.
There is no doubt that conferences are of great importance for knowledge and awareness building. But more important is what happens after the conference. Often, the organization of a conference itself is seen as the goal. However, conferences are rather a means to an end. The goal in hosting the 2nd MENA Women’s Conference has been to lay the foundation for a democratic alliance to organize and coordinate the common struggle against all forms of violence and for the realization of freedom and justice. The decision for this has been made and the process has begun. A committee with representatives from all the countries that were present at the conference is currently working out the principles and objectives of the democratic alliance. This will not be limited to the women’s organizations that were represented at the conference, but will grow. This process is at least as exciting as the conference itself.