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Asked how she would summarize her opinion on gender issues in just one sentence, Saba Farzan said: "Women and men together." After a short break she continued: "Only the two of them can bring about positive cultural change. When they show some sort of solidarity, we can see the best outcome."
Farzan, a German-Iranian journalist was invited to speak on the panel discussion opening Workshop V, dealing with gender issues and the Arab spring. "I have no doubt that there will be an Iranian Spring", she said. "I don’t think in terms of generations. I think in terms of two or three years. I think it will change when it comes to a new constitution. The Iranian society is more than ready for a separation between state and church. That is what most Iranians already practice at home." Especially the situation in the educational field does not fit too much with the image Westerners have of Iran – a country located by former US President George W. Bush on his so-called 'Axis of Evil'. "When you talk to Iranians these days, a young girl who finishes school and doesn't want to join university is in trouble because this is what she is expected to do. The girls who went to universities didn't finish up as strong conservative women, but as liberal ones. It backfired to the dictatorship. We have seen this in 2009, where women were at the forefront of the protests." Farzan highlighted the importance of the 'Campaign to gain 1 million signatures' that took place a few years ago all over Iran. "It was sort of presented as a campaign to collect signatures to reform all those laws which where somewhat troublesome to women. But reform is not possible with this regime. So it was an education campaign to show women what is possible."
Next to her, Arba Kokalari, International Secretary for Foreign Policy of the Moderate Youth League of Sweden (MUF) contributed a liberal point of view to the discussion. Kokalari thinks that fighting for women's rights in the Arab world is about making women ready to compete. "The ability to read is a main topic. Girls and women need to be educated to compete with men. Education is the key to gender equality." Kokalari pointed out that women's rights are a key issue for the worldwide struggle for human rights in general. "If you want to be a free country, you can't exclude half of the population."
Samir Nasr, an Egyptian-German filmmaker, fully agreed in that point with Kokalari. "A society that cannot establish equal rights for both genders can't be called mature", he said. Nasr was born and raised in Germany, so he knows both sides of the story – the German view on gender issues and the Arab view. "I think it is difficult to make general statements, but I try to be precise. At the moment, I try to make a film of a book written in the late nineties. At a certain point I realized that there is a lack of women in this story. They exist only as mothers or as a sexual fantasy. There is a lack of knowledge und understanding and listening to each other. How could this happen?" Women in Egypt had achieved a lot of rights in the 20th century, he said. "Before World War II, we had the first female pilot. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, Egypt was following the Socialist model. Women's rights were developing in a good way. But then there was a break. And it is too easy to blame it on the re-islamization of the country." Nasr concluded: "We are not listening to each other anymore. Big parts of society have never learned this. And this is why all the things went wrong after the revolution. One reason for this is the education system. It is not liberal. It is about memorizing things, even in university. It is not a forum to discuss. You don't take a book and learn for yourself."
Within the next 18 hours a very vivid discussion developed. The participants didn't hesitate to talk about controversial thoughts, like: Are human rights really universal, as the UN Charter says? Or has every society its own idea of human rights? Of course they are universal, the participants concluded. But it takes time to adapt human rights because the realization of a society based on equal rights depends on many factors, for example the historical situation of a country and the existence of a civic society.
The gender issue in particular varies in its importance within the Arab world. For example Tunisia: Even under the dictatorship of the former President Ben Ali women were able to live a life in dignity, enjoying more freedom than in most other Arab countries. This has not changed by now. In Egypt, the situation is very different, the topic is very urgent. However, the group underlined that women's situation in general is not perfect anywhere in the world. In Europe there are still many things to be done, too. The sexualized image of females on TV, media and advertising was named in that context.
In case of the Arab world, the group made some suggestions to improve women's situation. Focusing on the field of education, student exchanges and language courses could be a good instrument to make Arab females familiar with other role models. This could make them reflect their own situation. For the same reason it could be helpful to foster investments in universities, libraries, and similar institutions. One cornerstone on the way to gender equality could be the battle for literacy, as education is the key to emancipation.
And maybe, the group concluded, it could be a beginning if we wouldn't always talk about the differences of men and women. But about the similarities of all humans.