Back to the sources: The role of civil society in empowering women

On October 21st, the UN passed a new resolution reiterating the role of women’s involvement in conflict prevention, resolution and peace-building. The importance of this resolution must not be undermined. Nevertheless, I see here a good opportunity to divert the spotlights from the UN and focus attention on the local stage.  Indeed, the international legal framework is more than needed as it legitimises human rights and strengthens the position of vulnerable groups, communities, people, giving them legal tools to fight. However, the fight for accurate implementation of human rights, especially women’s human rights, must not put aside the very concerned women by downplaying the role of local collective action. Legitimising the claims of people who we cannot even hear does not seem accurate. What about giving them some voice?

I will argue that civil society’s role in enhancing women’s voices should be given more attention.

-> Why is it an issue?

In order to make the translation of rights from the international framework to local implementation more efficient, it is relevant to focus on grass-roots approaches. Indeed, the establishment of a human rights framework and the ratification of international treaties is only the first step (Zwingel). Yet, factors that lead to discrimination of women are held in traditions, customs and social norms (Jütting and Morrison).

As it is emphasized in the 2004 Arab Human Development Report, discrimination against women persists through laws and practices (Moghadam, Roudi-Fahimi). This is the reason why, the role of activism is of paramount importance to challenge rooted traditions. Standard policies won’t be enough to face barriers such as religious beliefs and millenary traditions (Jütting, Morrison); this is why the role of activist groups is even more important when discriminatory practices are institutionalised. Many countries of the MENA* region did join CEDAW** while having reservations about some of the main articles. Saudi Arabia, for example, signed CEDAW in 2000 without the intention to comfort to it in the case of any article would contradict their view of the Sharia (Moghadam, Roudi-Fahimi). Therefore, it appears that the international human rights framework has little leverage on the way national and local governments will implement reforms. In addition, local activism is more likely to resist critics of legitimacy, and therefore, they will be better able to challenge mentalities from inside.

The potential role of civil society as challenger of status-quo should be better acknowledged by the international agents. Indeed, whereas the latter tends to focus on empowerment as a way to improve productivity, it seems that empowerment (of women) should be seen as a means to challenge discriminatory institutions. (Jütting and Morrison)

-> Challenging flawed religious interpretation: the case of Morocco

The case of Morocco is particularly interesting as women’s activism successfully challenged the traditional family law based on the Sharia. The example of Morocco illustrates that social change can occur even within a very conservative society. While Morocco signed the CEDAW in 1993, women were still facing discriminatory customs regarding major issues (such as inequality under divorce law or the obligation for a wife to obey her husband) (Moghadam, Roudi-Fahimi). This is mainly due to the patriarchal structures that rule the private sphere and that are reported on the public sphere. Indeed, the Moroccan culture can be considered as very conservative, especially towards issues on women.

Even though the situation is still imperfect, women’s activist groups succeeded in challenging patriarchal attitudes thanks to social dialogue. The key point here is the way patriarchal structures, supposedly based on religious traditions, have been broken by very Islamic sources (Ibid). Through collective action, Moroccan women’s rights groups succeeded in combining traditional religious claims with a more modern interpretation of Sharia (Ibid). If the ratification of CEDAW was a clear step forward, the campaign made at the domestic level by women’s activist groups, campaign that lasted ten years, can be viewed as the main trigger to Family Law reforms in Morocco (Ibid). Although the application of the new law still encounters some difficulties, the implementation of the reformed Family Law can be described as a success thanks to the efforts of the civil society who supported it (WRC).

To conclude, I hope that this article made it clear that challenges to poor governance must understand the “multi-levelled nature of the struggle” (Parpart) and pay particular attention to the capacity of citizen activists. The Moroccan success should serve as a flexible model and inspire other countries’ activists.

*MENA: Middle East and North Africa

**CEDAW: Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women


Jütting, Johannes and Morrison, Christian. “Changing Social Institutions to Improve the Status of Women in Developing Countries”, Policy Brief, 27, 2005

Moghadam Valentine M. and Roudi-Fahimi Farzaneh. “Reforming family laws to promote progress in the Middle East and North Africa”, Population Reference Bureau, December 2005

Parpart, Jane. “Gender, Power and Governance in a Globalizing World”, Development Research Series: Research Center on Development and International Relations, Working Paper 126, 2004

Zwingel, Susanne. “International Feminist Strategies: Strengths and Challenges of the Rights-based Approach”, forthcoming in Politics and Gender.

Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), Our Motherland, “Our Country: Gender Discrimination and Statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa”, June 2013, ISBN:1-58030-112-6


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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One Response to Back to the sources: The role of civil society in empowering women

  1. Manolito says:

    Very good article; I agree with the point made about going “back to the sources” and focusing on local social activism. Thank you also for the enlightening example of Morocco. I believe that our blog entries are actually complementary (i.e the article “Men’s step up for gender equality ….”).

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