Can Arab Spring Improve Lives Of Women?

New governments are forming in the Middle East and North Africa, and women are behind many of the calls for change. Asma Khader is trying to make sure women's voices are heard. She's also one of three investigators who documented human rights abuses in Libya. She'll brief the U.S. Senate this week on challenges to democracy. She speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

We go overseas where protests continue in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen and new governments are taking shape in Tunisia and Egypt. Many of the calls for change are coming from women. They say there's no way to have true democracy without their full participation.

So we decided to check in with one woman who's trying to make sure women's voices are heard as these countries move into the next phase of governance. She is the Jordanian human rights advocate Asma Khader. She heads the Jordanian National Commission for Women. She's one of three investigators appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate abuses committed in Libya during the civil war. Later this week, she is due to brief the U.S. Senate.

Asma Khader is with us now by phone from Warrenton, Virginia. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ASMA KHADER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you're here in the U.S. with the group, Women's Learning Partnership, along with dozens of women from mainly Muslim majority countries to talk about conditions in your home countries. You'll be speaking to members of the Senate, as we discussed.

What do you think you'll tell the Senate when it comes to some of the main challenges?

KHADER: The main issue is that there is no democracy without women and no reforms without women and we do believe that women in our region are a treasure for our societies. They should be active and they should participate in the economic life, public life, political life. Every party who are interested in the transition in the region need to make sure that women are benefiting from their contribution to the revolution or to the reform efforts happening in the different countries.

And also that women have the guarantee from the constitutional level to the practice so all laws are really enough guarantee for the equality and the respect of their human rights.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about the ways in which you feel the international community should support that, but I don't want to gloss over the very important work that you have done in investigating human right issues during this period of transition. Specifically, you were investigating abuses during Libya's civil war. Were there ways in which women were specifically affected or targeted?

KHADER: I think, during the incidents in the region and demonstrations and also the new governments in these regions, sometimes we felt that women were forgotten and that the new leaders even are not really necessarily give enough attention to women needs in the new era.

MARTIN: What role, though, should the international community play here? Because often, when Western advocates, whether they be women or men or people in the business community or human rights community make this argument, they are told that they do not understand the culture or they are told that they do not understand the religion and they are told that the expectations that people in other countries and regions have for the participation of women is not compatible, you know, with the history and culture of these countries.

So I guess it's a twofold question. What role should the international community play and what is your response to that when people say, essentially, the international community should stay out of it?

KHADER: We do really see that there is a need of a better understanding and a better evaluation of the situation in this region. As you may know, Islam is one, but the Islamic political regimes are different.

MARTIN: Just going back again to your work investigating the situation in Libya, the media in general reported a couple of horrific examples where it appeared that women had been specifically targeted for abuses by forces loyal to the regime in order to suppress them from participating.

I wanted to ask if you feel that those abuses are being addressed, if you feel that the Libyan Transitional National Council is positioned to and is motivated to address these incidences.

KHADER: Well, I think the Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on human rights violations in Libya put the agenda issues on one of the top priorities in the investigations. We did document very few cases, but I do believe that the impact of those few cases were really, on a national level, huge because in a very conservative and traditional type of society, it is unaccepted and it is really problematic to families and prides to have this type of threat. And I think many families were obliged to leave us because they were afraid of having their female members of the family being raped or being sexually harassed.

I do believe that further investigation needs to take place. This is what we are going to do in the coming few weeks and if a few number of these cases serve a systematic way of using sexual harassment and sexual abuse as a weapon of war, then it has to be investigated by the Human Rights Council and by the International Criminal Court.

MARTIN: What is your next project?

KHADER: Well, I think we need in the region a better networking within the women activists and building coalitions with other (unintelligible) in our societies to make sure that the reforms or the shaping of the new regimes in the region can be different and can be better supportive to the needs of women and to the full respect of human rights and democracy and that they are adopting a very open kind of interpretation of their religions as most of the states are Islamic states.

And also, I hope that women will make sure that they are better organized politically and they are contributed to the efforts toward all aspects of legal reforms and be part of the activism positively and being active in the elections.

And also, I think what we need (technical difficulty) they're ready to (technical difficulty) any changes. It's time for them to be part of the economic power and the political power in their societies. This needs a lot of work, a lot of exchanged experiences within the representatives or activists in those countries, but also with our international partners who are passing similar experiences, such as in Central Asia or Africa or, you know, Europe or the United States. We think that the history of women movement can be (unintelligible) this time.

MARTIN: Asma Khader heads the Jordanian National Commission for Women. She's also one of three investigators appointed by the United Nations to document human rights abuses in Libya. She spoke with us by phone from Warrenton, Virginia, where she's on a visit to the United States.

Asma Khader, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KHADER: Thank you very much.

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