DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
Women are the vanguard of the battle for human rights around the world; at least that's what delegates to a conference in Washington said this past week. They came from 18 developing countries, mainly in the Muslim world. The activists say they face growing pressure because of Islamic fundamentalism, and because of popular distaste for America's democracy agenda in the Middle East.
NPR's Jacki Lyden has our report.
JACKI LYDEN: It's called the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace. This coalition of non-governmental organizations, headed by and for women, meets annually to compare notes and to see how much ground has been won or lost.
I'm from Nigeria.
LYDEN: And your name?
Ms. BUMI DIPO-SALAMI (Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace): My name is Bumi Dipo-Salami.
LYDEN: Okay. And your name?
Ms. KUKAH ODILIA (Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace): Kukah Odilia.
Ms. ODILIA: From Cameroon.
Ms. NILA KHOURA(ph) (Conference Attendee): Nila Khoura from Palestine.
LYDEN: Olabunmi Dipo-Salami of Nigeria is the program director for BAOBAB for Women's Human Rights. She gave me a snapshot of progress made in the battle for equality in her native Nigeria.
Ms. DIPO-SALAMI: We have more women, at least, now asking for their rights, women seeking redress. The Sharia - when the Sharia came up in Nigeria, we took up the cases of women who were sentenced unjustly. We made sure that justice was served. And yeah, we're taking it one at a time.
LYDEN: The founder and CEO of the Women's Learning Partnership is Mahnaz Afkhami, a native of Iran now living in the United States. She served as the minister for Women's Affairs under the Shah. She sees women as being in the forefront of the fight for human rights and democracy, particularly in the Muslim world.
Ms. MAHNAZ AFKHAMI (Founder and CEO, Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace): Any sort of progress toward modernism, toward what we consider egalitarian societies, involves families, involves structures that are the basic units of society, and women are at the center of that. And all the arguments for going back to tradition, for fundamentalist concepts, really focuses itself on women.
LYDEN: But Afkhami and the other delegates here say women activists increasingly find themselves in a dilemma. As they promote the ideals of democracy, they have to distance themselves from the very word. Lawyer Asma Khader of Jordan, a former culture minister, explains the predicament.
Ms. ASMA KHADER (Lawyer): Of course in principle what we are doing is democratic campaign. It's all about democracy. The problem is the word democracy these days is not so popular in our communities. Using the word democracy these days - when it is so close to the war, and to the military actions, and to the human rights violations, in a way - is not helping the word to be accepted by the majority of people.
LYDEN: Another delegate here got a big response to a banner she brought along. It read, Be nice to America or it will bring democracy to you.
These women activists also face sometimes-violent resistance from Islamic fundamentalists. This summer, hackers destroyed the popular Web site of the Sisterhood is Global Institute in Jordan. The group, which trains women in leadership, says it receives 12,000 hits daily from across the Arab world. It's director in Amman is Lela Quorah(ph).
Ms. LELA QUORAH (Conference Attendee): The site was actually subjected to many hacks by hackers. We were hacked late July, three times, you know, within one week. And then the last one was very severe, where the hackers were able to build their admin on the server and destroyed many of the databases.
LYDEN: The hackers took over the site and put up a page reading, Allahu Akbar, God is great. The group's Webmaster was able to trace the hackers IP address to Saudi Arabia. The delegates from Morocco, who didn't want their group's name made public, suffered worse harassment. Last month, when they were out of town, their office in Rebaa was firebombed. Nabiyah(ph) - her last name is withheld here - recalls the attack through a translator.
Ms. NABIYAH (Conference Attendee): (Through translator) When we get back to our headquarters, we found out that part of the premises were burned. So they were not all of the premises, it was just two offices that were burned, which is good that we didn't lose everything.
LYDEN: An investigation is now underway in Morocco. Still, the women persevere. A main focus of the Washington conference this week was a new campaign across seven Arab countries to give equal citizenship rights to women. While countries' constitutions may give women equal rights on paper, a woman is unable to convey her nationality to her children or husband.
If, for example, a Jordanian woman marries a foreigner and the couple wants to continue to live in Jordan, it would be very difficult for her husband and even her children to become Jordanian citizens. Without citizenship, a resident faces a vast array of problems, from getting work permits to winning admission in a university. In some cases, non-citizens must continually leave their country of residence to get visas.
Lina Abou-Habib heads the regional campaign called Arab Women's Rights to Nationality. She's from Lebanon.
Ms. LINA ABOU-HABIB (Director, Arab Women's Rights to Nationality): I'm actually ashamed of repeating what politicians have been saying on what Women's Rights to Nationality. It's so Middle Ages.
LYDEN: Well, what do they say?
Ms. ABOU-HABIB: For them if women have the right to pass on their nationality to their children, this is going to upset the religious demographic balance and then we're going to have a civil war the next day. We've had civil war without this.
LYDEN: Abou-Habib says even in Lebanon, with its cosmopolitan glitter and secular style, women are second-class citizens.
Ms. ABOU-HABIB: First of all, on the outskirts, and if you look at it aesthetically, you do have visions of women who look more liberated with botox and what have you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ABOU-HABIB: Okay, I'm not one of them. But actually, don't forget that in Lebanon there are 18 family courts. What this means, in effect, is that you have 18 different categories of women. And the one thing that they have in common is male supremacy over women. Do you know that in Lebanon, for instance, women who are income earners cannot go to the bank and open a bank account for their children? Only fathers can do this.
In Lebanon - same as in many countries - it is really up to the male, to the man's generosity to be kind to women around him. There are no laws which protect women from domestic violence. There are no laws which protect women from sexual harassment. There are no specific laws which protect women from anything. Okay? Don't forget that Lebanon is built around religions. That's not good for women in general.
(Soundbite of conference)
LYDEN: The women here seem energized by each other. A delegate from Kazakhstan said she felt lonely at home and was thrilled to be in the presence of so many international activists. Another, from Mauritania, once imprisoned, said that she was leaving more determined than ever to bring the campaign for citizenship reform to her country. And Women's Learning Partnership will use its Web site to promote its new campaign on nationality and citizenship rights, providing daily testimonies from women's lives.
Jacki Lyden, NPR News, Washington.