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The Gender and Citizenship Initiative: Nationality of Arab Children

"Arab Children Foreigners in their own Country in the Name of Islam?"

This question was the topic of a two-day expert group meeting organized by UNDP's Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS) and the Center for Arab Women Training and Research (CAWTAR) in Tunis on July 3-4, 2003.

Throughout the Arab world, women, their husbands and their children suffer hardships due to existing nationality laws. These laws make it difficult or impossible for an Arab woman married to a non-national (even an Arab and/or Muslim) to pass her nationality onto her children. This results in the stark denial of basic rights to these children such as the right to free education, employment, health benefits, civil and political rights (for example the right to vote or participate in elections in the only place they have always known as home). Arab men, on the other hand, automatically enjoy the privilege of passing their nationality on to their children even when these are born and raised in a foreign country.

Experts, activists and scholars from seven Arab countries representing human rights, women groups, and academia exchanged opinions on this discriminatory law which is often justified in the name of Islamic Shari'a. The study aims at questioning the validity of reservations presented by most Arab countries on Article 9 (nationality clause) of the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). A thorough analysis of the arguments used to justify these reservations showed that the article's contradiction with Shari'a is often brandished as a non-arguable reason. The study, however, concluded that there is no clear statement or argument in the Qur'an or Sunna which denies a woman the right to transfer her nationality onto her children.

The study was carried out by two eminent Arab scholars, Farida Bennani, professor of Shari'a at the Qadi Ayad University in Marrakech, and Zineb Miadi, professor of sociology and Islamic jurisprudence at Hassan II University in Casablanca. "Using Islam to defend these reservations and to maintain discriminatory legislations not only reinforces unequal citizenship but is in itself a form of violence against women and their families," according to Farida Bennani.

The participants agreed on the importance of this pilot study which has generated new knowledge and will serve the increasing number of both civil society groups and governments advocating for reforming the discriminatory nationality legislations.. According to Abdelmajid Charfi, a renowned scholar in Arab Islamic philosophy "this cutting-edge and well-documented study provides a solid basis to counter the use of Islamic Shari'a as an argument to discriminate against women." Important attempts at reforming nationality legislation are currently underway in a number of countries, including Yemen and Morrocco.

This research is part of the Gender and Citizenship Initiative, launched in December 2001 in partnership with the International Development Research Center (IDRC) as a sub-component of RBAS/Programme on Governance in the Arab Region (POGAR). The results of the study will feed into a series of planned activities during 2003-2004, including a documentary film to be broadcast on Arab satellite TV stations and a number of advocacy workshops and policy dialogues with Arab parliamentarians and the Media.

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