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Interview with Nouzha Guessous-Idrissi and Saadia Belmir: “Bioethics and women’s rights: a meeting of minds”
in SHSviews 16
One chairs the International Bioethics Committee (IBC). The other is a judge, adviser to the Moroccan Minister of Justice, and the first woman from an Arab State to have been appointed to the International Committee against Torture. Both have fought for human rights for many years, each on the basis of her own history, convictions and personality. To mark International Women’s Day 2007, SHSviews interviews two eminent Moroccans: Nouzha Guessous-Idrissi and Saadia Belmir.
Interview with Nouzha Guessous-Idrissi and Saadia Belmir: “Bioethics and women’s rights: a meeting of minds” In May this year the IBC will be meeting in Africa for the second time in its history. Do you think people are interested in bioethics issues – people in the developing countries in particular?

Nouzha Guessous-Idrissi: There is a dawning awareness, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, on the part of governmental and other authorities and the public at large, following some dramatic events. In 2004, an international clinical trial was carried out in Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana comparing an antiretroviral drug against a placebo, totally disregarding the ethical rules – and many women were infected with the AIDS virus as a result. More recently, the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan in August 2006 has raised major issues of bioethics and social responsibility and brought bioethics into the arena of public debate. The research ministers of ECOWAS countries, at their meeting in Dakar last January, showed awareness of these issues’ importance and undertook to promote bioethics in their countries by establishing ethics committees or providing support and encouragement to existing ones, and by promoting bioethics education and awareness among teachers and the media. In North Africa, these issues are not yet a matter of public debate except among health professionals and academics. Owing to the public authorities’ inadequate awareness of and commitment to bioethics issues, Africa and the Arab countries have become a priority for UNESCO and the IBC in 2007. Holding the IBC meeting in Africa is but one step.

Saadia Belmir: We lag behind the developed societies in awareness of bioethics issues among the public and in civil society. These questions are simply not on the agenda. One of the disadvantages facing the developing countries concerns access to information in general, and access to law in particular. There is a gap between the people who design or promulgate decisions and those who are required to apply them and to take part in their implementation. Everyday events are quite instructive in that regard. Ideas and strategies are being proposed all over the world in order to bridge these gaps; but civil society is only beginning to be active in the developing countries, and has not yet reached the stage at which it can be effective either in making or implementing decisions.
Bioethics raises as many moral, religious and legal issues. In the Arab Muslim world these issues are being considered in depth, both by Ulema and by jurisprudential councils. A piecemeal approach is being taken to some issues, and it will be a long time before solutions are devised for enactment by lawmakers in these countries. Professionals are already being called on to think about these matters, but other aspects must be considered as well and all stakeholders must be involved.

N.G-I.: By definition bioethics calls for a pluralist debate, since it raises societal issues, and therefore the involvement of society as a whole in any standardization project. Ethics committees must consist of professionals, but they must also include representatives of existing cultures, religions and philosophies. Uneasiness about such a pluralist debate and the sensitive issues that it might raise, regarding religion in particular, may perhaps deter the promotion of bioethics in Arab or Muslim countries.

Some aspects of bioethics concern women in particular, for example, questions connected with reproduction. Is it your impression that thinking about bioethics – and ethical issues raised by scientific and technological progress generally – is contributing to the promotion of women’s rights?

S.B.: Other important aspects, such as access to information, education, essential everyday services and, above all, respect for human dignity must be taken into consideration too. If bioethics issues or reflection address these needs, then they will perforce contribute to the promotion of human rights in general.

N.G-I.: Bioethics entails the application of human rights principles to the life and health sciences, and to technology. The founding principles of both human rights and bioethics include personal autonomy, the primacy of the interests of the individual person and exclusion of any consideration of race, gender or biological, social, cultural or economic characteristics. The progress and applications of science and technology must be assessed in the light of these principles. In medically assisted reproduction, for instance, prenatal and pre-implantation diagnostic techniques have been developed to provide solutions for barren couples or for persons at risk of giving birth to a baby affected by genetic disease. It has been noted, however, that the techniques are being misused in some countries for the purposes of gender selection and the destruction of female embryos. This practice is gender-discriminatory and has been declared unethical by the IBC. It is clear from this example that bioethics protects the rights of women by condemning practices that discriminate against women.

What do you consider to be the worst remaining obstacles to gender equality in the world and in the Arab world in particular?

S.B.: Ignorance, illiteracy, prejudice and collective representation, especially in the Arab world. I do not mean women’s illiteracy only, but also general illiteracy which prevents one from knowing the law and from having a culture of human rights. The cumulative effect of value judgements is a lack of confidence in women’s effective and positive participation in the management of their own families and in public affairs. As long as women are not sufficiently involved in providing information, raising awareness and promoting participation, things will not change, however sophisticated the weapons in the legislative arsenal.

N.G-I.: The laws in force in the Arab States in particular are still very discriminatory. Though they have long been fairer in Tunisia, and in Morocco since the Family Code was enacted in 2004, there are still inequalities in most Arab countries. Even where the laws are more equitable, women do not necessarily enjoy rights, owing to the lack of information and to institutional, social and cultural resistance of various kinds, thus raising the question of the adoption of national policies on education for a culture of equality. More generally, though, women’s economic situation and greater exposure to poverty and precarious livelihoods make them so vulnerable that they are forced to accept, and even sanction and perpetuate, discriminatory practices, as if ordained by fate. This highlights the need to promote economic, political, social and cultural measures in support of any legislative reform so that women may appropriate and enjoy rights granted them by the law.

S.B.: Some of the obstacles are raised by women themselves and stem from their attitudes. Frustration, prejudice and negative value judgements together make women’s behaviour towards other women less than positive. They themselves lack confidence in the woman’s role in the family and in society. This matter must be studied and an attempt must be made to find a remedy.

N.G.I.: Yes. Women are not only subjected to discriminatory practices, but sometimes perpetuate them in their relations with other women and, in particular, in the upbringing of their sons, in whom they instil a culture of superiority. This is definitely a problem of mentality, in regard to which awareness must be raised.

The question of women’s role and position in Muslim societies is often poorly understood and wrongly portrayed. How are the stereotypes to be deconstructed? And what do you think of the idea of Muslim feminism?

N.G-I.: Despite and perhaps also because of the explosive growth in the means of communication and the political instrumentalization of religion, the role and position of women in Muslim countries is still dominated in the Western imagination by images of the harem. To deconstruct these stereotypes, the spotlight must be turned on the ongoing debates and struggles in Arab and Muslim countries, in particular on whether “Islam” allows women to be given greater rights. The essence of religion is of course divine, but its practices are strictly human and subject to change temporally, spatially and contextually. I am basically convinced that there is no intrinsic opposition between Islam and gender equality since the founding principles of Islam are human dignity, justice, equality and equity. A historical and contextualized interpretation of the Koran can pave the way to radical reforms leading to gender equality. In Morocco, great strides have been made towards greater equity in the Family Code, which is based on the principles of Islam, to move in the direction of greater fairness. By advocating a rereading – by women in particular – of the basic texts of Islam, the movement that promotes the concept of “Muslim feminism” could lead to the development of arguments that all feminists in Muslim countries could use in furtherance of their cause. It could increase dialogue among Muslims themselves and between Muslims and others and thus deconstruct the stereotypes. It should also aim to reinstate what I call “Feminist Islam” and raise its profile. I am still convinced, though, that such a movement can achieve these goals only if it is also wholly consistent with the universal standards of human rights. This amounts, in fact, to asserting these universal requirements while demonstrating that the requirements of Islam do not conflict in any way with those principles.

S.B.: One interpretation of the texts suggests that our religion opposes women’s rights, though of course it does nothing of the sort. I earnestly advise women to read and learn from the texts and thus arrive at their own interpretation. In regard to the issue of stereotypes, the current attitude is somewhat schizophrenic: on the one hand there is a desire for women to be enlightened, beautiful and presentable but, on the other, it is undesirable for them to be fully involved in public life. In Arab and Muslim countries, changes are emerging to varying extents, either as a result of international pressure and the mechanisms established to protect human rights or as a result of active involvement by civil society.

You both hold high office in international institutions. Do you think that there is a satisfactory balance today between men and women in the decision-making process? Do women have to make greater efforts to be heard and acknowledged by their peers?

N.G-I.: At the level of international institutions, especially in the United Nations family, women’s participation is encouraged, or even statutorily required, although full parity has still not been achieved. In national decision-making bodies a great deal remains to be done if women are to be fairly represented. Clearly, women must become more involved and stake their claims more assertively, but responsibility also lies with the public authorities and the legislators, who must take positive steps to boost women’s participation. In society at large, educational and awareness-raising efforts must be made to build confidence in women and their capabilities, in particular, to take part in political life and stand for election. Men and women must change their way of thinking. Women hold only 10.8% of the seats in the Moroccan Parliament and only 0.58% in local authority councils! Not for lack of candidates, but because they are not supported by their political parties. Yet it is crucial that women take part in executive and legislative institutions and in the organizations that defend human rights, for there are far too many excuses for discrimination against them, especially in the name of “cultural specificity”. Of course the prevailing criterion of merit must apply to all, but it is applied rather too readily to exclude women, who have to prove again and again that they are capable, competent and professional, even though the international evidence shows that women in positions of power are not only perfectly competent and productive, but also less corruptible.

S.B.: After one year on the Committee against Torture, I am amazed at the calibre of the women in international bodies. They have a high level of expertise and contribute efficiently to decision-making. At national level there is much to be done to train women who must, moreover, argue convincingly and actually work. It is only through their work and through genuine participation that they can contribute to decision-making. If women are considered to form part of society, clearly their participation is essential because of the important role that they play both in the family and in public life generally. This is also a matter of change over time: we are often reminded by the way people behave that they are far from believing fully in equality; they have to be convinced that women deserve, because of their knowledge and skills, to participate genuinely in public affairs.

Do you feel that significant steps to achieve gender equality have been taken around the world since 8 March 2006?

S.B.: There has been progress in the world, and even in the developing countries. Governments and civil society have made efforts to that end, but with reference to objective criteria, there has been far more in the way of violation than progress, given that women suffer, for instance, from wrongs perpetrated in wars. Violence against women’s physical and moral integrity is gaining ground and is evident in both the developed and developing countries. Furthermore, many women are dying as a result of violence from husbands, relations or others.

N.G-I.: There was one big symbolic advance in 2006: a woman was elected President of Chile. Also, the right to vote and to stand for election has been granted recently in some Arab countries. When we look at the situation of women around the world, though, there has not been any spectacular progress. In many regions, the situation is still predominantly one of poverty, illiteracy, discriminatory laws and social practices, and the under-representation of women in positions of power. Women are still the main victims of poverty, disease and war; they often live in precarious circumstances. International awareness is growing, however, and there is increasing pressure for human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. In any case, there is no other choice if we are to move forward.

Interview by Souria Saad-Zoy

Saadia BelmirSaadia Belmir
Saadia Belmir holds a doctorate in Public Law (University of Paris-II), a des in Political Science (Mohamed V University) and an International Diploma in Human Rights (IIDH Strasbourg). She held the positions of High Court Judge in Rabat, deputy public prosecutor, and Adviser to the Court of Appeal, before being seconded as Adviser to the Minister of Justice of Morocco, in September 2005. A Justice of the Supreme Court, Saadia Belmir has also sat on the Constitutional Council. She taught at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, was a member of the Francophone International Institute of Law and of the Advisory Board on Human Rights. In November 2005 Saadia Belmir was appointed to the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

Nouzha Guessous-IdrissiNouzha Guessous-Idrissi
Nouzha Guessous-Idrissi is a biochemist, a former professor and head of parasitology at the Faculty of Medicine and the Casablanca University Hospital. In 1999 she became a consultant with WHO, and in 2006 a member of the Grand Jury of the European Commission Descartes Prize for Scientific Research. Nouzha Guessous-Idrissi became a member of UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee (IBC) in 2000 and was elected Chairperson in December 2005. She is also a member of the Moroccan Association of Bioethics and of the Biomedical Research Ethics Committee of Casablanca. She took part in the founding of the Moroccan Organization of Human Rights and acts as consultant to NGOs for women’s rights. She has also been a member of the Royal Advisory Commission for reform of Family Law in Morocco, and in 2003 His Majesty King Mohamed VI awarded her the “Wissam du Mérite National du grade de Commandant”.

Photos: © UNESCO/A. Ait Ghejdi

Click here to read other articles from this issue of SHSviews.
Author(s) UNESCO - Sector for Social and Human Sciences
Periodical Name SHSviews
Publication date 2007-03
Publisher UNESCO
Related Website http://www.unesco.org/shs/views

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