Breaking Barriers to Achieve Equality Strengthens Citizenship for Peoples and Nations

Maria-Àngels Roque

Anthropologist and Editor-in-Chief of Quaderns de la Mediterrània

In the Euromed Ministerial Conference in Barcelona in 1995 it was declared, for the first time, that civil society was one of the main actors for achieving peace, security and development on both Mediterranean shores. In 2005, ten years after this first Ministerial Conference, there was also a meeting in Barcelona, where one of the main topics discussed was: why, in the ten years that had passed since the Euromed Ministerial Conference, where different issues were addressed, had a Ministerial Conference never been considered to strengthen the role of women, given that this is one of the main factors in the development expected within the so-called Barcelona Process? For this reason, in December 2006, under the Finnish Presidency of the EU, the first Ministerial Conference was held in Istanbul, entitled “Strengthening the Role of Women in Society”.

As Ambassador Senén Florensa recalls in the foreword, four conferences have been held since that first meeting in Istanbul in 2006 and, although in the almost twenty years that have elapsed there has been a series of legislative changes and improvements adopted in the different countries of the Mediterranean region, they are still far from adequate. Respect for women’s rights and promoting gender equality are among the keys to building the society of a tomorrow that, unfortunately, does not seem very promising today, although the ministers of the forty-three UfM member countries undertook to make this principle a reality during the four conferences to strengthen the role of women in society. In the fifth conference it will be necessary to strengthen the commitments made.

In 2014, the Euro-Mediterranean Women’s Foundation (FFEM), together with the IEMed, began drafting the first monitoring report of the Mediterranean conferences,[1] working with civil society and taking into account the improvements made in the different countries, as well as everything that remained to be resolved or that, in reality, had not been done. All this was highlighted in the second report of 2018[2] and also in the special issues of Quaderns de la Mediterrània published in 2006[3] and 2013.[4]

The Euro-Mediterranean Women’s Foundation and the IEMed have helped follow these advances with two monitoring reports that take a qualitative approach. By deepening the analysis of the realities of certain territories in the southern Mediterranean, these reports raise questions, point out obstacles and formulate ideas in order to expand the rights and opportunities of women and vulnerable groups, especially the second report, entitled The Expectations of Euro-Mediterranean Women: Civil Society Findings and Ministerial Commitments. It highlights a series of aspects that must be considered in order to ensure solid trans-Mediterranean alliances, and that involve bringing national laws into line with constitutions or stopping up the legal loopholes that, even today, allow discriminatory practices against women and clearly attest to the existing political, economic and educational barriers. These practices and barriers show that gender-based violence rests on a patriarchal mentality that perpetuates discrimination against women; as well as pointing out the need to educate and raise the awareness of the actors involved in order to reduce the enormous deficiencies that exist in the legal provisions aimed at changing the mentalities, attitudes and behaviours of those responsible for applying these provisions, such as lawyers, police officers, companies, educators and the media. All these aspects are stressed throughout the dossier.

Issue 34 of Quaderns de la Mediterrània presented here, with the dossier “Mediterranean Women Breaking Barriers”, is actually the third monitoring report we have devoted to reflecting on what should be considered in the 5th Ministerial Conference “Strengthening the Role of Women in Society”, to be held in Madrid in October 2022.

In recent years, the situation of women has not improved but rather has regressed due to the continuous wars that affect millions of them; they suffer rape, exile and loss of employment, to say nothing of those murdered and victims of gender-based violence. All this has been worsened by the economic crises and, mainly, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been an additional scourge in the last two years.

This issue features around thirty contributions from academic women and active representatives of feminist associations, as well as local managers. The writers, in addition to some veterans in these tasks, include young women of the current generation, better educated and also committed to human rights. These articles, as well as expressing the state of the issue in specific countries of the region, provide a set of recommendations that may be useful to policy-makers, local authorities and feminist associations, and to all those who wish to help break down these barriers that lessen women through androcentric or patriarchal perspectives, one of the greatest difficulties in changing mentalities.

The topics discussed from the outset in the ministerial conferences always focus on the participation of women in public and social life, the political and economic sphere, and the fight against stereotypes and all forms of violence against women and girls. As Anna Dorangricchia, Project Manager at the Gender Equality, Social and Civil Affairs Division of the Union for the Mediterranean, states in this dossier, the Ministerial Declaration, which is expected to be adopted on 26 October of this year, is based on three main thematic areas: economic empowerment of women in the context of regional crises, gender equality and climate change, and violence against women and girls.

The general frameworks of reference will include the New Agenda for the Mediterranean and its Economic and Investment Plan, as well as the commitments made by the European Commission in the framework of the EU Gender Action Plan in its external relations (GAP III) launched in 2020.

In this respect, the report we have prepared based on the different contributions has five main themes, most of which include topics concerning the empowerment of women from various specialised approaches: 1) Towards Political, Economic and Technological Leaderships; 2) Women Journalists and Communicators, the Great Challenge; 3) Gender-Based Violence, Covid-19 and Civil Society Initiatives; 4) Breaking Stereotypes; 5) Women Creators and Artists. This dossier closes with the interview with the Moroccan feminist writer and journalist Fedwa Misk, and the “Cultural Overview” section with the speech that the American philosopher Judith Butler delivered in Barcelona on 27 April 2022.

Political, Economic and Technological Leaderships

In order to pick up the slow pace towards equality between men and women, we need to promote women’s access to senior positions in all public sectors and political, economic, cultural and social governance. The writers make an inspiring call for new generations to leave their comfort zone and propose various forms of entrepreneurship and social leadership.

It is time to eliminate prejudices, given that in the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries the rates of female graduates are higher than those of males. To do so, our writers suggest best practices and platforms at the business, political and scientific levels to shatter this oppressive glass ceiling.

A subject worthy of great attention is the challenge of diversity linked to women’s participation in politics. Currently, government and local policies face the challenge of promoting and creating mechanisms and spaces with a gender perspective that allow citizens of different origins to contribute to social dialogue and debate, as well as to policy decision-making. Therefore, fluid policies need to be activated that allow effective and egalitarian inclusion, starting with the reform of the Spanish immigration law. Only by overcoming fear can we confront the totalitarian and discriminatory discourse that is advancing in Europe.

Women Journalists and Communicators, the Great Challenge

Being a woman and a journalist is no easy task, as they all face numerous risks such as harassment, violence or sectarian, racial and gender discrimination, often under very precarious conditions. For all these reasons, it is essential to create meeting points where journalists can share their stories, visions and experiences, and forge links based on solidarity. Institutional support for these kinds of initiatives is also decisive.

Moreover, social networks have achieved great influence within the communicative field. In the Arab world, and more specifically in the case of Lebanon, the use of social media has helped many women to grow, talk about the violence inflicted on them and report their aggressors, as well as legislators and political leaders. Although much remains to be done to achieve gender equality, new technologies have emerged as a decisive tool in this fight. Therefore, the design of more and better strategies is needed so that women can take advantage of the potential of social media in a positive way.

Gender-Based Violence, Covid-19 and Civil Society Initiatives

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the social inequalities that already existed, including, of course, those of gender. Women, especially the most vulnerable (migrants, with limited resources or with mental health problems) have suffered severely from the consequences of the pandemic. In this context, it is important for international agendas, such as the 2030 Agenda and the fifth of its Sustainable Development Goals, specifically dedicated to gender inequalities, to provide action frameworks to promote effective responses to the crisis. Similarly, civil society organizations have emerged as leading actors in combating gender-based violence, which has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. Among the different proposals from countries such as Tunisia, Morocco or Algeria, the European Institute of the Mediterranean and the Euro-Mediterranean Women’s Foundation, through its digital platform and various projects on the ground together with local associations in the southern countries, work to tackle gender-based violence from a specific transversal and multidisciplinary approach.

The Istanbul Convention, signed by numerous countries in 2020, has recently encountered clear opposition, and even a willingness to go back on the commitments adopted, the result of the conservative and totalitarian regimes in some European countries. In the Maghreb countries, although efforts have been made to establish legal frameworks that address violence against women, much remains to be done to ensure that laws are effectively enforced, as many women continue to suffer this violence from relatives and strangers. In this respect, mobilisation of civil society is essential, and must involve prevention, awareness-raising and applying pressure on police and judges.

As some of our contributors have insisted, there is a well-known imbalance between women’s academic training and their presence in the business world as entrepreneurs. In general, women entrepreneurs believe that they have sufficient skills to run their own business, but often lack access to capital and financial support. Here, it is very important to cultivate relationships that allow networking, which are often overlooked because other types of relationships, such as family, are prioritised. However, belonging to women’s entrepreneurship associations makes it possible to interact and learn about the difficul ties and opportunities of the business sector or territory, learn other practices, keep up to date with news and strengthen the network of clients, suppliers, partners, and so on. It is, therefore, a key tool for women entrepreneurs to enrich themselves both personally and professionally.

Breaking Stereotypes

Ten years after the revolutionary movements that shook the MENA region, the young women of these countries have become the spearhead of the transformations that affect the immovable foundations of their societies: adult-centrism and patriarchalism. Thus, many young women willingly take on the daily struggle to accommodate their aspirations to modern and traditional models around marriage or career paths. All this has led them to formulate new modes of sociability that their respective societies perceive as potential problems and synonymous with destabilisation; which, sometimes, transgress the hegemonic social forms to claim women’s universal rights. However, there is prejudice against Muslim women, especially in the West, just for wearing a hijab. As some of our writers argue, since the fight for equality between men and women transcends all religion, politics or culture, governments must focus on taking equal legal measures and facilitating access to education for women who, in this way, will have more life choices available to them.

There is a great need for those stories that demonstrate the capacities of girls and that facilitate the access of the most vulnerable young people (especially girls, who suffer most from prejudice and the absence of role models) to scientific research. To this end, there are platforms that provide a series of stories with a plot and characters that motivate and appeal to the imagination of girls and young women to attract them to science. In addition, the stories help normalise failure as a learning tool and highlight the importance of resilience in our lives and careers.

And as many of our contributors warn, networking is the key to changing mentalities in the different spheres that concern women.

Women Creators and Artists

One of the most necessary aspects in order to change mentalities is knowledge of the artistic and literary productions made by women for centuries, which occupy little space in school textbooks. Therefore, studies are needed to research these works, often pioneers in feminism.

Over the last fifty years, and in the context of the dialectic between art and feminism in the Mediterranean region, we have witnessed a series of cyclical dynamics in which the stereotypes around women artists are reproduced with each generation, since society is incapable of securing ephemeral advances. Thus, these women artists must compete twice as hard as their male counterparts, since any conquest of freedom inevitably entails the subsequent loss of those same freedoms. The women artists of the southern shore of the Mediterranean, due to the specific conditions in their countries, have also had to deal with cultural neo-colonialism, in a general context in which the achievements of the last fifty years are threatened. This forces us, from a political as well as artistic and cultural perspective, to try to open doors and visions that provide complementary readings to those that already exist.

However, as we will see in some of the articles, women poets, writers and filmmakers, also from the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries, have played a crucial role that has almost always been forgotten. Even so, young women filmmakers from these southern countries are making a strong impact with their films, especially after the Arab Springs.

Following the changes and revolts that have taken place in the Arab countries in recent years, the artistic disciplines have also undergone an evolution in keeping with the new times. In this respect, it is worth highlighting the work of a whole generation of Arab film directors who offer a unique and innovative look at the societies portrayed in their films. Hence, filmmakers such as the Lebanese Nadine Labaki, the Tunisians Kaouther Ben Hania and Hinde Boujemaa or the Algerian Mounia Meddour have been able to bring universal and modern stories to the screen, either documentary or fiction, defying the strict socio-political norms that govern the Arab world and also providing a personal and reflective perspective that elicits emotions as well as criticism.


The Euro-Mediterranean space is very diverse and changes very quickly, but gender-based violence remains a constant threat throughout its territories. Analysing and understanding the various origins of this violence is essential in order to eradicate its multiple ramifications, which means paying attention to the specificities of each context in order to approach each action from a multifocal point of view. Adopting a point of view based on human security helps us understand gender-based violence as a threat that, until now, has marked the lives of many inhabitants of the region, since it reshapes the traditional notion of security – linked to the military forces – toward a more individual-centred perspective. Thus, we can come to understand the ways in which gender-based violence develops and intersects with other threats within the complex Mediterranean realities. International legal frameworks, such as the Women, Peace and Security framework of the United Nations, can only be effective if they are really based on in-depth social analysis, and if they take into account the resilience that, as the pandemic scenario has shown, always guides our world and our region forward.

Governments have a responsibility to address the problems of the people they represent, as well as the solutions that may emerge in neighbourhoods, cities and regions. There fore, it is essential to establish fluid and constant channels of communication between political leaders and civil society. The participants in the ministerial meetings also stress the importance of establishing monitoring mechanisms to ensure that the commitments assumed are carried out and meet their objectives.

It is also necessary to involve local governments, as well as associations, in the defence of women’s rights on the ground, since both actors are very well aware of the specific situations, problems and aspirations that must be addressed in order to achieve more egalitarian societies on both Mediterranean shores. Moreover, as has already been noted, civil society produces numerous data and studies that must be taken into account and added to the work of public institutions.

As we have already pointed out, the Euro-Mediterranean Women’s Foundation and the IEMed, with other national and international organizations and the UfM, have helped follow these advances with two monitoring reports that take a qualitative approach. By deepening the analysis of the realities of certain territories in the southern Mediterranean, these reports raise questions, point out obstacles and formulate ideas in order to expand the rights and opportunities of women and vulnerable groups.

As the philosopher Judith Butler points out, “We know the loss of loved ones, and even the process, the struggle, of mourning takes time. But we also know the gatherings that make survival possible, the ones that make us want to live. For wanting to live comes about only when living is living with others, when we find ourselves in community or sociality that takes us beyond ourselves and into the world. There is no way to live now without sorrow, but there is no way to live now without each other, the ties that bind, the relationships that transform our lives and incite our imagination and our activism.”


[1] Women in the Mediterranean, First monitoring report of the Euro-Mediterranean Women’s Foundation’s Ministerial

[2] Euro-Mediterranean Women’s Expectations – Civil Society Findings and Ministerial Commitments,

[3] “Women in the Mediterranean Mirror”, Quaderns de la Mediterrània, 7, Barcelona, IEMed, 2006.

[4] “The Mediterranean through Women”, Quaderns de la Mediterrània, 18/19, Barcelona, IEMed, 2013.