Welcome to the Middle East Today

The Middle East has traditionally been important for the world economy. The Middle East situation today has an impact on all aspects of life in America and much of the world.

Only by understanding the motivations of the various factions in the Middle East can we hope to understand how to promote peace and national security for Middle Eastern nations, Europe, and the United States.

Mar 22, 2010

Arab Women Day

In the previous post, references were made to Arab women gaining political rights, but only a small percentage was elected to public positions. Arab women and girls are still among the most repressed in the world.

From a historical perspective, Arab women have been marginalized and not permitted to participate in public life for a very long time. However, things began to change at a slow pace during the later part of the 19th/beginning part of the 20th centuries. A few luminous and prominent writers began to advocate the liberation of women in Arab societies. Kasim Amin, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyed, or all Sheikh Imam Muhammad Abdo championed women’s rights in their writing. The later, specifically, urged that Egyptian women be given the rights that were granted to them by Islam. They all advocated that women become active in public life alongside men, in order to build a better society for the benefit of all people.

These writers and others began to influence public views in Egypt. Feminist movements began to develop during the first part of the 20th century. They also participated in the public political protests against British occupation of Egypt. Women began to pursue higher education on a smaller scale. This increased substantially in most Arab states during the second half of the 20th century.It led to the emergence of professional women groups in various fields, such as medicine, engineering, academia, social sciences and other areas of specialty.

However, after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, attitudes, behaviors and opinions began to change. A new Islamic conservative trend emerged as a result of the defeat of the Arab armies. The new slogan was “Islam is the solution.” Those involved in this movement advocated the replacement of secular ideology with Islamic beliefs. This trend began to be observed in many parts of the Arab world. Many young girls and women began to wear the veil in large numbers as a symbol of the rising Islamic conservative trend, and despite the controversial view that the veil has nothing to do with Islam. Furthermore, Islamic political views that a woman’s natural place is at her “home” to take care of her children and husband were advocated. In addition, the Sharia Law was tilted in favor of males regarding marriage and divorce, child custody, inheritance, personal law and women freedom. For example, a woman could not obtain a passport or travel without her husband’s permission. Those who are not married must have their father or brother’s signature. This law was revoked in Egypt, but still prevails in some other Arab countries.

Another sociological barrier to women rights in the Arab world is the high illiteracy rate. More than 40% of Arab women are classified as illiterate. Traditionally, the education of males has been emphasized more than females, especially in rural areas, and despite the fact that many Arab states have adopted compulsory education irrespective of gender.

A recent social survey was conducted in 18 Arab states by the U.S. based Freedom House organization on “Women rights in the Middle East and North Africa: progress and resistance.” (The Daily Star, 3/9/10).

The survey revealed that, “The Middle East remains the most repressive region when it comes to women rights, but we have noticed some modest gains which have led to a cautious optimism in the fields of education, labor participation and voter participation.” The survey revealed that, “Lebanese women enjoy the fourth greatest degree of freedom in the Middle East and North Africa region, after women in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria.”

The report also revealed that, “Yemen and Saudi Arabia trailed significantly behind their regional neighbors.” It also found that, “An average of 28% of Arab women in the 18 countries were considered ‘economically active.’” This is the lowest rate in the world. Nevertheless, “there are more women entrepreneurs, more women doctors, more women PhD’s, and more women in universities than ever before.”

In spite of this somber account, Arab women movements are active and continue to push for more political rights. Seldom a day passes by without reading in the Arab mass media issues related to women rights. For instance, during the past few weeks the Egyptian State Administrative Court refused the appointment of women judges. However, the Egyptian highest constitutional court ignored such refusal and supported the appointment of women as judges.

In Saudi Arabia there has been serious discussion regarding women rights to vote during the 2011 mayoral election (Aljazeera.net, 3/19/2010). The higher political authority in the kingdom is studying the proposal.

However, while there is in general a movement toward advancing the right of women in the Arab world, there has also been some regressive measures undertaken by some conservative groups. The Hamaas government of Gaza issued an order to forbid male hairdresser from cutting women hair! In the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, an Indian couple was sentenced to jail for two months for sexual text messages sent to each other. From the authority point of view, the couple was planning to ‘ commit a sin’!

In conclusion I would like to say that although Arab men in general are conservative, and tend to be an obstacle towards the liberation of women, nonetheless Arab women are making progress toward achieving equality with men. It should also be make clear that gender stereotyping is a universal problem that women are trying to overcome.

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