We look at the abolition of slavery in the West as one of our greatest moral achievements. The abhorrence of a system that classified a certain part of humanity as sub-human and subject to the whims of superior races and powers was recognised and legislated against almost two centuries ago. Subsequent battles for the granting of equal rights to coloured people in the United States, citizenship for Australian aborigines in 1967, and the abolition of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994 have been ongoing, if all too long overdue, successes in granting equality to the segregated and oppressed. This equality before the law is now something we not so much as take for granted, but consider absolutely fundamental to a modern, liberal society. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher, famously said that “Man was born free, yet is everywhere in chains.” And whilst in many places around the world man is still in chains, so to speak, the situation is generally worse for women.
In the West, women’s rights were slow in coming, but advanced rapidly throughout the twentieth century with a rolling introduction of universal adult suffrage across Europe, the United States and many former colonial territories, equal opportunities in education and employment, much greater flexibility in laws governing marriage and divorce, the criminalisation of spousal rape, increased state support for single mothers and, more recently, the introduction of paid maternity leave in many countries. There are still battles being fought over unequal salaries, glass-ceilings, workplace discrimination, trial and punishment of sexual offenders, objectification and chauvinism, yet these remaining battles, many of which are the result of entrenched prejudices in traditionally masculine cliques, which are, if slowly, being eroded, as opposed to laws deliberately limiting a woman’s rights, can be fought now by women empowered with rights, education and employment who are free to vote and air their grievances. Sadly, however, this is rarely the case across the Middle East.
In the Middle East women’s rights are in some cases so limited as to constitute a second-class citizenship that is no less marginalising than slavery. There have certainly been advances in granting freedoms and rights to women in the letter of the law, particularly in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, but discrimination is so culturally entrenched that custom often overrules this. The situation of women varies dramatically across the region according not only to country, but to class, economic status, tribal and familial ties, marital status, education and political orientation. It is foolhardy to make sweeping generalisations when one considers just how great the contrasts can be. It is also worth considering that western perceptions of Middle Eastern women are deeply flawed, where an obsession with the restrictive dress-codes imposed in many countries leads to the presumption that such women are incapable of outspoken political and social activism or feminism for that matter. This myth has recently been exploded by the thousands of women protesters seen in demonstrations across the Middle East, fully veiled or otherwise. Women across the region have long been involved in labour organisations, union movements, and other types of grass-roots political activism. In some cases they have brought about important victories in securing improvements to their situation. The fact remains, however, that the situation of women right across the Middle East is, broadly speaking, one dogged by discrimination, marginalisation, segregation, and in some cases, outright slavery.
The recent uprisings, rebellions and two successful revolutions that have occurred across the region give new hope for an acceleration of the process of improving women’s rights. It is a tenuous situation, for there is as much to lose as there is to gain. Will the women who have come forward to protest in such great numbers be heard? Will constitutional reforms result in significant changes to their legal, social, economic and political situation? Will they gain or lose rights in the process? It is difficult to be certain, but one thing is clear, they are voicing their concerns on a scale not seen before in the region, empowered by new technologies to organise and share ideas and information. It will be very difficult for anyone to ignore their concerns in future.
So what is the situation of women in the Middle East? As noted above, their circumstances vary just as significantly as their attitude to their circumstances. It is worthwhile taking a look at the current state of affairs.
Egypt, Tunisia and Libya
First, to Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries who so recently deposed their leaders through popular revolution, in favour of a new, democratic constitutional process. In both countries women have a considerable number of freedoms enviable in other parts of the region, particularly in Tunisia. Tunisian women were the first to receive the vote, not long after independence in 1956. In Tunisia, Polygamy is banned and marriage is conditional on the woman’s consent. Women have the right to have abortions and are well educated, with the highest levels of literacy in North Africa. Indeed, women outnumber men as University graduates and have been filling the ranks of the medical and legal professions. They have equal rights to hold office and have impressive levels of representation.
Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve, a Tunisian psychiatrist who lives in Paris states:
“It’s no coincidence that the revolution first started in Tunisia, where we have a high level of education, a sizeable middle class and a greater degree of gender equality,” she said. “We had all the ingredients of democracy but not democracy itself. That just couldn’t last.”
In Egypt, women can drive, go to college and dress in Western clothing, yet they experience discrimination in the workplace, are subject to domestic violence, and have traditionally had next to no say in the leadership of the country. Sexual harassment in Egypt is also rife. Women often avoid public places and crowds as they will almost certainly be subject to groping, propositions, solicitations, or simply cat calls. A survey in 2008 by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women in the country had been sexually harassed.
Doaa Abdelaal, a member of the organisation Women Living Under Muslim Law, suggests a more open society will lead to a significant reduction in sexual harassment.
“In an oppressive society, people oppress each other,” she said. “It’s a justification for everyone to be unjust. Under a more open society these things can be discussed, I think changes will happen.”
Despite marginalisation from politics, women have long been active at a grass-roots level. Many if not most of the strikes in the labour movement have been started by women. Whenever violence erupts, it is often the women who come forward to challenge the police, being beaten no less for their trouble.
In Tahrir Square, there was a new dynamic between men and women. Women fought alongside men in the frontline and, with the absolute need for unity and solidarity, a change of perception appears to have taken place. Women earned a long-overdue respect for their strength and determination. Viewed at last as equal partners in a shared cause, women in Egypt can only hope that the spirit of unity during the days of the revolution can be sustained and bring about both legal and societal change. There is great momentum among women’s movements to step up their campaigns for equality. Young women in their thousands, from all classes of society, have already been stepping forward to take an active part in women’s organisations promoting equality, democracy and non-discrimination. There has been an explosion of activity on the internet, on Facebook and Twitter in particular.
Sadly, however, this has not so far translated into practice. The new constitutional committee in Egypt has NO female members and one wonders whether women’s rights will be adequately enshrined in the new constitution and laws that may emerge. We can at the very least hope that their situation does not go backwards, but one thing is certain – that Egyptian women and their counterparts in Tunisia will not back down from voicing their concerns and raising their issues in the future. They have broken the fear barrier, mobilised en masse, and they will continue to press their case. They must do so, for the sake of Egypt and Tunisia, and also for the sake of the region.
Staying in North Africa, Libya, for all its flaws, imbalances and human rights abuses, has long had a relatively liberal attitude to women’s rights and social position. Partly through revolutionary ideals and a need for labour in a country with a population of only six million, Libya has given women access to many of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by men. Women have had the right to vote and to participate in politics; they can drive, travel freely, work without consent from a male and spend time with whoever they wish. Women have also been encouraged to serve in the armed forces, to the point that all girls in secondary school have been conscripted for military training since 1984.
With Libya currently in the middle of a rebellion that is rapidly turning to civil war, the situation is very uncertain. It seems unlikely that Colonel Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya now since 1969, can retain power for much longer, especially now that the international community has roundly condemned him. Some form of constitutional change is likely in the not-too-distant future, and hopefully this will further empower women with the right to participate in a genuine, open and accountable democratic process. The rebels, who have taken control of the east of the country and large parts of the west have organised themselves into broadly representative collectives calling for a democratic constitution. In a country not known for Islamic conservatism which is very used to women not only dressing in western-style clothing, but being very active and visible in the workplace, one can only hope that things do not change for the worse so far as women’s rights and freedoms are concerned.
Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran
Saudi Arabia is the most obvious example of the gulf between men and women’s rights in the region. In Saudi Arabia, where the law prohibits women from driving or voting, women’s rights are defined by a strict Sunni interpretation of Sharia known as Salafi or Wahhabi. These laws, being largely unwritten, are essentially discretionary. In practice, however, they mean that women require the permission of a male guardian to seek education or employment, open a bank account, have elective surgery and to marry or divorce. Women are only allowed to travel within registered countries, and, if not accompanied by a male, then with an identity card registered to a male guardian. The peculiarities of the guardianship system mean that, in some circumstances, women may have to get the permission of their sons to remarry. To buy or sell property a woman requires two male witnesses to confirm her identity, and four further witnesses to confirm the integrity of the two male witnesses.
Forced marriage was banned in 2005, however women do not have any practical involvement in arranging their own marriages. Marriage is a contract between husband and father of the bride. Polygamy remains legal and Saudi men may have as many as four wives. The practice is widespread throughout the country. There is no official law setting minimum age for marriage. Religious authorities have allowed girls as young as 9 and boys as young as 15 to marry. In reality, however, there is no official barrier to a father marrying off his daughter at any age so long as sexual intercourse is prevented until puberty. Again, however, there is no real scope for enforcement of such a guideline.
Written law does not specifically criminalise rape or prescribe punishment. The victim is often punished as well, usually for dressing immoderately and being in the company of men in the first place, and there is no law against rape by a spouse. Migrant women, especially domestic workers, are particularly vulnerable; their circumstances are often much like those of slaves, including physical abuse and rape.
In the courts, one man’s testimony is considered the equal of that of two women. Only men over the age of 30 may serve as lawmakers and women are generally excluded from holding high office.
Women are discouraged from using public transport and many of the major bus companies will not allow women passengers. Their only option is to use taxis or private drivers, which, ironically, is technically forbidden as it requires mixing with strange men, but is largely unenforced on account of there being next to no other option. When women are allowed to use trains or buses, they must enter via a separate entrance and sit in a different section. Most buildings throughout the country have separate entrances for men and women, restaurants have separate dining areas.
Consequently, women in Saudi Arabia make up between 5% and 15% of the workforce, whereas female employment averages 40% in other Muslim nations. Literacy is lower amongst women, though those who do make it into the workplace are far more likely to have secondary and tertiary education than men.
Certainly a broad spectrum of Saudi women support traditional gender roles. Surveys repeatedly show this, with widespread concern for the erosion of Islamic society and cultural traditions. One wonders, however, whether these attitudes would prevail if the Saudi education system was not designed to indoctrinate women into conservative Saudi values. Official policy states that: “The purpose of educating a girl is to bring her up in a proper Islamic way so as to perform her duty in life, be an ideal and successful housewife and a good mother, ready to do things which suit her nature such as teaching, nursing and medical treatment.” In school girls are taught that their primary role is to raise children and take care of the household. A woman’s place is at home, whilst a man’s place is in the workforce. The standard of teaching for women is generally lower and less professional.
And what of women who do want more rights and desire to live a more open life? Many find solace in online networking, living more a virtual life than a real life. Online they can express their feelings, protest about their situation and maintain social connections with friends they cannot otherwise see in public. Facebook is the principal vehicle for such social networking, though even this freedom is under threat of being curtailed. In 2007, a young woman was murdered by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook. The conservative response was not to punish the father, but to call for the banning of Facebook! One cleric called it a “door to lust” and cause of “social strife”.
Saudi Arabia has the advantage of being a very wealthy country. Whilst women are segregated, their standard of living is relatively high compared to much of the rest of the region. King Abdullah has made some effort to advance women’s freedoms, opening the first co-educational university in the country and publicly stating that women should have the right to drive, and, ultimately, to vote. Yet squeamishness about the impact of this on conservative Islamic values, the opposition and often violent rhetoric of conservative clergy has retarded this process significantly.
What culture is so weak that it must force people to adhere to its norms for fear of change? Why not merely place a glass case over the country and label it a museum exhibit, or preserve the entire nation in aspic? Culture has always been a dynamic, fluid thing, subject to internal and external influences. It is, in effect, the sum of collective behaviours. If women do wish to maintain the status quo, then they should be allowed to choose to do so, not forced to do so. If they do not wish to do so, then the country must respect that this is the choice of its people, rather than enforce the choice of a small clique who have, very arrogantly, arrogated to themselves responsibility for the opinion of others. Whatever free people choose to do has as much validity as “culture” as what has come before.
Change will come very slowly to Saudi Arabia, whose society is as much a product of traditional Saudi culture as it is of Islam. Saudi Arabia has long been exporting its cultural and religious values, using its money and influence in neighbouring countries. It will likely remain the Alamo of the region, a last hold-out for what is perceived as conservative Islam. One can only hope, for the sake of women across the region, that this process will now switch into reverse. If the ultimate, long-term outcome of the revolutions and uprisings in the region is that the country becomes increasingly surrounded by more open, liberal democracies with vocal female democrats, this may well bring change to the status of women in Saudi Arabia.
The situation in Yemen is still worse, prompting Rachel Cooke of The Observer to ask the question, “Is this the worst place on earth to be a woman?”
In Yemen, sexual segregation is in full force and, as is often the case in Saudi Arabia, the areas reserved for women are of a lower standard than those reserved for men. This situation is greatly exacerbated by Yemen’s dire poverty. In Yemen, women have no citizenship rights, they are largely uneducated, more likely than not to be married before puberty, cannot marry without permission of a male relative, and have a 1 in 39 chance of dying during childbirth. In Yemen, almost all doctors are men, which means women almost invariably go untreated, as showing any part of their body to a man would be considered shameful. With so few midwives, it is understandable why birth-related mortality is so high.
In Yemen women cannot leave the house unaccompanied by a male, or without male permission, and even in the latter case, they are subject to arbitrary arrest simply for being outside the home. Strict dress-codes prevail in this very religious society and whilst most women would choose to cover themselves completely out of respect for tradition, the risks of not doing so are far too great to exercise choice in this matter. Anyone with any sort of uniform, or without, for that matter, can stop a woman and arrest her on suspicion of just about anything, usually some very loose interpretation of adultery, prostitution or indecency, which could be as little as being in the proximity of an unrelated male. In some cases men solicit women, and, when rejected, seek revenge by denouncing the woman as a prostitute to local authorities. Arrested women are regularly beaten in prison until forced to confess to a crime they did not commit. The prisons are full of young women, often with babies, who not only have little idea why they are there, as charges are not often clear, but also have no set trial date.
Yemen ranks 149th out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index. Only a third of the population has access to safe drinking water and most people are poor. Literacy amongst women is a shocking 29%, whilst for men it is more than double at 69% There is one female MP amongst 301 total members. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was unified with the northern Yemen Arab Republic in 1990 – a bitter process that led to civil war in 1994 – was previously a Marxist state with a comparatively feminist constitution. Those rights have vanished over the last twenty years with the enforcement of Saudi-style Wahhabism. On the plus side, women are allowed to drive – hardly much of a sell, given the rest of the circumstances.
Despite much work being done on the ground by various NGOs and aid agencies, Yemen’s culture of public and private discrimination is so entrenched that one wonders how it could ever shift. Even women who have experienced childhood marriage and been forced to have sex from as young as eleven or twelve, and who have subsequently admitted to the horror they experienced, have said that they would not prevent their daughters marrying early. To those of us used to living in a largely free, equal and liberal society, this is all rather hard to stomach. It takes a certain measure of arrogance and boldness to suggest that these attitudes would change with education, development and an increased freedom of choice backed by legal rights, but surely it is so. To change the culture, you first have to change the law. Culture will always drag its heels, but with legal protection, education, access to information, the vote, property rights and increasingly backed by their own finances, women could ultimately be empowered to challenge mistreatment by men. This is unlikely to happen in a hurry, without a radical shift in the political paradigm, in other words, a revolution. Even then, there is little guarantee women’s rights will improve.
Despite Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s more restrictive laws for women, Iran draws more international ire due to its perceived strategic intentions in the region, it’s nuclear program, the recent lethal post-electoral crackdown on protestors, and its awful practice of stoning women, among other execrable capital and corporal punishments.
The situation of women in Iran has deteriorated significantly since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Female government workers were forced to wear Islamic dress, women were banned from becoming judges, the legal age of marriage was reduced to 13, all aspects of public life were segregated and women were barred from attending regular schools. Exposure of any part of the body except for the hands and face is punishable by up to 70 lashes or 60 days imprisonment.
From the start of the Islamic Revolution women have been active in trying to bring about reform. The election of the reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami in 1997 brought hope for significant change. The eleven women in the 270 seat Majlis tried to bring change to some of the most conservative laws, but during the next parliamentary elections they were all banned from running for office. The small gains they had made were all reversed during the following parliament.
Despite their marginalisation in elementary and secondary education, women in Iran are generally well-educated and the country boasts high literacy rates for the region at 70% for women and 83.5% for men. Many women pursue tertiary education, despite the government’s attempts to restrict their numbers in particular professions, including, surprisingly, gynaecology. Almost 60% of university students in Iran are women.
Whilst all freedom of expression is limited and subject to censorship in Iran, the situation is worse for women. In January 2008, Zanan, the only women’s magazine to be published in Iran was closed down as a “threat to the psychological security of the society”. The magazine had dealt with topics such as domestic abuse, sex, political reform, was critical of the Islamic legal code and had argued that gender equality was Islamic, but that religious literature had been misinterpreted and hi-jacked by misogynists. The One Million Signatures campaign, launched in 2006 to secure an end to legal discrimination against women in matters such as adult legal responsibility (9 years for girls), legal testimony (valued lower than a man’s) and damages payments (half that of men), includes many Iranian and external women’s rights campaigners, including Noble Laureates. During the campaign to collect signatures, women have been attacked and arrested, and four prominent members of the campaign have been jailed for contributing to banned websites.
The current regime remains strongly resistant to accepting women’s request for reform and equality. The protests which erupted over the rigged elections in 2009 made it clear how much discontent there is in Iran over the current political and social situation, particularly among young people. There will be further pressure both inside and outside of the country for reform in the wake of the uprisings across the region. Whether this can translate into regime change or significant reform is uncertain, yet the strength of Iran’s security forces will make any such uprising or revolution extremely difficult. Without major defections by the army, prominent ministers or members of the security forces themselves, there seems little hope of garnering sufficient momentum for internal regime change. Women in Iran will continue to seek reform, as they have for many years, and one can only hope that the increasingly fluid political situation in the region and the increasingly open discussion and process of constitutional reform will have an impact in Iran.
Kuwait, Jordan and Syria
So far as legal, social and political equality is concerned, Kuwait has made the most significant advances in women’s rights in the region. In Kuwait, women can drive, travel and work without male permission. In 2005 they were granted the right to vote and stand for election, and in 2009 they were granted the right to obtain passports without the consent of their father or husband. There are still many issues where women are discriminated against – in the religious family courts the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man. Inheritance is governed by Islamic law and thus differs for women of Sunni or Shiite extraction. Yet, the fact that women can now take part in the political process and are not restricted from holding high office, places them in an excellent position to challenge these remaining prejudices, should they so wish.
The Kingdom of Jordan has made significant advances in granting greater rights and freedom to women, though there are still many social and legal restrictions in place. Jordan first gave women the right to vote as early as 1974 and to run for election, and women have made significant inroads so far as political representation is concerned, though their numbers are limited by a quota system. In the elections in November 2010, for which the quota was doubled, female representation in parliament leapt from 6 to 13 seats, including one victory outside of those seats allocated by the quota system. Still, however, they make up merely 10.8% of the legislature. The candidates campaigned on a broad range of issues, including ending corruption, creating jobs, increased accountability, economic and political change as well as improving women’s rights and political participation. Their numbers remain small, yet there is now considerable momentum in giving women access to political decision-making in the kingdom and in hearing their concerns and opinions.
There have also been rapid advances in female participation in important professions in Jordan, particularly in the legal profession. In 1996 there was only one female judge in the kingdom, compared to 48 at present. A majority of legal students in the country are now women, almost 60 percent. Women have legal protection from unfair dismissal in the case of pregnancy and are granted ten weeks paid maternity leave. Despite such advances, domestic violence and spousal rape remain widespread. As is the case in Tunisia, Jordan has legislated against honour killings of women, though this practice does still occur on rare occasions. Discrimination is still widespread on a day-to-day basis, but observers have reported a gradual shift in the attitudes towards women, largely due to their increased visibility in positions of authority.
Sadly, however, Syria has made considerably less progress in improving the rights of its people, particularly its women. This is hardly surprising considering that in Syria, Decree 121 bans organisations from working for women’s rights. As is the case right across the region, there are many women activists, but fear of legal persecution makes it difficult for them to organise. Women activists seeking reform have been denounced by clerics as atheists, traitors and blasphemers.
Women in Syria do have access to higher education and enjoy relatively high rates of employment. They make up a low, but regionally significant twelve percent of parliamentary seats and are prominent in the workforce, including constituting roughly 15% of employers.
However, women primarily face discrimination in personal matters, particularly with regard to property, marriage and divorce. There are also some glaringly discriminatory laws regarding criminal punishment for crimes against women. In Syria, if a man rapes a woman, he can avoid punishment by choosing to marry her, irrespective of whether or not she wishes to marry him.
Syria has a dreadful history of honour killings of women. The recent repeal of article 548 on the penal code, which allowed for this practice, is clearly a step forward, though men convicted of such a crime receive far lighter sentences than those convicted of other murders, hardly sending the right signals. Previous estimates suggest between 200 and 300 women were killed each year in this fashion, and legislation has not stopped the practice.
Syria, like many countries in the region, suffers from a general lack of human rights and protections in many spheres of society. There is little freedom of expression and police corruption and abuse are widespread. High levels of youth unemployment and the increasing cost of food make it rife for protest and rebellion, as was the case with Egypt, though this has not yet translated into full-scale popular protest. Whether this happens in the future or not depends on how the government of President Bashar-Al-Assad treads in the near future. Rapid change might fuel protests and add momentum, just as no change or very slow change might also increase frustration.
This discussion was not intended to be comprehensive, nor was it intended to explore in detail the entire region and its many complex problems. Discussion of Iraq, Algeria, Oman, the U.A.E. and Bahrain is notable by its absence. The principal intention here was to highlight broadly the different political, legal, economic and social status of women across the region to show just how much need there is for reform. I am happy to concede that I come at this issue as an outsider, an atheist, a feminist and a westerner, yet most if not all of the problems I have highlighted above are in clear contravention of internationally recognised conventions on human rights. Women in North Africa and the Middle East rarely have the same legal rights and protections enjoyed by men; they are denied equal economic opportunities, full political rights, freedom of expression, the right to choose their own partners, to travel freely, the right to express their chosen sexual orientation, the right to abortion, or the right to marry or divorce, and even, in some extreme cases, the right to drive. They can be corporally or capitally punished for acts as simple as communicating with an unrelated male. These simple everyday acts are designated “crimes” by men or male religious authorities, with little or no hope to prove otherwise or change the law. Where women have greater levels of freedom, they are discriminated against on account of their gender – bullied, sexually harassed, excluded, marginalised and disrespected as disrespectful for having the strength to protest against their oppression.
The international community helped force an end to Apartheid in South Africa on account of its laws segregating “Coloureds” and “Blacks”, yet Saudi women are denied many of the same rights. Why should women, according to their birthplace, have fewer basic rights than women in other countries? This is not a question of culture, it is not a question of tradition, it is, pure and simple, a question of discrimination and, in some cases, enslavement. I refuse to accept any form of discrimination or oppression under the guise of culture and would argue that western society, for all its flaws, is quite purely and simply better. Why? Because to a very great degree it allows freedom of expression, its judicial process seeks to enforce equality before the law, and its institutions are based on secular ideals, not an antiquated patriarchal moral code designed to control women’s bodies, gleaned from so-called holy books.
So, what hope is there for change across North Africa and the Middle East? Any significant change will require a major effort and the breaking of taboos. It will not be easy to achieve and may take a very long time. But when one considers the number of women who have been vocal in the protest movements across the region during the last two months, when one considers the scale of the youth cohort in any regional census, there is plenty of scope for more radical initiatives to be placed on the agenda. Alongside freedom of information, freedom of association and electoral freedom, the freedom of women to go where they please, study what they please, work where and when they please, have abortions if they please, marry and divorce who they please, talk with whom they please, drive if they please, and to have sexual relations with whom they please must also be considered. It took an extraordinarily long time for women to achieve these basic rights in the West, and it will not happen overnight, but with such a large youth population, the so-called Facebook generation, this is the best opportunity yet for a flowering of a broader liberalism in the Middle East. If the states of North Africa and the Middle East hope to realise the full potential of their polity, then they must accept that women be equal partners and players in the process and its continuity.