Arab Women Confront a Tide of Injustice

When a series of uprisings erupted throughout the Arab region three years ago, few of the women protesting for freedom and justice in Tunis, Cairo, Manama, Tripoli, Sanaa, Damascus, and elsewhere imagined they would still be fighting for their basic rights today.

Even though many Arab constitutions stipulate equality between men and women as a general principle, individual laws often limit women’s opportunities for full participation. Personal status codes circumscribe their rights further and fail to provide adequate legal protection.  As in other regions women are often victims of violence, but lack proper access to justice or effective psychosocial remedies. Women’s participation in the labor force, estimated at 28 percent for the region, is the lowest in the world.

Historically, Arab consciousness has perceived women as symbolizing the “honor” of the family, the homeland, the nation’s dignity, and everything that the society treasures. Violating this symbol means violating the dignity of the individual and the collective. This cultural perception has contributed to the subordination and perceived fragility of women as every male individual gives himself the right to dictate his moral codes on women. As societies and their cultures evolved, women started to resist these social norms and through education and participation in national struggles succeeded in gaining more grounds for emancipation.

Despite commonalities stemming from similar social, cultural, and religious value systems, and often similar political challenges, women’s groups have been prioritizing issues defined by their national contexts while engaging actively in regional debates.

  • In Egypt, women are protesting their marginalization and rampant sexual violence campaigns waged to deter them from raising their voices.
  • In Tunisia, one of the most progressive countries in the region for women, activists are striving to preserve their past gains, and safeguard their rights in the constitution and legislation.
  • In Syria, women are carrying the brunt of the devastating conflict. Female refugees have been victims of abuse, early and forced marriages, sexual violence, and exploitation due to their vulnerability.
  • In Palestine women continue to suffer dual marginalization and oppression resulting from the combination of prolonged military occupation and a patriarchal culture. High on the women’s agenda these days is the fight against the rising frequency of “honor crimes.”
  • In Yemen, where a peaceful revolution has been prematurely aborted, women still struggle for the right to participate in the political process and for equality.
  • In Libya, women are fighting the effects of the violence and lawlessness plaguing their country, depriving them of basic safety and security.
  • In Jordan, activists are addressing violence and discrimination and especially women’s right to pass their nationality to their children born to non-Jordanian fathers.
  • In Lebanon, women’s organizations continue to push for legal frameworks to protect women from domestic violence in light of increasing incidents and grant them nationality rights.
  • In Iraq, calls are mounting to abolish a newly drafted personal status law applicable to the Shiite community that allows the marriage of girls as young as 9 years old.
  • In Morocco, where the women’s movement is among the most active, calls continue for protection of women from violence.

The Gulf countries have slightly different dynamics. While women in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have made real progress in the field of education and entrepreneurship, they still lag behind in political participation and the ability to decide over matters of a personal nature such as marriage, divorce and travel. In Saudi Arabia, women are still not allowed to drive despite repeated protests by activists.

The status of women in the Arab world cannot be examined independently of the larger multi-layered political and socio-economic context of a region that has suffered a long history of colonialism, oppression, dictatorships, economic deprivation and patriarchal cultures.  The portrayal of women in religious and cultural narratives is vital in understanding the problem.

Another dimension consists of decaying education systems which reinforce archaic values from an early start. Representation of women in school curricula and in the media is far from adequate, and lacks real attempts for reform that encourages learning by thinking and questioning instead of memorizing. This results in raising generations who are not taught to think for themselves, but rather to follow the teaching and instructions of those with power and authority such as political and religious leaders.

A third factor relates to the fact that deposed dictators such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak sought to project a modernized image and used women’s rights as window dressing to bolster Western support while repressing and violating every basic human right. The first ladies were appointed the champions of the cause, to an extent that Suzanne Mubarak had some reformed personal status laws named after her.

As a result, women’s rights activism was associated with the old authoritarian regimes. This was clearly witnessed after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as resentment and attacks against women’s rights defenders escalated.

While women’s rights in the region has garnered the interest of Western governments, and “freeing Arab and Muslim women from oppression” became a slogan and pretext for military intervention in the region, this only contributed to growing resentment, and strengthened belief that women’s rights are a Western import and a foreign agenda.

In the midst of this gloomy picture, where women and their rights have been instrumentalized as bargaining chips between contending powers, women’s organizations have for decades been promoting gender equality within their societies. While the issues are common across the region, the approaches and tactics may differ from one country to the other depending on the varying social, cultural, and political dynamics.

The initial euphoria of revolutions may have faded, but women’s activists are determined to continue the fight for a better future. Most organizations adopt universal human rights standards and conventions as their reference, while others promote a reinterpretation of religious teachings (Sharia) on the grounds that principles of justice and human rights are instilled in them but have been distorted by male chauvinists over the years.

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As a woman of this world I stand beside you in your fight for freedom. Wishing you strength and courage.

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