Through the blogging assignment for this class I managed to find, and explore, a topic that I had very little previous knowledge of. Before exploring the nuanced issues that surround women’s rights in Arabic countries, I had a somewhat skewed version of what it meant to be a woman in the Arab world, and going further, of what it meant to be a Muslim woman in the Western world. The media represents these countries and their traditions as an overarching oppressor of all women, alluding to Islam as the culprit for the treatment of women. By completing this project, I was able to overcome the media bias, and explore the real root cause for the marginalization of women across the Arab world. My research pointed me towards not religion, but the autocratic governments that have risen to power in Arabic countries over the last one hundred years or so, and how they have taken women in society and used them as a way to gain political advantage.
To begin with, I attempted to put together a brief overview of women’s rights in Arabic Countries, and focused specifically on the United Arab Emirates for the strides that they have made towards equality. Among the Arabic countries of the Middle East, there are significant differences among the rights and privileges afforded to the women that reside in these various countries. The United Arab Emirates is the most socially liberal of the Gulf states, and has made significant strides to promote equality within not only UAE society, but also in the government, promoting women to prominent positions. On the other side of the spectrum lie the Palestinian Territories (land now under the control of Israel), where violence against women is an ingrained and accepted part of every day life, with no steps to equality being taken. Ranked as a leader of gender equality in the region, the UAE has shifted to prioritize equality between the sexes. In 2015, the country established the Gender Balance Council, which is a federal entity that focuses on strengthening the role and prevalence of women in government positions. In addition to furthering gender equality in the political arena, equal access to education has become a priority for the country. In 2014 the UAE opened the region’s first military college for women, Khawla Bint Al Azwar Military School. The school focuses on training, both physical and mental, and also puts an emphasis on empowering women and encouraging them to take on leadership roles in every aspect of their life. At this stage in the project, I noted that extended periods of civil unrest and economic downturn exacerbated violence against women, which ended up being what I found to be most relevant when exploring this issue. As far as the United Arab Emirates are concerned, the answer to the equality question became clear in my second post; Since it’s founding in 1971, the United Arab Emirates has made significant strides in empowering women and improving their quality of life. There has been a push for equal education, and that is obvious with the literacy rate; in 1971, the literacy rate was 89.8%, in stark contrast with the 2015 rate of 7.3%. The struggle that the UAE faces now, is not only integrating their own women into the workforce, but also integrating expatriate women into society and the economy of the country. It seems that the UAE has been fortunate in that they were afforded a fresh start when they became a nation. They were able to reflect and learn from past mistakes made by independent nations, and were able to proceed with caution.
The next post focused on the women of Tunisia. The case of Tunisia was interesting to me at the time, because the differences in the laws regarding women were in such stark contrast to the everyday treatment of women in the country. After the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, part of the larger Arab Spring movement, the progressive laws enacted by the new government led Tunisian society to believe that they were making strides towards a more equal balance between men and women. However, six years after the revolution, it seems that women have been left behind in this progressive wave. Although on paper, Tunisia is the most forward thinking Arabic country when it comes to equality, issues with long standing patriarchal values still stand. In 2016, The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women came out with the statistic that nearly 70% of Tunisian women are still victims of domestic abuse. Women continue to feel oppressed and without a voice, many suffering in silence, or anonymously. When first confronted with these statistics, I looked closely at the teachings of Islam, trying to make some sort of connection. Examining the gender gap in Arabic countries, religion is the first thing that comes to mind in regards to the reason for such inequality. However, that does not seem to be the root cause for the mistreatment of women. The archaic laws and practices regarding women in Islamic countries, (male ownership, genital mutilation, early marriage, education restrictions,) are actually in opposition to the teachings of Islam. By just scratching the surface of this issue, it immediately became clear to me that Islam had nothing to do with the treatment of women in Arabic countries.
For the next post, I expanded on that idea quite a bit, and also how the West generalizes Islam and skews what, if any, implications Islam has on the role of women. When Western cultures think of Islam in relation to women’s rights and the treatment of women in Muslim countries, there is generally a consensus that Islam is the root cause for the oppression and mistreatment of women in these countries. However, upon looking closer at the religion, it is clear that Islam cannot be held responsible for the divide between the sexes. In Islam, women and men are seen as moral equals in the eyes of God; in fact, Islam actually improved the standing of women in Arabic societies by prohibiting female infanticide and recognizing women as autonomous and valued. History shows that Muhammad consulted and confided in women, even appointing them to the position of imam (the person who leads prayer) within their households. Women in the pre-modern Arabic world held great power, both politically and in the home. The best-known women rulers in the premodern era include Khayzuran, who governed the Muslim Empire under three Abbasid caliphs in the eighth century; Malika Asma bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya and Malika Arwa bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya, who both held power in Yemen in the eleventh century; Sitt al-Mulk, a Fatimid queen of Egypt in the eleventh century; the Berber queen Zaynab al-Nafzawiyah (r. 1061 – 1107 ); two thirteenth-century Mamluk queens, Shajar al-Durr in Cairo and Radiyyah in Delhi; six Mongol queens, including Kutlugh Khatun (thirteenth century) and her daughter Padishah Khatun of the Kutlugh-Khanid dynasty; the fifteenth-century Andalusian queen Aishah al-Hurra, known by the Spaniards as Sultana Madre de Boabdil; Sayyida al-Hurra , governor of Tetouán in Morocco (r. 1510 – 1542 ); and four seventeenth-century Indonesian queens. This post gave me definitive proof that Islam has no hand in the mistreatment of women. It did open up a handful of new questions, especially in regards to the Islam tradition of the Hijab.
Recently, the Hijab has become a topic of interest for people all across the Western world. It is seen as unfair, and cruel, a depravation of rights for women and something that they are forced to do because of their culture and religion. Where does the hijab come from? What exactly are the social implications of this traditional garb, and how do modern Muslim women interpret and feel about this seemingly antiquated tradition? In one of my posts for the blog, I laid out all aspects of the hijab, and exactly what it means to women that wear them. In the Western world, the hijab is seen as a mode of oppression, but it is actually a sign of devotion. I went on to investigate the headscarf ban in Europe, and the legality of it; In March of 2017, the EU’s highest ranking court ruled that companies had the right to ban religious symbols from the workplace, a ruling that was targeted specifically at the hijab and it’s many variations. Businesses claim that projecting an image of religious and political neutrality is what they are trying to accomplish through the ban, but many see the ban for what it is; thinly veiled religious discrimination.
In the last two blog posts, I finally found what I believe is the cause for the mistreatment of women in the Arab world. I looked specifically at the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt, and the subsequent abuses that occurred in Tahrir Square. Looking back at the Arab Spring of 2011, it seemed like a moment in which women would be able to finally garner the equality they so deserved. In Tahrir Square women and men protested side by side, until things took a change for the worse. Increased political participation and public visibility by the women in Tahrir Square incited rage and violence among their male counterparts, and where at one point they were all fighting for a better and more fair country, women were now being beaten and stripped, harassed by the crowds. Some experts argue that this kind of treatment of women stems from the authoritarian governments that came into power after the fall of colonialism in the Arab world. Top-down state feminism was adopted by countries like Tunisia and Egypt. In this post, I also returned to Tunisia, understanding now that the reason for the contrast between laws and actions actually stems from top-down state feminism, and was used as a cover for human rights violations being committed by Ben Ali.
This issue could be examined from a variety of different perspectives, but I do believe that they would all come to a similar conclusion; authoritarian governments in the region have taken advantage of the women’s rights struggle and attempted to monopolize it for personal and state gain.