What's Holding Back Arab Women?

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Iranian girls study at a high school in Tehran.

Talk to Arab women and you'll quickly learn that the controversy over the Muslim veil that rages endlessly in Europe is the least of their concerns. They face a daunting array of hardships, from spousal domination at home to gender discrimination in the workplace, and even if they happen to agree that the veil symbolizes their plight, they tend to dismiss criticism of it as a Western attack on their culture.

Because the topic of women's rights in the Arab world can be as confusing as it is culturally explosive, the report released on Thursday by a panel of distinguished Arab thinkers is a welcome guide to Arabs and outsiders alike. "Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World" is the long-awaited fourth and final installment of the Arab Human Development Report compiled under the auspices of the United Nations Development Fund. The AHDRs, including earlier reports dealing with youth, education and freedom, are the work of scores of Arab intellectuals, scholars, writers, diplomats and development specialists who command wide respect in the region and internationally.

The latest report debunks the Arab conspiracy theory that promoting women's rights is part of a Western plot against Islam. On the contrary, the panelists point out, the advancement of women has long been an Arab goal — Egyptian women's rights organizations date back to 1881, for example. "The rise of Arab women," the report argues, "is in fact a prerequisite for an Arab renaissance and causally linked to the fate of the Arab world and its achievement of human development."

The report then goes on to draw a devastating picture of the plight of Arab women — while thoughtfully examining the complex background to the issue, and offering some creative proposals for progress.

Although Arab girls who attend school outperform the boys, the report notes, they generally have fewer educational opportunities — the Arab countries collectively have one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world. Lack of education and gender discrimination combine to keep the percentage of employed Arab women at only one-third, the lowest in the world. These conditions contribute to unhealthy lifestyles, resulting in higher rates of disease and deaths linked to pregnancy and childbirth.

Not only are Arab women largely excluded from political participation — the report notes that most of the handful of Arab women cabinet ministers tend to hold symbolic rather than influential positions — they often suffer domestic violence, including so-called "honor killings," behind a societal cloak of silence. Laws often restrict women's personal liberties, for example by giving them lesser status than their husbands in divorce proceedings, and requiring the permission of a husband or father to work, travel or borrow from a bank.

The report traces the predicament of Arab women to the region's longstanding patriarchal traditions of protection and "honor" wrapped into tribal identity. The authoritarian regimes that emerged with Arab independence a half century ago have undermined liberal institutions and values that might have better encouraged women's rights and protected them under a rule of law.

Women's prospects are further weakened by regressive Islamic jurisprudence that effectively codifies discrimination against women. So entrenched has this discrimination become, the report notes, that hundreds of popular Arab proverbs scorn women for having "half a mind, half a creed, half an inheritance."

Despite its gloomy picture of the current state of affairs, the report does highlight the heroic efforts of many Arab women and their male supporters to remedy the situation, and the gains they have made. In particular, it credits Arab novelists and filmmakers for publicizing women's suffering and offering models of hope. But in its conclusion, "Towards the Rise" recognizes the huge obstacles that remain. Unwilling to leave reform to government or Islamic leaders, the report calls for a "widespread and effective movement of struggle in Arab civil society" — a social revolution, really — to advance women's rights.

The authors list ambitious goals for this "movement of struggle," including achieving compulsory basic education for Arab girls to eliminate female illiteracy by 2015, and enforcing equal employment opportunities for Arab women. One specific reform proposed is a program of affirmative action "to expand women's participation in society and dismantle centuries-old discrimination." A more important, but vastly more daunting, challenge identified by the report is taking on the Islamic establishment to remove cultural obstacles sanctified by religious rulings. The report says that the reform it envisions "will modernize religious interpretation and jurisprudence through the widespread adoption of the enlightened readings [of Koranic texts].

Such ideas that challenge the Arab world's patriarchal order will naturally meet fierce resistance. At the same time, they are sure to provoke debate throughout the Arab world. For the authors of "Towards the Rise" and the Arab women who take heart from their report, that will be a good first step but hopefully not the last.