Thursday, 1 April 2010

Arab women's rights

This recent article in the Economist provided a brief but interesting overview of some recent changes for women in the Arab world. The article is pretty short so I have copied it all below. Would be interested to hear from those who know more than me what they have missed!

Arab women's rights: Some say they don't want them

THE sight of hundreds of women cheering a proposed law banning child marriage, as they did on March 22nd in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, was hardly amazing. No country has escaped the global trend towards greater equality between the sexes, not even one as poor and tradition-bound as Yemen, where half of girls are married off before the age of 18 and many even before the age of 10. Yet the day before that demonstration even more women (pictured right), nearly all wearing full face veils, gathered at the same spot to denounce the law as an imposition of unIslamic, Western values.

Arab women have made huge if uneven strides since the issue of their rights arose a hundred years ago. Female education, for instance, was once virtually unknown. Today, even in arch-conservative Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of university students are women. But still, among 134 countries in the latest Global Gender Gap Report prepared by the Swiss-based World Economic Forum, a survey that measures opportunity for women in education, health, business and politics, all 14 of the Arab countries that were included ranked in the bottom 30.

Not surprisingly, Yemen came last of all. But the clashing demonstrations in its capital illustrated an important aspect of the Arabs’ lag in women’s rights. Quite often the obstacles to their progress have been not just ill-educated male chauvinists and conservative clerics. Women themselves have also stood in the way.

In the relatively liberal and rich emirate of Kuwait, for instance, women got the right to vote five years ago and won their first seats in parliament last year. But to get there, reformists found themselves battling not only against apathy among many women but even deep-seated female hostility. By contrast Syria, long secular under the Baath party’s rule, denies political rights without sexual discrimination. But veiling and other forms of pious ostentation among women have recently returned, largely because of groups such as the Qubaysiyat, an all-female Islamist society which has schools, nurseries and mosques that now attract many of the Syrian elite.

Egyptian women, who fought to drop their veils in the 1920s and have voted since 1956, have made very slow progress ever since. Many retain deeply traditional outlooks. A survey in 2009 of 15,000 Egyptian youths, for instance, found that 67% of female respondents believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife if she speaks to another man. By contrast, a recent initiative by Egypt’s government to appoint female judges roused little general protest. But fellow members of Egypt’s ostensibly secular judiciary have proved harder to convince. Last month some 334 out of 380 judges on the state council, a grand body that adjudicates cases between individuals and the state, voted against accepting female members. The matter is still pending. Egypt’s supreme court has now ruled in favour of women judges but deferred a final decision to yet another all-male panel.

So the bigger share of blame for Arab women’s slow progress still lies with the usual suspects, namely men. Saudi Arabia recently ruled that female lawyers may actually appear in court. But the concession was heavily qualified. Women will be able only to represent women—and only in family cases.


Anonymous said...

I find the lack of comments interesting. Is it that we feel that by criticising a group such as Arab women that we are behaving too much like white oppressors telling another group how to behave?

I don't really know that much about Arab women but I know a bit more about muslim women as we have some in the family. They're malaysian and they're all circumcised. Not the kind of horrific mutilation that I understand mainly occurs in Africa (correct me if I'm wrong on details) but a small piece of the skin removed from the clitoris hood/labia (not precisely sure of the details and frankly I didn't want to pry). I know that my Aunt got her daughters circumcised because of the overwhelming social pressure to do so, it wasn't something that she wanted to happen. However as a result of support from people such as my mother and an increasing exposure to an international world where people do things differently she is now at a point where she feels that if she has granddaughters she will be offering her daughters her full support if they choose not to circumcise.

To me, feminism is not about making people do things but just making them aware and educating them so that they can make what I believe are the right choices. You can't make people choose what you want but you can make them aware of the options.

Anonymous said...

I thought what was interesting about this was the idea that it is surprising (or culturally specific) that women resist change. Has there ever been a feminist movement that was not resisted by a conservative group of women?

katy said...

"I thought what was interesting about this was the idea that it is surprising (or culturally specific) that women resist change. Has there ever been a feminist movement that was not resisted by a conservative group of women?"

Yeah - this is a good point. I remember my mother talking to me when I was quite young about this, about how agents of oppression are always recruited from within the group and we talked about what this means for feminists. In terms of the article, though, I liked how there was an attempt to show that Arab women are not a group with homogenous values and that there is real debate within the communities.

"I find the lack of comments interesting. Is it that we feel that by criticising a group such as Arab women that we are behaving too much like white oppressors telling another group how to behave?"

I think it is interesting how it seems people are more comfortable criticising come groups but not others and wonder if this is to do with cultural distance or somesuch. For example, I used to live in Japan and I have heard disparaging comments about "submissive Asian women" expressed by people who would call themselves feminists. Often this seems to come from assumptions based on misinterpretation of cultural practices from people with "western" values. One example is that ideas around politeness and appropriate behaviour mean that all Japanese people are expected to display a level of humility and self-effacement which people who don't know any better think reflects a lack of engagement with the world/submissiveness. However, it isn't that feistiness isn't there, it just manifests in a different way. I have seen Japanese women in groups of foreigners taking these stereotypes head on and fighting to be taken seriously as thinking, intelligent people. However, I don't think that the people I have heard unthinkingly say such things would feel free to comment about perceived oppression in other groups. Which is certainly not to say that ignorant attitudes aren't expressed, I just think it might be different. In terms of Arab women, this might manifest itself in people feeling safer to criticise the practices of people living in some Muslim countries where the cultural distance feels a bit less but not in others.

Anonymous said...

Every country has had its own battle with women's rights at some point in history. And there have been opponents of both sexes. Look at England, where Queen Victoria herself described women's rights as a 'wicked folly'. However, today, English women enjoy civil rights to the same extent as men. I have recently read a book about Saudi Arabia. The things that go on in that disgusting country - fathers locking daughters up in dark rooms, and drowning them just for talking to men, and ordering them to be stoned to death for being raped. I'm not saying every man in Saudi is like that, but things have got to change. I'm sure that every woman in her right mind would want simple rights such as the right to drive a car, and the right not to be stoned to death for being raped, or for talking to a man. The ones who do not support such things have obviously been brainwashed by religious fundamentalist men who twist the words of the Koran to support their own selfish desires.