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Women's Role in Islamic Renaissance
By Dr. Syed Amir
Bethesda, MD

In his memoir, In the Line of Fire, President Musharraf has enumerated the measures his Government has adopted to empower Pakistani women. Included among these are greater female representation in the Government, reservation of sixty seats for them in the National Assembly and a vigorous program to curb the laws and mores that discriminate and promote violence against them. Meanwhile, one of the most infamous regulations, the Hudood Ordinance, that had generated world-wide outrage, has been modified by the National Assembly, making it less odious. These are welcome developments.
Discrimination against women, however, is not confined to Pakistan. The recently released Arab Human Development Report crafted by Arab scholars and intellectuals and sponsored by the United Nations Development Program focuses on the low status of women in the Arab world. Although the data are drawn mainly from Arab sources, the findings and conclusions apply equally well to the entire Muslim world.
The authors, alluding to the Golden Age of Islamic learning, argue that an Arab renaissance cannot be achieved without the rise of women, representing half the population, in Arab countries. The latest report is the fourth and final in the series, the first of which was launched in 2002. Arab scholars initially identified three key areas that have kept their countries backward: the acquisition of new knowledge, absence of political freedom, and the suppression of women’s rights. The first three documents dealt with the first two topics, while the current report concentrates on women’s issues in the Arab/Muslim world.
The lack of opportunities for women in the Arab World is endemic and this deficit is manifested in a variety of cultural and social realms. While some impressive improvements in educational opportunities have been made in the region, about half of all women remain illiterate, compared to one-third of men. Even more significant, educated women are clustered mostly in social sciences and liberal arts, disciplines in which lucrative jobs and career opportunities are scarce. Despite overt discrimination and low representation at educational institutions, girls do well and account for nearly half of the highest achievers in the college education system. Yet, they earn far less than men in the same professions with equivalent qualifications, especially in the private sector.
In Jordan, for example, women graduates earn only 71 percent of the salary earned by male graduates, and the gap in earnings is even wider at lower level jobs. In most Arab countries, women find it much harder to obtain meaningful employment than men do even in low paying jobs. The silver lining, however, is that an overwhelming majority of Arab public opinion firmly believes that women should have the same right to higher education as men.
The deficiency in female representation is perhaps most conspicuous in the political arena. Lebanon was the first Arab country to grant women the right to vote and contest national elections in 1952. Now, most Arab countries have granted these twin rights; even Kuwaiti women, following a struggle lasting nearly forty years, were granted these rights in 2005. Nevertheless, no Kuwaiti woman has yet been elected to parliament.
The same general trend is evident elsewhere. Despite a quota system in some countries, women’s overall share of parliamentary seats in Arab countries is lower than 9 percent, as compared to some 40 percent in Scandinavian countries. In Yemen, there has been only one female parliamentarian elected since 1993, out of a total of 301 members. Women rarely occupy powerful political offices, and few ever rise to the level of cabinet ministers. Even when they do, they are assigned relatively less prestigious portfolios, such as education, health, tourism or cultural affairs. Historically, Egypt and Iraq have been relatively progressive, as they appointed their first women ministers in 1956 and 1959, respectively. The authors recommend institution of some form of parliamentary quota system or affirmative action, much like the one currently operating in Pakistan, to ensure a minimum female representation in the legislature for a limited period.
The poor state of women’s health in some Arab/Muslim countries constitutes another area of concern, according to the authors of the report. There is a great variation, however, in figures relating to female morbidity and mortality; the variation largely correlates with the economic conditions of the countries. For example, the two poorest countries, Mauritania and Somalia, record a mortality rate of 1,000 women per 100,000 childbirths. In contrast, in Qatar, where the level of medical care is much superior, only about 7 women die for every 100,000 live births. In general, more women than men spend a substantial part of their lives suffering with ill health, which is attributed to stresses arising from their lower status within the family and consequent lack of preventive care and adequate nutrition.
The Human Development Report refutes the widespread notion that Arab women are intellectually inferior to men. In fact, whenever afforded the opportunity to compete freely; they have proven equal to men, even excelling occasionally in subjects such as natural and physical sciences. The Arab authors cite a number of cases where Arab/Muslim women luminaries demonstrated exceptional talents in various fields of knowledge, including science, medicine, genetics, astronomy, literature and fine arts. In one specific case, Dr. Mervat Badawi occupied a number of prestigious academic positions at the University of Paris in the 1970s -- her brilliant career culminated when she was not yet 30 years old in her appointment to the highest position, the director of research, at the National Institute of Scientific Research. Arab women writers have frequently generated better-quality literature than men writers. A number of myths have evolved over the centuries that promote the perception than women are unsuited for military duty. However, experience in other countries has shown this notion to be patently false. In Iraq and Afghanistan, 155,000 American women have served in combat-related duties during the past five years without any major trouble.
The UN report expresses dismay that in the twenty-first century, women continue to be the victim of domestic violence, often perpetrated in the name of honor killings, and are subjected to horrible practices such as female circumcision. The authors note that female domestic servants working in Arab countries are physically abused and sexually exploited while the prevailing labor laws offer them no protection against these excesses.
The Arab intellectuals emphatically dismiss the accusations made frequently in the Western media that the suppression of the women’s rights is deeply imbedded in the Islamic faith. They argue that Islam confers equal rights and responsibilities on both men and women and its historic mission has been to uplift the status of women. Rather, women’s emancipation is thwarted by archaic and biased interpretation of religious scriptures by conservative religious authorities, unappreciative of the imperatives of modern times, and is reinforced by centuries-old tribal and cultural customs that have become enshrined in Islamic jurisprudence. This argument draws its major strength from the recent experiences in Afghanistan where the Taliban regime, in the name of Sharia, nearly pushed the country back to medieval ages.
The report concedes that the situation in not entirely gloomy. Enlightened new thinking has brought new rights to women in several Arab/Islamic countries. In 2000, Egyptian Women won the right to initiate divorce proceedings (Khula), travel without the permission of their husbands and claim Egyptian nationality for their non-Egyptian husbands. Similarly, some welcome changes in family laws have taken effect in other countries, including Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. The Arab scholars end their dissertation on a positive note, proclaiming their collective optimism that “the release of Arab women’s captive energies in the field of knowledge and creativity would be the freshest sign of spring in the blossoming of the Arab world.”


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