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Women in the Arab World

CARL GIBEILYPublished: April 10, 2009

A Muslim female student studies along with her non-Muslim friend. (Dean Pictures via Newscom)MANAMA -- Hoda Shaarawi should best be remembered for her role in founding Egypt's Feminist Union the first such organization in the Arab region and for fighting to establish a minimum marriage age for women, reform family law, restrict polygamy and promote the education of girls. And yet, among all her achievements, it is telling that contemporary Arab historians inevitably focus first on one bold, symbolic act at the central train station in Cairo. In the first week of March 1923, Shaarawi deliberately did the unthinkable: she removed her veil in public.


In some respects, the Arab region is the same place for women that it was 86 years ago. In the more conservative parts of the Arab region, most particularly Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive a car, sail a boat or fly a plane. They still cannot expose hair, wrists and ankles in public, or travel without the permission of a male relative: usually a father, husband or in some ways more constraining for its role reversal a son.



Saudi Arabia is not alone in segregating the sexes in many public settings, ranging from schools and universities to restaurants and banks. And despite some incremental reforms in family law across the Gulf region, a woman who angers her husband is still prone to the "triple talaq," the controversial oral divorce, with little to no recourse to alimony.



The deep gender disparities of the region were raised six years ago by the United Nations in the Arab Human Development Report, which was researched and drafted by Arab intellectuals and scholars. Stating unequivocally that the Arab region as a whole failed to "treat its womenfolk as full citizens," it concluded that the oppression of women represented one of the root causes of backwardness in the Arab world and the dearth of creativity. Put another way, a community is doomed to lack the competitive edge if it routinely stifles half of its production potential.



There is still a culture of stigma attached to women who opt for certain careers. In the media, for instance, Gulf nationals account for a mere 10 percent of journalists in the comparatively liberal United Arab Emirates - and out of these, barely a sliver are women. This lacuna is particularly evident in reporting on controversial local issues, such as sexual abuse or female circumcision, which are typically assigned to well-meaning if ultimately detached expatriate journalists.



However, women are making slow if sluggish gains in the Middle East. The views and aspirations of Arab women are changing thanks largely to the Internet and increasing educational opportunities. Within that context, more than 55 per cent of university students in Saudi Arabia are women; and in neighboring Qatar and the UAE, women outnumber men by three to one. Equally, fertility rates have halved across the Gulf region over the past two decades as women have sought to move beyond a purely traditional role the decrease has been most dramatic in Oman, with a drop from ten births per woman to fewer than four over that period.



Even politically, women have been able to make some small but notable gains. Last month, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sacked the conservative head of the Commission of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice the agency that enforces the wearing of the hijab and appointed the first woman in his cabinet. In Kuwait, women made history in 2006 by voting and contesting in a local by-election for the first time, after the parliament granted them right to suffrage the previous year.



However, the region remains deeply patriarchal. These modest gains in the political, economic and legal rights of women have been contested at every turn, and there is a very real danger that further emancipation will be crushed under the weight of male chauvinism. These reactionary elements must not be allowed to obstruct the process of rethinking the role of Arab women, which is now in its second century. This reassessment has its roots in 1899, when the celebrated Egyptian author Qasim Amin published a seminal work that explicitly laid the blame of the region's backwardness to the oppression of women the very same conclusion reiterated a century later in the Arab Human Development Report.



Amin went on to inspire Hoda Shaarawi, who in turn continues to provide a shining example to countless Arab feminists. Within that context, it is also important to understand that Shaarawi removed her hijab in public not as a political statement the removal of the veil was never on the agenda of the Feminist Union. Rather, it was meant as an uplifting gesture to express the most basic cri de coeur: suppressed women the world over crave more freedom, more education and better prospects. Above all, they deserve humane treatment from the society, not just the rights



Carl Gibeily is a Lebanese novelist and journalist, whose novels include, "Blueprint for a Prophet," (Doubleday: UK) and "March Dust," (to be published in 2010).

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