No society in the world can claim to have eradicated all forms of discrimination against women and girls. All regions of the world face their specific challenges related to the promotion and advancement of women’s rights. In the Arab region as in the West, the enhancement of the social status of women is of high importance. The barriers and the challenges which stand in the way of making gender equality a reality cannot be seen as attributable solely to one region; charting a more inclusive agenda to enhance gender equality requires all regions to identify a suitable framework responding to its specific needs and challenges in line with the provisions set forth in Sustainable Development Goal 5 entitled “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
Amidst growing instability and social unrest as currently witnessed in the Middle East and North Africa region, encouraging developments regarding the enhancement of women’s rights and gender equality are taking place in the Arab region. Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan have recently decided to repeal discriminatory laws enabling rape perpetrators to escape justice if they would opt for marrying their female victims. In the national parliaments of Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Iraq, women occupy from 20% to 30% of parliamentary seats. This proportion is higher than in many other advanced and developed countries such as in the United States, Greece, Russia, Croatia, Latvia and Hungary - to name but a few – where women’s representation in national parliaments remains below 20%.
Countries of the Arab region have likewise made visible progress over the past years in promoting gender equality through women’s education and inclusion in the workforce. There are now more women than men who attend university in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Jordan and Kuwait. In terms of inclusion in paid work, between 1980 and 2000, women’s participation in the labour force doubled in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain; it nearly tripled in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Women now play an increasingly important role in the economy of Arab states: according to National Reports, their participation in the economy has reached approximately 48% in Kuwait, 35% 25% in Tunisia, and 17% in Algeria.
Despite these encouraging signs, misperceptions and stereotyping of Arab women have become a bottomless pit of anecdotes for mainstream media offering a misleading picture of Arab women. The rise of extremism, Islamophobia and right wing populism have further contributed to exacerbate the popular stereotyping of Arab women as weak, voiceless and oppressed. In advanced countries, Muslim women are often doubly discriminated as women and because they were a headscarf.
The relations between Islam and women’s rights have also been the subject of widespread debate among women’s rights and orientalist experts. Some people lacking perceptiveness consider that Islam is incompatible with women’s rights and gender equality, and that Islamic principles are hostile and discriminatory towards women. We need to ask Arab women themselves whether they consider Islam as an emancipating factor in their efforts to achieve gender equality. According to the findings of the book “Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism” written by the Australian author Dr. Susan Carland in 2017, Arab women do not see Islam as an obstacle to fight sexism, discrimination and marginalization of women. Indeed Islam’s egalitarian spirit guides women in their efforts and commitments to advance their own rights. The fact that Islam has played an important role in redefining women’s rights in modern societies is hardly given any recognition in mainstream media. This shows that there is an uphill task ahead to “de-sloganize” women’s rights in the Arab region and recognise “Islamic feminism” to use the title of the book by a Belgian activist Malika Hamidi.
In terms of societal attitudes, Arab men’s perceptions with regard to the status of women have undergone substantial change, but this has yet to be reflected in the accounts provided by mainstream media and experts. A study entitled “Les Arabes, les femmes, la liberté” led in the Arab region by UNDP in 2006 showed that 91% of the interviewees were in favour of equal access to the labour market, while 78% considered that the working conditions should be the same for women as for men. A recently released study “Understanding Masculinities: Results from the International Men And Gender Equality Survey – Middle East And North Africa” conducted by UN Women and Promundo in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, Morocco and Lebanon, showed that 50% of the men surveyed held favourable views of married women working outside their homes; in Egypt, 74% of men supported equal salaries for men and women and 86% were willing to work with female colleagues.
The deconstruction of existing myths regarding the status of Arab women will enable decision-makers and women’s rights experts to identify a common agenda to promote gender equality at a global level. It will enable women’s rights experts from the Arab region and the West to shift from “naming and shaming” and proclamations of cultural superiority to the enhancement of women’s rights through constructive dialogue and the identification of joint solutions. Advancing the status of women requires a unified attempt by the Arab region and the West to safeguard women’s rights from patriarchal policies impeding the realization of gender equality. Policy makers should likewise maximize women’s rights to enhance their social status within societies as well as to enable “her” to prove herself in the public sphere. As HH Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Almaktoum - the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of the Emirate of Dubai – said:
“A place without women is a place without spirit.”