Empowering Women in the Muslim World

Centerpoint, November 2010

Nov 04, 2010

For decades, women in the Middle East have actively struggled for equal status before the laws of their respective countries. They have strived to attain equal participation in politics and society, and progressive justice throughout the region. While they have made progress in some parts of the region, many challenges remain. The Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program recently held three meetings to discuss challenges as well as progress to empowering women across the Muslim world.

A Modern Narrative
The American Islamic Congress (AIC) recently published a report that highlights past and present triumphs and difficulties—economic, legal, political, religious, and social—that activists for women's rights face throughout the region. On September 30, the Middle East Program co-sponsored a meeting with the AIC to review the status of women in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, based on findings in the AIC's report.

Fawziah Al-Hani, manager of Gherass Center for Social Education in Saudi Arabia, expressed frustration about the progress women have made in her native Saudi Arabia. She said women there are perceived as second-class citizens by the country's legal, economic, political, religious, and social institutions. Women's issues are rarely discussed in Saudi political and social spheres, and women are not represented in government or the business sector. She said if women are allowed to be active outside the home, they are mostly restricted to educational and health activities.

Furthermore, she said obtaining equal and direct access to medical care and the justice system is not easy for women. Men can divorce their wives without notifying them and travel is restricted for women without a guardian's approval. Only recently did women receive identification cards, though women must still be identified by a guardian and/or family members. While she is frustrated about these restrictive Saudi policies toward women, Al-Hani said she maintains hope, as changes take place within the society and government through new initiatives and movements.

Rana Husseini, human rights activist, author, and journalist, detailed the changes to the status of women in Jordan over the past 20 years. Husseini, whose human rights activities over the past two decades in Jordan have focused on honor crimes and other women's issues, said Jordan has made substantial progress on women's rights as a result of intense media and civil society activism. While there is room for improvement, she said women are now participating in government and significant reforms have been made to the judicial system.

Though the effectiveness of quotas for women in government may be debated, Husseini noted that quotas facilitate women's participation in elections and government service. In fact, she said, there are some 50 women judges in Jordan. She said honor killings, except in extreme cases, are becoming rarer, and harsher sentences are being imposed for honor crimes.

Challenges for the family also remain. For example, the citizenship law does not allow women who marry non-Jordanian men to pass their Jordanian citizenship to their husbands and children. With constant pressure on the government and society, reforms will continue, said Husseini, who is optimistic about the future for women rights in Jordan and in the Middle East as a whole.

Demographic Realities
Why do many Middle Eastern women not enjoy the same economic opportunities as women of other regions? Can they be empowered to participate at a greater level? Nadereh Chamlou, a senior adviser at the World Bank, attributed the gender inequality to restrictive social norms. She said the region's women must be empowered to participate in a more significant way if their countries are to effectively exploit, instead of squander, the current economic "window of opportunity."

At a September 13 discussion, Chamlou said the good demographic news is the relatively high numbers of working-age people and thus the potential for rapid economic growth. However, Middle Eastern countries have the highest dependency rates in the world, a fact that Chamlou attributed to the low economic participation of Middle Eastern women relative to female citizens' participation in other parts of the world. This reality means the Middle East's demographic composition will not be exploited to its full potential.

Chamlou disputed the commonly held reasons for the continued lack of female participation in the Middle East's economic sphere. It is simply false, she said, that Middle Eastern women refrain from joining the workforce because they lack the necessary education and skills. Statistics show the region's women are represented at a near-equal level as men in secondary school and to an even greater extent at the university level. Another falsehood is that while more women are being educated, the skills they have acquired have not made them more employable. Chamlou said many women are in fact receiving degrees in marketable fields.

Increasing economic opportunities for women will require changing social norms, said Chamlou. She cited a study conducted by the World Bank in three Middle Eastern capitals—Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; and Sana'a, Yemen—that revealed the biggest reason for the poor representation of women in the workforce is the negative male attitude regarding women working outside the home. Notably, social norms and such negative male attitudes proved to restrict women's participation far more than the need to attend to child-rearing duties. Despite the successful efforts of most Middle Eastern states to improve education opportunities, conservative social norms pose a barrier to female empowerment.

Some simple changes could have a substantial impact. Chamlou recommended focusing on educated, middle-class women; undertaking more efforts to bring married women into the workforce; and emphasizing changing attitudes, particularly among conservative younger men, toward women working outside the home.

The discussions from these seminars demonstrate that while women in the Middle East continue to face difficulties concerning their rights and equality, change can come with increased awareness and activism.

Lessons from Tunisia
In Tunisia, the progress of women's empowerment can serve as a model for the region, noted women's rights advocate Nabiha Gueddana, president and director-general of the National Agency for Family and Population in Tunisia.

Speaking at a September 8 meeting, Gueddana said the Arab world can learn much from her native Tunisia regarding the positive effects of empowering women. Gueddana, also a candidate for undersecretary-general of UN Women at the United Nations, described how Tunisian women have been empowered politically, economically, and socially, and how this empowerment has benefited Tunisian society.

Tunisia has undergone substantial changes since achieving independence from France in 1956. Tunisian women had second-class status in the years prior, a time Gueddana described as one that relegated them to a life of constant child-rearing, illiteracy, and economic dependence.

Yet Tunisia has become a beacon for other Muslim societies: the country's labor code allows full female participation in the economy; education is open equally to boys and girls. Family planning programs and important strides in health have considerably lowered the birth rate and lengthened the life expectancy of the average woman. Gueddana also noted that Tunisia's economic growth is now five times greater than the growth rate of its population.

Measures to empower women in Tunisia have benefited not only women but Tunisian society as a whole, with significant shifts in men's attitudes regarding women's rights and roles in society. Gueddana indicated that her efforts extend beyond Tunisia, as she strives to help empower women throughout the world. She said such efforts will persist so long as women anywhere find themselves disadvantaged, dependent, and living as second-class citizens.

Looking forward, Gueddana highlighted two critical women's rights concerns across all countries: combating violence against women and promoting women's economic opportunities. She said violence against women, particularly sexual violence, is a widespread phenomenon across all societies and, unfortunately, often considered a taboo for discussion.

Women's empowerment in society rests increasingly not in the political but in the economic and business domains. While women have made considerable progress in the political arena, economic power is still male-dominated throughout the region.

Gueddana said the discussion of women's rights should take place within the broader context of human rights. She said all citizens benefit when all have equal rights and can use them to expand their opportunities and achievements to enhance their societies.

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