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Women Street Art in Jordan
Jordanian street artist finishing up final touches of her art at the Ras Al Ein Gallery, Street Art Festival 2014.

The adaptive challenge of advancing women’s rights in MENA or elsewhere entails a cultural shift

Women’s history in the United States is full of stories of women marching, protesting, and pushing through glass ceilings and glass walls. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote and was ratified by the U.S. Congress 100 years ago, lead to the slow, but steady rise of women representatives getting elected – culminating in the “year of the woman” in 1992, in which a record number were sworn into office for the first time. As Wilson Center President and CEO Jane Harman writes for this blog, herself elected in that wave, the United States has “moved to overcome the legal and cultural barriers to women’s leadership,” but more has to be done.

In the Middle East and North Africa region, the story is no different. Twenty five years after the Beijing World Conference on Women, many countries may have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), however, women across the region continue to mobilize and organize in order to change laws that are discriminatory to women, to break the barriers of patriarchy and gradually but surely change cultural mindsets about women’s roles beyond the home. These women have inspired the theme for International Women’s Day this year on our blog, Enheduanna: “Advancing women’s rights: changing laws or cultural mindsets?” I believe it is a matter of doing both and here is why.

Reforming legislation that is discriminatory toward women is a crucial step to ensuring that women’s rights are guaranteed protection under the law. However, this variable of the women’s empowerment formula is what Harvard University leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz calls, a “technical” solution to an “adaptive challenge.” A “technical challenge” can be fixed quickly with “authoritative expertise” while an “adaptive challenge” can only be “addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.”

The adaptive challenge of advancing women’s rights in MENA or elsewhere entails a cultural shift, that Heifetz argues requires taking an approach beyond authoritative expertise, encourages new learning, confronts entrenched attitudes, and builds the basis of social transformation.

In the MENA region, which sadly, maintains the lowest score in the Gender Gap Index (2020), reforming laws must be accompanied by “adaptive work” to alter cultural mindsets regarding women’s roles in society. Such work takes time and requires collaborative efforts across the public, private and social sectors, both at the local and regional levels. It entails losses on the part of  the patriarchy, which believe it must dictate women’s roles. It also requires mobilization and innovation across gender, generational, and identity lines.

The good news is that women across MENA are leading this “adaptive work” in a plethora of fields from the arts, sports and the media to academia, business and government. This year’s contributors hail from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Israel, Kurdish Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In general, there is a broad consensus that the law itself is not enough; that if cultural mindsets are not pressured to change, the law will never achieve full implementation. It may even backslide toward greater discrimination. Yet others see that legal protections and reforms are necessary now in order to prevent the most egregious inequalities and abuses facing women, and that states must stand up for human rights and punish violators, even if it causes pain or backlash in the immediate term.

The final answer to the question of whether the culture or the law is the first step to the next phase of women’s advancements is up to you, the reader. Our contributors are all women leaders and innovators who have faced this issue in a variety of fields. I urge you to read their blogs and find inspiration in their experiences and personal stories of challenge and triumph.

About the Author

Merissa Khurma bio photo

Merissa Khurma

Program Manager, Middle East Program
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Middle East Women's Initiative

The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research.  Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more