My name is Fikir and I am currently working towards completing my degree in International Relations at the American University in Dubai. I then plan on continuing my Master’s degree at SOAS University in London before permanently settling in the MENA/Sub-Saharan region to pursue a career in community development of disadvantaged provinces.
I grew up in a country that was strictly traditional in its way of life (with significant Mediterranean and Middle Eastern (Yemeni) influence from centuries of trade and interaction). Hence I was raised amongst the juxtaposition of modernity and tradition, economic prosperity and absolute poverty and the ever prevalent question of where I fit into all of this as a woman.
Apart from images of crazy bearded men donning home-made suicide vests and blowing up innocent civilians, the next best picture many would paint of the MENA region is niqab clad women roaming the ancient, palm lined streets of mysterious cities-exotic but oppressed in every sense. Granted the gender inequality in the region appears more magnified due the blatant way it is presented to the rest of the world, but sexism is hardly a phenomenon reserved for the Middle East or followers of Islam. I think this has been one of the most confronting topics revolving this issue for decades-is the gender gap in the Middle East embodied in religion and culture or has it been gradually constructed by societies?
In the article ‘The Real Roots of Sexism in the Middle East’, Max Fisher points out that there are generally two ways to look at the region’s attitude towards women. The first would be to view it as an inherently Arab problem where the society is fundamentally flawed, a concept that can’t fully explain the visible gap between attitudes towards women amongst states in the MENA region. Whereas countries like Tunisia have one of the most progressive constitutions both in the Middle East and Africa (having managed to elect an impressive 27% of women into their post-revolutionary legislatures) , others like Egypt, though sharing geographical proximity, barely incorporated women into their new political structures at all.
The second assessment follows the idea that discrimination against women is a universal ailment that affects various parts of the world in varying degrees at sometimes different phases across the decades. Having had the privilege to travel and interact with people from many cultures, I have now convinced myself that the latter opinion is in fact closer to the truth-why so much focus is put on the MENA region with regards to this issue on the other hand has various, often interwoven retorts.
I remember following up on the progression of the Arab Spring in 2011 when a picture taken of a young woman went viral on the internet. It showed the woman on the ground, her abbaya torn open and exposing flesh being dragged off by police officers during the protests in Egypt.
Every major newspaper and every important blog at the time had a lot of colourful words to say about the brutality of the scene and how anyone could dare do that to a woman. There were rants about how the Arab world could never move forward because of its treatment towards its women and that the women’s rights cause in the region was a fast failing one. The lamentations were fast catching on until a group of people on a social media site pointed out what they considered ‘the double standards and hypocrisy’ this uproar underscored-and this observation helped add another dimension to my thought process on the topic of feminism. Why was there so much focus given to the fact that it was a woman, when no human should be treated in such a manner regardless? And in a twisted, ironic way did this not show an act of equality in this act of mistreatment from the offenders side?
The question of feminism and Islam in this region is further complicated by the often disagreeing groups of women who lend their voices to clashing interpretations of what a Muslim woman is and what she is not. I will discuss a few of these key contemporary figures further into this article. In no way am I downplaying the gaping gender difference so evident in the region, but I find the predominant western interpretation of the situation and the extremely limiting view that religion (namely Islam) is the source of all oppression, a cheap attempt at continuing cultural imperialism. There are always two sides to the story and the one most often told is from the eyes of westerners whose assumptions of the Middle Eastern culture come from the same place Edward Said had distressed over in his book ‘Orientalism’. In this article I will attempt to bring a more holistic view to the issue of women in the MENA region by looking past the often oversimplified explanations and pointing out things such as economic conditions and changing political scenes.
On our trip to the Women’s Museum near the beginning of the semester, we were given a rare glimpse at the world of Emirati women before, during and after the creation of the UAE. These progressive women ranged from political figures like Shiekha Hessa bint Al Mor (who played a decisive role in minimizing foreign intervention in Dubai’s affairs), to those such as Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak-who encouraged local women to pursue education as a form of bettering themselves and the country as a whole. There were countless more ranging from influential business women to be reckoned with, to much respected military personnel and creative talents (such as the famous poet Ousha bint Khalifa)…all eternally etched in the fascinating history of the country.
Granted the UAE is quite different from the rest of the region, both in its young history and (consequently) in the unfolding of its political, economical and social patterns. Hence, tracking the historical origins of contemporary misogyny (a word I find too harsh to use loosely and will henceforth stick to the term sexism) in the Middle East will hopefully shed more light on what went wrong.
A nice finish to our trip was a rare, short documentary about women in various parts of the region during the ‘60s and 70s. Ranging from Afghanistan to Iran, Lebanon and Egypt it was quite surprising to see men and women dressed in popular American fashion pieces of the time (from the perfectly combed out ‘fros to the bell-bottom jeans and tie-dye shirts) taking camping trips and going to school together. Other images showed women with perfectly done hair and elegant pencil skirts at various work stations from secretary posts to government offices and public libraries. It is sometimes hard to imagine that gender relations in many of the major Arab countries only a few decades ago was so different. The gradual deterioration and eventual ‘Islamic revival’ (as some historians call it) over the next thirty years was layered with several elements that are often simplified and generalized in order to make ‘quick-sense’ out of such a perplexing issue.
It is often neglected for example, that the spread of conservative Islam during this time was heavily encouraged by funding obtained from conservative Saudis who had managed to make vast fortunes from the development of newly discovered oil-fields. The economic chaos caused by this neoliberal progression not only concentrated economic power in private hands, but also gave a conservative few (with a lot of money) the power and resources to spread their own interpretations of the word. According to Jean-Paul Carvalho in his thesis ‘A Theory of the Islamic Revival’, he points out that frustrated expectations and unfulfilled promises (especially of the lower middle class) and increasing income inequalities lead to the empowerment of religious institutions.
Recent events in the Levant and numerous parts of Africa seem to be ongoing proof of the fundamental basis of his theory, as countries with weak political structures and unstable economic patterns continue to breed extremist groups who in turn take an advantage of the dissatisfied mass to impart their version of utopia. Ironically, their seemingly put-together attitude and words of conviction initially get them supporters before even these are scared away by the growing fanatics. Going even further back in time to the 19th century, one finds colonial wars over influence in the region (predominantly between the British and Ottomans) a major cause of the imbalance we see between the sexes today. One absolutely degrading political move used to buy submission of men at the time was to ‘offer them absolute power over women’. 
Why women were the choice to be used as bargaining chips on the other hand is a question that has sparked heated debate from all corners of the world. Since ancient times when nation states were being formed and expansionist wars were history’s constant companions, women had always found themselves with the shorter end of the straw. Whether it was forced marriages to improve relations with a city state or rape as a systematic weapon of war, women from all over the world at different times in history have been at the mercy of the patriarchal systems they were under. An even more uncomfortable topic to tackle is the role of women in the monotheistic religions (where many excerpts were taken to legitimize the colonialists’ patriarchal bargaining tools) and the lack of decisive interpretations about the position of women (in this case) in Islam.
I once read a book called ‘Woman at Point Zero’ by Nawal Saadawi-an outspoken Egyptian writer as well as a feminist and activist for things such as ending the practice of FGM in Egypt. In the book, she discusses one of the encounters she had with a female prisoner who was sentenced to death for killing a man. What she told the author was not only heart wrenching, but was considered too harsh an opinion by many and became (like Saadawi herself) a controversial topic.
“I knew that prostitution had been invented by men, and that men were in control of both our worlds, the one on earth and the one in heaven. That men force women to sell their bodies at a price, and that the lowest paid body is that of a wife. All women are prostitutes of one kind or another”.
Inclusion of such aggressive comments as well as her bold claims that certain aspects of Islam are founded on pre-Islamic paganism have made Saadawi one of the leading secular feminist of modern times.
Whereas the likes of Nawal Saadawi (and Mona elTahawy to a certain extent) views religion as fundamentally oppressive (and create a direct link between increasing power of religious groups and increasing oppression of women), others like Fatima Mernissi and Amina Wadud point to flaws in societal interpretations of the text rather than an inherent flaw in the religion itself. As a reformist who never left Morocco for exile, Mernissi argues that traditional Islam is outdated and incompatible with modern values. She uses the text to show how Islam actually celebrates women and claims that classical Muslim theorists saw women as a threat because Islam viewed them as active actors (e.g Khadija, Ayisha, etc.)
Amina Wadud further builds up on this argument by pointing out that it is necessary to re-read the text from a woman’s perspective and argues that both men and women are equally part of the umma (community). She explains how both genders were equally present at the revelation of the Qur’an but that the history of women’s voices in relation to the sacred text are pretty much non-existent.
‘Patriarchy was necessary to get us out of caves, but now it’s threatening to destroy our civilizations if we can’t learn to power share and embrace the other’-Amina Wadud
Wadud took her theories a step further when she not only led a prayer session, but allowed men and women to sit next to each other as well as inviting gay Muslims to attend. When defending her actions, she mentioned what she summarised as ‘radical pluralism’ as she said, ‘It isn’t just about me and those I’m comfortable with, but learning to embrace ‘the other’. Wadud continued by pointing out that there is nothing in the Qur’an that Jumma prayers should be led by a man or prohibits a woman.
The MENA region has a wide gap to close between the sexes and just as this issue wasn’t created over night, a lasting solution won’t have a quick fix deal either. Root issues such as economic and political stability have to be tackled as well as making education a priority. And before the question of where women stand in this society can be posed to the men of this region and the rest of the world, it is imperative for them to come together as a united force with a common goal. Even though all the aforementioned women stand in support of some feminist group in the Middle East with claims to fighting for women’s rights, their constant warring attacks on each other obliterate their aims and overshadow their commendable efforts.