I have been following closely the diverse campaigns on Facebook and other online platforms such as the “Uprising of Women in the Arab World”. Somehow, most testimonies reflect my concerns. As a Western Asian woman, but also as a university professor, researcher, author, artist and activist, in one of the most Patriarchal institutions i.e. the Religious circle of knowledge production, I can assure my readers that our Lebanese society, as well as most Western Asian societies are struggling not only with social, political and economic crisis, but they also suffer from diverse forms of discrimination based partly on highly selective memories serving particular interests and ideological positions.
Still, there are spaces of dialogue and conviviality, and gender equality cases. Just as memory and identity support one another, they also sustain certain subjective positions, social boundaries, and, of course, power. Every identity implies and at the same time masks a particular relationship. When one speaks of Western Asian women for example, one automatically refers to some never changing objective entity, but in fact one is participating in the process by which certain relationships among women called Western Asian and between them and others one calls the Europeans, Eastern Asian, African and Americans are constructed and sustained. One speaks as if deprived of motherhood for example, or of their housekeeper status, or even of their ‘oppressed situation’, Western Asian women would cease to be Western Asian.
While writing my last book to be soon published, on Womanhood in Western Asia, my journey to the past, investigating ancient religions and cultures, made me realize that womanhood cannot be summarized in ‘clichés’. It is a complex undergoing construction going back to thousands of years of a multiplicity of roles, situations, status, characteristics, values, visions and practices. Even what is called ‘patriarchal system’ or ‘patriarchal conditions’ vary. Some societies, religions and communities gave women a certain importance by tracing descendants from mothers rather than fathers (matrilineal societies). Others viewed and treated women as inferior and partly ornamental.
Within ancient societies in Western Asia, patriarchal frameworks were usually the norms, still, examples of gender equality existed. In several ancient societies, many women could gain some relief through religious functions, which could provide a chance to operate independent of family structures. Still, other women internalized the culture of patriarchy, holding that it was their job to obey and to serve men and accepting arguments that their aptitudes were inferior to those of men. Patriarchal laws defined some rights for women even within marriage, protecting them in theory from the worst abuses, but the application of laws depended on many factors: social, political, economic, religious, tribal, etc.
In nowadays Western Asian societies, most women suffer from deficits in human rights. Societal norms that relegate women to subordinate status continue to impede progress. Governments remain resistant to addressing inequalities for women through progressive policy or legislation and often actively pursue policies of repression. Laws against marital rape and spousal abuse are largely absent in the region, so-called “honor” killings persist, and segregation and discrimination remain par for the course in educational and political institutions.
Local and international NGOs should continue the good work they have done to support civil society activities in the region. Still, much is needed in order to implement full gender equality or at least expand existing spaces of equality.