Learning from the Past, Understanding the Present, Fighting for a better Future

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh

The incomplete yet revealing journey to the past of Western Asia with a particular focus on womanhood made me realize the importance of pursuing the investigative process of the past at all levels, including the not so obvious ones, the unthought and unthinkable, in order to build constructive memories thus histories and identities. Most Western Asian societies are struggling nowadays with social, political and economic crisis. They also suffer from diverse forms of discrimination partly based on highly selective memories serving particular interests and ideological positions, even if there are spaces of dialogue and conviviality, and few gender equality cases. (…)

This journey to the past made me realize that womanhood in Western Asia 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 independently of family structures. However, 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, …

In nowadays Western Asian societies, many 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 (even in Lebanon where the law was recently banned), and segregation and discrimination remain par for the course in educational and political institutions. (…) The female unemployment rate is much higher and the unemployment gender gap much wider in this region than in other regions. (…) Women face nowadays the risk of forfeiture of revolutions (Arab Revolutions) that were also theirs. While all efforts are focused today on the collapse of regimes and the dismantling of the old state apparatus, the claims relating to women’s rights tend to be marginalized. Even if women’s situations vary from place to another, threats converge. Women are now faced with attempts to be excluded from public life and to discrimination and violence by extremist groups. (…)

In this context of transition, it is more necessary than ever to take steps to establish full equality between men and women – indispensable foundation of democratic societies -, including the following (…):

1)      Extensive researches in the past and present of this region’s societies should be done, shedding a light on current diversity and gender management (…), as well as a deconstruction of Orientalist studies and Orientalist/post-colonial feminism, thus providing a strong rationale for the burgeoning historical and anthropological research that claims to be going beyond stereotypes of Western Asian societies and gender relations. (…) It is important to remind oneself that although negative images of women or gender relations in the region are certainly to be deplored, offering positive images or non-distorted images is a first step towards the production of knowledge.

2)    Networks between women and men should be deployed. Networks as practical sources of support and, more broadly, as a source of inspiration and a way to amplify voices and contribute to an “adding up” of women’s efforts. (…) Also, conscious efforts to work towards greater strategic focus in the work of women emerge as a common concern. There are so many effective grassroots initiatives that do not get a fraction of the resources they merit (…).  It is suggested here that women have to do more than just look for ways to work in what is perceived to be ‘traditionally acceptable roles’. (…)

3)   There should be supporting work to challenge theological approaches that exclude or downplay women. In several faith traditions, important changes in women’s roles and thus in their potential to work for peace centers on intra-faith work that challenges through theological dialogue the assumptions and teachings that have negative effects on women. (…) Women in Western Asia are called to do theology, to embark on a pilgrimage toward feminization and affirmation of the validity of women’s perception of religious reality, definition of the world, reading of history and interpretation of human experience. (…)

In a time where most societies in Western Asia are molding/re-molding their national identities, it is necessary to have an understanding of these identities as located in a temporally extended narrative, encompassing all diversities, including gender diversity. (…) Memory, history and identity have to be understood and built within a framework of a multitude of human interactions. Thus, it is an endless adventure, far from a comforting embrace. Minerva’s owl has not yet flown, and we are yet to catch sight of the elusive dusk.


This is an excerpt of my book’s conclusion ‘Womanhood in Western Asia: a Journey to the Past’, recently published in Arabic by Dar el-Machreq, Beirut, Lebanon. Book signing: December 13, 2013, 7 p.m., International Arab Book Fair (Biel, Beirut), Librairie Orientale stand. Read also: http://www.redlipshighheels.com/womanhood-in-ancient-western-asia-middle-east-why-is-it-important-to-study-the-past/

Dr. Pamela Chrabieh (Womanhood in Western Asia, A journey to the past)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *