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Saudi Arabia’s gender hegemony in the new Arab world

February 16, 2012 1 comment

For a nation that measures success in black gold, Saudi Arabia hopes sending one female athlete to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London will pacify gender equality activists. But meeting the International Olympic Committee’s bare minimum requirement for female participation is hardly a bold stance.

Taken in context, this is still Salafist-dominated Saudi Arabia, the hallmark of gender inequality in the Arab world. Putting it in another context, however, spells bad news for the clean Arab Spring slate regarding human rights.

From The Jerusalem Post:

Saudi Arabia, which follows a male-dominated puritan form of Islam that bars women from driving or travelling aboard alone follows strict gender segregation, is the last to buckle under to IOC demands. Since it is seeking athletes who live abroad, Saudi Arabia’s most likely Olympic female athlete is reportedly Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old equestrienne who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics. At that time, Malhas did not officially represent the kingdom.

From Tunisia to Egypt, women hoped bringing down dictators would usher in respect for women’s rights. Unfortunately, the hodgepodge revolutionaries’ power was far too scattered to mount a cohesive political front or voice. Yes, women’s rights, they said. But how? The question remains largely unanswered as political realities threaten to minimize liberal groups’ impact in nascent democracies.

The Kingdom of Saud is the counterbalance to the revolutionary hoopla. An overwhelmingly Sunni nation — much like the rest of the Arab world — asserting social values across the Persian Gulf with recently empowered fundamentalist political parties will likely slow the women’s rights agenda.

The Muslim Brotherhood and conservative groups like Ennahda were poised to jump into the political arena because, though marginalized under former reigns, were still organized political groups. This much is known, is history.

The future will reveal them to be more moderate than fearmongers predicted one year ago. Playing in the political system does these things, and those groups didn’t wait decades on the backburner within their respective nations to throw it all away on unpopular, autocratic initiatives.

But to each Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda there are even more fundamentalist groups. Their strength — and, to the same extent, liberal parties’ weaknesses — will determine whether groups like the Muslim Brotherhood invite them into coalitions. The Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt especially, recognized doing so would blatantly dismiss the work of the revolutionaries whose views are not reflected in ultra-conservative parties.

Viewed through this Olympic snafu, the Arab Spring hardly has had a liberalizing effect on Saudi Arabia. While expected, the ramifications of this resistance should not be understated. Undoubtedly, fundamentalist groups in new Arab democracies will follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, which is as hegemonic a force for fundamental political Islam as anywhere in the world.

If strong liberal parties in other Arab nations fail to emerge, Saudi Arabian influence may continue to grow as Egypt’s prominence declines. That will make it ever harder for women’s rights to gain traction.

 

 

Egypt, Jordan reproductive health changes — the new youth revolution

Jordan and Egypt made positive strides in reproductive health through the past several years but still have many challenges and opportunities to address, according to World Bank reports publicized yesterday.

Some of the key findings showed stark improvement in some areas: Egypt halved its infant mortality rate and malnutrition in children under five years old in the past two decades; 89 percent of Jordanian 15-year-old girls are literate; fewer than 2 percent of Jordanians live on less than $1.25 per day; overall fertility is declining, which is a positive for the overpopulated and youth-heavy nations; and use of modern contraceptives in both nations is increasing.

However, those pluses must be met with the sobering realities in each country. Contraceptive use among married women is just 60 percent in Egypt and 59 percent in Jordan. In Egypt, just 58 percent of women aged 15 and older are literate. Just 25 percent of Egyptian adult females work, mostly in agriculture. Fertility remains high among the poorest in each nation, creating large social problems. The poor are more at risk of early childbearing in each nation. HIV awareness is low in Egypt.

With 33 percent of Egypt and 35 percent of Jordan younger than 15 years old, tremendous opportunities exist to improve those statistics, the World Bank said. And if the revolutions in Egypt and Jordan (to a much lesser extent, of course) has proven anything, it’s that Arab youth are tired of being denied the standard of living so many other nations have. That means a path for grassroots reproductive health education has been paved, as raising the standard of living starts with healthy pregnancies.

Healthy pregnancies is an all-encompassing term. It doesn’t just mean birthing a functioning child — it means having a child at the proper age, having the right amount of children, being economically self-sufficient and having two parents. None of that will happen, however, without proper education and societal change that empowers women and promotes safe sex.

Both of those aims — empowering women and promoting safe sex — are complicated in the current Egyptian and Jordanian context. Still ruled and influenced by older religious men, women — especially in Egypt — are subordinate to men in every way. Additionally, contraception is frowned upon in Muslim society despite no explicit mention of banning birth control in the Qur’an.

These customs will be difficult to overturn in a top-down fashion. But, then again, the same would be said for changing governance — which is exactly why revolutions in Egypt and Jordan have been youth-led, grassroots efforts. The opportunity to change society and not only politics can be exploited in the same way. By directing the female empowerment and contraception message at the enormous youth populations in Jordan and Egypt, change will slowly occur. And this is change that does not require an election — it can happen everyday, with any person, whenever they choose.

Jordan report

Egypt report

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