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Posts Tagged ‘women’s rights’

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.

 

 

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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

Interesting essay on the Qur’an and beating women

August 1, 2011 2 comments

I don’t pretend to know the Qur’an, so I’ll refer you all to an informative analysis of Qur’anic verse and hadiths that discuss whether Muslim men may beat their wives. As I’ve argued before, some Muslim groups and nations oppress women more out of customary rather than textual Qur’anic interpretation. This essay at altmuslimah.com addresses that issue, but in much better detail than I ever could. It also discusses Qur’anic text juxtaposed with historical events and analysis that could justify Muslims beating their wives. Here’s an excerpt, but I encourage you to read the whole thing:

There are very mixed messages about “beating” in the hadith literature. Several reports seem to forbid it entirely; Abu Dawud quotes the Prophet as saying,: “Do not beat [women].” [9] In other narrations, the Prophet commands,: “Do not beat Muslims,” and warns that “anyone who gives a beating” will answer for it on the Day of Judgment. [10] Still other hadiths assume that a moderate level of beating is permissible in some situations, and admonish against beating a slave “more than he deserves.” [11]

Although the traditional view of 4:34 does affirm “beating,” Muslim scholars have narrowed its scope to the point where the term is almost meaningless. Based on a variety of hadiths, and the broader principles of Islam, they have ruled that any “beating” must avoid the face and must not cause injury. The Prophet allegedly used the Arabic words ghayr mubarrih to describe how it should be carried out. [12]When asked to explain this phrase, which can be rendered as “not violently,” a respected companion of the Prophet named Ibn Abbas suggested that the husband should strike his wife with a twig. [13] Classical scholars certainly agree that verse 4:34 does not condone domestic violence as we define it today, but they insist that the text does say “beat them.”

Turkey’s influence could emphasize women in new Arab democracies

Women now comprise 14 percent of Turkey’s parliament and could grow to 25 percent by 2015, which could have some effect on possible Middle East democracies and their inclusion of women.

Turkey appears to view itself as a progressive, modern Islamic nation and a leader for the region. It is very likely that Turkey will assist emerging Middle East democracies in establishing institutions. And Middle East nations may look to Turkey for advice before it invites United States meddling.

If Turkey lends a hand in designing Middle East democratic institutions, its female parliament presence could show nations like Egypt and Tunisia that women need a voice in the legislature. Turkey is a model Egypt and Tunisia wish to emulate, and including women in parliament is one way to appear more progressive, at least at a surface level.

Of course, Turkey didn’t become this way overnight. From the Washington Institute on Near East Policy:

This was a slow process, with the ratio rising from 0.88-1.34 percent in the 1980s, to 2-4 percent in the 1990s.

Since the late 1990s, however, women’s demands have accelerated the rate: In each election, the ration of women legislators has nearly doubled, reaching 14 percent on June 12. If this current trend holds, at least a quarter of all deputies in the 2014-15 legislature will be women.

Turkey, still lukewarm on its European Union aspirations, has moved toward a more Islamic-oriented nation under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Previously, it harbored strong ties with Syria, although those are now waning.

The Arab Spring is about human rights and democracy. Women are part of that mix. Having Turkey as a guiding hand will help show more conservative Muslims who support democracy that women have a place in making important political decisions.

Saudi women earn inheritance rights

The Saudi Justice Ministry says people who deprive women of inheritance may face imprisonment, an important shift that conflicts with the religiously rigid, patriarchal majority Salafi society.

According to ArabNews.com, denying women inheritance was more common among tribes. But in the Wahhabi-influence nation, the more fundamentalist customary rather than textual implementation of Islam prevails. Therefore, there is reason to believe this dynamic is more widespread than what ArabNews is letting on, even if it occurs discreetly.

The measure in part addresses a 2008 United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women report, which suggested codifying into law equal gender rights for inheritance and a host of other issues.

From the report:

concept of male guardianship over women (mehrem), although it may not be legally prescribed, seems to be widely accepted; it severely limits women’s exercise of their rights under the Convention, in particular with regard to their legal capacity and in relation to issues of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in the family, and the choice of residency, education and employment.

In the section of the Qur’an that discusses mahram, there is no mention of male supremacy over women. This is the crux of the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam — much of it is founded on customs that existed during the time of Mohammed. For comparison, and as I have said before, the United States would be considered a backwards place if this majority Christian nation based civil society on the customs at the time Jesus walked the earth.

In fact, the Qur’an precedes a section on mahram for women with equally moralistic instruction for men in their dealings with the opposite sex.

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. (24:30)

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss. (24:31)

Clearly, the verse regarding women is more restrictive — such was society at the time. But nowhere does it mention that men have supremacy over women. So where does this interpretation come from? Fundamentalism, whether it’s Christian or Islamic, is rooted not in text but in an idea that the people interpreting that text today know what the prophets wanted better than anyone else does. And because of their immovable devotion to the faith, they are willing to be loud and use whatever force or tactics necessary to impress their views.

There is a sense of male supremacy in the Qur’an, that is for sure. But that’s only because it was written during a time when women were largely considered temptresses and second-class citizens. Those times need to change — 1,400 years is too long.

Arab world needs a Rosie the Riveter

A new book on how Arab media portrays women is coming out at the right time as Arab nations undergo political change that should make governments more responsible to people and, hopefully, give women a stronger and more equal voice in the national dialogue.

Social media has helped give Arab women a voice they never had before. While picketing is visible to any passerby and therefore easily discouraged by Arab men who view the home as the woman’s role in society, social media protesting occurred secretly.

But visibility is arguably the single greatest chance for changing society. If women want a greater role in Arab society, they will have to be treated as equal in the media. Media represents a society’s shared community of ideas, and those ideas are disseminated throughout the day through media. Women in the workplace and, in general, as men’s equals, need to become part of that message.

The book, based on empirical research, looks at how international readers think Arab media portrays media. The idea is that historically, Arab media has treated women as passive, veiled observers. They have been reactionary commentators on policies designed by patriarchal and religious rulers.

But how can this be changed? The first step, in my opinion, should be through giving women a greater presence in media depictions of the workplace.

A 2002 UN report showed that women were receiving better, yet still stereotypical portrayal in Arab media:

Advertisements featuring women in the Arab world nowadays are often showing women as
submissive wives happily using the products being sold.  So the camera focus has turned toward
a different, but still stereotypical direction.  As noted by media specialist researchers, there is too
much focus on housewives and too little attention given to working women.

Arab media should take the Rosie the Riveter approach if it is to push the idea of women being equal to men in the workplace. Of course, that iconic image was US propaganda designed to draw women to the workplace while men served overseas in World War II. That image attracted many women to work side by side with men in factories and jump started the role of women in the workplace. Obviously that battle continues in the US, with women earning 77 cents for every dollar men receive. But Arab countries need to start somewhere, and lending a more positive image to women — putting them in more advertisements depicting working people is a good idea — in advertising is step one.

The Arab world needs a Rosie the Riveter

I don’t believe most Arab states are ready to push such an image, and given rampant unemployment in the Arab world I don’t believe they are in the position to do so. The US had an employment problem of the best kind — it had to fill positions — but Arab nations are having a difficult time creating jobs for thousands of young university graduates.

It certainly wasn’t American society that was ready for women in the workplace — the economy demanded it. With women receiving the vote just 20 years before, I have a hard time believing the US push for women in the workplace would have organically proceeded at such a pace without WWII.

That’s the conundrum in the Arab world. A good portion of the Arab world from the government down to the street may not be ready for Rosie the Riveter. Many Arab nations are based on “traditional roles,” many of which are (mis)guided by a fundamentalist capitulation of the Qur’an, making portraying women in the workplace not only difficult but ideologically impossible.

The Arab world needs its own Rosie the Riveter, regardless of the economic and employment conditions. If governments want to micromanage, they could offer tax credits to companies that advertise with women in the workplace — or give tax credits simply for hiring women.

It may take a paradigm shift for such initiatives to get started. The Arab Spring is that paradigm shift. If patriarchal, fundamentalist-leaning governments fall, there’s a greater chance for them to be democratically replaced by pragmatic politicians who understand women need a greater role in society.

Social media and Saudi women driving

Rushdi Siddiqui wrote an excellent opinion this week about Saudi women drivers, the contradictions of the Qur’an that Saudis have used to legitimate unequal gender rights and social media.

Siddiqui argues that social media has given women a voice. That alone is a marked change in Saudi Arabia, he contends. So if that can change, why not the laws governing who gets to drive?

It’s plausible that social media alone allowed Saudi women to put themselves in the literal and proverbial driver’s seat in their fight for driving rights. Social media has given them a way to organize and protest like they never could before, as Twitter and Facebook exist in the physical world only if someone is looking for it. What I mean by that is passersby can see picketers on the street, but you have to really be looking for something on Twitter or Facebook. That has allowed Saudi women to operate in the shadows, more or less.

I encourage you to read the entire thing. From altmuslim.com:

The womens’ driving movement in Saudi Arabia has been articulated as violating the defined traditional roles of women, a slippery slope in the adoption of western cultural values that will result in increased road accidents, public mixing of the sexes with adverse consequences, and so on. There have even been comments by local religious conservative scholars or imams that a woman driving is a violation of Shariah rules.

The stated argument of sexual context could be applicable to anything, from instant messaging to mobile phones. One wonders what is on the mind of person making such statements. In the eyes of some people, global connectivity, via social media, is the beginning of the end of segregation of the sexes. In their eyes, the ability to legislate, regulate and enforce morality has been forever undermined to the detriment of society by social media.
…..

Women have been driving in many Muslim countries, from Turkey to Pakistan to Egypt to Malaysia, and, interestingly, women have been driving in the rural areas in Saudi Arabia without incident. Is the real issue, if women are officially allowed to drive in the Kingdom, a slippery slope of women gaining more rights and, conversely, men losing their dominance over women?

Is that a bad thing? Will it encourage qualified women to join the work force and contribute to the economy? Won’t allowing women with licenses to drive actually encourage more white collar executives to bring their entire families to the country?

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