April 21, 2019

Gender inequality in the Arab world

Discrimination against women in the realms of status laws, political representation and employment is not unique to the Arab world. However, it is widespread in the Arab world thanks to vestigial patriarchal cultural patterns and values compounded by a conservative religious political system and closed authoritarian political elites. All these factors perpetuate women’s inferior status.

The status of women in the Arab world differs from country to country, between rural and urban areas, and among the various social classes. Nevertheless, individual status laws anchor the discrimination against women by limiting their rights in marriage, divorce, custody of children and inheritance.

These laws, which reflect the patriarchal system that place women under the authority and guardianship of men, have a significant role in legitimizing violence against women in the private space. “Honor killing” and domestic violence essentially enjoy the support of the judicial system, which does not even provide the minimum protection for women.

In addition, Arab women are underrepresented in the economic and political systems. The percentage of women in parliaments is the lowest in the world and so is their presence in the work force — 24% lower than the rest of the world. The Arab regimes that have internalized that integrating women into politics and economy is a prerequisite for achieving progress and development, have amended individual status laws, enacted laws prohibiting violence against women and even secured parliament seats for women.

However, this positive approach is very limited, because of the regimes’ need to ensure the support of political forces and the legitimacy of the religious establishment. Whenever conservative opposition to reforms arose, women’s rights were sacrificed for the sake of political stability.

Just recently, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called on the country’s religious leaders to restrict verbal divorce (talaq). The act allows a Muslim husband to end his marriage by uttering the words: “I hereby divorce you.” The divorce can take place in the absence of his wife and even without her knowledge. El-Sissi’s initiative was rejected by the religious establishment, headed by the senior scholars of Al-Azhar mosque and university.

Unfortunately, the Arab Spring has not generated a change in the status of Arab women, despite their active participation in the uprisings and their role in initiating and organizing protests alongside their male counterparts. Women’s demands were eventually excluded from the political arena.

Worse still, the Arab Spring, which undermined the political stability of several countries, only highlighted the dismal condition of women living in areas of conflict and raging civil wars. Women in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen have paid a hefty price for military conflicts. In these war zones, defined by the absence of the rule of law, women are excluded from the public sphere and suffer physical and psychological violence.

Women living in areas under Islamic State group control were forced to become sex slaves and were awarded as “prizes” to fighters. Even women who managed to escape from the war zones were not spared the violence and humiliation: The displacement saw women detached from their families’ support system, exposing them to sexual harassment and rape in the refugee camps. In addition, the lack of financial security and health services led to a sharp rise in child brides.

Still, despite their bleak situation, women in the Arab world are not passive victims. Their participation in the Arab Spring bolstered their self-image as an important political power, bringing to light new shapes of female resistance, seeking to tackle debilitating elements — even in war-torn areas. These days, educated women with strong views on gender and politics, incorporate classic activism into promoting awareness on social media and in civil activism in efforts to change policies.

Arab women do not believe that secularism alone will guarantee their rights and do not avoid dealing with sensitive issues such as violence against women and sexual harassment, which are ingrained in the heart of the patriarchal system.

Dr. Bosmat Yefet is a lecturer in the Middle East Studies Department at Ariel University.

Source: IsraeHayom