Women in the Middle East Take a Stand

The 2016 edition of the Arab Human Development Report by the UNDP highlighted the challenges of reporting on young women in the region. The report’s authors encountered objections to their nuanced depiction of women in the region. Their examination of how young women, who were subject to prevailing norms, found ways to circumvent societal forces did not go well with several member countries. The chapter showed women actively challenging patriarchy and defining new roles for themselves, but many times these efforts were subverted by the patriarchy at home that is sustained and enforced by international agencies and western governments. There seems to be a convergence of goals between development agencies and authoritarian governments when it comes to maintaining Arab women in subservient roles. It keeps both in business, so to speak.

Women have always been at the forefront of the struggle between conservative and liberal forces regardless of how each are defined and whether it is in the East or West.
There is much happening in the Middle East and in Arab countries when it comes to women but the most effective transformations are those wrought by women themselves. Several recent headlines on women in the Middle East that do not tread the familiar themes of gender segregation, violence, and inequality instead showed women forging new roles, challenging stereotypes, and tackling patriarchy directly and on their own terms. Women certainly do not see themselves as victims and are not waiting to be saved. The myth of the western savior is rather hollow with Saudi Arabia as a champion of women’s rights at the UN and UNDP reports censoring the work of young women. Legal barriers to equality still exist and war in different parts of the Middle East affects women and children more than it does men. But there are challenges to these laws. For instance, the rape laws in Jordan and Lebanon have both been challenged by women activists. Women in Morocco have been fighting against sexual harassment in innovative ways.

Palestinian women beyond the occupation

Palestinian women have always been at the forefront of challenging social norms and taking the lead in finding new opportunities and establishing new roles for themselves. Women have been elected to national offices and served as ministers; they have also been elected for local government as mayors and members of municipal councils. While Palestinian women have been very active in national politics it is at the local level where their impact is most felt though rarely reported. The first woman mayor in Palestine, and perhaps in the Arab world, was Janet Mikhail of Ramallah in 2006. Vera Baboun is the mayor of Bethlehem.  Several women serve on municipal and village councils throughout the West Bank. Laila Ghannam is the first female appointed governor of Ramallah and al-Bireh Governorate in 2010. These women tackle the daily problems of sanitation, potholes, utility services, zoning, and building permits when it comes to running cities. After all, garbage has to be collected whether there is an occupation or not.

However, it is not only in politics that Palestinian women are making headlines. A new film Sisters of Speed profiles 5 women drivers who compete in car racing in the West Bank. They drive fast on roads that are controlled by Israel and that abruptly end in check points and barriers. The Palestinian women’s soccer team sees losing as winning as they continue to push the boundaries for what women can and cannot do.

Saudi Arabian women want to bring down male guardianship

While women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to play competitive sports, they have seized on the permission to run in local elections by the previous king. While they still cannot drive, they are mobilizing to campaign for elected office. In an absolute monarchy, this might not mean much, but it does show how women in Saudi Arabia want more than is legally permissible for them to do. Women’s rights reflect the push and pull between the monarchy and the clerics especially when it comes to guardianship.  It now seems that the monarchy is taking the lead especially with the prince heir assuming the role of reformer and being more in tune with the wants of the youth, as he is a mere 31 years old.  This includes efforts to open women only gyms to address the high rates of obesity and diabetes in the country. However, there are always setbacks.  Perhaps this is why the UN elected Saudi Arabia to its commission to promote women’s rights—an attempt by western countries to encourage the tepid gender reforms in the country. However, I see the move as collusion between patriarchal, authoritarian, but rich, regimes with international agencies and western governments.

The recent visit by President Trump to Saudi Arabia with both his wife and daughter in tow underscored how the media perceives women in the Middle East when they are next to American women. Both Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump supposedly spoke volumes about female empowerment  by just showing up unveiled but modestly and stylishly dressed.  I am not sure, however, that empowerment was the message many Saudi women got from the First Lady and First Daughter. Rather, their fashion statement resonated.  The First Lady was escorted by all Saudi men when she went to visit with the first all-women processing center in Riyadh and did have a photo-op with some of the women she met there.  She tweeted that she met amazing women and children in Saudi Arabia, but attached picture that showed her surrounded by men.

Women have always been at the forefront of the struggle between conservative and liberal forces regardless of how each are defined and whether it is in the East or West.  When it was reported that Vice President Mike Pence would not dine with a woman that was not his wife, it sounded like something that would go over very well in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps that is why there is so much hope for the Trump administration in Saudi Arabia.  Political and religious differences aside, when it comes to women they should be fashion conscious and silent, if present at all.

Faedah M. Totah is associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Featured image: Davidcito/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Cite as: Totah, Faedah M. 2017. “Women in the Middle East Take a Stand.” Anthropology News website, June 15, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.482.

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