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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Flirting is Not an Alternative for Women’s Rights

An activist takes part in a demonstration against sexual harassment
An activist takes part in a demonstration against sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence in the Lebanese capital Beirut on December 7, 2019.

Ghassan Okla

All discussions about women in the Arab world are just rhetorical and romantic. They are totally different from what happens in reality. Neither flirting, nor being sincere, respectful or sympathetic with women could reflect that they are not classified as “socially vulnerable”. Rather, women always fought for their rights in a masculine society that insists on treating them as “deficient in intelligence and religion.”

At the beginning, it must be noted that rights sought by Arab women – along with those who represent them in the feminist movements – are only civil and social rights. These rights include giving nationality to their children, securing their inheritances or marriage rights. All of those rights are formally guaranteed by the Personal Status laws. The scripts of these laws differ in accordance with sects and doctrines in each country of the Arab world. However, these rights are not the same as the ones included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights such as human dignity or equality in front of the law. Rather, almost all social classes in the Arab world are deprived from the rights mentioned in the aforementioned universal declaration. Such rights are only ink on papers in Arab constitutions. And by the way, Arab countries’ commitment to “Human Rights” in the international sense might eliminate the need for discussions and divisions around the rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups and minorities. And this will certainly include women.

When they talk about “Women’s Rights”, the different political and ideological currents make heated discussions about the core concept that these rights should deal with. Arab feminist movements, for example, fail to formulate a realistic feminist discourse that is able to face the political and economic fluctuations of society. In turn, conservatives stick to the “justice concept” while liberals’ card is the “concept of equality”. Both concepts are broad. Nevertheless, shedding the light on both concepts will clarify what might be suitable for realising the aspirations of the Arab woman.

The justice concept in the Arab world generally refers to the Islamic principles. Theorists of this current believe that Islam raised the value of “Justice” and that Islam actually secured justice across all classes and minorities, and not only on women. By this, Islam was – according to them – able to achieve balance and homogeneity in one society. On the other side, opposers of this current believe that the concept of justice in Islam (even if they acknowledged it) was exclusive to the needs of the Muslim society 1400 years ago. Opposers believe that the social and economic changes require reviewing a lot of provisions such as inheritance and others. Supporters describe this provision as “definitive” and “invariable to having various interpretations”. To justify their stance, they use the following Quran’s verse: “Allah directs you as regards your Children’s, to the male, a portion equal to that of two females”. Nevertheless, opposers believe that sticking to this inheritance provision contradicts with many provisions that were adjusted in spite of being textually proven in Quran. Examples of such modifications include adjusting theft and fornication punishments. Consequently, opposers believe that equality must be attained due to the modern developments seen inside Arab societies.

However, does equality actually fulfill women’s aspirations in the masculine Arab societies? In other words: How do women call for equality with men in the same patriarchal society that gave birth to “Inequality”?! Perhaps, the feminist movements in the west noticed these questions in an early stage. The American feminist pioneer Kate Millett says “Patriarchy is the most rooted ideology in our civilisation that are largely based on the concept of power. This ideology is the main source of dominance and oppression over women.” More particularity: Equality cannot be attained between individuals of a society that is based on the cultural, biological and mental dominance of a certain group. Furthermore, securing equality in this context is an injustice to women themselves and a violation of all their rights.

Let us assume then that women and men are completely equal in the right to work without considering the biological natural differences. This directly means depriving women of getting a maternity leave or providing nurseries for their children during working hours. Perhaps the arbitrariness of the “concept of equality” has to lean on another concept which is “fairness”. This last concept is based on the “positive discrimination” in favour of the vulnerable groups. Through fairness, society may create suitable conditions for all citizens according to their biological, gender, religious and cultural differences. Their special needs would not prevent them from attaining their goals where individual abilities would be the decisive factor.

Finally, all these concepts and laws should not prevent individuals from knowing themselves and their rights. All laws and legislations – no matter how great they seem to be – would be nonsense in a society that has a false consciousness. For instance, some rural communities – despite their extreme religious devotion – would deprive women of inheriting their rightful portion of properties. Those societies justify such a thing by saying that the father’s properties, for instance, must not be given to a stranger (who is in this case the spouse of the daughter). Another example might be seen in cities that prevent women from working under the pretext that work would make them “tomboys”. So, women’s rights in the Arab world require more than just drafting laws or having a consensus on concepts. Before anything, the matter requires persuading men to stop flirting with women and start viewing them as human beings with rights.

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