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Women have historically been seen as inferior to men. Progress on and the fight for women’s rights, however, has also had an early start with the Abrahamic religions affording women some protections, although these did not always align with civil laws at the time. It was not until truly significant acts, such as the French revolution that women began to be afforded more rights, and change took place.
Fundamental human rights were made clear and internationally accepted with the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the mid 20th century. A framework, specific to gender issues emerged from this, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), one of the most important benchmarks for women’s equality. More than 189 countries ratified the convention when it was implemented, including all countries in the Middle East, except Iran and Sudan. However, some reservations were stipulated on the claim that they were contrary to Islamic law, and those countries were not prepared to amend national constitutions that conflicted with the proposed ratifications..
Following a long tradition of activism, women’s rights campaigners have sought to instigate change. Progress has not always been linear, while movements have been diverse and impacted by various phases of history. Furthermore, even where improvement has been realised, women have always been vulnerable to re-marginalisation. Overall, there have been great strides in women’s rights, with ongoing efforts to combat abuse in collaboration with elements outside secular and regional actors.
Regional women’s rights activism throughout history
Most analysis of women’s rights movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) tends to start from the beginning of the 20th century, with clear turning points, such as in Egypt with the 1919 revolution – hundreds of Egyptian women joined protests against the British occupation, which led to the British losing most of its control over the North African country – and the establishment of various unions like the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU) in 1923. However, some thinkers place great weight on earlier efforts, such as those of Turkish women during the Ottoman Empire period in the face of its modernisation agenda.
Jewish women fought for the right to vote in Jewish settlements in Palestine in the 1920s, predating the establishment of the state of Israel. From there, women continued their battle for gender equality in other fields.
However, there is consensus that feminism and the emergence of nationalist movements to fight colonialism are intertwined, and in many instances, particularly in North Africa, independence is aligned with educational, social, and political outcomes for women. Although these were often subsumed within wider initiatives for social justice.
The Middle East and North Africa as a region would inevitably be set back, from a series of political events, including the Iranian revolution in 1979. In Iran itself, after a period of success in family law reform, the revolution saw the re-marginalisation of women.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the US as the sole superpower were also significant, leading to the rise of ‘political Islam,’ and the resulting dynamics categorised women’s voices as ‘secular’ or ‘Islamic’.
The Arab Spring further complicated this dynamic, as women proved to be both agents for change as well as victims. Connected to this is the development of technology and social media, which has helped activists communicate their issues and connect with others while raising international awareness of their various concerns.
The relationship between women’s movements and conservatism
Even though political Islam has deep historical roots, its rising tide has been associated with the 1980s after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the rise of the Afghan Mujahideen after the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among other events. The Muslim Brotherhood movement was also growing, particularly in Egypt.
Islamism had a reputation for regressive attitudes and policies towards women; The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for instance, increased pressure to implement more conservative laws. However, changing political regimes and state vulnerability also ushered in new voices. Leftists and Islamists often found themselves on the same side of the political spectrum as secular and Islamic feminists did. Much had changed since the Brotherhood’s inception when there were specific views on women’s role in society to there being negotiables and non-negotiables on women’s rights.
In other areas, like Saudi Arabia, the picture is less complex, and women’s rights activists have paid the price with their freedom for campaigning for the right to carry out seemingly innocuous activities like driving.
There is some research to suggest that women are playing a more significant role in Islamist political movements in the MENA, such as Hizbollah in Lebanon and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, creating strong women’s branches and pushing for broader political participation and representation in their movements’ leadership.
The Carnegie Endowment Foundation says these women still reject western feminism and maintain Islamist values, but could be the vehicle for women’s rights to be promoted in the region, rather than other feminist movements.
Oftentimes conservatism preserves patriarchal norms such as in Kuwait, where, in 2020, the only female MP in the nation’s parliament lost her seat.
The development of women’s rights
CEDAW is often cited as the benchmark for women’s equality, and it’s significant that many countries in the Middle East, in effect, do not comply due to their reservations. Some of these reservations included the right to change the nationality of children and women’s dependency on their husbands regarding residency and freedom of movement. In addition, around 10 countries objected to the same rights in marriage and guardianship being afforded to women.
At the same time, according to a 2020 World Bank report, MENA countries have worked the most on legislative and regulatory changes to strengthen the economic role of women. For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the first MENA country to support working women through a paid holiday system for parents; Participation in the national workforce reached 57.5% of all women in 2020.
Saudi Arabia has also introduced various reforms to promote equality in the workplace. It also notably removed restrictions on freedom of movement. These signs of progress have, however, been tainted by efforts to oppress the movements that allowed these reforms to take place, such as by imprisoning the women activists protesting against the ban on women driving in the kingdom.
Personal status laws – which relate to areas of family law like marriage, inheritance or child custody – are a key area where activism and reform has been notable. Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait are countries, for instance, where women cannot marry themselves and need parental or guardian consent, with some exceptions. Reforms have taken place for the better, although tensions still exist in some countries like Iraq, through pressure from clerics. The jurisdiction of the national Personal Status law, established in 1959 in the Gulf country, has been threatened to be handed back to the religious courts. Many note how the law in its original form had been shaped by women and vastly improved their rights.
Violence against women, one of the most contentious focuses of women’s rights in the region, is still widespread in MENA.
According to UN Women, 37% of Arab women, a conservative estimate, have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. Domestic violence is also thought to have increased during the pandemic. Women’s activists in the region have often overlooked the issue but it has been gaining ground as a campaign cause.
Crucially, these issues have been getting more urgent due to international pressure, with governments responding to further their political objectives.
Key movements and activists
The MENA region has borne many women activists and movements raising awareness of rights abuses, including:
Iran #NoBan4Women campaign:
Women in Iran had been banned from attending football stadiums, an embargo frequently defied by female football enthusiasts, resulting in their detention. A campaign to overturn the ban had success in time for an October World Cup qualifier when Iran played in 2018.
Israa Gharib protests
Israa Gharib was a Palestinian make-up artist and victim of an honour killing after posting a picture of herself with a boy. Gharib’s death sparked protests demanding justice and protections for women and women sharing their own experiences of domestic violence on social media, which Global Fund for Women argue was a “” turning point in public opinion that led to incredible growth for the movement to end violence against women”. Thousands of Palestinians in cities across the region marched in protest under the banner of “No liberated homeland without the liberation of women.”. Change is still to come, however, with at least 26 femicide cases in the West Bank and Gaza in 2021.
Al-Anoud Hussain Sheryan’s story
Al-Anoud Hussain Sheryan was a 19-year-old girl disfigured in an acid attack by her husband after marriage at age 12. In pursuit of justice for her attack, she publicly relayed her ordeal, described as “rare testimony in a country where domestic violence is largely hidden.”
Influential feminist writer May Ziadeh
May Ziadeh was a Lebanese-Palestinian poet, essayist, and translator, active in the early 20th century. Her approach was thought to have a significant influence on other writers. She is accredited with introducing feminism to Arab culture when women’s education was virtually non-existent.
Campaign against Saudi driving ban
As one of the most perplexing prohibitions under Saudi law, the driving ban on women had over the years triggered subversive action, but it was when the sea change started that Loujain al-Hathloul and Eman Al Najan bore the wrath of the kingdom. Shortly before the ban was lifted, the two campaigners, who have been outspoken on human rights issues, were detained. They have since been released after immense international attention.
Against forced hijab in Iran: Nasrin Sotoudeh
Nasrin Sotoudeh is a renowned Iranian women’s and human rights lawyer who, in 2019, was shockingly sentenced to 38 years in jail and 148 lashes for spying, spreading propaganda and insulting Iran’s supreme leader. She defended women who publicly took off their hijab in 2018, an act authorities have equated with treason. She remains under sentence and steadfast in her opposition to forced hijab.
How the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ impacted women’s movements
The ‘ Arab Spring ‘ was a product of unequal rights, wealth distribution, and discrimination, resulting in the overthrowing of long-standing leaders and triggering civil wars, some of which are still ongoing. It also had an impact on regional women’s movements, in two important ways.
Firstly, there was the increased street presence of women across all age groups, beliefs, ethnicities, and social statuses at the time of mobilisations. The protests in Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, for example, were labelled ‘althawrah untha’, meaning the revolution is female. The strong imagery of women in the resolutions also became symbols of the unfolding movements.
However, the change that initially occurred did not give women a seat at the table, and they were excluded from decision-making roles after the uprisings, with the governments possessing little to no female representation.
In addition, women were excluded from the bodies drafting the new constitutions, while discussions took place about women’s roles belonging in the domestic sphere. There were also efforts to rail back progressive family law and politically motivated violence against women emerged.
The impact differed in North Africa, compared with the Middle East. This difference is because more women have been elected or were appointed than in the former. And typically, women’s issues have been used to further political gains in the Maghreb, particularly to counter Islamist momentum. The appointment of Tunisia’s first female prime minister, for example, was called out by some as mere symbolism.
The Arab Spring also changed women’s rights movements going forward, with these gender-based rights playing centre stage when urging democratic reforms and more interaction with Islamic feminists.
Women’s movements that seek gender equality have existed in some form since before the 20th century across the MENA region but how they have manifested in each country is particular to their own context and history. Nationalist movements may be intertwined with feminism, but the needs of women have played secondary to issues of nationalist concern.
Women’s rights have also been used as a tool to counter the increased popularity of conservative elements. Although generally, strides have been made in affording women better economic, political and social rights, some areas are still tricky to establish impact, like violence against women. Other areas have been less controversial, like personal status laws, and that has been, arguably, more amenable to change.
Increased Islamisation has been generally seen as antithetical to women’s rights, but more female leadership among these groups could be the vehicle to instigate change after the disappointing impact of the so-called Arab Spring.