The Feminist Movement in the Arab World

Historically, women were oppressed by men, who traditionally occupied the dominant position in the society. At the same time, the position of women is changing dramatically at the present epoch. The emergence of feminism in the western countries stimulated the rapid change of the position of women in western societies. As a result, today, western women have consistently larger opportunities than they used to have in the past. However, such positive changes are the characteristic of the western society, while in many societies, especially in Asia and Arab world, the position of women is still very difficult. In this respect, the cultural peculiarities, norms and traditions of the Arab world play a very important part because the dominant cultural norms were created by men and are oriented on the dominance of men in the Arab society. No wonder, it is men who occupy the leading positions on all levels of the Arab society, while women’s emancipation is very slow. Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean that Arab women are absolutely deprived of an opportunity to change their current position in the society for better. In stark contrast, Arab women attempt to change the biased view on women as inferior to men. In the modern Arab world, women start taking an active social position and they attempt to spread feminist ideas in the Arab society, in spite of the resistance from the conservative part of the society. In this respect, the work of Arab female writers, such as Saddeka Arebi and Evelyne Accad, is particularly important because they lay the ideological foundation to the Arab feminism.

This ideology can lead to a consistent socio-cultural change within the Arab world because it contributes to the formation of a positive view on women as equal to men.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to underline the fact that the current position of Arab women is very difficult because they have to debunk the existing biases and stereotypes in order to be able to take a higher social position and become equal to men. At the same time, they are deprived of practical opportunities to influence the current policies in the Arab world. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that one of the major problems of the modern feminist movement in the Arab world is the problem of the underrepresentation of women in politics and their secondary role in the social and economic life of the Arab world, which deprives them of tools which they can use to influence policies which define the development of the society. The secondary position of women in the Arab world is based on several factors, including cultural traditions of the region and different initial opportunities for men and women in the region. In this respect, it is important to underline that the difference of opportunities may be viewed as a consequence of the dominant cultural traditions. The Arab culture is based on norms of Islam and it may vary from a country to country, but there is a cultural core, which makes all people living in the Arab world united. In fact, Islam may be viewed as a core of the Arab culture, but the problem is that Islam is developed by males. Hence, Islam and the Arab culture are dominated by men and masculine views prevail in the local culture.

In such a context, the position of Arab women is extremely discriminated. At the present moment, Arab women have little access to education, though the situation has started to improve in recent years. Traditionally, education of women was viewed as absolutely unnecessary since women were traditionally focused on household and family life.

Nevertheless, today, the situation starts to change because Arab women want to get larger opportunities for their professional development, which needs education. However, local traditions affect consistently their access to education.

In general, the situation in the Arab world concerning women’s education varies consistently since some countries have made a considerable progress, while in other countries the impact of conservative, traditional views on women’s education is still very strong. To put it more precisely, the Gulf countries may be viewed as the most successful in regard to the provision of women with opportunities to get education, though, there may be certain exceptions. For instance, the rate of girls’ enrollment in primary school varies from 97% to 90 % in Tunisia, Syria, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian territories, Algeria, Morocco, while in Djibouti and Sudan it varies from 32% to 42% respectively (Moghadam, 2005). In such a way, in many countries of the Gulf region the overwhelming majority of Arab women can have the primary education that is apparently a positive trend in terms of equality of rights and opportunities of Arab women.

The situation is worse in regard to the secondary education, though there are also consistent improvements in many Arab countries. For instance, eight countries have girls’ enrollment rate which vary from 90 % to 70% in Bahrain, Palestinian territories, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait, Arab Emirates, Oman (Moghadam, 2005). In such a way, the girls’ enrollment rate in secondary school is lower compared to the primary school, though this difference may be explained by the fact that positive changes in this domain have started recently.

Hence, it is quite natural, that the level of Arab women who receive higher education is consistently lower compared to secondary education. To put more precisely, the highest rate of women’s enrollment in higher education is 53% in Arab Emirates, while the lowest is 5% in Yemen and 2% in Djibouti (Moghadam, 2005).

Thus, today, Arab women are often deprived of an opportunity to get the higher education that naturally decreases their chances for a successful professional career in politics or media. In the result of the lack of education, Arab women naturally suffer from underrepresentation in politics and media. However, as for media, it is probably the most desirable domain in which many Arab women want to make a professional career. For instance, it is worth mentioning the fact that from 60% to 70% of information and communication institutes’ students in Arab countries are women (Moghadam, 2005). Consequently, the media become the priority for many Arab women in their higher education and, what is more important, they receive higher education and, therefore, they have larger chances to make a successful professional career in media.

This fact is very important since women can use media to change a biased view on women. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the work by Saddeka Arebi “Women and Words in Saudi Arabia: Politics of Literary Discourse”, in which the author appeals to Arab female writers to take an active social position and struggle against the discrimination of women in the Arab world. At this point, education is apparently a crucial factor, because the number of Arab female writers is not as large as male writers that is determined by the lack of education opportunities. In such a situation, it is very important that female writers, who have already managed to succeed, assisted other women to succeed in their life and professional career. Arebi (1994) argues that female writers can change the public opinion consistently, if they work on the problem of discrimination of women and if they support the feminist movement in the Arab world.

At the same time, the success of female writers in the Arab world proves the fact that feminism progresses fast in Arab countries. In fact, a few decades ago, it was practically impossible to find a successful Arab female writer, because women were traditionally illiterate and they could not read nor write. In contrast, today, they have already got larger opportunities to get some education and start professional career as a writer or journalist, for instance.

What they lack at the moment is the popularization of feminist ideas in the society. People are unaware of the injustice of the secondary position of women in the Arab society. in this respect, it is possible to agree with Arebi in regard to the role of female writers in the modern feminist movement in the Arab world.

Politics is an extremely conservative field where the position of men is particularly strong. It is even possible to estimate that there is no other sphere in the Arab society, where the representation of women was as insignificant as it is in politics. For instance, in some countries women are not represented in national parliaments. To put it more precisely, five Arab countries have zero women in their parliaments: Qatar, Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (Zuhur, 2003). This means that women cannot directly influence the legislative power of these countries and they have little or no access to executive and judicial powers in these countries. Consequently, the male dominant parliaments are unlikely to defend or improve the actual position of women in these countries. At any rate, women will be more concerned on their problems than males are.

In fact, the situation is not much better in other countries. For instance, Yemen has only 0.3 % of women in the parliament. Furthermore, four countries, including Oman, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Egypt, have from 2% to 3% of women in parliament. In such a context, the situation in Algeria, Jordan and Sudan is consistently better, since women in these countries have from 5% to 10% of places in parliament, while Syria, Morocco, Djibouti and Iraq are the most advanced countries in this regard since they have from 10% to 12% of women in parliament (Nadje and Pratt, 2006).

Obviously, the level of the representation of women in Arab countries’ parliaments is extremely low, especially compared to developed democratic countries, where women have practically equal opportunities to be represented in parliament. At any rate, women have consistently larger number of places in parliaments of developed democratic countries compared to Arab countries. Consequently, Arab women are underrepresented or even unrepresented at all in the legislative power that limits their opportunities to influence the development of their countries and change the position of women.

However, the situation in the executive power is even worth since women are practically deprived of an opportunity to enter the government or take a minister position in an Arab country. In fact, the percentage of women in government, and especially as ministers is so weak in the Arab world that the rate is derisible 0.1% in 2005 (Zuhur, 2003). This level of representation can hardly be compared to developed democratic countries, where women can not only enter the government but take minister’s position or even head the government, for instance, German government is headed by a woman.

The underrepresentation of women in politics of Arab countries decreases dramatically their opportunities to take socially important decisions. Instead, male remain decision-makers, while the role of Arab women in politics still remains secondary. Often male officials appoint women just as a symbol, while the national politics still remains under the total control of men. Consequently, women have little access to all branches of power, including legislative, executive and judicial.

However, the situation has started to change and the presence of women in national parliaments of some Arab countries gives them larger opportunities to defend interests of women on the legislative level. At the same time, media, where the representation of women is larger, increase opportunities of women to influence the public opinion and, thus, change the attitude of the society to women and their professional careers, including not only media but also politics.

On analyzing the role of women in politics, it is important to underline the fact that women could have potentially changed dramatically the current policies of the Arab world. At this point, it should be said that male and female views on the war vary dramatically (Accad, 1992), while many Arab countries are involved in military conflicts. In such a situation, women could have changed the policies of Arab countries. However, the lack of opportunities to influence the decision making process raises very serious obstacles on the way of women to politics. In such a situation, one of the major priorities of the modern feminist movement is the overcoming of existing cultural barriers, de-biasing Arab society and changing the position of women in the Arab world.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the position of women in the Arab world is still very difficult, but it is possible to trace positive changes due to the development of the feminist movement. At the same time, Arab feminism is still under-developed and Arab women are still deprived of large opportunities to get education, to participate in political as well as socioeconomic life of their countries. In such a context, priorities of the feminist movement in the Arab world are education, politics and socioeconomic sphere, where Arab women need to gain parity with men.

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