Emancipation in the MENA region
The patriarchy is crumbling

With regard to gender justice, things look bleak in the Arab world. Laws typically discriminate against women, while national legislation all too often does not comply with the international agreements governments have signed. By Mona Naggar

Apart from Somalia and Sudan, all Arab countries have signed up to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (­CEDAW). However, they have neither ratified all of its clauses, nor adopted it in national law (­UNESCWA 2018). Indeed, legislation often still serves male dominance.

In most Arab countries, men are considered the heads of families. Inheritance laws put male relatives at an advantage. Family law is often derived from faith doctrines, which makes it harder for women to get a divorce or legal guardianship of their children. In most Arab countries, a woman’s nationality has no bearing on her children’s or husband’s citizenship. Women do not have equal access to financial resources. Legal obstacles prevent them from fully participating in public life. As a result, they are massively under-represented in politics.

Discriminating laws result from the male dominance that marks society and is rooted in conventional family norms. A mutually reinforcing dynamic of formal legislation and conservative traditions limits women’s choices and constrains their lives. Some rules are obvious, others barely visible.

14 May 2022, Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Palestinian Territory: Palestinian children play near their house between the alleys of Deir al-Balah refugee camp (photo: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/Ashraf Amr)
Strong sense of female solidarity: mothers and grandmothers in the Arab world traditionally support young women when they are pregnant, give birth, or in the care of babies and toddlers. On the other hand, female family members are generally expected to prioritise family affairs without exception. Even in instances where professional activity and independence is tolerated or even encouraged, it can never be at the expense of the family

Traditions are not codified in writing, but passed on by example. Family members are expected to comply with them and perpetuate them. It is, for example, an unwritten law that women should marry at a young age and that their greatest contribution to society is to serve as mothers and homemakers. The family is always expected to be the top priority, even when a woman does professional work.

To the outside world, the father represents the family. He is responsible for its prosperity as well as its reputation. Accordingly, he has the authority to control female family members. One consequence of this traditional understanding is that the perpetrators of honour killings often go unpunished or only receive mild sentences.

More encouraging traditions

Since the overall setting is sobering, more promising family traditions tend to pass unnoticed. And yet, they strengthen girls and women and could contribute to more gender equality. In spite of conventional male dominance and legal discrimination, they boost female self-confidence and encourage independent decision-making.

Consider Sarah Rachid, for instance. In her mid-40s, this Lebanese woman remembers how her thinking was shaped by her family’s culture: “My father always told my siblings and myself to use our brains and never be misled by people, just because they are highly regarded in society, for example because of religious leadership.” Education and independence are values that guide her. She says that even her grandmother enjoyed some financial independence, being in control of her own money.

Saudi Manahel al-Otaibi, a 25-year-old activist, walks in western clothes in the Saudi capital Riyadh’s al Tahliya street on September 2, 2019 (photo: AFP/Getty Images/FAYEZ NURELDINE)
Slow societal shift: change is underway, though it is often barely noticeable. Better education, urbanisation, new role models and women’s rights activism have all made a difference. Some women manage to live independent lives, despite having grown up in conservative Muslim families. Most appreciate the traditions, yet have learnt to deal pragmatically with faith-based norms. Others, like Saudi activist Manahel al-Otaibi (pictured here), are prepared to openly defy the patriarchy

Female solidarity is strong in her family, Sarah reports. For example, mothers and grandmothers traditionally support young women when they are pregnant, give birth, or in the care of babies and toddlers. On the other hand, she admits that female family members are generally expected to prioritise family affairs without exception. When she was growing up, professional activity and independence were encouraged, but not at the expense of the family.

Men are not expected to do household work. Those who do engage in some chores such as cooking or babysitting are unlikely to say so in public.

Over time, family traditions are changing, though it is often barely noticeable. Better education, urbanisation, new role models and women’s rights activism have all made a difference. Rana Haddad is one example of a woman who is living an independent life, despite having grown up in a conservative Muslim family. Education has helped her deal pragmatically with faith-based norms.

She is 40 years old and from Beirut. She no longer wears a headscarf as she did when she was younger. Rana studied psychology and sociology and works for local and international non-governmental organisations in Lebanon. She is single and earns her own money. She says that, 40 years ago, her mother was forbidden to talk to men she didn’t know and that her elder sister was also expected to obey strict rules. Rana says she appreciates her family’s traditions, but has created a niche for herself. Education was the key, allowing her to expand her freedoms. Her family accepts her self-determined lifestyle.

Oppressive traditions persist of course. To some extent, modern communication technology is providing opportunities to address them and demand change. For instance, Rayan Sukkar, a young Palestinian journalist has produced video clips in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp. She posted them on Campji.com, so several thousand people inside and outside the camps have been able to watch them. The topic is gender-based violence in families.

The journalist wears a headscarf, but she speaks eloquently without fear or shame. In her surroundings, many girls and women consider her a role model.

Mona Naggar

© D+C | Development & Cooperation 2022

 

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