By Naila Missous
It may appear a common assumption that all women residing in the Middle East are oppressed; and that their religion forces them to cover their bodies and sometimes faces. It is believed that Islam denies women an education and the right to work, and makes them subservient to men.
It is certainly true that most Muslim women, like women in other cultures, struggle against various forms of inequality and discrimination. However, it is important to distinguish carefully between constraints imposed by Islam as a religion, on the one hand, and local cultural and legal restrictions on women’s autonomy on the other.
Women in different countries face enormously different circumstances, and we must examine the experiences of women in particular places and times in order to appreciate both the obstacles they face and their own agency in overcoming them.
Women in the Middle East today
In the Middle East region today, there are ever growing and changing notions of the role of women in society. One does not have to stretch far to see this. As recent as December 10, 2011 Tawakkul Karman was one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize for her activism in Yemen during the Arab Spring.
Women are finding themselves negotiating a complex system of restrictions and opportunities created by the intersection of how religion in the region is practised. At the same time they are also in competition against the cultural and custom traditions of the particular state: be that related to gender, or legal structures.
The nation-state may reinforce what are seen to be traditional restrictions on women based on a conservative interpretation of religion, as in Iran, or it may contradict traditional interpretations of Islam and forcefully encourage women to become what it considers to be more modern, for example as in Turkey.
When scholars refer to the time before the advent of Islam, this time is described as the ‘Jahiliyya’. In Arabic, this literally refers to “the age or condition of ignorance”. This term was revived by Sayyid Qutub; an Egyptian activist who called several times for an Islamic revolution.
Jahiliyya is noted as the time period of tribalism amongst pagan Arabs. In some tribes women would accompany their men into battle.
The many tribes that inhabited Arabia had diverse customs and cultures. In some, women had very low status whilst in others, women enjoyed much freedom and independence which was curbed by the imposition of Islamic laws.
It has come down many a time to the stereotypical painting of the Middle East region and how women are depicted through it as an almost backwards approach to the way in which women live in the present day. This is not to say that the freedom and rights in which women have throughout the Middle East and North Africa are in line or more advanced than those of the West– though it is also important to note that women in the Western world have not always enjoyed the freedoms that they covet in present day. Nevertheless examples exist whereby failures have occurred only to be followed by strong female figures who have risen against authority and persevered.
Karam wins the Nobel Peace Prize
What is not always highlighted in a gargantuan manner by media coverage particularly in the West are the triumphs of women in the Middle East. Of late, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three female figures: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Yemeni Muslim, Tawakkol Karman.
Karman is the first Arab women and also first Yemeni to have ever received the prize. As founder and chairwoman of Woman Journalists without Chains (WJC), Karman’s active role in her work is that of a journalist who has devoted herself and work to the fight for journalistic freedom within Yemen.
In response to her crusade, Karman has faced continuous death threats and harassment. These threats of violence have also been extended to her family. Karman’s action towards a more civilised state of Yemen and safer surrounding for women has caused much attention. Many of her actions have been purposely instigated, for example her removal of the niqab and publishing a paper condemning the ultra conservative party members for blocking a bill that would make it illegal for women under the age of seventeen to be wed.
From the Western feminist point of view, Islam and in particular interpretations taken up by the state which administrate certain laws against women are seen as the main barriers preventing Middle Eastern women from contributing to a civilised society. However, the determination and drive of female figures such as Karman in the Middle East is what is needed and undeniably wanted by huge majorities.
In each state in the Middle East and North African region, women are acting as social entrepreneurs: increasing educational opportunities and bettering the lifestyle of and for females. Women are also using both established and new forms of artistic expression to throw light on the issues they consider most important, to critique their societies, and to point the way to their own visions of a more equitable life.