According to gender statistics, Arab women are amongst the most disadvantaged socially, politically, and economically. Arab states continue to have one of the lowest rates of women’s political representation at 17.4% (IPU 2017), which indicates that Arab women are under-represented in governance and decision-making positions. The issue of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is largely unrecognised due to social norms and persistent patriarchal patterns that are difficult to modify. The most important contribution that women can make to these male-dominated societies is being mothers and homemakers. Women’s political participation is deemed unimportant and inapplicable. In fact, gender equality is considered a Western notion, hence seen as a threat.
It is especially challenging for Arab women to fight for their rights due to the nature of religiosity in Arab countries. Islamic texts have been interpreted in a patriarchal way, thus imposing restrictions on women’s participation in society. The interpretations regard women as inferior to men and hence strongly oppose gender equality. Given the nature of Islamic interpretations and their direct connection to Middle Eastern politics, it will not be an easy journey for Arab women to attain their full rights.
Women, themselves, have been subjects to illusions perpetuated by Islamic patriarchal interpretations. Patriarchy and faith have developed an intimate connection which led women to believe that fighting for their freedom is against God’s will. However, seeing a different truth is not impossible for both Muslim and Arab women as there has been an increased awareness of Islamic feminism which aims to reinterpret Islamic texts in an anti-patriarchal way. Whilst some people understandably believe that the phrase “Islamic feminism” is, in itself, a contradiction in terms, Islamic feminists equally understandably believe, through contextual interpretation, that the Quran does not support injustice, and thus seek to introduce a different understanding. There are Islamic feminist organisations such as “Musawah” that support the advancement of women’s rights within Muslim contexts and pushes for legal reforms.
Although Islam remains an important part of the Arab world, it is important to consider separating religion from the state as their marriage will not be helpful in the long run. A secularist approach to lawmaking would be the most effective way to implement laws in favour of human rights, since religion is always subject to different interpretations. For example, Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers stems from an patriarchal interpretation of Islam that suggests driving would give women a dangerous kind of freedom that will lead them to commit sins. In other Arab countries, this interpretation is irrelevant and women are allowed to drive. However, gender inequality is dominant in the region and Saudi Arabia’s example resembles the highest point of oppression.
Islamic feminism is the most compatible with current social structures regardless of the political system. Arab women are subjects to oppression in the name of religion and other cultural beliefs. For instance, women have been victims of “honour killings” as families’ dignity depends on women’s reputation in some households. Islamic feminism will help change these false beliefs without threatening the major belief system. If a society gradually develops liberal and progressive beliefs, it may eventually accepts secularism as a fundamental principle and move towards total egalitarianism. Hence, Islamic feminism is a strategic route through which we can collectively tackle some of the Arab world’s key cultural issues.
It is crucial to increase awareness on women’s rights issues and educate the public about the consequences of gender inequality in the so-called MENA region. Women’s limited participation in politics hinders the region’s progress on many levels. On the other hand, women’s increased participations in other non-Arab regions have been proven to correlate with increased progress in most other aspects of society. Regardless of the country’s fate, it remains important for women to become part of making all the laws that affect their lives. Women are humans and humans should be free, so long as their freedoms do not gravely inhibit the freedoms of others. In my humble opinion, no belief has more power over this one universal truth.