Women and reform in the Arab world

Another great issue of the Carnegie Endowment’s Arab Reform Bulletin this month. This one’s a special issue on Women and Reform. Almost all of the (relatively short) contributions in it are informative and well argued.
I particularly enjoyed the contributions by Marina Ottaway, Avoiding the Women’s Rights Trap, and Diane Singerman, Women and Strategies for Change: An Egyptian Model.
In her solidly argued piece, Marina first of all lays out all the well-known reasons why struggling for women’s rights is an essential part of struggling for democratic reform. But she introduces this note of caution:

    It is true that a country will never be fully democratic while it discriminates against half its population. It is equally true that the real obstacle to democracy in Arab countries today is not discrimination against women, but the fact that the entire population has only limited political rights. The unchecked power of Arab presidents, kings, sheiks, and emirs, and the absence or weakness of institutions that could limit that power, are the real problem. Parliaments tend to be docile, often dominated by the ruling party or by handpicked appointees. Judiciaries are rarely independent. Islamists dominate the best-organized opposition groups. Giving women the vote or training women to run for office does nothing to address these core issues. The problem is not to give women the same rights as men, but to reform political systems so that the entire population can enjoy fully the civil and political rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that most Arab countries have signed but do not respect…

(Marina Ottaway, contd.)

    Arab countries will become more democratic only when rulers are confronted by well-organized opposition parties, strong parliaments, and independent judiciaries, not when women can vote like men for powerless parliaments, extricate themselves more easily from abusive marriages or when more girls attend school.
    In most established democracies, the battle to put in place the essential elements of democracy was won long before the battle for women’s rights. For decades or even centuries, parliaments representing only part of the population fought governments jealous of their privileges and slowly asserted their authority. Today, it is unthinkable that a country could democratize while excluding women. It is an illusion, however, that giving women the same limited rights enjoyed by men in autocratic countries brings a country closer to democracy. The battle for women’s rights and the battle for democracy are both important and must both be fought, but they are not the same battle.

Personally, I think she overstates the “cautionary” case just a little bit. I do think that when women have a more equitable role within marriage and equal access to education (and of course, these two developments often go together) this does help the general movement toward democracy.
I also think, though, that there’s a huge hypocrisy (to put it at its kindest) in the posturing of many conservatives here in the US who pose and rant about Arab women’s need for empowerment while they (1) often oppose moves in that same direction here in the U.S., and (2) are often just about completely ignorant of any facts about the social and economic status of women in the Arab world.
Oh boy, the number of times I’ve heard people in the US sound off about, “Well, look at all the great things our ‘intervention’ [read war] in Iraq has done for the women of Iraq!” It makes me want to weep. Do they know anything at all about how the relative socioeconomic status of the women of most of Iraq–which prior to March 2003 was in many respects the same as that of the country’s men– has been driven significantly downward since the Bushites invaded their country?
I wish the Arab Reform Bulletin had tackled that issue head-on.
Hey, maybe some dedicated JWN reader with a little time on her/his hands could scan back through Riverbend‘s archives and pull together a little digest of her writings on the topic (with links)? If any of you wants to do that, email me a text file of it and I can put it up here as a separate post– with full attribution of course to River, and to the digester.

13 thoughts on “Women and reform in the Arab world”

  1. Interesting topic, on which I confess total ignorance. Four sets of “dumb farmboy” questions:
    1) Is there any compilation of essays by Muslim women, other than emigres and expatriates, on the topic of rights and reforms? Is there any documentary history or anthology of social or political texts translated to English from the Arabic, Persian, Indonesian, Bengali, or Urdu?
    2) Is there any guarantee that free elections won’t be won by fundamentalists who proceed to legislate tougher restrictions on women? Fundamentalism tends to fill any political void. How can women manage this? Is a fundamentalist feminist by definition in favor of Shariah law, which discounts female testimony, and in favor of patriarchal command?
    3) Would any Islamic seminary publish a theological or legal work supporing women’s equality before a court or in the workplace? Or would all the worthy scholars stand up to denounce (and perhaps beat) the author? Do any seminaries crank out anything but Sayyed Qtub misogynists? Isn’t the principal source of fundamentalist revulsion towards the West precisely the fear that it entices women to become unruly and “impure”?
    4) Do the Muslim women who reside in the West, but take up traditional garb and practices as badges of cultural pride, surrender any challenge to fundamentalist imams and mullahs, or do any demand equal status at the pulpit? Are there any mosques in the West where a women is the senior, or even co-, cleric?

  2. Hola, John~
    If you google “muslim women in usa” you’ll find ‘about 480,000’ listings.

  3. Which demonstrates the source of my consternation: all the sources are expatriate. How can one know anything (except as filtered by expatriates) about what the women “back home,” now or 50 years back, do or say?
    Think of what little one would know about Iraq by knowing only what Chalabi & Co. say.
    If you know of an exemplary source, please refer me to that. To say, “Go Google” is not much guidance. If there are 480,000 links, will just any do?
    Does the Muslim world have any RESIDENT counterparts to Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan Anthony?

  4. apologies, john.~
    I was responding to your question 4:”Do the ‘Muslim women’ who reside in the West…”
    Since i’m not a muslim, i can only suggest that to talk about ‘muslim women’ is as globalizing as to talk about ‘catholic women’ or even ‘christian women’, whose possibilities and status depend far more on where they live than on the religion they adhere to.

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