Small steps, but the pace quickens

Today, we begin a four-part series exploring the status of Arab women.


Two years ago, I came across a story that will stay with me for a long time. A girl with a face as sweet as a summer plum sat with me in a shelter in this colorless desert suburb of Amman, Jordan, and calmly told me how she killed her own mother.

Salwa had set her mother's bed on fire, because her grandmother goaded her into it. She told 15-year-old Salwa that her divorced mother's dating habits had brought dishonor upon the family and would ruin Salwa's own marriage prospects.

It was a small but disturbing chapter in four years of Mideast reporting. It left me yearning to understand familial honor, and questioning why both sexes hold women to the standards they do. Should women be told how to dress, allowed to work, vote, and run for office? Should religious and tribal tradition have the final legal say on modern mores?

On a scorching day in Kuwait City, women in black head veils show up to vote for the first time in their lives. In Amman, Jordan, women gather outside the white marble parliament building, demanding an end to "honor killing." In Cairo, 20 women file for divorce in one day, marking the first time Egyptian women could ask to end a marriage without having to prove spousal abuse.

Taken alone, each country's progress on women's rights in the past few months may seem like small steps. But the overall picture throughout the Arab world, activists and some experts say, shows that women are beginning to tread on firmer social, legal, and political ground heading into the 21st century.

Yet these are often halting steps. Each initiative is a battle against centuries-old customs, mores, and family practices. In many cases, changes are pushed by the wealthy and educated elite, rather than from a grass-roots effort. And inevitably, changes in gender roles and rights are branded as "un-Islamic" or simply mimicking Western values.

"There has been some important momentum recently in the struggle for women's rights in the Middle East," says Mona Khalaf, the director of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World, at Beirut's Lebanese American University. "But I do not think that significant gains have been made so far."

Despite such pessimism - or honesty - many women can't help feeling buoyed by a sense of movement in the right direction. In Kuwait, for example, where only men can vote and run for office, women are already planning their campaign platforms for 2003.

"Saying that we've been doing it this way for years doesn't mean it's the only way for things to be done," says Rola Dashti, a savvy young economist who is planning to run for office in the next national elections.

Dr. Dashti and other would-be politicians seemed to gain headway late in May when a lower court ruled that Kuwait's highest court must review their case charging that the prohibition on women voting is unconstitutional.

But for every forward step, there seem to be backward steps too. The Kuwaiti parliament, after all, voted down a bill last November that would have given women the right to vote and run for office. And the country's Supreme Court threw the case out in July - most likely out of reluctance to deal with Kuwait's hottest political potato.

Although Egyptian women won the right to initiate divorce this spring, they must forfeit all financial claims if they do so. In January, Jordan's parliament voted down a proposal that would have provided stiffer penalties for men who commit "honor killings." In Morocco, Islamists are opposing the government's plan to improve women's rights by outlawing polygamy and raising the minimum age of marriage. Palestinian women's demands for similar reforms have been ignored.

Women's conference provides impetus

The 1995 World Conference on Women held in Beijing pushed women's rights onto the global agenda. In the five years since, human rights groups and Western governments have been pressing many of the 11 Arab countries that belatedly signed the 1979 CEDAW - Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women - to move into compliance with it.

New era of royalty

In an era of younger and more-image-conscious leaders in the Middle East, kings and presidents seem eager to take that call more seriously than ever before. And with an increasing number of women gaining access to higher education, technology that makes information harder to control, and economies that need women to thrive, some of the impetus is also coming from within.

Witness Lebanon, where the national women's organization has moved from a charitable society for ladies who lunch to a forum for women who have career concerns ranging from equal pay to sexual harassment.

Or Saudi Arabia, where the hot topic last year was a debate over whether the kingdom should loosen its ban on women drivers to allow professional, married women over a certain age to operate cars during limited hours of the day. If permitted, this would lessen the strain on the economy by diminishing expenses for foreign chauffeurs.

In the United Arab Emirates, the first women cab drivers hit the roads in June, gaining applause from both genders - especially men who would rather not have their wives alone in a car with a male chauffeur.

Clearly, there are incentives for change. The Arab world, one of the world's least economically productive regions outside of oil output, is under domestic and international pressure to develop and diversify, a goal which necessitates the participation of women in the workforce.

Moreover, in the decade since international human rights organizations increased their focus on abuses of women, moderate Arab regimes have been keen to show the West their sincerity in pursuing gradual reform. But many analysts say that is not accompanied by widespread demands for change.

"This question has suddenly become important in the [East-West] dialogue looking at the position of women," says Fadia Faqir, the coordinator for the Center of Middle Eastern Women Studies at Durham University in England. "There is a trend to pay more lip service to these issues. And it is interesting that these issues are being discussed, but it has a lot to do with external pressure on the governments to empower women."

Top-down reforms

Professor Faqir, a native of Jordan, says that lack of democracy in the Arab world means that the reform movements are generally being pushed from the top of the pyramid, rather than from the grass-roots level.

"Jordan is supposedly the most liberal of Arab countries. Jordan has a king and queen who want to reform the system, but let's not kid ourselves," says Faqir. "The draft bill [on honor crimes] was defeated in the lower house of parliament with a huge majority."

That said, some countries have seen a rise in indigenous activism, often in the form of organizations that get support from abroad. And the revolution in access to information in the past five years has afforded women in the Middle East more knowledge about their counterparts elsewhere than at any other time in history. E-mail and web sites have made it easier for once-remote communities of activists to share advice and encouragement in the struggle for women's rights.

"There is some grass-roots activity, and the reason for that is the opening up in communication," Faqir adds. "Women in Jordan have access to the Internet and 45 satellite channels, and because of that exposure, have aspirations that they can change their lives. If you can look in your neighbor's garden and you see an alternative, you start thinking of alternatives for yourself."

But that suggests a made-in-America prototype, which often fuels charges of cultural imperialism. Many see the West's yardstick for progress as inherently biased.

"It's taken for granted that the answer for people in the Middle East is to follow the steps of the West and to have political participation as it is in the West, which presents itself as the model," says Fowziyah Abu Khalid, professor of sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "People in the Middle East want to reach their own models and not adopt those of the West," she says. "We need to create a new model, but I don't think it can be one that exists outside of Islam."

Dilemma for rights groups

Such criticism creates a dilemma for US and European aid agencies and human rights groups. "There is a philosophical question now: Do we let people do what they want? Maybe they want women to be circumcised, so should we stop them?" poses Karma Nabulsi, a politics research fellow at Oxford University in England, referring to what opponents call female genital mutilation, common in North African countries. "When the political elites face battles with the Islamists, all of their opponents' arguments are being cast as 'We want to get rid of the West,' and women's rights are part of that. The challenge is about how to cast things in local terms."

Saad Hamid, a lawyer advising the Palestinian women's legal reform movement in Gaza, says that many in the Arab world are searching for avenues to advance women's rights within the context of Islam.

"Solutions to 90 percent of the problems exist within Islam if you want to find them," says Mr. Hamid. "What we're trying to do is show that there are different schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Saying I know nothing about it, and I want to banish it and have purely secular laws, that's ridiculous."

By contrast, he says, the Moroccan government's proposal went overboard by saying the new laws won't invoke sharia, Islamic law. "That's like saying the society should renounce its religion," says Hamid. "You can't fight two battles at the same time. But to say that to be a Muslim is to be a negator of human rights, that's nonsense."

Where Arab women stand: work vs. home Among Arab nations, Kuwait, at 27 percent, has the highest percentage of women in the workforce. Lebanon and Egypt are close behind. Worldwide, women account for about 36 percent of the workforce; in the US, that figure is 65 percent.

Women Illiteracy Total Women in in labor rate for Country population population Children force women in thousands per woman Algeria 28,581 50% 4.4 8% 59% Egypt 58,519 49 3.9 22 64 Iraq 21,223 49 5.0 23 45 Jordan 4,756 49 5.6 10 22 Kuwait 1,604 49 4.0 27 27 Lebanon 3,028 51 2.9 25 11 Libya 5,407 48 6.4 9 82 Morocco 28,261 50 4.0 21 72 Saudi Arabia 17,608 45 5.5 9 54 Syria 14,775 50 5.9 16 48 Tunisia 8,934 49 3.4 26 50 United Arab 1,785 34 4.1 21 27 Emirates

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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