Arab women still struggling for equality
It was not until the end of the 19th century that women’s rights in the Arab world were the focus of professional writers, perhaps the most famous of whom were Qasim Amin from Egypt and Tahar Haddad from Tunisia. Both pointed out that the evolution of Muslim society was possible only if women, the main caretakers and educators of children, were liberated. Such ideas were met with fierce opposition from the religious orthodoxy.
Still, some Arab countries under the yoke of colonisation by Britain and France experienced feminist movements, the most famous of which was led by Huda Sha’rawi in Egypt.
In tandem with these feminist movements, many Arab countries began promulgating their constitutions: Egypt in 1923, Iraq in 1925, Lebanon in 1926, Transjordan in 1928, Syria in 1930 and Kuwait in 1938. In other Arab countries, this constitutional movement culminated in their becoming independent.
With the coming of the Arab revolutions in 2011, the constitutions in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt were completely recast in terms of rights and freedoms.
However, these constitutions have not evolved as far as their relation to Islam. In all Arab countries, the constitution and religion are coexistent constants but not in a balanced manner. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the Basic Law of Government (1992) can be considered the kingdom’s constitution. The country’s religious ideology is absolutely hostile to the idea of a constitution and in no case would a constitution supersede religion there.
The constitutions of the other Arab countries, except Lebanon, do recognise and enunciate a link between Islam and the state. They do that either through the definition of the state or by simply establishing Islam as the official religion.
The constitutions of other Arab countries, excluding those of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, connect with religion by taking Islamic law as the source for state laws. They state that Islamic law is either “the unique source of laws”, or “one of the principal sources” of state legislature, or “the principal source of legislature”, or “Islamic fiqh is the principal source of the legislation”.
The constitutions in the Arab world promulgated between 2011 and 2014 have not radically changed in relation to religion and continue to give it a central role. As a consequence, the legal status of women has progressed in a transient and illusionary manner in trying to reconcile Islam with modernity. Despite new constitutions claiming parity and equality of opportunities between the sexes, the legal status of women remains ambivalent and depends to a large extent on the existing laws.
These new constitutions, particularly those of Morocco and Tunisia, have insisted on respecting the cultural and religious identities of the countries while being open to universal values.
Arab women, who played a crucial role in the “revolutions” of 2011, were not able to secure for themselves the universal rights obtained by other women in the free world. On the contrary, in Tunisia, some women’s rights established by the Personal Status Code in force since 1956 were seriously endangered during the summer of 2013.
The legal status of women in the Arab countries remains quite fragile, despite the increasingly influential role played by some women in these societies. Their rights continue to depend on their legal status in the family. This inherent inequality is wrapped in a sacred religious shroud and perpetuates patriarchal ideologies.
In the absence of real democracy and in light of the current political and economic conditions, discrimination against women will persist.
The many constitutional reforms in the Arab world have failed to give women their universal rights. This is so because, until now, the Arabs continue to refuse to confront their real problems and are happy with just reaching a consensus, which in itself will delay changes needed for the attainment of true modernity.
This modernity will be impossible to achieve without guaranteeing the civic rights of all the actors in the society.