The battle for women’s rights in the Arab world

Friday 11/03/2016

International Women’s Day cannot be allowed to pass without reviewing the problem surrounding the status of women in Arab societies, not on the basis of pointing the finger or making accusations, but rather to help our society develop and improve.

Many young women, even those actively involved in the fight for women’s rights, feel they enjoy broadly equal rights with men. This is not based on a specific concern for women’s rights over other rights but is based on the understanding that improving conditions for women is part of improving society as a whole.

Since 2002, the Human Development Reports, issued annually by the United Nations, has listed three main obstacles to development in the Arab world: freedom, education and women’s rights. In modern society, political participation is one of the keys to development. There needs to be more women participating in political life, shaping public policy and getting involved in the affairs of the state.

Theoretically, women enjoy precisely the same rights as men in modern Arab states. Almost all Arab constitutions guarantee women — and, indeed, all citizens — the right to vote, the right to stand for election and general freedoms of expression. Unfortunately, constitutional stipulations of equality do not necessarily reflect or guarantee political, social and legal equality in the real world.

This is a very complex issue and there must be no confusion between women participating in politics and democracy in general. The issue is not the right to vote or even the number of women who hold parliamentary seats but what actual effect women have on politics and policy.

The number of women who hold parliamentary seats at the global level is less than satisfactory across the board. More than this, until the “Arab spring”, the highest participation of women in parliament was in Syria and Tunisia. This was nothing but a fig leaf for dictators to try and put forward a good image of their regimes. In reality, these women had little or no power.

As for women being less interested in politics, that is something that applies to all citizens in the Arab world. Entering politics in our countries has become an increasingly scary prospect and many people feel politics today is best left to career politicians.

In the Arab world, politics is dominated by notions of masculinity, along with tribal and sectarian considerations. If you are part of the opposition, you could potentially face suppression, arrest and imprisonment. So there are major obstacles to political participation for any citizen, whether male or female.

Politics in the Arab world is also intrinsically linked to protecting national security and military matters. The relationship between the state and violence and power is intrinsic and one that often discourages women. Sure, there are women in political party ranks but rarely do they climb to positions of influence in those groups.

There is also a general understanding in the Arab world that social work is not part of politics at large. Most Arab states legally differentiate between social activism and politics, creating a false perception regarding public life.

Many changes need to be made, not least the roles of education institutes and media organisations. This is vital if we are to change the way future generations understand things. Children must be taught democracy and civics so they understand their duties as citizens, creating an environment in which they can participate in democracy without fear.

This attention to civics and human rights must continue throughout their education and go beyond the classroom to include active participation in civil society and human rights organisations.

As for the media, they can play multiple roles — some positive, some negative. The region needs media that seek to enrich our society, including supporting women’s participation in public life.

It is important that girls can look to successful examples of female politicians and businesswomen as models for what they can achieve — and more — when their time comes. The battle is just beginning.