Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Arab Women in Image Trap

by Ruby Bird Society November 27, 2005
Discussions on issues facing women in the Arab world tend to be monochromatic, often completely overlooking the diversity in the lifestyles and conditions of women in that part of the world. The media, intellectuals and feminists - no doubt, with the best intention - have bought into stereotypical depictions of Arab women. Readers and viewers are told that Arab women are weak, passive and always veiled. Most Westerners are unaware that women enjoy political and social rights in many Arab countries (especially, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan and Syria). Undoubtedly, many Arab countries are a long way from achieving gender equality. But is this not a global phenomenon, not confined to the Arab world alone?
The Arab world itself is comprised of several nations (22 countries in all), with the status of women varying widely in all of them. The media, however, projects one norm - the most sexist and oppressive - onto the Arab world as a whole. There are no easy stereotypes that fit all these nations. In Tunisia, for example, wearing the veil is forbidden. However, women are yet to reach any kind of equity in the political or professional streams. The Tunisian President, Ben Ali, says that he wants to bring about a 30 per cent participation of women in public institutions by 2009. On many counts, Arab nations lag behind many other countries on gender issues.
Most Arab countries comprise a Muslim-majority population. The Arab world is excessively hostage to clerics, who do not allow the codification of civil personal status laws. They interpret Islam to sanction and perpetuate many sexist practices and views, including polygamy, the requirement of wifely obedience and unequal inheritance for women. What commentators miss here is that all of these practices have at one point or another been part of Christian and Jewish civilizations as well. In fact, culture is a wider concept than religion - it incorporates not just religion, but several other factors as well.
Hoda Elsadaa, a women's rights activist, who teaches English literature at Egypt's Cairo University, explains that while women hold prominent positions in the government or the academia in many Arab countries, the discrimination against them takes a more covert, culturally-cloaked form. She cites the example of the Egyptian minister of finance, who until 2001 was not able to travel without her husband's permission. Fatema Mernissi is another famous Arab intellectual in the West. Born in 1940, she studied political sciences in Morocco, France and the US. Since the 1970s, she has been writing expressively about the emancipation of women, and her works are widely read in both the West and in Islamic countries.
Finally, the situation of women in the Arab world is inextricably intermeshed with US policies in the Arab world, the economic exploitation, the US sanctions, western colonialism, discrimination by the media, the dynamics of US-Israel relations, and many other local and global affairs that impact women's lives directly.
By arrangement with Women's Feature Service Ruby Bird writes on Arab culture, specifically on gender issues. She is based in France. Top Society The Week of November 27, 2005 India's Foreign Policies in South Asia Need Review by Dr. Subhash Kapila Can Janata Rise Like Phoenix? by Rajinder Puri State of Hijack by J. Ajithkumar Narada and the Illusion of Maya by Aparna Chatterjee Kabira Teri Jhompri Gal Katiyan Ke Paas Why Bad Things Happen to Good People by Lama Chuck Stanford A Case for Islam by Dr. R.K. Lahiri, Ph.D Attention Seeking Behavior by Michael Grose Marriage is NOT about Religion by Meera Chowdhry Peeping Toms by Kusum Choppra Mystified Identity in the Mystified River of Life by Jayati Chowdhury Inducting Rasayana Therapy in Our Daily Routine by Dr. Krishna R.S. Magical Spots of the World by Dilip D'Souza Accessing Freedom by Robert L. Sungte Asia Quake, One Month On by Shehar Bano Khan Arab Women in Image Trap by Ruby Bird Gender Lens on Gypsies by Elayne Clift School of Wisdom by Neeta Lal Senior Story by Mohan Dadlani


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