Status of Women in the Middle East

Though the legal status of women in the Middle East has started to ameliorate only since the beginning of the twentieth century, the customary and Islamic laws have not settled in the revolution.  Although women in the Middle East run small feminist organizations, they have never been outrageously vocal about their legal and political rights; it is not by the will of women but of the elite men of Middle East to modernize the society that reforms were formulated in the lights of social engineering.

Legal changes at times boomerang at the social evolution; reforms undertaken might be immensely significant to educated women in major urban sectors, but illiterate women belonging to rural or tribal sections may not perceive legal independence the way it is intended to. There forth, legal changes don’t tend to last long enough to create an impact in the society.

The problems ranging from Western feminists to Middle-Eastern feminists are completely bipolar. Middle Eastern women enjoy legal equality with men in political life besides access to education, occupational opportunities, etc.; Islamic law permits women with full legal capacity post puberty and secures rights like right to own and manage property, to sue and to be sued, and to enter into contracts etc. – these are the rights which Western feminists have been deprived of since ages. On the contrary, Middle Eastern women have been severely disadvantaged in the spheres of family law and inheritance wherein male authority is given much more importance.

Traditional Islamic Law allowed child and forced marriages; it allowed a husband to own up to 4 wives and innumerable concubines at once whereas women shall have to suppose to follow monogamy, be submissive and be extremely vulnerable to suspension of maintenance on disobedience to their husbands which included acts like leaving the house without husband’s blessings, interacting with an outsider, etc. Since the Quran is regarded as the eternal speech of God to mankind, the Islamic law has been fanatically safeguarded over years by the Muslims and there forth, the influence of European powers during nineteenth and twentieth century did not affect the family and inheritance laws but focused solely on imbibing European law codes.

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Post independence from Europe, the Middle Eastern Governments have formulated reforms for reducing gender inequalities but have faced strong opposition from Muslim clerics and conservative religious communities on the grounds of violating their Divine Law, thereby limiting their reforms only on areas where Muslim clergy is least involved. Under the forceful leadership of the charismatic nationalist heroes like Kemal Ataturk (in Turkey in the 1920s) and Habib Bourguiba (in Tunisia in the 1950s), under the Shah of Iran in the 1960s, and in the Marxist states of the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of South Yemen and Somalia in the 1970s, legal equality with men was achieved to some extent.

Saudi Arabia, however, has been a country of the Middle East to absorb a trace of modernity. Women in Saudi suffered disabilities beyond the traditional laws which include being veiled completely in public, restricted movements, etc. Until very recently women attained equality with men. The Islamic resurgence of the 1970s has been a challenge against the achievements of women. Due to increasing political influence of Islamic fundamentalism, the liberal interpretations of Islamic law were rejected for conservative ones.

The Islamic fundamentalist movement aimed at knocking down any legal reforms aiming for equality or enhancement of women’s rights or any formulation which interferes with the traditional interpretations of Islamic law. Certain Islamic fundamentalists call for a strict sexual segregation by restricting women only to roles of wives and mothers. Besides, their objectives include activities like banning coeducation, training women for living as housewives, firing women from jobs, eradicating women in politics, law and judiciary,  prohibiting birth control and abortion ( even though both were allowed by medieval jurists of Islam who didn’t consider it as immoral) and complete veiling in public. There forth, it is evident that the impact of Islamic Fundamentalism on women’s status in Iran has been massive.

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The Islamic Revolution aiming at legal reforms for upliftment of women has been shattered colossally. It is indeed horrifying that women are allocated only traditional roles at households and a lock of hair show or a bit of skin show in public calls for harsh criminal punishments.

Besides Iran, fundamentalist groups pressurize other governments to abide by the Iranian and Saudi models as a bribe for reducing political tensions. However, it is yet shocking that there are women who supports the fundamentalists’ demands and gives in to adopt the prescribed behavior and believes that equality and personal freedom doesn’t amount to a meaningful aim.

Many women in the Middle East still believes that equality with men, freedom of movement and personal liberty etc. is just an associated behavior of Westernization and shall gradually lead to disintegration of the family with morale and social breakdown. The principles of Islamic law as preached by fundamentalists seem to offer stability, consistency, security and inculcating cultural identity which lacks in the westernized concepts.

The legal, political and social status of women in the Middle East is at stake and is undoubtedly a challenging path to pull through. It is a fact that the achievements and progress made in the process of upliftment of women in the Middle East can’t be gained back. The previous situation where a Westernized political elite imposed legal reforms on societies that was largely very traditional, may now be reversed. In the wake of the Iranian example, some Middle Eastern governments are seeking to reassign an inferior legal status to women at a time when an ever-growing segment of their societies has been influenced by the women’s liberation movement in the West. The world at 21st century deserves much more than illiteracy, conservativeness, suppressing women and segregating the society based on gender. Under these circumstances, it seems certain that the legal status of women in the Middle East will remain a discussable and an extremely concerning arena in dire need of evolution.

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Author: Srestha Nag,
Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.

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