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TematicheMedio Oriente e Nord AfricaA Time for Change: Women of the Middle East

A Time for Change: Women of the Middle East


We’re in the 21st Century and women are still underdeveloped and mistreated. Their rights are violated; they’re being trafficked and sold no matter their age. This phenomenon is highly prevalent in the Islamic World specifically among Arabs. The world is evolving from globalization to technological innovations while women in the Arab world are still repressed and exploited. The same image women had several decades ago hasn’t changed in our present times.

They don’t have a say in politics, a high percentage of women is uneducated or jobless, and many are subjected to violence or rape. In contrast, Western developed countries have a high representation of women, well educated, and who have a say and impact in social, economical, humanitarian and political issues. It’s very controversial and debatable that many states, the UN and NGOs have been trying to solve this issue globally especially that there is a big difference between the Global South and the Global North.

These issues have been discussed by many scholars and researchers all around the world hoping to reach a near settlement. Women play an important role in shaping the world today. When they have no voice and they are underrepresented, their ability to change or make a difference is very low. Besides underrepresentation comes the issue of trafficking which violates human rights. When it comes to women in the Arab world, they are highly exposed to trafficking, violence and injustice due to the gender inequality, educational inequality, and less economic opportunities.

The Arab World is still until now the country with the highest rate of women underdevelopment and trafficking. Women are discriminated from men, exploited, and treated unequally in different cases in the Middle East. These cases vary from painful female genital mutilation (female circumcision), the sale of child brides in as dowries, wife beating, honor killing, economic deprivation, discrimination in salaries, etc. Shockingly, when it comes to women education, only 58.9% of women in Arab states are literate in comparison to 80.2% of men being literate.  There’s a gender gap in South Asian countries, Arab states and Sub-Saharan African countries.

Inequality is usually the highest in the less economic and social developed countries. However, the US for example is an exception ranking 37 in the Gender Inequality Index whereas Singapore stands 10th and South Korea 20th. Sweden for instance, is ranked the first in the Gender Empowerment Measure of their women. However, Rwanda, a very poor and underdeveloped country, has the highest women representation in parliament than any country in the world. Not to forget that despite that the Sub Saharan countries are LDCs (Less Developed Countries), they come second after the Americas in the percentage of women representation in parliament, making them more advanced than Asia for example, keeping the Arab states at last. This situation is very controversial since there are many extreme cases in different parts of the world.

When it comes to governments and policy making, women play a very important role. However, many neglect this fact and Arab states keep on under representing women. Since the women is said to be emotional, soft,  sensitive and caring, it will be problematic to solve gender bias, child care, divorce, education, rape, and domestic violence issue without the touch of a woman. Thus, it’s essential to have women represented in politics and governments in order not to miss out on important issues. However, when there is less than 30% female MPs, it’s hard to influence policies in the government. For instance, many heroic women were widows or wives of former presidents or leaders or even daughters of former presidents or leaders such as Grace Kelly of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt of USA, and Lady Diana of Whales.

Several ways are discussed to reduce gender underrepresentation in politics. One of them is having a number and type of ministerial posts held by their nation’s cabinet. In many countries, women in these positions were influential after the president or prime minister. The percentage of women holding cabinet posts increased from 3.4% to 16.3% in 2010. Another means is to establish quotas for the slates of parliamentary candidates in general elections. In Europe, Scandinavian countries were the first to gain female representation in parliament. Social, cultural, and historical forces play an important role for greater female representations. Conflicts and wars, such as in Africa, opened the door of opportunities for women to be involved in them to help those “post-conflict states”.

In addition to that, women lack the access to productive resources which can make them stand on their feet. They don’t have the facility to possess resources such as lands, wealth, and proficiency. For instance, women can’t own lands since only men can inherit lands from their fathers or ancestors. Yet, wealth is more easily reached than land owning since recently women started owning credit cards. However, it’s not something easily obtained by all women since males dominate most of the society we live in.

Moreover, there are no equal educational opportunities between genders and there’s no equal access to health care as well. In tribal states or Arab states of the less developed countries, schooling is not something accessible to girls. For example, Yemen has only 43% of its female adult population that are educated. Moreover, health care is not available to young girls as much as to young boys. There’s a social discrimination against newborn baby girls and they’re either murdered at birth or die because of malnutrition and bad health. Third world countries and Arab states value male children over female ones.

Furthermore, besides education, politics, and social exploitation, there are several ways of trafficking of women. The main one is prostitution. Women’s trafficking nowadays, millions of women work as prostitutes. Moreover, prostitution doesn’t only affect the so-called “workers” in the field but it affects both men and women in society. In Islam, the low status of women makes sex trafficking acceptable and not against the Islamic religion since Islam is considered as a political, ideological movement where women are dominated by men intellectually and morally. Another type of trafficking is domestic labor.

Many are sent to different countries for a job at a house and end up being trafficked. Kuwait is one of the Middle Eastern countries where domestic labor is one of the main forms of women trafficking and the demand on domestic labor keeps increasing. Most of the women are under 30.  Moreover, another way of women trafficking is the arranged married that is mostly found in rural, tribal, and ethnic states. This form of trafficking is sought to bizarre and odd to the Western states. This type of trafficking is based on the financial stability of the family and not on love or how the woman feels. Therefore, many parents sell their daughters to protect themselves economically. These girls are being sold for marriage at a very young age.  Human trafficking in Iran and Saudi Arabia has been a rising problem. However, other Gulf States like UAE and Bahrain are doing nothing to stop this trend in their countries.

Susana Fried said that many women organizations have been trying to put an end to violence against women since it’s considered as a human rights violation and a crime especially when it comes to abusing a woman’s honor, self-respect, dignity, and security. The UN has been also working on solving these issues through drafting resolution against women trafficking or against women violence. Several summits and organizations were made to resolve these issues such as the Fourth World Conference on Women: The Beijing Declaration of September 1995, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that was established at first in 1997 and was adopted by the General Assembly resolution 55/25, and many others, UNIFEM, etc. Moreover, the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW) is building helpful and long lasting changes globally by creating anti-trafficking plans and supporting anti-trafficking to protect women and children that are being treated abusively.

When it comes to reality, Iraq is one of the case studies in the Middle East and among Arab states that has witnessed a big alternation in women’s role during and after Saddam Hussein. Their status changed in many ways: economically, educationally, socially, etc. Iraq also has witnessed a large number of trafficking inside and outside of Iraq.  Iraq is one of the countries in the Middle East that have a high trafficking rate.

Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, women’s educational level developed and many of the previous limitations on women outside their house were elevated. Women’s right to vote and be elected as candidates for elections were granted in 1980. Prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraq had the largest number of literate women and professional ones among all Arab states. The temporary constitution followed the equity principle between genders, despite of having the family law favoring men. Some researchers said that women’s emergence in Iraq was basically due to the absence of males in the labor force after being in the army in the Iran war in 1980. Women became highly qualified and took many positions in society: 46% became teachers, 29% became doctors, 46% became dentists, 70% became pharmacists, 15% became factory workers and 16% became civil servants.

Despite of previously having the highest literacy rate among women in the Arab world, Iraq’s literacy rate among women dropped greatly after the Iraq-Iran war that lasted 8 years. Illiteracy rates further quadrupled from 8% to 45% in a 10 years range (between 1985 and 1995).

In addition to education and literacy, more than half of Iraqi women became anemic after the war on Kuwait and the embargo on Iraq, although Iraq under Saddam had one of the best health systems in the area where 97% of the population had access to health care.

Under Saddam’s rule, the system ignored penalties and exempted criminals from their bad acts against women. Hussein’s atrocious reign and his Baath party targeted women and children with terrible consequences that followed by the 2003 war. The 2003 US-war in the area was chaotic. Insecurity and lack of control rates increased, authorities were corrupt, and religion extremism increased. In addition, poverty, forced marriages, kidnapping and suffering of women all increased after the US invasion of Iraq.

All these facts lead to the promotion of trafficking and violence against women in Iraq. For instance, women were beaten, raped, beheaded, and threatened to death since 2003. For example, hundreds of women in Basra state were highly violated and killed in a terrible way through mutilation and dumping in the garbage. Moreover, Kurdish women were trafficked into mainly Baghdad and Basra. Furthermore, the exploitation of women in Iraq also happened across borders such as Iraqi refugees were sent to Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iran.

Research found that there is injustice, trafficking, and underdevelopment among women in the Middle East because of the Muslim culture since the majorities are Islamic states. Their culture believes that men should be superior to women and that women are only a source of pleasure to their men.

Can we really believe that it’s religion that is stopping the development of Arab states or there is much more to it than just religion?

Women in the Middle Eastern region and the third world are cursed by being inferior to men, discriminated against, treated unfairly, exploited, trafficked, and underdeveloped. Women’s trafficking is the highest selling black market to the Gulf and Middle Eastern states by bringing them billions of dollars besides their oil revenue. Analysis of trafficking in the Middle East and of underrepresentation of women is still vague since it’s a big issue roaming in the region.

Without having equality among men and women, those third world countries in the Middle East cannot develop and evolve. Women play a very important role in shaping society and helping in modernizing a nation. So why are Arab and Middle Eastern states still ignoring the importance of women in their culture, society, and daily lives? Some surprising facts have shown that even if a country is poor, women can developed and have a say in society such as in Rwanda. Thus, is it really Islam the main problem of keeping women subjugated?

Diane Mariechild once said, “A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform.” Indeed; a women has the ability to do many things if she’s given the chance to do so. It’s our choice whether we help empower women or we don’t.

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