Arab Poet: Empowered Women will build Nations

When the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawki declared that “the mother is a school; empowering her is nation building,” he expressed a dream: if women were offered the social and economic opportunities they deserve, they would build strong nations.

Do poets today provoke the conscience of society as they did in the past?

For several centuries Arabs have been living too comfortably in a patriarchal society, where change in the right places is slow.  Many women live under the protection of men with the faulty premise that they are the weaker sex. For too long men have exploited tradition, dictated the law and interpreted the scripture with self-interest.

Underlying the marginalization of women are restrictive attitudes, customs and laws that regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance, enterprise, leadership and social mixing of the sexes.

Despite progress in access to schools and hospitals, the life of too many girls in the Arab world is regimented in childhood by authoritarian fathers and teachers, later by husbands and always by rulers.

Things are changing for the better in some aspects which do not require systemic change. For example, Arab women are flocking to the universities.  More females are entering the labor market. Women are voting and have started to run for political office.

In closing the gender gap, there is more change in volume than in quality. Increase of female access to the academic institution and the labour market is not accompanied by quality education, creative output or equity of earning capacity. Arab women dramatically lag behind men in employment, salaries and access to political office. Female presence in the parliament, court and government is rare.

Men come up with attractive rationalization to justify personal and institutional discrimination.  Authorities may opine that modernity is not culturally suitable.  Men may view liberation of women as a form of rebellion against them; they often emotionally argue that sexual freedom of women degrades the honour of the family, fuels secularism and weakens morality.

Standard bearers in society are not pleased to see the status of their women compared with the status of women abroad. A recent global survey revealed that Arab states rank low on efforts to close the opportunity gap between men and women. See the 2010 Global Gender Gap Report -released this fall at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.  The report analysed differences of males and females in education, health and participation in the economy and politics. Among the 134 countries surveyed, the United Arab Emirates ranked 103 and scored the highest among Arab states. Kuwait followed with a rank of 105, Bahrain 110, Lebanon 116, Qatar 117, Oman 122, Egypt 125, Saudi Arabia 129 and Yemen 134.

The majority of Arab states have signed the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. But they still retain serious reservations on some critical articles of the Convention, including those pertaining to marriage and inheritance.

Early in this decade Arab scholars reported that societal development is only possible when politics offers freedom, education engages the mind and the gender gap closes.  See United Nations Development Program, Human Development Reports 2002- 2004. Such reports attract more dust than societal attention. Breakthroughs are hard to emerge when men are in charge of governance, public education and morality.

There are isolated signs of hope.

The theological argument for equality of women in family relations has already been successfully challenged in some countries. For example, polygamy is no longer legal in Tunisia.

The Moroccan feminist, Fatema Mernissi, and the Egyptian born, America- based Leila Ahmed have written on the rights of women to interpret the scripture. Ahmed explains that growing up in Egypt, like millions of other children, she did not acquire her faith through any formal training.  Ahmed had absorbed her religion- of tolerance and appreciation of diversity- through daily contact with women in her extended family; and that was good enough, she argued.

Lifting women out of poverty through informal education is a story to tell. Reaching low-income mothers and young girls through community-based early child developed (ECD) programs has been effective in many areas of the region. Community-based ECD programs stimulate children’s growth, enable the mother and support the family. Empowerment programs targeting disadvantaged women have a multiplier effect in development.

Women should lead the gender movement, as it is the case around the globe.  Arab women have over invested in charity work. They should call for the appointment of senior female judges, run for political office and demand quotas for participation in the parliament and leadership of labor. When women are active in courts, parliaments and governance, social change flows naturally. Resistance to gender equality is a product of hardheaded, self-serving male thinking.

Role models have emerged. Jordan’s Queen Rania is an international star of social causes. Perhaps the most popular Arab woman is Fayrouz, a Lebanese singer who embraced national unity during her country’s civil war.  Syria’s first lady is supportive of civil society and modern business.  Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian parliamentarian, is the most articulate spokesperson on the Arab Israeli conflict.

Arab women are experimenting with indigenous approaches to induce change in society. They deserve societal support in order to take additional risk in social action.

The potential for women as change agents remains largely untapped. The dynamics of inequality are largely political.  It is not religion, stupid.

Global Arab Network

Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz is an Arab-American commentator on issues of development, peace and justice. He is the former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.

17 November 2010

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