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    By Disempowering Women, Arab States only Punish Themselves

    The Egyptian poet Hafiz Ibrahim once declared that “a mother is a school. Empower her and you empower a great nation.” What he meant was that if women were offered the social and economic opportunities they merited, they could help to build strong nations.

    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, and this is based on the faulty premise that they are the weaker sex. For too long men have exploited tradition, dictated the law, and even interpreted scripture in such a way as to preserve their dominant status. The marginalization of women has been enforced by restrictive attitudes, customs, and laws regulating marriage, divorce, inheritance, enterprise, leadership and the mixing of the sexes socially. Despite progress in access to schools and hospitals, the life of too many girls in the Arab world is regimented during childhood by authoritarian fathers and teachers, and then later on by husbands, and always by political rulers.

    Things are changing for the better in those fields in which systemic change is not required. For example, Arab women are flocking to universities, and many more than before are working. Women are voting and have started to run for political office in some places.

    However, such change is often more a question of numbers than quality when it comes to closing the gender gap. The increase in female access to academic institutions and jobs has not been accompanied by quality education, creative output, or equality in earning capacity. Arab women dramatically lag behind men in terms of employment, salaries, and access to political office. The presence of females in parliaments, courts and governments remains rare.

    Men continue to come up with attractive rationalizations to justify personal and institutional discrimination. The authorities may opine that modernity is not culturally suitable for the Arab world. Arab males may view the liberation of women as a form of rebellion; they often argue, emotionally, that sexual freedom of women degrades the honor of the family, fuels secularism, and weakens morality.

    Standard bearers in Arab societies 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 ranked low in efforts to close the opportunity gap between men and women. The 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, which was released recently at the World Economic Forum, has analyzed differences between males and females in education, health, and participation in the economy and politics. Among the 134 countries surveyed, the top Arab score in closing the gender gap was the United Arab Emirates, ranked 103; this was followed by Kuwait, ranked 105; Bahrain, ranked 110; Lebanon, ranked 116; Qatar, ranked 117; Oman, ranked 122; Egypt, ranked 125; Saudi Arabia, ranked 129; and Yemen, ranked 134.

    Most Arab states have signed the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. But they still have serious reservations when it comes to critical articles of the convention, including those pertaining to marriage and inheritance.

    Arab scholars have observed, for example in the United Nations Development Program’s human development reports for the years 2002-04, that social development is only possible when politics offers freedom, education engages the mind, and the gender gap closes. However, such reports attract more dust than they do attention in the Arab world. Social breakthroughs are difficult when men are in charge of governance, public education, and morality.

    Still, 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 Leila Ahmad have written of the right of women to interpret scripture. Ahmad explains that when she was growing up in Egypt, she did not acquire her religious faith through any formal training. Rather, Ahmad absorbed her values of tolerance and appreciation of diversity through daily contact with women in her extended family. This 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 development (ECD) programs has been effective in many areas of the region. Community-based ECD programs stimulate the growth of children, enable the mothers, and improve family support. Empowerment programs targeting disadvantaged women have a multiplier effect in development.

    Women should lead the gender movement, as 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 representation in parliament or in labor leadership posts. When women are active in courts, parliaments and governance institutions, social change flows naturally.

    Role models have emerged. Jordan’s Queen Rania is an international star of social causes. Perhaps the most popular Arab woman is Feirouz, the 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 among the most articulate spokespersons on the Arab Israeli conflict.

    Arab women are experimenting with indigenous approaches to induce change in society. They deserve support in order to take additional risks in their social action. However, until now the potential for women as agents of change remains largely untapped. The dynamics of inequality are largely political, not religious as some will insist.

    Ghassan RUBEIZ
    The Daily Star

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