As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, celebrating it in the Arab world comes with mixed reactions. In a region that has embraced more change in the past two years than it has in the past two decades, the issue of women empowerment and feminism remains a sensitive subject.
Scared doesn’t begin to describe the emotion felt when considering ones self a feminist; not just because there’s no single definition for feminism in the world, rather because the term is often times misconstrued in the Arab world to be anti-Islamic, vulgar, and an abandonment of ones culture.
The past year has seen many great advances for women in the region, especially in politics; but with Saudi Arabia swearing women into the Shura’a Council came clerics who labelled them as prostitutes. When women participated at the Olympics, their attire was spotlighted. When Saudi Arabia set caps on the number of women in the Shura Council, the world took it with mixed emotions, but when Kuwait’s female MP’s were voted out of parliament, it was realised that in a region where culture and politics are interdependent, laws and regulations must be used to ensure female participation, in hopes of achieving female representation.
The bottom line is that society tends to blame women for their downfalls, but rarely celebrates their achievements. What is often missed is that although those who are first to jump the rope and vilify women are clerics and religious leaders, Arab women’s strongest weapon is religion itself, with its countless emphasis on their role in society.
Missing the point
The fact of the matter is that introducing regulations to secure women seats on the boards of multi-million dollar companies, as the UAE did in December 2012, or in politics, as Saudi Arabia has done, the lives of the women who need it the most remain unchanged.
Women in rural impoverished areas, the ones who work on farms, the ones affected by ‘honour’ crimes, and the young girls who can’t continue middle and higher education because of financial or cultural reasons continue to live their lives as if nothing has changed. The top-down approach enforced by governments doesn’t march to the beat set by society.
As well as securing women seats in management positions, primary and secondary education must be secured for the girls in villages. Introducing women to the political sphere gives young girls something to aspire to, but without the equivalent of cultural changes, which come through education and awareness, these aspirations are meaningless. Women continue to trail behind men in literacy rates throughout the region, and despite of all the changes and shakeups that have changed politically, Arab countries aren’t performing as well as they can in the Gender Gap Index by the World Economic Forum, primarily being brought down by the gap in economic contribution and opportunity. Fair maternity leave without the risk of expulsion would keep women from worrying about culture intervening with their aspirations.
The upside-down pyramid approach being used puts women in the spotlight, but can sometimes be blinding to both the women involved, and the public.
Feminism versus Culture
The cultural dilemma of feminism and women’s rights is misunderstood: feminism isn’t about helping women; it’s about helping society. When women are educated, aware, and active, they can contribute to both their families and society more productively. When women are employed, their spending will encourage economic growth, which will create further opportunities for both men and women. Feminism isn’t about surrendering ones femininity, rather about embracing it and using it to achieve social and cultural advancement. The only way it affects a man’s life is that it improves it; a study by Booz & Co. indicates that increasing female participation in the workforce can increase the UAE’s GDP by as much as 12%.
The only thing holding us back is that the region is continuously missing the point and focussing on the nitty-gritty rather than the big picture. The end is noble, but the means must be reconstructed to ensure female representation as well as participation. At the end of the day, a cake can be decorated with pink flowers, but if the batter missed an ingredient, it won’t make it taste any better.
Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian and environmental activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir