We need to counter embedded gender inequality with the same level of urgency that we were compelled to face the pandemic with. The year 2020 has negatively impacted us on many levels. The pandemic brought to focus the existing glaring chasms between economies, policies, households and individuals.
The inequalities that were once sedated by our collective consumption in the hustle of everyday life were magnified as we were forced to ease the pace of our lives. The hidden wounds that we once ignored have festered demanding a remedy now not later.
Last month the World Economic Forum released its annual gender gap report. “At the current relative pace, gender gaps can potentially be closed in 52.1 years in Western Europe, 61.5 years in North America, and 68.9 years in Latin America and the Caribbean. 142.4 years in the Middle East and North Africa, and 195.4 years in South Asia,” it revealed.
It will take a century and a half to close the existing gender gap that has become one of the main defining features of the Middle East, a region that is usually associated with the subjugation and oppression of women.
The picture painted by the report is a bleak one where young girls might feel disheartened that no matter how hard they work they will never be treated as equal to their male counterparts because the balance of power is already lopsided.
Even within this depressing tale, a glimmer of hope shines to guide our region to a more just future for women. The United Arab Emirates was one of the five most improved countries in bridging the existing gender gap. A strong political and financial commitment, coupled with pervasive policies that prioritize women, and faith in an inclusive vision that is advanced by leadership and adopted by citizens have allowed the UAE to usher the Arab world with a brighter future for women. Today I was proudly showing my children the picture of the first Female Arab, Muslim, veiled astronaut from the UAE Noura al-Matrooshi. The UAE has become a symbol of progress that is grounded in authentic tradition.
The question remains though, why are women worldwide, and particularly in the Middle East seen as second class citizens? Why are women’s needs constantly brushed aside? Why are they marginalized?
If you want an intimation of an answer to this complex issue it keeps coming back to: “lack of.”
A lack of proper education; lack of childcare; lack of medical access, and lack of financial independence all contribute.
Within the family, the mother is typically the last person to voice her needs, particularly if those needs might cause financial strain on an already strained family budget. There is an Arabic saying that mothers usually quote: “If you feed my child a date, I feel its sweetness on my tongue”.
Arab women are indoctrinated from a very young age to relegate their needs until the needs of others are met. A sister must serve her father and brother before attending to her desires. A wife must make sure her husband is happy before she can ask for something. A mother must ensure that all family members with their varied needs are satisfied before she can even begin to consider what her needs are, which is usually rest. A woman must do all those things in silence of course.
By the time a woman becomes a mother, she completely loses herself to a role that is constructed around the demands of others that she forgets her past desires and ambitions. Her wants were always postponed, so it becomes natural that they are finally forgotten.
If we truly want to bridge the gender gap we must teach girls that a girl has the right to desire, that she has a right to speak out and that she has the right to be. As for me, I will be watching Noura al-Matrooshi with my little girl, waiting for her to take one step for a woman, and one giant leap for womankind.