Obstacles and opportunities: the life of an Arab woman

The Arab world is struggling on many fronts, these issues are all important for the future of the MENA region

Muna AbuSulayman

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The Arab world is struggling on many fronts: the economy, legal rights, governance, women’s rights, unemployment, and, in some parts, education. These are the issues that continually come up when you look at challenges facing the region. These issues are all important to the development of a stable future for the MENA region. Nonetheless, I believe that sectarianism is the greatest threat that women face right now. Yet, we deal with the other issues because they are easier to work with, easier to give aid to, easier to talk about, and easier to measure. They are not messy; they are not as nuanced; they are not as complex.

In 2013 there was a continuation of increasing sectarian or political conflict in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, and Bahrain, which, along with the mini civil wars being fought in many of these countries, undermined the security, national cohesion, and unity that are the most essential ingredients for prospering stability. In many of these countries, education and economic opportunities for both genders suffered. Many of the advances that were enjoyed there, especially for women, are being rolled back due to the war-like atmosphere that has been created.

Women’s rights advances

Thus, women’s rights advances were mostly pushed to the back burner in many of the conflict-ridden countries despite occasional vocal opposition. The issues have become more about survival, accommodation of refugees, and building political coalitions, rather than addressing the devastating effects on women, such as early marriages.

One of the top priorities to help stabilize the region should be large-scale, long-term, faith- and education-based solutions

Muna AbuSulayman

The most stable countries, especially the oil- and gas-rich Gulf countries, have focused on increasing employment opportunities for their male and female labor forces, with Saudi Arabia being a notable example. In these countries, more women are being educated at the college-level than their male counterparts, and, due to government programs, they are now able to avail themselves of economic and entrepreneurial opportunities. Many of the essays in this special edition will focus on these advances. I applaud these advances, and I, like those writers, hope for more. However, even in these stable countries, if sectarianism or tribalism increases, those advances will be pushed back. The scenario that is happening in Syria, unfortunately, is not a far-fetched one for almost any country in the Middle East.

One of the top priorities to help stabilize the region should be large-scale, long-term, faith- and education-based solutions in the countries that have already been affected and preventative programs in the countries that could be affected. Otherwise, as has happened in Iraq and Syria, these divisions can undo most of the progress of the past few decades.

This article was first published in the Wilson Center’s March 8 publication: MENA Women: Opportunities and Obstacles in 2014.


Muna AbuSulayman is an award-winning Arab media personality and co-host of top Arab TV program on social issues, Kalam Nawaem, a show that focuses on Arab families and empowerment. She has been named one of the most influential Arabs, as well as one of the most influential Muslims, in the world in numerous publications from 2009 to the present due to her unique and diverse cross-sector work experience in management, education, sustainable development, Islam/West relations, and female empowerment. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum, the UN, and the World Bank on sensitive issues, such as “Media Leadership in the Arab World” and “Monetization of Motherhood.” Most notably, AbuSulayman has successfully launched, managed, and scaled multiple businesses and runs a consultancy that focuses on finding “Big Ideas that Work” to solve problems in education, transportation, gender issues and entrepreneurship. She tweets @MunaAbuSulayman.

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