Women and girls in the Middle East must be heard. Progress on increasing women’s access to decision-making spaces has been made, but there is still a long way to go.
The world recently incurred a great loss with the passing of American Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her arduous work for gender equality and women’s empowerment compelled even her ardent critics to pay respect and acknowledge her legacy. One of her most abiding quotes will be “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” It is as simple as that. The apparent dichotomy between the public and the private arenas must not dictate a woman’s place. Women belong wherever the conversations are taking place that will shape her, others, and the future.
But how can women belong, have certainty that contributing to every conversation is their rightful place, and participate in every decision when we silence them at a young age? In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and so many other nations, the World Bank data shows us the population parity between women and men: for how much longer will we silence our children and women?
Today we are witnessing the great change in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Our leaders in Egypt Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain are catapulting our nations from the historical nostalgia of our heydays to new and sustainable advances that will allow Muslim countries to reclaim our place at the table of civilization through applying visionary strategies on Artificial Intelligence, dedicating the necessary resources for advancing education, technology, sustainable development and improving women’s rights.
Yet there is still a deep malaise in Middle Eastern societies. One could assume, like many westerners do, that perhaps Islam is the problem, perhaps it is a religion that oppresses and silences women. As a Muslim woman my answer is no, Islam is not the problem, our captivity within religious dogma is the problem. Historically, Islam championed women’s rights such as granting them right to inheritance, initiation of divorce, and custody rights at a time when women in Greek culture, for example, had absolutely no rights. Not to mention the many examples of strong and outspoken women within Muslim history. One could look at Khadija, the prophet’s first wife, who chose her husband a much younger man who worked for her. Or Ayesha, the most beloved wife who accompanied the prophet on battles and Muslim men and women would flock to benefit from her knowledge. She led men in war. Or Zaynab, the prophet’s daughter whose husband didn’t believe in the prophet and still she loved and lived with him in Mecca. Muslim history is rife with stories of strong, willful and opinionated women who refused to be silenced or their voices to be drowned out. Islam initiated the impetus for advancing women’s rights. It is now time to transform this impetus into a drive for achieving complete equality.
The pervasiveness of historically strong Muslim women or Islam’s previous role in advancing women’s rights shouldn’t deter us from acknowledging the dire inequalities that many Muslim women endure. This oppression does not emanate from the Quran, but from the static and historically contextual readings of the Quran. One of the most essential premises of monotheistic religions is the transcendence of God’s wisdom of any spacio-temporal conditions, i.e. its freedom from limitations. Nevertheless, dogmatic and literalist readings are being used to imprison women within a historically bygone era of submissiveness. It was in the 1920s that the Egyptian icon Huda Sha’rawi vehemently fought for girls and women’s inherent right to access education and to full participation in public life. She fought for our right to speak and demanded the world to listen. A woman’s totality is integral to the global story.
We need to acknowledge the strides taken by Arab governments to advance women’s rights and achieve gender parity. In 2019, the World Bank recognized Saudi Arabia as the top reformer globally due to the various policies and legislations that aim to increase female economic participation. In Egypt, the National Council for Women recently pushed for legislation to protect the anonymity of sexual abuse victims to provide a safe space for survivors to report and hold the perpetrators accountable. This week, the UAE's Gender Balance Council announced a new law that will ensure equal pay for men and women in the private sector, which will further improve the country’s position on the UN Gender Inequality Index. Last year, the UAE ranked first in the Arab world and 26th globally. Women’s issues are getting the centrality and attention they deserve on governmental agendas. Yet, to create systemic and sustainable progress, taboos and dogmas that are weaponized to silence women need to be abolished.
There is a new narrative being written. A narrative where friend and foe are changing. A narrative that aims to include diverse voices of those who can achieve progress, not dwell on the past. This narrative must include girls and to include our girls we must stop shackling them with shame and silence. We must allow them not only to speak but also to sing, for one could never know when the next Um Kulthoom might rise from the silent ranks and emerge unto her stage.
Heba Yosry teaches psychology and philosophy in Cairo. She holds a post-graduate degree in Arabic literature and philosophy from the American University in Cairo.