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Article 437

Women in the Middle East

By As`ad AbuKhalil


Key Points

  • Although there is no gender equality in the Middle East (including in Israel), the phenomena of sexism and misogyny are global—not peculiar to Islam, or to the Middle East.
  • The status of women varies widely in the Middle East, and one should not project the norms in Saudi Arabia—one of the most sexist and oppressive states in the region—onto the larger Muslim world.
  • Many of the causes for the inferior status of Middle Eastern women are indigenous, but the West—especially the U.S.—has exacerbated this oppression.

In discussions of general issues facing women in the Middle East, the diversity of female lifestyles and conditions is often lost. Accustomed to stereotypical depictions, Westerners are told that Middle Eastern women are passive, weak, and always veiled. It is often assumed that the severe conditions in Saudi Arabia—where women are not even allowed to drive cars—represent the norm for women throughout the Middle East and in the larger Muslim world. In reality, Saudi Arabia’s versions of both Islam and sexism are rather unique in their severities, although the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan is now emulating the sexist Saudi model. Women enjoy political and social rights in many Muslim countries, and Egypt has recently granted women the right to divorce their husbands. In Tunisia, abortion is legal, and polygamy is prohibited. Women have served as ministers in the Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and Tunisian governments, and as Vice President in Iran.

Yet the problems of Middle Eastern women remain acute. Islamic, Christian, and Jewish jurists and theologians—all of them males—have provided Middle Eastern society with the most exclusivist and conservative interpretations of religious laws, which have burdened women in the family, the society, and the state. The top position in government, according to strict Islamic laws, is denied to women based on a dubious Hadith (collections of sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad). According to the Interparlia-mentary Union, the political representation of women in parliaments in Arab nations lags behind all other countries of the world, and Kuwait has yet to grant women the right to vote. Yet, Muslims in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey have all been led by women. In Israel, a woman (Golda Meir) once headed the government, although the political elite has been almost exclusively of males since the creation of the state.

Islamic clerics continue to enjoy a tremendous amount of power, and often exercise great influence in the field of education. The Middle East (including Israel) is unduly hostage to clerics, who do not allow the codification of civil personal status laws. For example, only Cyprus, of all the Middle Eastern countries, recognizes interfaith marriages. Furthermore, Islam has sanctioned and perpetuated many sexist practices and views, including polygamy, the stigmatization of menstruation, the requirement of wifely obedience to the husband, and the inequality of inheritance and court appearances. All of these practices have at one point or another been part of Christian and Jewish practices or cultures.

Although religion bears major responsibility for the inferior status of women, it cannot be solely blamed for the gender problem in the Middle East. In reality, the role of culture has been even more prominent in perpetuating the oppression of women. Female genital mutilation, for example, is a cultural practice that has afflicted women in several cultures at different times in history. The practice, which in Islam garners dubious permission in an alleged Hadith of the Prophet, is largely unknown in most Muslim countries, though it is still practiced in rural areas of both Muslim and non-Muslim parts of Africa. Similarly, the so-called “honor crimes” have no basis in Islam. Furthermore, though veiling has become a symbol of Middle Eastern oppression of women, the practice actually came to Muslim cultures from Christian Byzantium.

In fact, the role of the West regarding Middle Eastern women is often obscured. Western colonial powers have historically shed crocodile tears over the plight of Muslim women and have vilified Islam for its role in this oppression. Ironically, in medieval times Islam was actually attacked by Christian polemicists for being too permissive and tolerant in social and sexual matters.

Western treatment of Muslim women has been hypocritical at best. Leila Ahmed, who published a study of women and gender in the Islamic world, dubs the Western attitude as “colonial feminism.” According to Ahmed, colonial feminism refers to the tendency among colonial officers to champion Muslim women’s rights, while at the same time opposing women’s rights in their own countries. Thus the status of women in the Middle East was used merely to denigrate Islam and the culture of the region. The legacy of colonial feminism persists; feminism in the Middle East is often discredited, by governments and by local enemies of feminism, because it is associated with the sequels of colonialism.

In the present-day Middle East, the Western powers’ responsibility (America’s in particular) for the current state of affairs, cannot be denied. Ever since the 1950s, successive American governments have supported Saudi Arabian Islam and have funded and armed Islamic fundamentalist groups, which have tormented Middle Eastern women and frustrated their efforts at emancipation. Furthermore, since many of the oppressive governments in the Middle East survive only because of Western military and/or economic support, the responsibility for local oppression has external dimensions.



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