Women in the Middle East are faced with several social problems resulting from the patriarchal nature of the family system and culture which imposes a limitation on full self-realization and growth. However, these women are not aware of the reasons behind their social backwardness. Lack of democracy in the Middle East has barred women in that region to form organizations that may enable them to raise and propagate awareness.
This has made the realization of change through the creation of a conducive social environment difficult. The hostile situation in the Middle East regarding the position of women is inadequate to their richness and diversity. Family laws are Islamic laws that do not provide certain rights for women. For instance, the right to divorce is not accorded to women and in case they are divorced the custody of the children remains in the hands of the men. Women must seek the permission of men for them to travel, study, or work.
The Middle East society has been provided with an interpretation of religious laws which are exclusivist and conservative. The jurists and theologians who are mainly responsible for formulating and interpreting laws have designed laws that ultimately undermine women in the family and society. Remarkably, these jurists and theologians are men. Women are not legible to hold major positions in the government owing to the strict Islamic laws, which are the main religion in the Middle East. (Abukhalil v.13)
The inferior status of women in the Middle East can largely be attributed to religion even though culture also has a major role in perpetuating alienation and oppression of women. Religious fundamentalism is a major factor that contributes to the violation of the rights of women in the Middle East.
Government and religious figures often join forces in suppressing the rights of women which includes their sexual autonomy. Men essentially mediate on the nature of the relationship between the state and women in the Middle East. Full participation of women in public life is deterred by their inferior legal status. Unequal gender roles have been institutionalized in this region thereby limiting the participation of women in the economic and political realm.
Women’s vulnerability to violence is increased in the Middle East owing to unequal legal rights. There exists a major disparity in the laws and provisions for penalizing domestic violence. In most Middle East countries, domestic violence laws have not been adopted regardless of the ever-increasing number of domestic violence cases. (Haleh p.67) In these states, domestic violence is primarily considered a private affair beyond the state’s jurisdiction. An attempt by battered women to file cases against their husbands is often frustrated by the police.
At the moment, women throughout the Middle East are considered second-class citizens. They do not enjoy the full legal identity that every citizen should enjoy. ( Kamgauian p. 23) Women’s rights are violated by discriminatory constitutions and unjust laws which hardly recognize the role of women in society. Women are not granted full citizenship in the Middle East countries given the definition that a citizen is a naturalized or native member of a state. However, women are not entitled to the rights and privileges that a normal citizen should be allotted owing to the nature of the social and cultural setup of the Middle Eastern societies.
Instead of bridging gender gaps, the constitution of the states works towards strengthening gender inequality. The state, therefore, becomes a tool through which Islamic and tribal control of men over women is strengthened. This makes women increasingly dependent on these institutions. Within the Arab states, it is the family which is the basic unit of the state, unlike other governments which recognize the individual as the basic unit. (Women in the Middle East, Canadian Journal p.21)
In other words, it is not the responsibility of the government to protect an individual but rather to protect families. In this context, women’s rights are expressed in their roles as mothers or wives. Because this system is entirely patriarchal, women can only but play the role of inferior members. Since women are only protected within their roles in the family it is virtually impossible to protect a woman from her family.
Modern trends advocate for individual pursuit and this becomes complicated especially when this identity becomes gender-oriented. Even though the Middle East societies are also experiencing these social pressures, the women in this region are locked up in the difficult transformation of mapping their identity in line with modernity. The greatest challenge lies in the formulation of the concept of individual self rather than the usual group identification. (Rochman p.212)
However, this may not be easily achieved owing to the nature of Islamic societies and laws. Family and religion are the domains that dominate the lives of Middle East women. This has invariably patterned the lives of these women into being wives and mothers. Modernization has however compelled Middle East women to reconsider their position in a dynamic society which demands more than just traditional roles. The women’s success in adapting to modern trends throughout the Middle East is influenced by regional, ethnic, and class differences which have a big impact on their opinions and attitudes. However, women still seek the approval of men to venture into non-traditional domains like politics.
The rights of women in the Middle East are determined by their relationship to males. Personal status laws in the Middle East restrict the right of women from the time they enter into a relationship to the time of dissolution. Women are restricted by law to transmit their nationality to their children or husband in case the husband does not belong to that particular country. Women in the Middle East do not enjoy civil, cultural, political, or economic rights of any kind.
Abukhalil, As’ad. “Toward the study of Women and Politics in the Arab World: The Debate and the Reality”. Feminist Issues. Vol.13 no.1(1993).
Haleh, Afshar. Women in the Middle East: Perceptions, Realities, and Struggles for Liberation. NY. St. Martins Press.
Kamguian, Azam. The liberation of women in the Middle East.
Rochman, Hazel. Women in the Middle East.
Women in the Middle East: Past and Present. Canadian Journal of Women and Law. (2008) Vol. 20. Issue 1.