The subject of women’s rights in the Arab world has invigorated debates for many years. But such discussions have taken a controversial course recently with the publication of a Thomson Reuters Foundation study on the status of women in this region.
The survey makes a number of claims about which countries are better or worse for women. It also raises many questions. Not the least of which is how to have a genuine conversation about women’s rights in the Arab world without falling into the trap of making women “oppressed” and “exotic”, and not misusing the region’s conservative cultural norms to override their fundamental rights.
It is not an easy question to tackle. All too often, Western observers, as well as Westernised elites in the Arab world, make claims and arguments that are based on assertions and assumptions that talk about Arab women, as opposed to letting them speak for themselves.
In each different Arab country, one thing seems to be common. Beyond the elite that exists in every nation in the region, there are very few forums where Arab women are able to discuss and define what roles they want to play.
At a recent conference, I listened to a prominent human rights activist claim that in her (Arab) country, fewer than a dozen Muslim women were “known” for not covering their hair, and were thus, implicitly, more free than the rest of the country’s female population, who were “oppressed”.
Public discourse has drawn the world’s attention to the issue of wearing the headscarf, but the narratives of those who do (the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslim women), are far less prevalent in our discussions of that particular issue.
Western commentators find themselves imagining why women wear the headscarf and reduce those who do simply to “women who wear the veil”. Forty per cent of Egyptian women are the breadwinners in their families, and most of them wear the headscarf. Can we really describe them as “disempowered”? Is this really a fair description?
That also means that we need to be particularly careful when it comes to research in this field. The Thomson Reuters Foundation study touched on many vital issues, but it was portrayed in the wider media as a poll, which suggested it was representative of Arab public opinion.
In fact, it was a sample based on experts in the field of women’s rights in each Arab country, which is not the same thing at all.
As a former Gallup senior practice consultant, I do think that survey work has a role to play in understanding public opinion, but a sample of experts is, by definition, unrepresentative.
It might be a worthwhile exercise to engage with them further: for example, about whether Somalia, indeed, is a better state than Lebanon for women. But as their identities are anonymous, we are left with many questions that we are unable to answer.
There is another critical failing when it comes to understanding the status of Arab women and that is self-censorship.
Meanwhile, the genuinely inspirational civil rights activists in the region, who have been working continuously to give women the choice not just in terms of what they wear, but also in how they live (including the right to exist without being brutalised by sexual violence and harassment), gets ignored. That too is an injustice.
These are the types of caveats that we must all apply when approaching this delicate subject, recognising that for hundreds of years, the subject of the “Arab woman” has been repeatedly abused.
For example, during the Victorian era in Britain, there were those within the aristocracy that demonised the Arab world for being too favourable towards women, due to the ability of women to own property and so forth. It is now different – but abuse of the “Arab woman” for other purposes persists.
The Arab woman – all different types of her – has been present in the struggle for Arab advancement throughout the past few years of revolutionary uprisings, and the decades before. She pays a greater price for those struggles than the Arab man, but she does not need pity, or misrepresentations by well-meaning but ultimately disconnected “experts”. What she needs, frankly, is for the rest of us to listen.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, Brookings and ISPU
On Twitter: @Hahellyer