Women and empowerment in the Arab world.

Author:Zuhur, Sherifa

EMPOWERMENT, JUST LIKE THE TERM "liberation" is a complex and relative notion that implies a scale of power, and a linear progression from one end of that scale to another. One could debate whether the purpose of social welfare policies are to empower citizens, women among them, or whether they are intended to give the impression of empowerment, thereby legitimizing nation-states, international organizations or other actors. I cannot engage in that debate in this article, so let us begin with the premise that women's empowerment is indeed the goal of such policies.

The daunting task of describing and evaluating women's empowerment precedes and should accompany planning--daunting, although more data has been collected, and there is an increased awareness of gender as a category of power and status. That is because we increasingly see empowerment alongside, or in combination with other phenomena and the study of gender has in many ways, revolutionized the study of other power constellations in society. The task is also intimidating because most scholars agree that it is important to avoid the essentialization of women in ethnic, religious, or national categories. Yet, we here refer to an explicit category of "Arab women" in order to theorize, (1) and so that readers of this essay can appreciate any discernible trends, despite the diversity of Arab women

The premise of social welfare policies is that women (and men) lack power and basic rights as citizens when they have limited income or access to other important services. These policies may not and usually do not acknowledge discrimination of women on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or religion; for instance, social welfare policies in Israel refer to Arab women's disadvantages on the basis of their low income status, but never to the element of racism or discrimination which accord to them as Palestinians (or Bedouin) as a group, but factors that oppress as women in Muslim societies are of great interest.

Women are by no means globally empowered. It seems that everywhere, economic and political power appear to be equally necessary components of empowerment. Women's disproportionate lack of political power is accompanied by their status as the majority of the poor. Their lack of power is demonstrated in the fact that one third of the world's women will be subjected to violence. Two million girls under the age of 15 are forced into the sex trade each year, and about twice as many women as men are affected with H1V in Africa. We must begin with this mention of the global problems of women so that the problems of Arab women are not overemphasized, or misconstrued.

We are not fully agreed on the definition of empowerment or what it in turn, will produce--political or economic power? Positive self-image? More or less serious exploitation of others (other poorer, or non-Arab women, (2) or men)? It has been very difficult to coordinate efforts aimed at empowerment with the various competing ideas concerning the tactics to be employed. And finally, I think it is important to reflect on the explicit aspects of empowerment that may have a bearing on the subjects of other articles in this issue that variously deal with social policy and women.

With this in mind, I will comment on some key events in various Arab countries or within communities of Arab women that highlight the uncertain track record of women's "progress" toward empowerment. For the purposes of this task, let us define empowerment as a condition in which women hold or are in the process of obtaining educational, legal and political rights that are equivalent or nearly equal to those of male citizens. Further, women are able to work, and advance in any career they select; possess economic rights to own and dispose of property, and pay for goods at the same rate as others. And, women should obtain bodily rights--the rights to control their own health and fertility, and prosecute those who engage in domestic violence, rape, harassment, or other violations of women's bodies. Empowerment may also include legal rights that actually accord women certain advantages such as hiring or educational preferences in areas where women have historically lacked access or differential rights such as paid maternity leaves, or the state and criminal justice system's cooperation in enforcing laws that protect women. Empowerment extends beyond acts or attitudes of governments, for it should include women's increased knowledge of the history of women in their own country/region, and the social and psychological effects of patriarchy, and access to creativity.

Social welfare systems have however primarily focused on stop-gap systems for economic and health security. They have not, for the most part, caused, or intended social transformation. Yet, they implicitly include certain aspects of the above-defined goals of empowerment, at least, the ideas that an increase in the years of education, and increased ability to earn income will empower women in both public and private spheres.

The Arab states embody various patriarchal structures and Arab society clings to a patriarchal system in which women's position within and duties toward the family precede their rights as individuals. Many who argue for empowerment do so either with or without a full understanding of the conflicts between the historical and contemporary status of women and the goals of empowerment. Certainly we may track a great many changes that have occurred in the direction of empowerment, but women have yet to achieve or realize many of the ideal stages of empowerment. Hence it is certainly more rational to define empowerment as a process rather than an end-point.

The scholarly literature on women in the region (as many issues are shared with non-Arab states) has since the mid-1980s focused a great deal of attention on the "patriarchal bargain" (Kandiyotti, 1991) struck between elite (and in many cases, middle class women) women and the state. Within this arrangement, elite women acquired more power so long as they did not challenge the basic patriarchal structures of state and society. Cultural authenticity was important to relatively young modern states and often relied heavily on Muslim mores that discouraged any attacks on the patriarchal family structure. But it must be noted that other religious groups in the region, for example the Eastern churches observe many of the self-same patriarchal features. These elite (and middle class) women benefited from state actions which involved movement toward women's empowerment and which challenged patriarchal authority, but not as strongly as they might have--for example, the promotion of women in the professions, along with the idea that women would not sacrifice their families for their careers. Such women have played a leading role in state organizations and NGOs that claim the improvement of women's status as their primary goal. Whether because of these woman and their own participation in the patriarchal bargain, or Arab states' reluctance to introduce policies that would irritate their religious establishments, the patriarchal and paternal nature of political leadership, or a combination of all of these factors, very little has bean introduced that would severely challenge or question the prevailing conception of gender roles in the years since independence from colonial oversight, or mid-century. Rather, the patriarchal nature of the family has been taken as a given, and policies developed around it.

Over the last twenty years, scholars have also investigated the interaction of Islamic revival, or Islamism and ideas concerning gender. This area of inquiry as well as the more purely social science oriented examinations of economic change and women's status has not always featured the state as a key actor. There are clear differentiations between NGOs that are independent of the state and those deeply entwined with it. We may also differentiate between Islamist women who espouse many feminist ideals of empowerment although they may eschew others, and male Islamist or conservative Muslim authorities. Their views differ, but more importantly their degree of power differs. For example, A-Muhammad Sha'arawi or Yusuf Qaradawi are inherently more powerful and influential and known to more citizens than female counterparts. The point however is that very few Arab states have ignored the Islamist trends and the consequent entanglement of the goals of women's empowerment with fears of Western ideologies, or the perception that women's empowerment is a feminist (read, Western) target.

How should we measure the degree of empowerment women experienced after a very active century of social and political change? We are confronted with recent events that illustrate a very ambivalent success rate.


* The passage of the new law in Egypt in January 2001 that makes a no-grounds divorce easier for women by allowing a "khul" (surrender of the mahr and gifts) divorce.

* Statistics that show girls catching up to boys in elementary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions, and evidence that members of rural, neglected, or minority communities are slowly benefiting from access to higher education (for example, the numbers of Arab women college graduates in Israel, including Bedouin).

* Royal commitment to parliamentary seats reserved for women in Morocco who competed in the fall 2002 elections.

* An important shift in discourse--in literature and history, this has meant the incorporation of "women's voices," the politicization of the personal, and a revived interest in the lost or misplaced history of women and their forms of expression in the past up to the present.

* A marked decrease in the fertility in some urban areas of the Arab world, although other areas (the Gaza strip and Algeria) continue to evidence extremely high fertility rates. I am not trying to argue that population control is the prime...

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