Women in the Middle East and North Africa

By: Ala Oueslati

As the countries of the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) have been undertaking the process of enacting social and political change, women still haven’t gained equitable human rights, which stands out as a particularly worrying obstacle in the way of the socio-political movements. Although the Arab Spring may have offered women in the MENA region more hope and greater promise, their unequal status is still a clear barrier to the full realisation of their rights and the rights of their children, especially girls.

As might be expected, the MENA region is certainly not the only region in the world where women and girls continue to be pressured by entrenched social systems. Women also face systematic discrimination in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. In fact, in no country in the world have women obtained equal rights as men. It is in the Middle East and North Africa, however, that the gap between men’s right and women’s right has been the most significant and the the most disturbing.

The situation of women in the MENA region, as elsewhere, has made us familiar with the issues of gender discrimination, sexism and oppression of women. These issues are now presented as an overbearing and inevitable chapter in the discussion of human rights. We have become so familiar with these notions, that we now address women’s rights as a different kind of rights, because they are relative to women, in a world that has perfectly shown, despite all efforts, a stringent misogynist attitude towards them. For this very reason, there is no such a thing as “men’s rights” because men’s rights are merely human rights.

Perhaps most visibly in the MENA countries, women’s personal autonomy is seriously limited, due to a social and cultural restrictive system that is often too complicated to understand, and excessively protected by men. Households depend mostly on women, who are expected to be responsible for any indoor duties and oftentimes outdoor activities such as farming, carrying water or food, accompanying children (boys) to school, if allowed by the patriarchal authority…

The gender-based discrimination these women face are undoubtedly linked to culture and identity, which in this region are identified as the beliefs and practices of society. They are also seen as closely linked with tradition, religion and “life-maintaining” norms that regulate and control every aspect of social life. Perhaps the most perplexing part is that in these societies men are most of the time, if not always, valued, honoured and feared. No matter how many women they rape, how many girls they mutilate, and how many female victims they execute in the name of honour and glory, they are always seen as loyal governors, peacekeepers and bona fide leaders.

Most significantly, women continue to face discrimination in personal-status laws, which regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, and many other aspects of personal life. In many Middle Eastern countries, it is nearly impossible for women to file for divorce. In many cases, they are subject to domestic violence if they dare to do so. It is true that the situation has slightly changed over the last decade. It is still, however, enforced by conservative regimes that are constantly debating over women; what should they have access to, what shouldn’t they say or do and how to keep them compliant with the society’s norms and beliefs. Contrary to what is claimed, these very same beliefs are most of the time not perceived through religion or faith, but from an inherited stagnant mindset that somehow gives men a sense of natural autonomy, satisfaction and ascendency.

Even in the Arab Spring societies that managed to be relatively more progressive when it comes to “women’s rights”, men can afford to be more progressive than women. This again shows the extent to which the societies of the MENA region are misogynist, to the point where women become men’s most attractive and most disturbing interest. Women, no matter how progressive, are always expected to comply with the norms, unlike men. In fact, we can see the extremes of this dilemma when progressive men blame women for not complying with the retrograde practices of society. It is even repellent to call a society equal when men are sensitive to the slightest harm while women are accustomed to enduring what might not be imaginable to men.

Unbeknown to most people in a position of authority, inequality occurs when one believes to have more power than others,thus it is aggravated when people unmindfully become followers, and organise their lives according to this misconception. In the Middle East and North Africa, women are undeniably seen as free citizens, until they claim their rights. That’s when they cease to be citizens and become “women”. That’s also when their human rights become “women’s rights”.  

Ala Oueslati is a 23-year-old journalist from Tunisia. He is also a freelance writer, human rights activist, blogger, and photographer working for the United Nations Development Program and a contributor at Caux Initiatives of Change in Switzerland. You can find more of his work at his blog or connect with him on Twitter.

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