The situation of women in the Arab world seems challenging from the outside and almost consistent throughout the region. In fact, Arab countries are very different from each other, and many of them are changing significantly, including the issue of the status of women. For example, in Lebanon – the most progressive country in the region – the birth rate is 1.72 children per woman, whereas, in conservative Saudi Arabia, it is 2.09 (“Women and Girls’ Rights’ Precarious’ in the Middle East and North Africa”). Even in Yemen, where the status of women, according to the United Nations, is the worst in the world, the figure is 3.63, not 7-8, as it used to be 30 years ago (United Nations). Thus, it is interesting to investigate the differences in treating women throughout the Middle East along with how the attitude has changed.
When a woman does not need to give birth and raise seven children, her life changes fundamentally. There are opportunities for education and work and independent earnings, which, as many feminist theorists testify, is the primary condition for emancipation (Women and Girls’ Rights’) These changes are reflected in the values of surveyed people with the help of international mass surveys (for example, the Arab Barometer and the World Values Survey are doing this).
There are Arab countries where the position of women was very vulnerable throughout the 20th century, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, North Yemen, and Sudan. Back in the 2000s, some of the exotic laws of these countries continued to amaze the rest pf the world. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women could not vote, drive a car, appear in public unaccompanied, or independently dispose of property (Robbins and Thomas 53). However, in recent years in this country, as in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, oil wealth has begun to shift values towards greater freedom. This is due to the generation change: young people have the opportunity to receive a good education, including going abroad, traveling and expanding their ideas about what is acceptable and normal.
For example, the Arab Emirates has unique foundations and culture: despite the active urbanization of many Arab cities, technology and architectural projects that amaze the whole world, which has found fertile ground for implementation in the Arab land, this country continues to live in harmony with the traditions of Arab culture. In the UAE, there are indeed quite stringent requirements for the behavior and appearance of women. Someone should always accompany an Arab woman – she should not walk alone. Usually, a young girl or woman goes out in the company of an older companion. A brother, father, or husband can also accompany a woman, but it is required that she walk slightly behind the accompanying person (Robbins and Thomas 54). In the UAE, men do not let ladies go ahead, do not open doors in front of them. These are the rules of social etiquette that are imposed on women from birth to today.
At the same time, the country is considered one of the most progressive in the Middle East in terms of women’s rights, given the high level of female education and political participation. Over the past 20 years, the UAE has undergone significant changes in the social and economic spheres, especially those related to the role of women. To support these changes, the UAE is adopting laws and regulations to protect women’s rights, which help improve the business climate and political situation for women, as well as strengthen their protection from violence. Today, every woman gets the right to conduct business in the territory of the Emirates. Procedures such as registering a company in the UAE, obtaining licenses, and organizing a business – of them have become available for the weaker sex.
However, many Arab countries have not always been as patriarchal as they are now. In some of them, women in the 50s and 60s were much freer than their granddaughters today, as can be seen, for example, in the educational project “100 Years of Beauty” (100 Years of Beauty Project 03:15–05:21). Thus, one can see that the Syrian women used not to wear hijabs half a century ago; on the contrary, they had bright makeup and wore jewelry. In the post-colonial period of the 1950s – 1960s, religion faded into the background: the liberation movements against the European colonialists were secular, and many of them were supported by the Soviet Union. Women had more opportunities to express themselves; in addition, some Arab countries pursued emancipation policies at the state level, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Egypt, and South Yemen (Afshar 13). There was compulsory schooling for girls in these countries, and women were encouraged to go to work. It is interesting that even now, people whose youth fell on these years demonstrate the freest views on gender relations.
An example is the already mentioned Yemen: from 1967 to 1990, the country was divided into South and North Yemen. The regions were in different ideological spheres of influence: socialist (the first received support from the USSR) and conservative (the second was supported by Western countries and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf). In the southern part, women received equal rights with men and the opportunity to work. Moreover, the ban was introduced on juvenile and forced marriage (Women and Girls’ Rights). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, values began to shift towards the conservative side. Nonetheless, the inhabitants of South Yemen, born in the 1940s and 1960s, demonstrate more progressive views on gender than their peers from North Yemen. It is also populated with even than modern youth in both parts of the country.
In the 1980s, for political reasons, the rise of Islamism, disillusionment with the Western way of life, and the weakening of Soviet influence, mores began to change. The oil boom of the 1970s also had an effect on this and provided conservative countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates with the means to promote their ideology (Afshar 15). In some Muslim non-Arab societies, such as Afghanistan and Iran, women have been disqualified to such an extent that it has become challenging to get an education, let alone go out without a headdress (Women and Girls’ Rights). In those Arab countries that have gone through civil wars, the problems of inequality have become much more acute (for example, in Iraq or Syria), as always happens in dangerous times.
It turns out that policies to ensure greater gender equality lead to a rapid change in people’s views, especially young ones, and this works even in the most conservative societies. Those who found free times during their youth retain a more egalitarian outlook throughout their lives, even if the political situation changes dramatically. Another critical factor that affects the promotion of equality remains stability and financial well-being. Wars and dangers prioritize survival values, while the more subtle issues are pushed into the background. On the other hand, wealth changes even the most conservative societies, and generations of brutal and authoritarian people are replaced by their children, who are much more educated and supportive of equality.
Afshar, Haleh. Women in the Middle East: Perceptions, Realities and Struggles for Liberation (Women’s Studies at York Series). Edited by Haleh Afshar, Springer, 2016.
100 Years of Beauty Project. “Syria (Jessica) | 100 Years of Beauty – Ep 20 | Cut.” YouTube, uploaded by Cut, 2016, Web.
Robbins, Michael, and Kathrin Thomas. Women in the Middle East and North Africa: A Divide Between Rights and Roles. Arab Barometer, 2018, Web.
United Nations. “Gender Equality.” United Nations, 2020, Web.
“Women and Girls’ Rights’ Precarious’ in the Middle East and North Africa.” Plan International, 2020, Web.