Five Limits to Women’s Freedom in the Arab World

Facts, Figures, and Opportunities!
Opinion08.03.2018Hend Shaheen
Arab Women International Women Day Women Freedom

The status of women’s freedom across the Arab region has always undergone heaps of critiques. Nevertheless, ratios and forms of gender-inequality vary from country to country according to social and cultural customs as well as legal provisions.

While many people around the world, including researchers and women’s rights advocates, interpret Islam as the main reason why Arab women are limited in, or even deprived from, their fundamental human rights, the fact that societal customs and norms play a strong role in limiting women’s freedom is still highly underestimated.

Let’s look at the five most dominating social limits women face in Arab countries today.

1. Dress Code

Women in this region suffer various restrictions as to the way they are supposed to dress. On the one hand, women in Saudi Arabia are obliged to cover their whole bodies with an overall (black) dress called Abaya, and sometimes also their face with a Niqab. Also in Iran, women have to cover their body and hair, traditionally with a Chador. On the other hand, women in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq face religious and social stigmatization for not wearing a hijab (veil) or modest clothes covering at least their shoulders and knees.

Muslim Sheikhs and religious scholars, however, hold different positions on Hijab and Niqab. And although wearing a Hijab can certainly be an individual choice of a woman, it is also true that Arab societies, especially in traditional and rural environments, regard “unveiled” women with less respect.

Women Arab Freedom International Womens Day
Women in islamic traditional dresses and NiqabFlickr| Tjerk Zweers

2. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Some common features shared in most Arab countries are ignorance and misinterpretation of their own religion(s). For instance, FGM is still practiced widely in countries like Egypt, Somalia, Mauritania and Sudan among girls and women aged between 15 – 49 according to the World Health Organization (WHO). A high proportion of people in these countries believe FGM to be an Islamic religious duty. However, FGM is also practiced by non-Muslim families in these countries, especially among traditional families or/especially in rural areas. The motive behind it, though, is to save the honor of the family or tribe, aiming at saving the girl and reducing the chances for her to be attracted to a stranger. FGM operations are legally prohibited in Egypt (since 2008) and Mauritania (since 2005), however, it is still in practice illegally

3. Traveling abroad

With regard to freedom of movement among Arab women, there is a serious problem in countries like Saudi Arabia. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to travel without permission from their “male guardianship” (father, husband, brother, or even son). Although Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued an order in April 2017 banning all ‘unofficial’ Guardianship Rules regarding access to governmental services, which will undoubtedly end some of the arbitrary guardian consents imposed on women. However, according to Human Right’s Watch’s Report, these reforms did not address regulations that explicitly require guardian approval, such as for women to travel abroad, obtain a passport. In less conservative countries like Tunisia, individual reports from unmarried women reveal that sometimes they are asked if their fathers approved their traveling abroad. On a more general note, women from Egypt report that families are hard to be convinced to allow their daughters to travel and live alone, not even for work or studying purposes, because of social norms.

4. Economic participation

Whether in the countryside or in the cities, Arab Women face obstacles to enter the labor market in their countries, because of several factors mostly dominated by social values, and on different scales within different social classes. “The place of a woman is her home”; this is what one would hear constantly in many Arab countries. According to a World Bank Report, 75% of women in MENA are still excluded from the labor market, sum of all countries’ cites. In Egypt, a study by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) cited that Egyptian women represent 22.9% of the total labor market, and 30% of Egyptian families rely mainly on women’s financial support. In Jordan (especially outside the capital), some patriarchal communities think  that women’s work is a threat to the family’s honor; again  women should stay at home raising kids. Nevertheless, according to a study, roughly three quarters of working women in Jordan (75.9%) believe that women in the Kingdom have reached the same level of workplace equality as women in Western countries. The percentage of economically active women in Jordan is 13.2, still very low compared to other countries in the region.

Mahoumd Farouk

Saudi Arabia is now rethinking and re-evaluating the false concepts regarding women's freedom which they used to promote for many decades. This will eventually has a positive impact on many countries in the region.

Mahmoud Farouk - Co-founder of the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies (ECPPS)

5. Patterns of Masculine Thoughts

According to UN Women’s International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), patterns of thought and behaviour are often passed from one generation to the next, to positive and negative effects. The latest IMAGES study on Morocco, Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon found that a high proportion of respondents reported various experiences of violence in their childhood. Many respondents reported witnessing violence against their mothers, suffering physical discipline or outright violence at home, experiencing bullying or physical punishment at school, and violence in their childhood communities.

Most women in the Arab world were raised in an environment of inequality that prioritizes males over females in many if not all aspects of life. This creates a pattern in bringing up kids differently according to their gender.  In the beginning of the 20th century, many movements across the region called for the liberation of women creating some opportunities for gender equality, as well social and economic participation of women. These movements unfortunately couldn’t have a breakthrough because of the successful resistance of conservative and religious trends in the late 1960s.

Despite of all these obstacles, many opportunities do emerge today for women that will assist in increasing their freedom. The coming video will explain them more.

Hend Shaheen

Hend Shaheen

Regional Communications and Outreach Officer
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Rene Klaff

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