A Review of Women’s Rights in the Middle East
Middle Eastern women are often regarded as socially suppressed, economically oppressed, and without the equity afforded to Western society women. In an effort to understand these apparent stigmas, it is necessary to review the developing political, social, and economic roles of females in the Middle East. Some perspectives challenge the generalized idea that Middle Eastern women are powerless and indifferent to changing the status quo. In comparing the factors present in Saudi Arabia, a country in the Middle East that has been criticized for its limitation of women’s rights over many decades, and the more liberal Turkey, research demonstrates that Middle Eastern societies vary in degree of women rights. Overall, examination of these two Middle Eastern countries demonstrates how women influence the societies that they live in, by determining the true extent of women’s rights in society.
Saudi Arabia. Many of the restrictions set upon Saudi Arabian women are based on tenets purported through cultural traditions and religious conventions. As referenced in the Mogahed article (2010), women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are founded in governmental laws, various interpretations of the Islam religion, and the traditional customs of the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi women are faced with a number of different restrictions. The Huffington Post article by Sabria Jawhar (2010) particularly notes that the most impactful consequence for Saudi women is directly related to the separation of the sexes and male guardianship. As described in the article, women are required to gain permission from their male guardian (e.g., father, brother, husband) to participate in certain activities, are restricted from engaging in any behaviors that may compel them to interact with any non-relative male in public, and mandated to maintain a modest appearance in public. These obligations hinder women from attending co-educational institutions, seeking employment where they may potentially interact with non-relative men, eating in public restaurants, conducting business, driving, traveling out of the country unaccompanied, and up until recently, participating in political activities, such as holding office or voting (Ross, 2008). These restrictions, among others, have placed social and moral hardships on women. In a sense, Saudi women are rendered as second-class citizens, unable to make independent choices without severe punishment or detrimental consequences.
Saudi women have been reported to endure a number of different hardships that some consider moral dilemmas. First, religious interpretations depict women as secondary, having rights similar to property rather than active human beings. Despite that many Saudi natives and leaders purport that these customs are based on religious standards, other followers of the Islam religion assert that these ideas are extreme perspectives or a corruption of the teachings. Secondly, governmental laws, as suggested, do not directly forbid these practices, but also do little to correct the outcomes or circumstances. Lastly, social norms further regulate these behaviors and make opposition or open defiance taboo. Many of the Saudi women who support traditional practices and oppose reformation emphasize that these practices are “for the protection” of women and are done “out of love for women,” making socially unacceptable to go “against that which loves.” Still, there is strong opposition to these traditions. This differs from the lifestyles of Turkish women.
Turkey. In comparison to Saudi Arabian women, more women in Turkey are educated, have careers and jobs, are economically independent, and actively participate in politics. The development of high schools and universities designated for women in Turkey were vital for increasing women’s rights in its society. It allowed for a vast number of women to advance academically and enabled them to participate more actively within the Turkish society. Furthermore, a new regime in 1923, headed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, enacted legislation that recognized women as equal and free citizens. Since these more liberal guidelines were established, Turkish women have established and published magazines, giving women an outlet to demand equitable rights in education, work, and political arenas (Rama, 2013). Specifically, the Turkish Civil Code banned polygamy, granted women suffrage rights, and “equal rights in matters of divorce and child custody” (Turkish Cultural Foundation, 2017). Turkish women have been able to express themselves more freely in social environments. Women actively participate in sporting events (i.e. watersports, track ; field, etc.), beauty pageants, and the music industry.
However, despite these significant changes in some of the cultural elements of Turkish society, not all aspects have seen these changes. For example, there is still an overwhelming percentage of Turkish women who are illiterate. Domestic violence and other crimes against women, child marriages, and the personal choice of wearing a head covering is still debatable. Crimes against women in Turkey are incredibly much higher than in Western culture, similar to the occurrences in more conservative Saudi Arabia.
Reformation. The comparison between liberal Turkey and conservative Saudi Arabia provides evidence that there is support for the expansion of rights for Middle Eastern women. In most recent years, some Middle Eastern countries have expanded rights for women to include attendance to post-secondary institutions, gain employment, vote and hold office, conduct business, and seek assistance in instances of domestic violence. These changes are slowly being made, often taking a few years. Still, change is encouraged with the support from both natives and non-natives of the Middle East. British and American activists have aided Middle Eastern natives who seek reform, citing slow reform is better than no reform. However, there is an increasing perspective of native Middle Easterners, including some women, who are against reform of women’s rights. These opponents of change often support their claims by finding similarities between traditional Middle Eastern culture and American culture.
The U.S. vs. Middle Eastern Culture. Despite the extremist perspectives, Middle Eastern culture is not unlike the American progressive history of women’s rights. Before 1920, American women were also heavily restricted, including lacking the right to vote or hold political office, own property, or hold certain employment positions. It was widely believed that American women’s rights were initially “restricted” because men feared that if women were allowed a place outside of their traditional domestic roles, the sanctity of marriage and other familial obligations would be lost (Rama).
Furthermore, American women in modern society are often perceived based on their superficial physical appearance. American women are characterized, categorized, and grouped according to a stringent scale of “beauty.” If an American woman fails to meet these standards, she is ostracized. On the surface, this vaguely emulates the circumstances of Middle Eastern women. However, Wasburn and Wasburn (2011) cite that “the Western World is not immune to categorizing women and judging them based on superficial factors” (p. 1030). What is different is that the traditions of the Middle Eastern opt to utilize rigid and very strict clothing standards in its efforts to oppress its female rather than objectifying them. Middle Eastern countries have long established “decency” and “modesty” standards. Going against these standards create a similar ostracism, except lack of modest dress, particularly focusing on the face and head, would incite harsh penalties. Still, American decency has evolved over the course of the last 50 years, wear clothing that is more modest was the traditional norm, similar to Middle Eastern standards.
Over the course of decades (as early as 1840), American women’s rights were increasingly expanded, but still not without opposition from both men and women. These conventions mirror the status of women’s rights issues in some Middle Eastern countries. One of the major differences between the U.S. and the traditional Middle Eastern women’s rights movements is the length of time of drastic change, where it took multiple decades to make U.S. changes and just a few shorts years, spanning from 2000 to the present, to make similar changes in the Middle East. These changes have greatly impact Middle Eastern society.
Conclusion. As Middle Eastern women are progressively granted rights to hold political office, attend co-ed post-secondary schools (although still mostly segregated), and granted domestic violence protection, Middle Eastern societies are being greatly impacted. Mogahed (2010) notates that a fundamentalist movement repealing westernized cultural influences prompted many Middle Eastern governments to act in these matters, seeking approval from U.N. members and other international bodies. Even some supporters of reform note that slow progressive change is the most positive way alluding to the fact that after decades of normalization of separation of the sexes (i.e., limited women’s rights); the drastic change would be detrimental to Middle Eastern culture. Overall, the idea that an overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern citizens hold is that which conforms to the religious and cultural practices that support the traditional Middle Eastern beliefs and ways of life, which may include modest rights for women.