Governments and extremist groups have spent decades trying to stem the rising tide of women’s education and equal rights in the Middle East and North Africa. From the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban in Pakistan to the recent abduction of over 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, some severe measures have been taken to prevent what extremists see as the “Westernization” of Middle Eastern culture. Governments are somewhat less violent in their oppression of women, but the oppression exists nonetheless. Most of the world has come to recognize that women in the Middle East are treated as second-class citizens, but that is slowly changing.
Women are not being given equal rights to men yet, and they are often required to follow a different set of laws based on patriarchal views. Still, the gradual progress is there. Recently in Saudi Arabia, a movement was begun to allow physical education in girls’ government schools. Protesters flocked to Riyadh, shouting down the measure as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad that would surely lead to adultery and prostitution. The fight has not been a total loss. Women are participating in sports more frequently. Two Saudi women competed in the 2012 Olympics, and last year the authorities began giving licenses for women to open private sports clubs. Little boys with soccer balls can be seen allowing their little sisters to play.
Hatoon al-Fassi, a well-known women’s historian, says women are finally being heard by the government. King Abdullah is allowing women more exposure in public life. He made Norah al-Faiz, a woman, the deputy minister of education. No female has held such a high position in government in Arabia. The Shura Council houses 30 female and 120 male members. Women are even being given the right to vote in municipal elections.
Statistics in Saudi Arabia are showing that more women are attending institutions of higher learning than men, and the number of universities for women is growing. Saudi women are studying abroad alone, even without a male family member as a companion.
Women of the Middle East are working much more than in previous years. Though many admit they are only permitted to work due to financial necessity, many more females are becoming employed, and some companies have even begun housing male and female employees in the same office.
Saudi Arabia is not the only place which is empowering women. Istanbul held an international summit this weekend which focused on female empowerment along with other topics for the post-2015 UN agenda. The difficulty of juggling professional responsibilities with familial responsibilities was discussed, and women were acknowledged as a significant part of other issues, such as food security and green initiatives.
Qatar has joined in the action as well. Shareefa Fadhel is calling for Arab businesswomen to be promoted at an international level. Fadhel, who is the Co-founder of the Roudha Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation and works as its Managing Director, addressed the Women’s Growth and Success Forum in London, where Arab women in leadership roles learned how to be successful in the business world. Other successful women spoke as well, such as Qatar’s first female Court of Auditors judge, Zineb El Adaoui, and Feryal Abdulla Ahmed Nass of the Bahrain Businesswomen’s Society.
Women is Islamic countries, especially those with theocratic governments or leaders, have traditionally developed leadership roles in society more slowly than other parts of the world, as the Muslim religion has much stricter gender expectations than most. These women, however, are overcoming barriers, step by tiny step, to gain more confidence and freedom as female education and equality rise in the Middle East. They may yet have a long way to go, but the strides they have made in recent years have been quite an accomplishment.
Opinion by Christina Jones