Women compose virtually half (48%) the population of the Near East, adding value and unique contributions to politics, economics, and society. But due to several factors including repressive authoritarian regimes, Islamic fundamentalism, and traditional cultural norms, women’s rights are severely under threat in the Near East.
Although ancient historical accounts of the role of women in the Near East are scarce, some evidence suggests that in the pre-Islamic Near East, gender roles developed with the rise of cities and states. Men typically monopolized politics and the most powerful religious and economic positions, while women were increasingly specialized in the domestic sphere. The development of Islamic law after the seventh century was heavily influenced by caliphs in different socioeconomic and political circumstances throughout the following centuries. With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, today many Islamic political movements call for a return to old interpretations of Sharia law, which codifies family practices and criminal punishments. This has been a significant factor impacting the rights of women in the Near East.
Although contemporary Islamic law has different interpretations depending on the historical, political, economic, or cultural context, it can often result in major disparities between the sexes. Such discriminatory regulations derived from old concepts of Sharia are often pervasive throughout the Near East. For example, familial Islamic laws require women to obtain male permission to undertake activities that should be theirs by right, thereby increasing their dependency on men for economic, social, and legal matters. This may include tasks such as obtaining a passport, traveling outside the country, starting a business, and opening a bank account. In a study by Pew Research Center, the Near East ranked the lowest (48%) in support for gender equality. But while only about half across the Near East view gender equality as an essential democratic principle, variation among specific countries was telling: 75% of Lebanese and 69% of Israelis say it is very important, but fewer than 50% in Turkey, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories say the same.
Women’s rights in the Near East often goes in tandem with citizenship. In a UNHRC regional study of nationality legislation, 26 countries still discriminate between men and women relating to conferral of nationality upon children—the majority of these states were found in the Near East and North Africa. And despite the use of gender-neutral verbiage (“universal citizen”) in many Near Eastern state constitutions, institutions, and political processes have presumed the citizen to be male, while females are dependent, second-class members of the political community. In many parts of the Near East today, women struggle for the right to own businesses and pursue higher education, the ability to be considered an equal witness in a court of law, and the legal rights to be able to initiate divorce.
The unequal legal status of women in parts of the Near East has very serious consequences. Women are often victims of rape, slavery, trafficking, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honor killings. In a region where conflict is prevalent, women can be vulnerable targets and suffer disproportionately during and after war.
To combat this horrific reality, women are rising up around the Near East to challenge the current discriminatory status quo. Many believe that women’s rights are human rights and equal protection under the law is a fundamental prerogative. Others argue that the fight for women’s rights is also a pragmatic one; morality and justice not necessarily being the motivating factor. Studies show that empowering women can contribute to the overall economic development of their societies. When women pursue higher education and enter into the workforce, they boost productivity and increase economic diversification.
In many Near Eastern countries, what the law affords in principle and what women experience in practice are often quite different. Sometimes the key barrier to women’s empowerment is not the state, but rather the culture or society. But many women across the Near East have taken it upon themselves to foster change and highlight the various struggles they face in their own communities. For example, women in Egypt have organized to fight back against sexual violence. In Tunisia, women demanded a seat at the political table as the new government was being formed. And in Libya, women fought to obtain 17% of political seats.
Women are the conduit for value systems. Throughout history, they’ve fought against injustice and inequality, offered valuable contributions to peacebuilding, and have always played a critical and unique role in society.
While the Near East is not the only region needing improvements for women’s rights, it is, however, in the Near East where the gap between the rights of men and women is one of the most visible and significant, and where resistance to women’s equality has been most challenging. Although we’ve seen improvements on this front in recent years, it is not enough to just educate women and bring them into the workforce. The real benefit of women empowerment is achieved once they are involved at all levels of decision-making and leadership because they bring new perspectives and insights and can challenge existing ideas.
The Philos Project strongly believes that we are called to imitate the revolutionary treatment of women that Christ displayed during His time on earth. Unfortunately, the treatment of women in the Near East is drastically different from the example that Jesus set for us. But through thoughtful awareness campaigns in the West and strategic partnerships on the ground in the Near East, we can incrementally revolutionize the status of women in the region without offending cultural traditions. This starts with education and advocacy. Highlighting the status of women in the Near East is equally as important as promoting policies calling on our Near Eastern allies to enforce the existing rights written into their constitutions and adopt new laws that advance women’s rights.
The Philos Project’s work touches some of the bloodiest conflicts in history that are fueled by extreme ideologies. One of the many effective ways that we can impact the region positively is by empowering the women who share our beliefs about human dignity, diversity, truth, justice, agency, accountability, and freedom to think, speak, be, and become.
Further Resources on Women's Rights
In Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, Carolyn Custis James discusses lessons we can draw from the Bible that indicate God’s vision for the role of women and how these are applicable to the rights of women throughout the world today.
Caroline Alexander documents the largest issues facing women in the Near East, in her Bloomberg piece, “On Women’s Rights, Uneven Progress in the Near East.”
- How to Empower Women in the Arab World World Government Summit
- Gender Equality Would Make the Middle East More Prosperous Isobel Coleman | TEDx Talks
- First Female Mayor Takes Charge in Tunis DW Documentary
- Muslim Women Call the World to Speak Out against Honor Violence Honor Diaries | Clarion Project
- Saudi Women Seek Refuge from Abusive Husbands ABC News
- Coronavirus Pandemic Leads to Spike in Domestic Violence in Lebanon Al-Monitor
- Saudi Women Risk Their Lives to Escape Discrimination, Abuse Human Rights Watch
- Women in the Middle East Still Struggling for Gender Equality Caroline Alexander | Bloomberg
- Arab Women: From Vision to Leadership World Government Summit
- Gender, Women and Democracy – The Road to Women Empowerment Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- Syrian Women – Disproportionately Impacted by Conflict But Still Striving for Empowerment Alistair Taylor | Middle East Institute
- Captive Iran Maryam Rostampour
- Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women Carolyn Custis James