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The Multidimensional Character of the Arab Revolutions, Part 4

This is Part 4 of a 5 part series.
Watch for Part 5 on Monday, August 1, 2011. Read Parts 1-3 by clicking the
link in the Related Articles box below this article.

Mordu Serry-Kamal

Model Three: the Treatment of Women
In this model, Hourani made a number of observations pertaining to the struggle to determine the role of women in the Arab societies. Examples of these observations follow.

  • Even though women and girls were now becoming educated and literate, and that some of them even held positions of influence in the professions and in government in certain Arab states that were attempting to “modernize,” the traditional problems of women in society have, nevertheless, persisted.
  • In the countryside, women stayed home to attend to family and domestic matters while the men, the household providers, would migrate to the oil-producing countries, for example, in search of employment which would enable them to send remittances to their families.
  • In the cities, the employment of women in factories, for example, was contingent on whether or not there was an adequate supply of men. If, for example, the economies were to sink into a recession, the women would always be the first to be terminated.
  • “Unskilled women were more likely to find work as domestic servants; these were mainly young unmarried girls coming from the villages.”
  • In the cities, as a result of education and literacy, girls were no longer getting married in their mid-teens, but in their late teens and twenties.
  • In the cities, “Not only was the veil less common than it had been, but other forms of separation of men and women were disappearing,” despite the fact that some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, still maintained a strict code of segregation between the sexes.
  • Despite these changes, most of which had transpired in the cities, the superiority of the male continued to be upheld, dictated primarily by sharia or Islamic law. For example, polygamy was still allowed to continue in most countries; the husband could divorce his wife “without giving reasons and without due process;” and the divorced husband had uncontested custody rights of the children at certain ages.
  • “Even when laws were changed, social customs did not necessarily change with them. New laws could not always be enforced, particularly when they came up against deeply rooted social customs which asserted and preserved the domination of the male. That girls should marry early, that their marriages should be arranged, and that wives could easily be repudiated were firmly rooted ideas, preserved by women themselves; the mother and the mother-in-law were often pillars of the system.”
  • “There were, however, an increasing number of women who did not accept the system and were claiming the right to define their own identity and bring about changes in their social status which reflected that new definition.”

Delineated above, the status of women model reveals the extent of the treatment of women in these societies, and the circumstances over which change had been very difficult to engender. Therefore, in an attempt to provide the rationale for the reaction of certain women to this type of treatment, the writer shall attempt to analyze briefly the impact of various aspects of the treatment women.

One, the fact that women had been expected to perform domestic roles largely, in their relationships with men, implied that they could not aspire to be competitive on the basis of equality with men in such areas as education, the professions, and leadership. As a result, this implied that the concentration of power was almost absolutely in the hands of men. In addition, this also implied that some women could not possibly be successful in society without the support, agreement, or endorsement of some type of a man.

Further, the apparent notion that women had been mere “conveniences” of men had been challenged by both educated and “enlightened” Arab women for quite some time. For example, during the revolutions, which appeared to have provided some type of “cover” and momentum for these women, some have openly articulated their disenchantment against the way in which their societies have treated them from a sexual standpoint. For example in Egypt, some women complained to the international media about “virginity tests” that are still being administered on them, despite the revolutionary fervor, as apparently degrading. In Libya, Iman al-Obeidi claimed that she had been assaulted by President Gaddafi’s soldiers at the start of the civil war, and made a bold and unprecedented effort to approach the international media in a hotel in order to report her claim, with the probable underlying intention of influencing world opinion regarding the plight of women in Libya. This behavior from a woman in the Arab world was regarded as unusual because according to Martin Kulov, in an article printed in the Guardian entitled “Libyan Woman ‘raped by Gaddafi troops’ flees to Tunisia”, “it is rare in Libyan society for a woman to go public with a claim of rape, which is widely seen as dishonoring the victim and her family, rather than the attacker.”

Two, the problems associated with the employment of young women as domestic workers have been well documented in a number of studies. For example, in a 2004 International Labor Organization project entitled “Gender and Migration in Arab States: the Case of Domestic Workers,” edited by Simel Esim and Monica Smith, four Arab states were employed as case studies: Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. Even though the authors of the articles have not indicated succinctly that the problems confronted by the young women in these countries, would be indicative of the same or similar ones faced by young women in the other Arab states, this writer reasons that as a result of physical geography and cultural similarities, the treatment would not necessarily be radically different in other countries. The study indicated a pattern of difficulties faced by this disadvantaged cadre of workers the vast majority of who have emanated from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Collectively, the cross-sectional problems indicated were: physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and verbal abuse.

Further, since domestic workers have also been recruited outside of North Africa and the Middle East, a case can be made that the Arab women may also be faced with a situation of excess labor supply which would commensurately lower wages, provide little or no job security, and increase the intensity of tasks. Therefore, the idea of being replaceable would perhaps force such persons to make the necessary “compromises” in order to remain employed.

Watch for Part 5 of this 5 part series next Monday, August 1, 2011.

Mordu Serry-Kamal is an associate
professor public administration and political science at Winston-Salem
State University in Winston-Salem, NC. Email: [email protected]

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One Response to The Multidimensional Character of the Arab Revolutions, Part 4

  1. BCoe Reply

    July 28, 2011 at 4:22 am

    This is not a comment but a question. Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, discusses the anti-democracy sentiment in many of the Middle-Eastern countries, the belief that their dictators have been too connected with the US and the desire for Islamic governance. Is that sentiment limited to a few or it widespread? Is it the case that most people participating in the uprisings are seeking democracy — or are they seeking simply a regime change, followed by Islamic, not secular, government? Our leaders seem to be assuming that the people are seeking democracy and I just wonder if we know that. I will appreciate very much hearing current information about this.

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