I attended (and helped chair) a panel on women’s leadership within the international development sector back in March. It was truly quite interesting and insightful, but also made me think about the state of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa.
Unfortunately, many women across the world, including the Middle East are still battling the most basic of struggles, and haven’t really had to grapple with the issue of leadership yet.
Arab women are barely allowed to leave the home, let alone be seen as leaders of anything, whether it be in the home, community, or workplace.
In Saudi Arabia, women are treated like minors throughout their lives. Saudi women are subjected to guardianship laws which mean having to seek permission from their “guardians” to travel, study, and even work.¹ And, until recently, they weren’t even allowed to drive.
In Tunisia, the North African country where polygamy was abolished in 1956,² the government has been working on repealing an archaic inheritance law stipulating that women are allowed to inherit only half of what men would inherit.³ These laws are still alive and well in the rest of North Africa and the Middle East, so at least Tunisia is quite ahead in this respect.
In Morocco, sexual harassment is rampant on the streets and we women feel limited to the home as we try to avoid attracting the opposite sex. We go out plain, without makeup, our hair disheveled, our phones and handbags left at home to avoid a potential combination of theft and physical attacks.
In Egypt and Sudan, baby girls’ genitals are cut because their sexual desires must be curbed.⁴ We cannot let these girls grow into women and, potentially, leaders. They must maintain their meek nature.
In the home, you have to accept that your father is the head of the household. He is the leader. Your mother is much lower down on the ladder, no matter what she does all day, she is seen as a mere housewife.
You decide to get an education? Work? Your father is now threatened by your freedom, your success. He begins to question your every move and starts to ask you about marriage. Marriage is protection they say. Protection from being an independent woman? Marriage puts us Arab women in shackles.
And when you finally do leave the home to marry, your husband becomes the leader. Only men can be leaders. You are a woman, you are weak, you cannot lead. You must be controlled, monitored, and subjugated.
Your husband dies? Still no leadership, still no freedom. Your eldest son has jurisdiction over you now. The neighbors start to monitor your every move and judge every little thing you do.
Marry again? Out of question, unless you want the entire neighborhood to identify you as a “loose woman.”
Now let’s consider the solutions. What can we do to encourage female leadership in the Middle East and North Africa?
1. Working from the Inside Out — This can’t be done in a decade or two or even three. This will take generations. The very culture, the fear, mixed with hatred, of half of our population is too deep-rooted.
We have to work at the village-level, educating people as to HOW and WHY girls should be allowed to go to school, rather than marry, why women and girls SHOULD be allowed to work and contribute to their households. And we have to speak with the men first. It is the men who are stifling their female counterparts.
Of course, many women are part of the cycle, but I believe that if we raise boys into men who don’t see women through the lens of tradition and heavy religious ideals from the 7th century, then true change can happen.
2. Separating Government and Religion — As I said, this region is so behind in every sense of the word. How can we even BEGIN to discuss female leadership in countries that CRIMINALIZE sex outside of marriage?⁵
How can we even converse with governments that have laws stipulating that Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women without conversion, while a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man without fulfilling this requirement? (Tunisia has repealed this requirement, but other countries have not.)⁶
How can we engage in an intellectual, logical conversation when it is permissible for a man to marry a second wife or easily divorce his first wife if she becomes ill (and cannot care for the home, the children, or his sexual desires),⁷ while a woman in the same situation would have to remain silent and accept her fate?
Arab women are not incapable of leading, they are just trampled upon from birth. They lack the confidence to pursue any such concept of leadership, even within the home, or the community. And the root of the issue is the fact that religion has flooded the legal system, to the benefit of men.
3. Shocking the System — We’re going to have to fight. Girls, women, boys, men. All segments of the population that want the change are going to have to fight for it. We need an Arab Women’s Revolution. Spring is too gentle. We need to stop cooking, stop doing the laundry, stop cleaning. We need to go out in the streets and claim our rightful places. To become leaders, we have to question everything from the hijab to permission to travel. We can’t lead without becoming individuals. We are not allowed to be individuals. We’re always someone’s mother, sister, daughter, property. We are being traded, mistreated, and compared to pearls and gold and candy.⁸ We’re humans and leaders! How about you stop comparing us to things to justify your twisted understanding of female modesty?
Am I being too ambitious? Perhaps, but I’ll take the chance. Too harsh? I think not. I think we need to be much more honest about the state of the Middle East. It’s worse than you may think it is.
I have noticed that other governments are worried about “offending” us or overstepping: “We have to understand their culture and traditions.” No! When these cultures and traditions are hurting women, we need to fight them. It means there is something wrong. Respect is one thing, rampant abuse and disregard is quite another. Here’s to a revolution of strong Arab women. The change won’t come if we’re sitting at home caring for the children. It’ll come when the men feel threatened by our educations, careers, and self-confidence. Rise up and lead!
 A common comment in the Middle East is that Muslim women are called to cover and wear the hijab because they are precious like pearls or jewels. I was once asked, “If you saw two candies on the ground, one unwrapped with bugs swarming around it and another wrapped and clean, which one would you choose?” I said, “The wrapped one of course.” “Well exactly, this is why you should cover my dear, you are precious.” Considering I’m still “uncovered,” I obviously haven’t understood this brilliant comparison. I guess I value myself a little bit more than I would a piece of candy…