Why don't women have more rights in Muslim countries?
No one should be complacent about the condition of women in many Muslim (or many Western) societies. Americans certainly are not. When asked the open-ended question ''What do you admire least about the Muslim or Islamic world?'' among the top responses is ''gender inequality,'' associated with veiling, female segregation, illiteracy, and powerlessness. Patriarchy and its legacy, legitimated in the name of religion, remains alive in various Muslim countries although it is also being progressively challenged on many levels.
The realities of women in the Arab and Muslim worlds present a complex picture of individuals in different situations and varied social contexts. Many are unfairly subject to powerful forces of patriarchy and religion, but significant numbers of other women are far more empowered and respected in their own cultures than blanket stereotypes might lead us to believe. The status and roles of women in the Muslim world vary considerably, influenced as much by literacy, education, and economic development as by religion. Men and women in Muslim societies grapple with many gender issues, ranging from the extent of women's education and employment to women's role in the family or to the nature of their religious leadership and authority in Islam
Today, Muslim women and Islamic scholars and activists, representing many ideological orientations, are increasingly speaking out. They are empowering themselves not just as defenders of women's rights but also as interpreters of the Islamic tradition. Many argue that patriarchy as much as religion, indeed patriarchy linked to religion, accounts for customs that became long-standing traditions affecting gender relations and women's status in society.
When it comes to popular Muslim attitudes about women's rights, the facts aren't always what one might expect. As the 2007 Gallup World Poll reveals, majorities of Muslims, some in the most conservative Muslim societies, support women's equal rights. Majorities in virtually every country surveyed say women should have the same legal rights as men to serve in the highest levels of government. In addition, majorities of both men and women in dozens of Muslim countries around the world: for example, 61% of Saudis, 85% of Iranians and 90% range in Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh and Lebanon say that men and women should have the same legal rights. Majorities also support a woman's right to work outside the home in any job for which a woman qualifies (90% in Malaysia, 86% in Turkey, 85% in Egypt and 69% in Saudi Arabia) and a woman's right to vote without interference from family members (80% in Indonesia, 89% in Iran, 67% in Pakistan, 90% in Bangladesh, 76% in Jordan, 93% in Turkey and 56% in Saudi Arabia).
At the same time, the complexities surrounding women's status are illustrated by country-specific contradictions:
Women in Egypt today have access to the best education and hold responsible professional positions in virtually every sector. Yet, like women in most Muslim societies, until recently they needed a male family member's permission to travel.
While women cannot vote in Saudi Arabia, in almost every other Muslim country, women do vote. They also run for political office and serve in many parliaments. A woman has been a head of state or vice president in Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Saudi women own 70% of the savings in Saudi banks and own 61% of private firms in the Kingdom; they own much of the real estate in Riyadh and Jeddah, and can own and manage their own businesses, but they are sexually segregated, restricted to "appropriate" professions and cannot drive a car.
In nearby Kuwait, women freely function in society and hold responsible positions in many areas, but until only a few years ago they could not vote.
In Afghanistan and in some areas of Pakistan, the Taliban in the name of Islam, has forced professional women to give up their jobs and prohibited girls from attending school.
In Iran, where women must cover their hair and wear long-sleeved, ankle-length outfits in public, they constitute the majority of university students, hold many professional positions, and serve in parliament. A woman is Vice President in this Islamic Republic.
In modern-day Egypt women could not until recently serve as judges, but in Morocco more than 20% of judges are women.
Both the causes of women's lack of empowerment and inequality and the winds of change can be seen in women's basic literacy and education. In Yemen women's literacy is only 28% vs. 70% for men; in Pakistan, it is 28% vs. 53% for men. Percentages of women pursuing post-secondary educations dip as low as 8% and 13% in Morocco and Pakistan respectively (comparable to 3.7% in Brazil, or 11% in the Czech Republic).
In sharp contrast, women's literacy rates in Iran and Saudi Arabia are 70% and as high as 85% in Jordan and Malaysia. In education, significant percentages of women in Iran (52%), Egypt (34%), Saudi Arabia (32%), and Lebanon (37%) have post-secondary educations. In the UAE, as in Iran, the majority of university students are women.
The status and roles of women in society today vary considerably across the Muslim world. The growing empowerment of women is reflected in increased educational and professional opportunities (physicians, journalists, lawyers, engineers, social workers, university professors, and entrepreneurs), legal reforms and voting rights. In many Muslim countries and communities, women lead and participate in Quran study groups, run mosque-based educational and social services, and are religious scholars and even muftis.
Posted by: schlaunik | August 28, 2010 8:37 AM
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