Over the past months, numerous women in the Arab region, including doctors, media figures and academics, have been on the receiving of verbal and physical abuse. There have been accusations of infidelity, slander and corruption, especially on the internet and social media networks, where Arab societies are still getting used to this newfound freedom of expression and unaware of how to handle such a gift responsibly.
When Egyptian political activist “Ola Shahba” appeared in a press conference, everyone was horrified to see her face swollen and bruised as a result of the severe beating she had received. Speaking in a calm but despairing tone of voice, Shahba, who fell victim whilst participating in a demonstration staged in front of the presidential palace in protest against the proposed Egyptian constitution, condemned her detention, sexual harassment and the beating she received at the hands of President Mursi’s supporters in full view of the police. She seemed to have expected the Islamists to treat her gently according to Islamic teachings, but she was disappointed to find out that these were ordinary people ignorant of such prophetic guidance. Ola Shahba is by no means the only woman to have encountered an attack by the Islamists or another group since the eruption of the Egyptian revolution. Historically speaking, women have always been among the greatest spoils of war and a constant weak spot in struggles between opponents, until laws were enacted to protect their human rights in the 1950s.
In Tunisia, the picture is even uglier, as women are being prosecuted for ridiculous charges with the aim of humiliating them and undermining the gains they acquired during late President Habib Bourguiba’s era. Even during the era of Ben Ali, Tunisian women did not suffer such suffocating social conditions.
In Saudi Arabia, the government is striving to make more job opportunities available for the ever-increasing unemployment rate among women – a rate that exists nowhere else in the world. In fact, the unemployment statistics do not reflect a genuine lack of job opportunities; rather they reflect the cultural barriers, pitfalls and obstacles that stand in the way of women.
I do not want to talk at length about Yemen, for it has stories akin to fiction yet they continue to happen, such as those disclosed in the 2010 book entitled “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.” This book reveals the inhumane social conditions suffered by women in remote and rural areas of Yemen, as well as in other Arab states. Here a child wife has to listen to advice about giving birth and obeying her husband when children of a similar age in other parts of the world are enjoying the innocence of their childhood.
In Kuwait, women were dealt a defeat in parliament at the beginning of last year after the elections revealed gains for the [Islamist] majority. However, women were assisted in returning to parliament through a decree issued by the Emir himself, amending the election law as was the case in 1999. What happened in Kuwait is typical of the Gulf States; women are advancing only through political decrees, rather than through public will.
The first thing that comes to the mind of any civilized human being is that the majority of women’s problems could be solved with laws enacted to protect them. Yet the majority of Arab states are yet to pass laws that criminalize sexual harassment, violence against women and child brides. I doubt that these hesitant legislators would allow their daughters to be married as children, or remain silent if their female relatives suffered harassment.
Perhaps the outlook in the Arab world is not as bleak when compared to East Asian countries where a girl could be shot simply for demanding the right to education, or her husband could cut of her nose and ears as a punishment for disobeying his orders, or in other situations, a girl’s situation could become so desperate that she sets herself on fire. With regards to the Europeans and the Americans, the picture is not entirely rosy. Many people are unaware that women’s rights in the West are still incomplete, especially in the field of work. A month ago, a report was issued by the American National Women’s Studies Association that showed a continual gap in wages between men and women. It revealed that women continue to receive only 88 percent of men’s salaries, despite working in the same place, holding the same degree and having the same level of experience. These reports have quite an impact on decision-makers, for they provoke legislators into reconsidering their laws and some states have already rushed to deny discrimination in their payroll systems. Nevertheless, it is quite apparent that there is a direct correlation between the status of women and the development of a country.
We cannot single out 2012 as a particularly bad year for woman as many of the unsavoury events witnessed over the past year have historical roots. Nowadays media outlets can convey to use what was previously behind closed doors and, as a result, it gives the impression that women are being subjected to more attacks and abuse. Yet many Arab women have failed to grasp this amidst the rapid technological advancements that are providing greater transparency and exposure. Some of them have launched wild attacks against society as a result. Others believe that Arab women have actually been harmed as a result of this new open climate, for they live in conservative societies where sometimes a woman’s name is not even uttered in public. Now they fear the overt criticism that comes with media openness, and hence they retreat and hide behind men once again.
There cannot be an achievement without a price, nor can there be a change without a cause. Such is the heated kitchen of public life, and women must adapt to changes and accommodate them patiently, otherwise they risk returning to their old status at home.
Those who are courageous enough to appear in public must have the strength to confront others.