A woman’s role in the Middle East has never been so multi-faceted. Wife, mother, worker, revolutionary”¦As videos and photos pour in from this week’s round of demonstrations we’re seeing women marching step for step alongside their male compatriots. In Yemen, a traditionally conservative country, hundreds of protesters turned out to stage a successful sit in for female activist leader Tawakkol Karman. She had been arrested earlier that week for inciting “˜disorder and chaos’ after leading a number of Jasmine Revolution inspired protests. Now that she’s out of jail there is no doubt she will be continuing her mission for a free and equal Yemen.
Without a doubt, the women of the Middle East are congregating and organizing in never-before seen numbers. Some of the first displays of such courage came during the backlash from the mid-2009 Iranian election. The world watched as women, draped in green, shouted, marched, and stormed the riot line in a massive show of Iranian solidarity. The world also stared in horror as the price of such bravery was brought home in the iconic blood soaked image of Neda Agha-Soltan. A tragic reminder of what a dictatorship truly looks like.
But what have been the catalysts for this new brand of female revolutionaries? Especially in a region where, we are told, the women are oftentimes oppressed and subservient?
First and foremost education is leading the movement. In many Middle Eastern countries education for women has spiked considerably. One study conducted in 1993 by W.T.S. Gould found that from 1960 to 1988, women in Syria, Iraq and Libya saw their educational enrollment rates climb from an average of 36% to 90%. Looking at this last decade we can see a number of proposals around the region working to expand the amount of female college graduates. New education initiatives are now courting computer science and technology majors, with teaching and healthcare being the traditional choice of work for women in the region. Coupled with affordable tuitions and scholarship programs these changes have resulted in many Middle Eastern countries now boasting an equal number of male and female university students.
Media has also played a critical role in the expansion of women’s roles. Satellite television now beams Middle Eastern women from every walk of life into millions of living rooms every night. Pop stars, news anchors, embedded journalists, poets, doctors and even Qur’anic advisors, are commonplace on a number of channels. In 2007, while spending time in the region, I noticed it was common for certain channels from the Gulf to focus on the expanding role of Arab women in society. In one regular segment the UAE proudly displayed the first female ski instructor at Dubai’s indoor slopes, zipping along in her parka and hijab.
There is, of course, another, gentler and more important place that is encouraging female expansion: the family. Although adherence to familial values is considered normal within Arab society, many parents are accepting that the advancement of women and the observance of tradition are not mutually exclusive concepts.
One mother I spoke with, Bahija, lives in a quiet suburb outside of Marrakech, Morocco. She has actually gone so far as forbidding her daughter, Zaineb, from getting married before finishing her University studies. “I didn’t get to go to school past the age of nine” she explained one afternoon, “If you have no education you have no chance at a job. Then you are stuck as a dependant all your life.” Bahija’s husband, a frequently exhausted city planner, agreed wholeheartedly with this sentiment noting that educated women make for a better society. But how did their daughter feel about it?
“I want to be a physics professor” Zaineb announced to me with an air of certainty. “I want to be married and I want to have children, but I also want to teach.” To a certain extent her parents are still exercising a form of control over her life. But the control is mainly a positive one. Casual relationships don’t exist in Morocco the same way they do in the West where courtship to marriage is a fairly rapid progression.
“My mother got married at sixteen” her brother Amir confided in me. “She had four children by the time she was twenty one. Times are different now. There are other options.”
This, of course, is not to suggest that all hurdles for Middle Eastern women have been successfully cleared though media, education and shifting perceptions. There are plenty of women, especially in more rural communities, who will lack any kind of secondary education. These women are often regulated to the de facto roll of housewife as funds for remote villages dwindle considerably.
However, with discontent rising, these changing perceptions of women have definitely left their mark. In many ways it feels like we are through the looking glass and there is no going back. However, there is a certain amount of risk that revolution carries.
Some of the groups poised to take power in Tunisia (and Egypt and Yemen should they fail) can and do fall into the category of extremism. There is talk of how women will fare under any new government that eventually ascends to leadership. But many women aren’t worried. They stood side by side with men and fought to end dictatorship. With rifles pointed at them, water hoses welting their skin and tear gas stinging their eyes they have continued time after time to demand their basic human rights. Certainly they can stand up beside men and demand their representation within peaceful government.
Everything is up in the air right now. From the impending government of Tunisia to the future repression or liberation for a number of Arab states. However, it does seem that women are proving themselves indispensable as they demonstrate alongside men. If the more conservative men of the region can take that to heart and cast off some of the older traditional lore about a woman’s place, the future will for Arab women will be limitless. The real goal is to see Democracy spring up from a grass roots Arab movement. But if a side effect just happens to be the expansion of woman’s rights within the region, I think it is an equally worthy a concept to hang ones hopes on.