Jun 17th 2004 | BEIRUT, CAIRO AND RIYADH
From The Economist print edition
The Economist print edition: Jun 17th, 2004, Beruit, Cairo, and Riyadh
Slowly, but sometimes showily, the female half of the population is beginning to find a voice
IT WAS called a "national dialogue", but to western eyes it was a
strange kind of conversation. From June 13th-15th, in Medina, Saudi Arabian
women and men discussed how women's lives could be improved. The women, however,
were invisible to the men, except on a television screen.
From kindergarten to university to the few professions they are permitted to pursue, as well as in restaurants and banks and in other public places, the female half of Saudi Arabia's population is kept strictly apart. Women are not allowed to drive a car, sail a boat or fly a plane, or to appear outdoors with hair, wrists or ankles exposed, or to travel without permission from a male guardian. A wife who angers her husband risks being "hanged"; that is, suspended in legal limbo, often penniless and trapped indoors, until such time as he deigns to grant a divorce. And then she will lose custody of her children.
The 19 recommendations that went to Crown Prince Abdullah on June 15th would change matters somewhat, if they are ever enacted. Participants asked for special courts to deal with women's issues, more women's sections in existing courts, and a public-transport system for them. They wanted more education, more jobs and more voluntary organisations dealing with women's issues. Amid much vague good feeling, the phrase that recurred was "more awareness"-not just of women's rights, but of women as human beings.
Saudi Arabia certainly presents male chauvinism at its worst. Yet it is a mistake to imagine, as many westerners do, that Arab women as a whole suffer strictures as tight as their Saudi sisters'. It is equally incorrect to judge the donning of veils and headscarves-attire that is optional everywhere save in Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Iran-to be a sign of exclusion. For some it is simply a personal expression of religious devotion; for others, a means of escape from the tyranny of fashion.
It is even wrong to assume that life for the purdahed women of Saudi Arabia is necessarily hard. Boring, yes, and cluttered with minor annoyances, but also full of compensating richness. Many Saudi women take pride in the protectiveness, family-centredness and Muslim piety of their society-aspects that were stressed first in the list of recommendations.
Slowly but surely, too, the lot of Saudi women is improving, just as it has been for women in most Arab countries. Saudi girls were not even allowed to go to school until 1964. Now, some 55% of the kingdom's university students are female. Similar trends can be seen elsewhere. In Kuwait's and Qatar's national universities, women now make up fully 70% of the student body. Across the wider region, the average time girls have spent in school by the age of 15 has increased from a mere six months in 1960 to 4.5 years today. This may still be only three-quarters of the schooling that Arab boys get, but female education has improved faster in Arab countries than in any other region. Tunisia has narrowed the literacy gap between young men and women by 80% since 1970. Jordan has achieved full literacy for both sexes.
The Arab performance in improving women's health is also unmatched. Female life expectancy is up from 52 years in 1970 to more than 70 today. The number of children borne by the average Arab woman has fallen by half in the past 20 years, to a level scarcely higher than world norms. In Oman, fertility has plummeted from ten births per woman to fewer than four. A main reason for this is a dramatic rise in the age at which girls marry. A generation ago, three-quarters of Arab women were married by the time they were 20. That proportion has dropped by half. In large Arab cities, the high cost of housing, added to the need for women to pursue degrees or start careers, is prompting many to delay marriage into their 30s. Again, that is not much different from the rest of the world.
Houris and hijabs
Outsiders may think of Arab women as shrouded, closeted ghosts, but the images that come to Arab minds these days are likely to be quite different. Flick on a television in Muscat or Marrakesh, and you find punchy, highly competent and pretty female presenters. Competition between Lebanese television networks is so keen that their gorgeous weather-announcers, pantomiming, say, rain on the mountains, can be rather startling. More eye-opening still is the procession of video clips on the many highly popular satellite channels broadcasting round-the-clock Arabic pop music. Strapless houris (beauties), such as Lebanon's Nancy Ajram and Egypt's Ruby, croon and gyrate with scarcely less abandon than their western prototypes.
True, such imagery remains deeply controversial, and not just to feminists. In relatively open-minded Egypt, the state broadcasting monopoly has banned the more provocative female stars and has forbidden costumes that reveal belly buttons, saying they corrupt the country's youth. The saucy video clips are regularly blasted at Friday sermons in the mosques.
It is also true that provocatively clad starlets are hardly representative of Arab womanhood. Broadly speaking, the percentage of Arab women who wear some form of hijab, or veil, does seem to be inching upwards. Numbers vary hugely, however, from around 10-20% in Lebanon or Tunisia to perhaps 60% in Syria and Jordan, to 80% in Kuwait and Iraq. In rural Egypt, the near-universal adoption of the veil in recent years is as much a reflection of city fashions creeping into the countryside (where women traditionally worked in the fields unveiled) as of rising conservatism. The popularity of veils in Egyptian cities, meanwhile, is partly due to a rise in the number of women who leave home to work or study. In a sense, for traditional families the hijab is a sort of convenient half-way station to fuller freedom.
At the same time, the late-night club-culture of cities such as Cairo, Dubai and Beirut is thriving as never before. Even those women who shun the packed bars and discos may now venture into the cafés, once a male preserve. The sight of groups of women smoking waterpipes has become quite common. Such delights have helped attract a fast-growing number of tourists, especially Gulf Arabs, for whom the free mingling of sexes is itself a spectacle. Inevitably, these looser strictures have an influence back home.
Those other modern media, the internet and the mobile phone, increasingly reinforce such shifts in attitude. Hard as it may still be to meet members of the opposite sex openly, ever-growing numbers of young Arabs are chatting, flirting and even getting hitched over the ether. And that is the innocent side. This correspondent's wholly unscientific survey of internet cafés in several Saudi cities revealed that virtually all the websites recorded as "favourites" were blatantly pornographic.
Even the many Arabs who dismiss MTV and on-line dating as the preserve of gilded, westernised youth will admit that female role-models have changed a great deal. In all but three out of 22 countries in the Arab League, women have the right to vote and run for office. (Recall that the Swiss canton of Appenzell did not grant such rights until 1991). Arab women also work as ambassadors, government ministers, top business executives and even, in Bahrain, army officers. A fifth of Algeria's Supreme Court judges are women, and women hold 15% of the top judicial posts in Tunisia. Even in Saudi Arabia, Lubna Olayan heads the kingdom's leading private industrial group, and Thoraya Obeid runs the UN's family-planning agency, though admittedly in New York.
The darker side
Yet Arab women should not rest complacent. It is for good reason that the UN's devastating, and much-quoted, Arab Human Development Report cites women's rights, along with education and governance, as the main challenge facing the region. Statistics cannot easily capture, for example, the fact that the very idea of an unmarried woman living alone remains taboo in all but a few Arab countries. Numbers do not adequately measure the harassment that "immodest" dress routinely attracts in most Arab cities, or the destructive social impact of habits such as female circumcision (still practised widely in Egypt and Sudan), polygamy (sanctioned by Islam, yet rare except in the wealthy Gulf states), or "honour killings" (sanctioned by tribal custom, not religion, and declining-but in Jordan, more than 20 women are still murdered by their own suspicious relatives every year).
The numbers can still be revealing, though. In Egypt, a recent study showed that among families with low levels of education, baby girls are twice as likely to die as baby boys. In Yemen, the illiteracy rate among young women (54%) is three times that of men. And as for those proud Saudi women who are now earning most of the kingdom's university degrees, their prospects of careers are dim. Barely 6% of the country's workforce is female. Across the Arab region as a whole, only a third of adult women have jobs, compared with three-quarters of women in East Asia.
Just as disturbingly, movement towards equality in some Arab countries has shunted into reverse. Such is the case of Iraq, a country that during the 1960s and 1970s was in the vanguard of progress. Saddam Hussein's two decades of war and sanctions crushed the life out of the country's once large and rich middle class. Their decline discredited social models, such as the nuclear family, which had begun to replace the old patriarchal clan system. The lot of most Iraqi women has worsened even more dramatically since the war. In the cities, women are simply afraid to go out alone. The rise of religious radicalism has prompted many to adopt the veil, out of fear as much as conviction.
Even in more peaceable Arab countries, the gains women have made are not fully secure. As far back as the 1950s, for example, secularist Tunisia granted women full equality, going so far as to contravene Islam and ban polygamy. With their rights to vote, divorce, work in any profession and so forth, Tunisian women remain the envy of Arab feminists elsewhere. Yet they themselves complain that male attitudes have not really changed. A Tunisian sociologist notes a trend by wealthy men to seek brides from poor villages, since city women are "too independent". And the incidence of wife-beating remains high.
Egypt was another Arab pioneer in women's rights. The first Arab feminist manifesto, "The Liberation of Woman", was published in Cairo in 1899. By the 1920s, society women were dropping their veils; by the 1960s, the country had more female doctors than many in the West. But progress stalled in the 1980s, when the parliament scotched a law that would have ensured nearly full sexual equality.
Discriminatory laws still hinder women's progress in many other countries. Algeria's 1984 family statutes give men an automatic right to divorce, with no legal obligation to their former spouse. In all but a few Arab countries, citizenship may only be passed on by the father of a child, not its mother. Similarly, custody of children customarily goes to the father, a fact that comes into tragic prominence every year in consulates across the region, when the foreign divorcees of Arab men discover that they may lose their children. And Islamic inheritance law grants female heirs only half the portion given to males.
Outsiders commonly assume that Islam itself is the cause of sexual inequality in the Arab world. This is not strictly true. Earlier this year, for instance, Morocco adopted a progressive family status code which, among other things, grants both sexes equal rights to seek divorce and to argue before a judge for custody of children. It also places such tight conditions on polygamy as to render the practice virtually impossible. Yet the new law won backing not just from King Muhammad VI, who declared it to be "in perfect accordance with the spirit of our tolerant religion", but also from the country's main Islamist parties.
In Kuwait, too, religion is being used to push reform. Five years ago, Islamists
in the country's parliament blocked a law that would have granted women the
right to vote and run for office. The same law is being tabled again this year,
but this time several Islamist MPs have defected to the liberals. One reason
is a fatwa recently issued by a prominent cleric, which questions the reliability
of the source who, 14 centuries ago, reported the Prophet Muhammad as saying
"A nation commanded by woman will not prosper."
Aside from giving them the short stick on inheritance, and having their testimony in law considered half as weighty as men's, and letting husbands marry up to four wives, whom they may beat if they are disobedient, the Koran itself is not unkind to women. Centuries before Christian women in the West, Muslim women freely enjoyed full property rights. In many Arab societies, it has been customary to evade statutory inheritance laws by simply signing over property to female relations before your death.
The trouble, in places like Saudi Arabia, lies more in how the holy text-as well as the hadiths, or Prophet's sayings, that inform the Sharia-are interpreted. Such texts are often not so much interpreted, as twisted to fit pre-existing traditions. The ban on driving, for instance, is unique to Saudi Arabia. Yet even Saudi clerics are hard-put to find support for the rule in holy scripture. (And in any case, according to one survey, 29% of Saudi women say they already know how to drive.)
The extreme Saudi phobia regarding ikhtilat, or mixing of the sexes, also has no textual justification. And although the Koran mentions modesty in dress, how much is a matter of opinion. Most scholars agree that hadiths about fuller covering relate to the Prophet's own wives. Whether to follow their example should be a free choice, as indeed it is in most Muslim societies.
Some countries, such as non-Arab Turkey and Tunisia, have simply bypassed such questions by imposing fully secular laws. For the time being, Arab public opinion is strongly opposed to this; the link to Islamic roots is seen as essential. Yet when it comes to women's rights, the evidence is that Arabs, even the men among them, acknowledge the need for improvement. In a 2002 survey of social attitudes carried out in seven Arab countries by Zogby International, 50% of respondents considered the improvement of women's rights a high priority (see chart). Significantly, the firmest support for change came from Saudi Arabia.
The reformers will eventually get their way. Saudi women are, in fact, already chalking up important gains. Last month they were granted the right to hold commercial licences, a significant advance considering that women own a quarter of the $100 billion deposited in Saudi banks, with little opportunity to make use of it. In 2001, they won the right to have their own identity cards (though a male guardian must apply for them). Saudi businesswomen spoke eloquently, to long applause, at a major conference in Jeddah earlier this year. Since January, Saudi state TV has employed female newscasters.
The kingdom's best-known TV personality also happens to be a woman. Rania al-Baz won further fame earlier this year when her husband beat her almost to death. Instead of staying silent, as her mother would have done, Mrs al-Baz invited photographers into her hospital room to show the world her broken face. She has now formed a group to combat the abuse of women in Saudi Arabia.