A young woman drinks Starbucks coffee and wears a knee-length dress – it hardly seems newsworthy. But when Rahaf al-Qunun, now Rahaf Mohammed, shared photos of herself doing these mundane things on Jan. 16, they captured the international media’s attention.
In seeking, and quickly receiving, asylum in Canada, Saudi Arabian Mohammed – who dropped her former surname after her family said they had disowned her – raised awareness of the oppression that women face in many Middle East countries.
Women in the Middle East are among the most subjugated in the world, with one country – Israel – an obvious outlier.
According to the 2018 World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report, Israel was 46th on the global index – well above the global average. Six of the bottom 10 countries were in the Middle East – Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Four more – Oman, Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain – finished only fractionally higher on the index. The World Economic Forum’s report considers the gender gap through a range of indicators, from health outcomes, to workforce participation, to political representation.
There are many prominent examples of female oppression in the Middle East that are all but incomprehensible to women in the West.
To touch on just a few examples: Lebanese and Jordanian women are refused equal citizenship rights and if they have children with a foreign man, their children are refused nationality. These children then cannot access state-funded healthcare or legally work in their birth country.
In Iran, despite a regime stunt in November 2018 where select women were invited to sit in the crowd, women cannot be spectators at sporting events and women are detained by police for posting videos of themselves dancing on social media.
In Yemen, one in three brides are married before they turn 18. The United Nations Population Fund, which provides support to young Yemini women, reported on a nine-year-old girl who was forced by her family to marry in order to settle a family debt.
Astonishingly, Yemen – together with Australia – was just nominated as a vice president of UN Women, the UN’s gender equality arm.
And as Rahaf Mohammed so publicly drew attention to, Saudi Arabian women must have the permission of a male relative to travel overseas, study in a foreign country, get married or open a bank account. Those who challenge the so-called “guardianship law” have been imprisoned.
After receiving asylum in Canada, Mohammed released a statement: “I want to be independent, travel, make my own decisions on education, a career, or who and when I should marry. I had no say in any of this.”
The Saudi guardianship system, until recently, also allowed Saudi men to divorce their wives without telling them. However, in January, the “reformist” Saudi Ministry of Justice, announced a new measure: Saudi women will now be informed of their marital status by text message.
Mohammed’s celebration of freedom by wearing a knee-length dress in public followed a lifetime of adherence to strict dress codes. Despite Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman telling US media in March 2018 that women are only required to dress “modestly”, Saudi women are still compelled by state authorities to wear full body-covering cloaks (abaya) and face and head scarfs when not at home.
Knee-jerk reactions from those on the left and those on the right often do little to help the situation for women in the Middle East. On the left, there is a failure to condemn practices like female genital mutilation, polygamy or child marriage for fear of appearing “politically incorrect” or culturally insensitive. On the right, there is a tendency to place a blanket blame on Islam as the root of inequality without considering why some Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Bosnia-Herzegovina have a much narrower gap between genders than those in the Middle East.
Australian Ida Lichter, author of the book Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression, told the Australia/Israel Review that oppression of women is greatest in countries whose legal system is based on religious Islamic, or sharia, law.
Meanwhile, Muslim-majority countries that have restricted the application of sharia law to limited matters, such as marriage and inheritance, have fared better when it comes to gender equality. But even in these countries, more needs to be done.
“Supporting Muslim women reformers and co-opting sympathetic Muslim men are possible avenues for promoting gender equality,” Dr Lichter tells the Australia/Israel Review.
Elaborating on this point during a 2010 interview with The Diplomat magazine, Dr Lichter said: “More women in Muslim societies are becoming educated, forming NGOs, working as journalists with access to world media and developing a more sophisticated understanding of politics… more men in their societies are supporting women’s rights.”
Dr Lichter’s words have rung true. These women and men are beginning to speak out, with Mohammed only the latest.
American-Egyptian writer and women’s activist Mona Eltahawy took to social media following Mohammed’s asylum application to say she expects the young lady to “start a revolution in Saudi Arabia”.
“Saudi Arabia is a very connected country online, it is very, very internet connected. Saudi Twitter, especially women on Twitter, is incredible,” Eltahawy told ABC radio.
She went on: “They post videos when they want to of their face uncovered as a form of protest and subversion, they share these videos and say ‘help her’, all this takes incredible courage. So to just see Saudi women on Twitter and other forms of social media revealing their face, posting videos about being abused and wanting to run away, communicating with each other and fighting back against the regime is incredible.”
In the days since Eltahawy has spoken out loudly and publicly in support of Mohammed, Saudi state media has publically defamed her, calling her a “pornographer”.
But what else is it about much of the Middle East that has made it such a bad place for women to live? And why is the Israeli record substantially better – if still imperfect?
Lina Abirafeh, a Palestinian-Lebanese woman who heads the Beirut-based Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, wrote in The Conversation that there are five main causes of the oppression of women in the Middle East.
These include restrictive family laws that enshrine inequality between spouses; high rates of gender-based violence, including honour killings; the high number of women not in the workforce; plus, the low numbers of women holding political office. Abirafeh noted that ongoing conflict in the region also creates a dangerous environment for women.
On these indicators, plus Dr Lichter’s measure, Israel does well, perhaps explaining why it is so much higher up the World Economic Forum’s gender equality rankings.
First, Israel has the advantage of a common law legal system.
In Israel, religious law does apply to marriage and divorce, as well as a variety of other religious matters. While this has created challenges, particularly for those Israelis who are not permitted to use the services of an official religious court, including non-Orthodox Jews, the limited jurisdiction of religious courts means laws pertaining to equality are determined by the civil authorities.
Moving through Abirafeh’s other indicators, on four of these Israel performs much better than its neighbours.
In Israel, there is fairness in family law. In fact, the Israeli Supreme Court has developed rules to protect gender equality even in religious court proceedings.
As in other Western countries, Australia included, there are unacceptable levels of domestic violence in Israel, but there is a significant – and public – protest movement calling for more action in both Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli communities. Responding to protesters, in January the Netanyahu Government nearly doubled the state funding already provided to combat domestic violence in Israel.
When it comes to the Israeli workplace, unlike most other Middle Eastern countries, Israel has laws banning gender discrimination and enforcing equal pay, and there is a high level of female employment participation, including among the professions. Even among Arab Israeli women, employment has reached 40%, up 5% in the past year alone.
In politics, women continue to hold high offices. While the current cabinet only has three serving women, the current President of Israel’s Supreme Court is female and the city of Haifa elected Israel’s first female mayor of a large city, Einat Kalisch-Rotem, during elections last November.
On Abirafeh’s fifth cause for Middle Eastern women’s oppression – ongoing conflict – Israel does not fare so well. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has functioned in a state of constantly simmering conflict; conflict that boils over on a regular basis.
The conflict, however, has not largely been used as a rationale for the state to treat women poorly, to tie lawmaking to extremist interpretations of religious texts or cited as an excuse to hold women back.
Despite research by UN Women showing that conflict exacerbates gender inequalities, Israel seems to have avoided this fate by building a robust, rules-based civil society.
As well as managing to bravely escape harm from her own family, Rahaf Mohammed has hopefully started a movement of women, like her, from the Middle East, who have a voice to fight for greater equality.
Women in the Middle East – and across the world – deserve better than to be married off in childhood, shrouded in public, required to beg for permission from a male relative to study or travel and restricted from the citizenship rights granted to their brothers. It can be done; Israel can show its neighbours how.
The prominence given to Mohammed’s voice through the media has no doubt helped to raise much-needed awareness of the ongoing fight for gender equality in the Middle East, and how much remains to be done.