The Future of Women in the Middle East

Almost all of the Middle East's (ME) present borders are nothing but the result of a peace that ended all peace[1], disregarding demographic, religious and ethnic factors.

One needs no more than one simple look at ME countries' borders to identify geometric shapes i.e straight lines, right angles, thus excluding the probabilities of natural boundaries. Indeed, the borders drawn by Mark Sykes and Georges Francois Picot did not take into consideration the forced division or merging of coherent and antagonist groups (religious, ethnic, linguistic), that were somehow taken more seriously by the Ottoman administration (the Millet system that could be fairly described as a federal individual-based system of governance; the division of Iraq into three almost homogenous provinces (Vilayet); the autonomy of Mount Lebanon).

Sykes-Picot's agreement ushered a new era for the ME i.e. the modern central state. Both men fell victims of the civil state blueprint and J.J. Rousseau's affirmation that education solves almost all problems; both concepts embedded in their minds as a result of values advanced as of the age of enlightenment. The two men undermined the role of religion as well in the ME, and assumed that education would drive this region of the world ahead. Not only did the present ME borders forcibly gather antagonists; these were ruled by iron and fire. And what could have served as great models of diversified communities, had these been run democratically, represents at present a creed of religious fanaticism and barbarianism unrevealing the dark side of human nature.

It has become a general knowledge that the ME is being reshaped since the beginning of turbulences in 2011; be it through "chaos" or "organized chaos." So, the ME stands at present at a turning point: either a bloody-achieved partition along religious, sectarian and ethnic lines; or a "somehow less complicated transition from the present map to a new one where demography, religion and ethnicity are well recognized and managed."

At the heart of this complex and bloody milieu, women stand as the most vulnerable group. They still suffer from illiteracy, political marginalization, physical and sexual violence, abuse of religious interpretations and economic marginalization (in official sectors, as they significantly contribute to informal or parallel economies). Now, yes there are success stories at an Islamic and Arab level e.g. historic figures and queens. The ME has had its Amelia Earhart (Genevieve Gemayel), it nurses, singers and performers… Present day ME is full of examples of women attending conferences, participating in economic, cultural, financial, industrial and even political fields. Yet they remain an "elitist" example, as they did and do not reflect the reality of women in general. While the beginning of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions increased the level of adrenaline of women associations, groups, and activists, the present situation, especially after the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood – followed by the present rule in Egypt; the rise and expansion of ISIS in Iraq and Syria represents a meaningful setback. However, it is still early to declare defeat. Yes, post revolution phases are not in women's favor; however this is expected, as cultural norms, and attitude change do not occur overnight. They cannot be measured with pre and post test!

Take the right of women to vote, as example. In France, it was recognized in 1944 i.e. 2 centuries after the French Revolution (1789) and decades after the First World War (1914-1918). In Britain, and in spite of the active participation of women in industrial and economic fields as a result of men's engagement in the First World War (1914-1918), their right to vote was recognized only in 1928, 10 years after its end. In the United States of America, women participated in voting in 1920, while the American Revolution was an Eighteen Century product (1774-1783).

It is true that the Arab Revolutions have "emancipated" women through breaking their gender-established roles, and through linking them together in public squares and places, calling for their rights; calling for democracy. It is true that Revolutions connected women from rural areas with women from urban ones, illiterate with educated one. Thus, they became aware of their rights. However, this is not enough to bridge the gaps resulting from background differences at intra and inter ME States' level. The Middle East should not be seen as homogeneous.

How to go about all that?

The first matter that needs to be addressed is philosophical i.e. the foundation of rights. Women should not be described as "recipient of rights" and having "to prove themselves" e.g. we should give women their rights. Rights are inalienable and inherent in every single human being according to the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Thus, rights are not given – so they are at risk of being suspended, restricted or even "taken back" – rights are recognized.

Second, one lesson learned from Sykes-Picot is that religion does matter in our daily lives. It impacts personal and group behavior and influences policy and legislation making. Hence the need to engage religious leaders in advancing women's rights. Yes, liberal and influential religious leaders who are willing to embark on such mission.

Third, in a region where laws are unjust, or amount to a point of view, or where legislative work is at risk of deadlock for unpredictable periods, or where they can be simply described by the latin "Sed Lex, Dura Lex" (Laws are harsh, but they are laws), judges constitute an exemplary entry point towards legal reform. The Foundation for Human and Humanitarian Rights/Lebanon is a case in point. It has been dedicating its annual award since 2009 to you judges championing human rights and daring to challenge unjust positive laws with the principles of natural law. Every year, additional court rulings following this line are being issued. And although they remain at risk of being challenged before higher instances, nonetheless they create legal precedents leading to a "de facto" change of the law i.e. either through the suspension of some clauses or interpretation of others within the limits given by law to judges.

Fourth, advocate for the widest possible mainstreaming of gender and diversity into all sorts of activities, initiatives, programs and projects at all levels i.e. design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. While gender has been wrongly interpreted as being restricted to women only – mainly due to the fact that women organization have used it to forward their rights – it actually covers all sex, age, social, cultural, economic, ethnic, linguistic, religious (and what have you labels) groups. So the benefit is double: On the one hand, such strategy helps identifying accurate needs and beneficiaries, while reducing cost and avoiding un-necessary waste of man-power… it avoids advancing the rights of women in a way that could be seen "confrontational" by traditional societies – risking to trigger a violent rejection. Women's rights become part of a broader and inclusive package.

Fifth, more actions are needed and lesser words, statements, debates… Actions! Aim at actions, not theories and supportive statements. Women have had enough of those. Actions should not be necessarily costly, complex and having mid to long term impact. These could be simple, practical, non-costly and measurable, such as the mandatory registration of marriages. In the case of Lebanon for instance, hundreds of Syrian families, are "giving" their daughters in return for economic assistance (rent, food, security…) without marriage contracts. The majority of these women find themselves depraved from any form of protection when repudiated by their husbands. This becomes critical in cases of pregnancy or child birth. A registered marriage would at least provide a wife, or a mother with a minimum legal protection for her rights in dowry, custody or guardianship.

Finally, the question of women's rights and their future in the ME should be approached from a tactical angle i.e. winning battles, and not from strategic one i.e. winning the war. Why is that? Simply because the second would require a change in the general level of knowledge and mind setting; such thing does not occur overnight. However, a tactical approach would help avoiding deceptions and in the same time building a record of achievements. Yes, this might not sound ambitious. But it remains practical when determining expectations, especially in light of capacities and resources.

[1] A Peace to End All Peace, book by David Fromkin

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