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Why Arabs and Muslims Downplay Women’s Rights

By Mohammad S. Moussalli


No matter whom we are or where we are in the world, one cannot deny that human rights and civil liberty are the foremost, after politics, controversial subjects of discussion of our time. By all odds, the most debate-provoking topic in any human rights discourse is the issue of women’s rights. It is so because the nature of women’s rights demand holds compound societal dimensions that can bring about everlasting cultural effects on all people.

In most cases, the line of argumentation for or against women’s rights implicates intense disputes of diverse religious and social conceptions about the role of women in society. This, however, is because discussing of women’s rights always entails further argumentation of people’s ingrained beliefs and customized definitions of equality, justice and freewill. It also involves discussions that bring forth a number of decisive questions about the compatibility of laws, cultures, and religious doctrines with our modern-day concept of women’s rights, human rights and civil liberties.

Actually, in advanced societies, women’s rights movements, feminist organized groups together with other active women have attained a very substantial achievement: equality of rights under the law. This momentous progress came through as a result of their successful crusade to reform the philosophy of law of their countries apart from traditions and religious consideration. Heretofore, the obvious is that the western establishment of women’s rights, as a whole, still has to strive to actualize real equal treatment in many aspects of life. On the face of it, women need to gain wider national recognition of their political skills, executive competency and business-like métiers, for example, to win their final national battle— probably, much more points need to be scored on the transnational front.

Meanwhile, in most of the third world, women’s state of affair is an untold inglorious tragedy. In spite of many broad attempts of international human rights organizations, women’s rights movements and civil rights advocates to deliver change, the fact remains that the mass majority of women in poor and developing countries are compelled, one way or another, to endure living just like in the Middle Ages.

To touch on some of these misfortunes, all of us, men and women, should recall the suffering of those hapless women, who  were disfigured (by acid attacks) for marital motives, died from self induced abortions, kidnapped and sold as sex slaves, gang-raped and murdered, for instance, to realize the savagery women are facing. All of us should recollect the assassination attempt on the life of young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, so that to visualize the ongoing sufferings of women in many developing countries (underdeveloped was more accurate).

In the Arab and Muslim countries, equal rights laws (where do exist) are either devoid or deactivated, mainly in the name of its inconsistency with Islamic laws and archaic societal traditions. However, in few Arab countries, like in Lebanon, for instance, where the constitution clearly affirms equality of all citizens. Nevertheless, in practice, most constitutional equal rights terms are vacated in favor of sectarian regulations, religious rules and hence male chauvinism.

On the political front, the general political mindset of most Arab leading politicians and political industries is to circumvent and downplay women participation in the political process, though all declare the contrary. The undeniable reality is that Arab women, who count more than half of Arab people, hardly exist in parliaments and government cabinets of their countries—let alone that they are prohibited to serve in the religious judiciary.

Lebanese women, likewise most Arab women, do not have the right to grant their nationality to their children or spouses, while men can. Voluntary civil marriage is impermissible in Arab states. Only couples of countries, like Lebanon, recognize offshore civil marriage contracts; nonetheless relegate all subsequent legal decisions to the respective religious authorities of the husband, the male.  In plain words, it is just a fake exit.

Arab penal laws still incorporate exonerative clauses of which domestic violence and the so-called honor crime are tolerated. While Arab legislative bodies are tuned out to realize that the lack of serious criminalization and penalization of crimes against women, such as marital rape, carnal abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment and child marriage, is spreading the feel of fear, pain and injustice among half of Arab citizens—not to discuss the accompanying emotional distress and resentment.

Arab women in protest for their rights Photo source: www.dw.de

Under some disputed misinterpretations of many Muslim clerics, equal rights for women in the Arab law of land are seen to oppose Islamic teachings and traditions , since the text, in the short eyeshot of those Muslim sheikhdoms, points to the contrary: to the supremacy of men.  Arab women have been indoctrinated and influenced, as of childhood, to live in the shadow of their male family members (fathers, brothers, husbands and their own adult sons), no matter of their individual qualities or education.

In Arab and Muslim conservative societies, single (never been married) women are denied the right, by unsubstantiated Islamic rules, to get married without the consent of their fathers or brothers. However, when it comes to divorce, although Muslim women are permitted to make claims for divorce (only if they have Islamic valid reasons—a very shortlist), they are obliged to endure a backbreaking process of 2-3 years long before they are freed.

Unfortunately, the largest part of those primitive actualities are conducted in the name of applying Islamic laws and traditions, most of which are built on misreading and misinterpretations of the primary objectives of Islamic scriptures. A look at Arab Islamic history evince that Muslim women were having freer societal conditions at the time of Prophet Muhammad than they are now. They traveled on horses and rode camels with men in battles and trade trips; treated and soothed injured men; openly discussed and argued for their views with men; held high religious position of reference and political power (like Aisha, second wife of the Prophet); were not to be married without their consent and acquire divorce before long, for example.

However, this is not to imply that Muslim people have to revert their ways of life to resemble those of 1400-years ago in order to be better off. On the contrary, it is to stress that the so-called Muslims religious authorities (who are supposed to deliver divine rules are actually instituted and appointed by temporal rulers—what an industry) have to review all Fatwas, rulings and (mis)interpretations to make compatible with the modern understanding of human rights. Considering that, it is irrational and detrimental to keep trying out to unplug 1.6 billion Muslim from their present-day world to live the Islamic doctrine of the 6th century or so— let alone being impossible to achieve.

Given those resentful circumstances, the unavoidable question is why Arab and Muslim women do not forcefully stand up for their rights and human dignity. And, whether they are ready to induce the required change against all odds or not.

Under the current situations of the Middle East and North Africa, one has to acknowledge that it is quite harder to reform the law in autocratic states than in established democracies; and believably, much harder to actualize equal rights to women where uneven religious-based traditions and restrictive family values are implanted in the psyche of Arab and Muslim people. Nevertheless, the answer is a conditional yes. Yes, Arab and Muslim women are geared up to attain their rights, but lack the leadership and support.

Fairly and squarely, it seems that Arab women have temporarily reconfigured their actual endeavors to seek lesser goals than those of western women. This temperate outlook, however, is not due to lack of self-respect, poor education or low spirit. Rather, it is an act of weighing several unavoidable national actualities: absence of real democracy, poor civil engagement, bigoted conservative society, armed extremist groups, suppressive authorities and most of all, the unending question of people’s safety.

Having said that does not mean that Arab and Muslim women are excused for not pushing on their rightful cause to the frontline of the current democratic strive, with which they could be able to change their fate and future.  Though they should have done it earlier, nevertheless Arab women should utilize their social media expertise, advertisement skills, likeable presentation and marketing competency to win the wide support of their fellow citizens. Arab women activists are invited to employ their voting force in the current power struggle in the region to the advantage of liberal democratic candidates (men and women) that support human rights and civil liberties.

In all norms, Arab and Muslim women deserve and have the right to be treated equally and humanely regardless of any given justification or falsification. Arab and Muslim leaders, government officials, politicians, business magnates and all traditionalists are morally obligated to liberate more than eight hundred million Muslim women from thralldom, if they are really looking for a promising political and economic future of their countries.

Meanwhile, all men, Arab and Muslim, in particular, should remember not to be proud before their mothers, educators, partners, daughters, friends, and colleagues are set free of this modern-day serfdom.

Everyone should remind oneself that,

One free humming bird would add more to our world than a million caged ones.


About the Author: Mohammad S. Moussalli is a well-known Lebanese writer. He has a reputable journalistic experience, as commentary writer, with a renowned regional English daily newspaper. He holds a long list of esteemed published articles, mostly centered on human rights, civil liberties, socioeconomic development and sociopolitical issues.
Mr. Moussalli is a free-lance management consultant with senior executive management experience in general trading and contracting in the gulf region. He provides advice on business planning, reorganization, operations, pay and benefit scales, and many other issues.
Mr. Moussalli blogs at http://middleeasttribune.wordpress.com

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  1. From the Author :
    I have received hundreds of commendation emails for writing this article of which any writer feel pleased. Yet when I was asked, by this site’s Editor-in-Chief, to re-post this article on an Arab women magazine, I felt really happy. Happy because it reflects the affirmation of Arab women of what I have already published to the world. Secondly because I felt that change is close to attain, since there are active smart women, like those run this site, who read, select and interact so that to achieve equality and understanding of women rights.

    I appreciate that line of commitment and interaction and wish them all the success they deserve.

    All the best
    Mohammad S. Moussalli

    • Dear Mr. Mohammad Mousalli,
      We would like to express our appreciation to your kind words, and highly value your support and trust in us. We too are moving forward towards a change. We hope working with esteemed intellectual figures as yourself will able us to make a difference and reach our goals for a better tomorrow.
      Thank you once again.
      Mira Khatib & Amal Al Harithi

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