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Introduction

Women are faced with significant challenges in the Middle East, where most of these challenges are premised on Islamic religious doctrines. However, when women in the Middle East attempt to voice their discontent or fight for their individual and collective rights, their complaints are silenced with rhetoric quotations of Islamic religious doctrines under which they are bound. Consequently, in order to overcome these challenges and enable the liberation of women’s rights, women in the Middle East have formed Islamic feminist movements, which aim at freeing women from being subjected to patriarchy laws, which glorify men while subjecting women to servitude and insignificance. Therefore, the formation of Islamic feminist groups is premised on the realization of equality among all Muslims in private and public environments irrespective of their gender.

The advocacy for gender justice in the Middle East is through the re-evaluation of traditional interpretations of religious texts and their respective support for gender parity and women’s rights (Coleman). The Islamic societies based their social structures on religion; as such, religion is perceived to be the fundamental structure within which power and respect in the community is defined. Therefore, it is crucial for women to seek their rights on political participation, employment, legal reform, and education on the basis of Islamic principles that are defined in the Qur’an. It is evident that feminists have not only impacted social-economic and political environments in the west but have also contributed significantly to the Arab world, more so, to the Middle East. As such, the impacts of Islamic feminists in Middle Eastern states such as Egypt and Iran cannot be ignored.

History of Arab feminism

Feminism in the Middle East is perceived to be a product of western colonialist influences on the Middle East; however, this conception is refuted by Islamic feminists who, unlike their western counterparts, do not seek absolute equality with their men, but confine their quest for women’s rights to the Islamic doctrines and teachings. As such, secular feminism in the Middle East in the early 20th and late 19th centuries included various intellectual precepts which distinguished it from western feminism (Badran).

The role of Islam in defining women’s rights is among the most critical precepts. In contrast to the western secular feminism of the time, Islamic feminist movements integrated modernist precepts, more so, the demand for equal opportunities in public environments such as politics and education. For instance, the secular Islamic feminist group, the Egyptian Feminist Group was established in 1923 by Huda Sha’rawi, an advocate who championed the reformation of Muslim personal Law on the basis of pre-existing Islamic precepts (Badran). Additionally, the secular Islamic feminist movement merged during the struggle for freedom against colonialism in the early 20th century.

In 1919, the Egyptian women were significantly involved in protesting against British colonialism; therefore, the advantage of involvement in nationalistic rhetoric afforded significant credibility to women’s progress efforts (Badran). Secular feminism was mostly perceived as a conception of meetings such as the Eastern Women’s Congress that was held in 1930 and 1932 in Damascus and Tehran respectively. These meetings discussed the establishment of equal employment opportunities and incremental wages, raising marriage age for girls, and eliminating polygamy among other issues impacting the overall feminist movement. Significantly, Islamic feminists opted to adopt the positive aspects of the arguments that were presented by the west while rejecting those that were premised on western prejudices and passions.

Impacts of Arab feminists on the Middle East

The extent of feminism and its impacts on social, economic, and political aspects varies among the Middle Eastern countries; however, these impacts are prevalent in the whole Middle Eastern region. The Arab feminism concept has yet to be fully accepted across the Middle Eastern region, but significant progress has been realized towards this end. For instance, in 2009, significant numbers of women congregated in Malaysia with the aim of participating in the launch of a global organization advocating for parity in the Muslim family setting.

Additionally, significant number of women’s groups has been created across the Middle East, where Cairo has more than 300 women groups (Fernea). Arab feminism has critically impacted the social-economic environment in the middle east, where there are more women working outside the confines of their homes in the modern era than before and during the colonial era. For instance, in 1973, studies indicated that a negligible 7% of women in the Middle East worked beyond the confines of their homes; however, this figure has significantly increased to an estimated 30% (Fernea).

The factors that have contributed towards the success of Arab feminism include strengthened media influence, increasing female literacy, and religious extremism. In spite of female literacy standards being extremely low in the past, the Middle East has seen significant improvements beginning in the 1970s.  For instance, in 1970, literate women in Saudi Arabia constituted only 2% of the total female population, while in 1990, this number had significantly increased to 48% (Sabbagh 264).

 Thus, in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, there is more women representation in higher learning education institutes in contrast to men (Coleman). Consequently, women in the Middle East gain the confidence and opportunities that they require to query the status quo prevalent in Middle Eastern social order. Therefore, as more Middle Eastern women continue to be educated and develop a more comprehensive understanding and awareness of Islamic precepts, they begin to question the denial of their rights. As a result, these women are inherently determined to reinforce their distinctiveness as autonomous persons capable of negating predefined social norms in pursuit of their rights.

The role of women in the Middle Eastern societies has been debated and subjected to varied perceptions. The media have been instrumental in highlighting issues relating to Middle Eastern women. Television networks, such as Al-Arabiya, NBC, and Al-Jazeera, have sensitized the people through opinionated debates and critique on gender concerns in the Middle East and the extensive Islamic world. Interactive broadcast shows like “The View” has enabled women to voice their grievances and experiences on issues such as polygamy and child marriages in the comfort of their houses.

This serves to create normalcy in the forum while encouraging women to conceptualize and express their opinions on sensitive gender issues. Additionally, the prevalence of extremism in the Middle East on issues relating to women and modern societal changes have afforded more credibility to women groups. Therefore, women are increasingly recognized and given opportunities which they would not be given under traditional circumstances. For instance, women in Middle Eastern countries have been integrated into programs that are aimed at training them as mourchidats who are expected to perform and execute the functions of Muslim preachers (Coleman). These initiatives are premised on the need to mitigate extremism in Middle East and Islamic societies; hence, countries like Qatar and Egypt have adopted these initiatives for similar purposes.

While Arab feminism has been significantly successful, Middle Eastern women are critiqued for their abandonment of western feminism precepts. Such critique has been rebutted on the basis that Arab feminism has significant impacts in the Middle East as a result of its uniqueness and abandonment of western secular feminist ideologies. This is because Islamic societies are fundamentally defined through religion, which has been integrated with the state; thus western cultures have no impact on social issues influencing the Middle East (Fernea). The Islamic feminist’s initiative to combat gender injustices within the pre-existing social structures has proved to be valuable, since religious authority and knowledge is the basis in which power and respect are commanded. In light of this, Islamic women who attempt to adopt western secular feminism are often ridiculed and disrespected.

The effectiveness of Arab feminism in impacting positive developments for Islamic women, as opposed to western feminism in the Middle East, is exemplified through the successful reformation of mudawana, the family code, in 2004 (Coleman). Secular feminist activists tried advocating for the formation of the discriminatory requirements of the family code, which these included the requirement for divorced women’s forfeiture of custodial rights towards their children in the event that they remarried or opted to live in a different locality. As a consequence of their protests, these women were branded as kaffirs, anti-Islamic, or unbelievers (Coleman). In order to reinforce their credibility, they opted to adopt a more conservative Islamic feminism approach that was more acceptable, leading to their eventual success in influencing the reformation of the family code.

It is evident that secular feminism has no impact on a Muslim society as such; Arab women are not attracted to the precepts of secular feminism. Middle Eastern women are critically attempting to create and develop for themselves a niche in a patriarchal Middle Eastern environment. In light of this, Middle Eastern women cannot afford the scrutiny and baggage that are associated with western secular precepts, since these might lead to their morality and integrity being questioned (Haddad and Smith 138). Therefore, secular feminism is seen as a threat to the achievements that were made throughout the development of family cohesion.

Moreover, Arab women activists are in dire need for the support of their men in influential positions, who would incidentally distance themselves from secular feminism, which is perceived as attempting to depreciate Islamic precepts. Secular feminism is believed to be encouraging Islamic women to discard the hijab. Contrary to western secular beliefs, the hijab is a symbol of modesty; therefore, it is crucial for Arab feminists to present themselves as modest while championing women’s empowerment.

As such, Islamic feminists are respected in their corresponding communities for their commitment and dedication to Islam; hence, they represent the amalgamation of Arab traditions and their quest for women empowerment. Doing so, Muslim women validate their arguments towards the enforcement of women’s rights and gender parity (Haddad and Smith 143). A woman adorning a hijab is perceived as moral and honorable; therefore, she is more likely to earn respect than being harassed in public forums such as workplaces. Hence, the hijab is symbolic towards the necessity for freedoms and rights for women, and it does not tamper with Muslim traditions and morality.

Examples of Arab feminist impacts on women’s issues in the Middle East

Iran is among the Middle Eastern countries which have benefitted significantly from Islamic feminism. The evidence towards this fact is illustrated by the significant number of Iranian women graduating from secondary and tertiary education institutions. 70% of the graduates in Iranian colleges are women; as such, women are predominant in governmental and professional capacities (Coleman). In light of this, Iranian women are provided with the opportunity to effectively champion social change in respect to women’ rights; evidently, they have influenced social change in Iranian society. For instance, Shirin Ebadi was the first Iranian woman to have become chief justice and the first Islamic woman to have been awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her contributions in championing women rights and protesting against discrimination towards women.

Her most notable achievement is one million signatures initiated in 2006. It was aimed at campaigning against legal discrimination of women through the provisions of Iranian laws (Coleman). This campaign was initiated on the basis of the Moroccan campaign for reforming the family code. Ebadi’s campaign sought to champion equal rights for women in ending polygamy, inheritance, and marriage and advocated harsher punitive measures for honor killings and various forms of violence towards women. Meanwhile, these campaigns were declared to be consistent with Islamic precepts and religious doctrines. Significantly, these campaigns influenced a critical piece of legislation that sought to impose taxes on prenuptial agreements above a defined amount in an attempt to mitigate men’s financial burden. However, after numerous protests, the proposed amendments to the legislation were excluded from the bill, which was subsequently passed in 2008 (Shirin Ebadi).

Egypt is also among the countries that have been influenced by Islamic feminist activities. A significant number of Egyptian women are educated; whereas, more than 50% of students in Egyptian universities are women. As a result, Egyptian women have added their voice in advocating for women’s rights in critical areas such as employment, marriage, and sexuality (Fernea). The impacts of Islamic feminism have been demonstrated through the recent passing of laws legalizing the implementation of khula, which is consensual divorce on the basis of Islamic precepts.

The enactment of this legislation has enabled Egyptian women to request for divorce provided they are willing and capable of returning their dowries. The intricacies of consensual divorce have been provided for in the Islamic laws sharia, where Khula is mentioned in the Sunna and Qur’an (Fernea). The fact that consensual divorce is provided for in the Qur’an demonstrates that women in Islamic religious groups have been right all along; however, in order for their requests to be granted, they have to assert themselves in proving the existence of this provision of their men. Egyptian Islamic feminists have taken the initiative of championing against sexual abuse and genital mutilations in women. As such, they have succeeded in ending genital mutilation practices in upper regions of Egypt. Additionally, Egyptian women have succeeded in championing more employment right for women, requiring factories employing over 100 women to provide childcare to female workers free of charge (Fernea).

Conclusion

Arab feminism across Middle Eastern countries has significantly impacted women’s social, legal, and economic status. However, the changes that were realized as a result of feminist activism are not enough; therefore, more input and new strategies are essential in the continued championing of women’s rights in the Middle East and other Islamic societies. This is critical, since in some regions, women are still subjected to oppressive interpretations of Islamic precepts. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive or vote; hence, in the event that they disobey, they are subjected to severe punishments (Coleman). This is in contrast to countries that have allowed their women have substantive legal rights, rights for employment and education. However, patriarchy systems have continued to dominate Middle Eastern societies; hence, men have continued to control their women’s personal lives. In light of this, sexual tendencies and behavior have remained to be a controversial subject that is difficult to champion without appearing to be negating Islamic precepts.

It is evident that Arab feminists have achieved significant progress without the influence of western feminism; therefore, it is essential for western feminists to acknowledge and respect the effectiveness of Islamic feminism in championing women’s rights in the Middle East. However, western feminist can make their contributions through discussing issues facing women in the Middle East in open forums and demonstrating solidarity with Middle Eastern women organizations. It is evident that Middle Eastern women have engaged in a critical quest for women’s rights; therefore, they have formed a formidable movement championing gender issues that impact women in Middle Eastern societies.

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