I don’t know if the TV network, USA, has a department that works on gender equity or gender representation. It is not a women’s network or a network created for women or to support women’s issues. Yet, time and time again, I am always impressed with the relatively higher representation of women in strong roles compared to other networks. I’m thinking of shows like “The Closer,” “Fairly Legal” and “Covert Affairs.” And as I was watching a newer legal suspense show called “Suits,” I was again amazed by the presence of a Black female partner at the firm. And she is as strong a character as they come. Thinking of her, though, I began to reflect on women and the state of women in the world today. I have (my small sub-team has) an intern for the summer. She’s a female final year undergraduate from Egypt and I asked her about the state of women’s freedom across the Middle Eastern world. I shared with her an article, Why Do They Hate Us, and we’ve begun a discussion about how free women are in these countries.
I’m going to try to stray from opinion and just deal with facts for the moment. Let’s start in Egypt. “More than 90% of ever-married women in Egypt” have had their genitals cut out for the sake of modesty according to this article. Sometimes Egyptian women are subject to virginity tests because they speak out against injustice. An article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by a husband with “good intentions” then no punitive damages can be obtained by the woman. Throughout the Middle East, there are countries where women but me covered up, denied the right to drive, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry or divorce without a male guardian’s permission.
There is no Arab country in the top 100 of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. So even though Saudi Arabia and Yemen are very far apart in GDP they are only 4 places apart in the Gender Gap Report (131st [Saudi Arabia] and 135th [Yemen last out of 135 ranked countries]). Morocco, considered to have “progressive” family law, ranks 129th and in 2010 saw over 41,000 girls under the age of 18 married, according to the Morocco’s Ministry of Justice.
Yemen is the lowest ranked in the report, and there 55% of women are illiterate, 79% don’t participate in the work force, and only one member of the 301-member Parliament is female. This article pointed out that, at least in Yemen, women can drive. In Saudi, child marriage is practiced and even though women outnumber men in university, these educated women must watch men far less qualified control most aspects of their lives.
I have to admit. I was asked to apply for a professorship job in Saudi Arabia while I was in South Africa, and I was a bit frightened. I have lived in paternalistic societies and cultures all my life; I’ve lived in countries where the president has multiple wives like my grandfather; I’ve lived in places with no running water or electricity; I’ve stayed in places where I have to check my shoes for scorpions before putting them on. I lived in severe heat without air conditioning and cold without central heating. But I was scared to go to Saudi Arabia because I felt the culture was too different, too strict for me to feel free. So I never applied for the job in the country where a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male; she needed a royal pardon. I wasn’t sure I could go to a country where a woman who broke the ban on female driving was subject to 10 whippings and also required a royal pardon, where women can’t vote or run in elections. In 2010 Newsweek hailed former King Abdullah as one of the top 11 most respected world leaders. Some have considered it “progress” that a royal decree promises to enfranchise women for local elections in 2015.
When Egypt banned the practice of female circumcision in 2008, some Muslim Brotherhood legislators opposed the law. One person who still opposes it is female parliamentarian Azza al-Garf. What’s interesting is that some people support female circumcision on the grounds of modesty and curbing female desires. What you often find, in my experience, is a problem with male desires.
While in Delhi I was amazed that there were female-only cars on the subway. I asked people why that was. I honestly could not figure out the reason. I was told that “sometimes men will grab and hurt women or molest and abuse women. It’s sad but true that it happens. Female-only cars protect women from such problems in such hugely crowded cities.” Egypt also has women-only cars. Saudi Arabia has family-only malls which bar single men from entry unless they have the required female escort. The 2008 Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights survey reported that more than 80% of Egyptian women said they’d experienced sexual harassment and more than 60% of men admitted to harassing women.
I read on that in 2002, 15 girls died in a school fire in Mecca simply due to the fact that the “morality police” precluded them from fleeing the building because they were not wearing the religious headscarves and cloaks required in public (this reminds me of a famous question of whether the law was made for man or man for the law). In Kuwait, four women finally made it into parliament but two didn’t cover up. They were hounded and people demanded they wear hijabs. When the parliament was dissolved in December 2011, one parliamentarian demanded that the new house discuss a proposed decent attire law. In Tunisia in 1956, the Personal Status Code declared principle equality between men and women. However, there still have been assaults and intimidation by Islamists for not wearing hijabs. Under Qaddafi in Libya, women who survived sexual assault or were suspected of moral crimes were put in social rehabilitation centers which were like prisons from which freedom only came if a man agreed to marry you or your family took you back. After the revolution, the first thing the head of the new interim government, Mustafa Jalil, agreed to do was lift the ban on polygamy. In Egypt, after Mubarak stepped down and the military cleared Tahrir Square detaining male and female activists, the military used virginity test for the female activists (the doctor performing this was sued and acquitted in March 2012). In the fall of 20122, one of Egypt’s parties, the Salafi Nour Party, ran a flower in place of each female candidate.
I discussed these issues at length with our intern. She said that these are all exaggerated. After talking to her more, I realized that she didn’t dispute any of the facts, but she felt it created a distorted picture. And I can understand that. Yes, there are female circumcision, but that tends to happen more in rural areas and not in urban areas in Egypt, and it is waning (thank goodness for some progress). My intern focuses on the progress, the article focused on lack of expected progress or how far behind we are. But the interesting perspective of the article is not just that there is a lack of freedom and misogyny in governmental positions, but that this misogyny pervades among men throughout society so that women will never be free from oppression until you stop the oppressors in homes. My intern felt that women are not equal to men but that it wasn’t due to misogyny at all. I talked to her about misogyny in the UK and the US, that sometimes it’s not obvious or even conscious but can be a subconscious sexism or elitism or bigotry. I talked about the mysterious phenomenon of women and men in the UK who work in the same position but earn different salaries. No one knows how it directly happens. No hiring manager will tell you that he purposely offers a lower salary to women, but there is some pervading mechanism that causes this to happen and it is taking a long time to fall out of the system. We talked of music and entertainment that is supported by the masses but wholeheartedly embraces objectification of women. She understood all these things but has never felt hated in Egypt as a woman. I’m thankful for that. I just wasn’t sure that the writer of the article meant a conscious hatred.
I know that I benefit greatly from male privilege whether consciously or subconsciously (I’m sure there are times when I’m unaware or don’t think about it), but I try to remember that and to know that I carry biases and perspectives that cause me to inadvertently view women and men differently in cases where I shouldn’t (women and men are different and it’s ok to realise that; it’s wrong to say that difference applies to everything and in all context such as cognitive ability). But I do like what the article was pointing to—the fact that at the heart it’s not an institutional problem or a governmental problem. In reality it may not even be a societal problem, but it is one that must be solved at the level of each individual person because even in a society in which “women are free” you can have instances of people who think act differently and hate women in the home or abuse women. Even in such countries, if they exist, something must be worked out on the level of the individual. And when this crucial work is neglected, regardless of grand institutions and laws and governments, we are doomed to repeat the same failures again when new people are born into this world without having done the necessary head and heart homework to actively engage in a love community.