Women's empowerment in the Middle East needs to start at the level of deeply rooted and harmful belief systems, writes Rana Askoul.
An ancient Chinese proverb says: “When sleeping women awake, mountains move.” Women in my region have been asleep for far too long, and our mountains of turmoil, conflict and regression have stayed firmly put.
A couple of months ago, I attended a local seminar on empowering women in the region. In one session, sophisticated economic concepts were discussed. There was a lot of talk about venture funds, angel investors, seed capital and micro loans. Another panel discussion looked at political empowerment of women, advocating for the necessity of female representation at the policy making and governing levels. Then there was the enduring debate on the over-due reforms that are necessary to grant women in the region more and equal rights.
Both local and international discussions and initiatives on empowerment of Middle Eastern women match in direction and flavor. The G8’s Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative has run since 2004. This annual dialogue between the governments and civil society representatives of the G8 and the BMENA countries often feature women empowerment as one of its main themes. The recommendations flowing from these dialogues always revolve around the same concepts: more economic and political empowerment and a push for further legal reforms.
As critical as these elements are, there is a far more debilitating factor that is primarily responsible for the status of women in the region. As a Middle Eastern woman myself, and the founder of an initiative that strives to empower women, this factor is ever-present. It manifests itself in the many discussions and debates I have with educated and relatively successful Middle Eastern women; like when I’m fiercely debating about domestic violence, pushing back against their own justifications of wife beating in our societies. A 2014 UNDP report points to the fact that 90% of Jordanian women justify wife beating. As shocking as this figure is, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to self-defeating and destructive views held by some women in the region vis-à-vis their own self-worth and rights.
One particular conversation rendered me speechless. In discussing the ablution practice in Islam, before performing formal prayer, one woman was detailing the list of acts that would make the ablution invalid. Once the ablution is invalid, it must be repeated before performing the next formal prayer. Common acts that make the ablution invalid include urination, sleeping or vomiting among others. This particular woman raised a question to the audience on whether the urination of a baby on the caretaker would render the caretaker’s ablution invalid. Swiftly came her response, enlightening the audience that only the urine of a baby girl would lead to invalidation of the caretaker’s ablution. Besides the complete fallacy of such a claim and its baseless status in Islam, what’s frightening is the underlying belief system of some Middle Eastern women about inherent flaws stemming from their very own gender.
What makes this a far more fundamental challenge is that these views and stands are not merely represented among illiterate women in the region reeling under the brutal grip of blind patriarchy. In the examples above, the women debating were educated and economically engaged.
So what’s the value of an economically empowered woman with a right to vote when her perception of her own value as a female, and that of fellow women, is held at such diminished levels? How can we aspire to construct self-sufficient environments and a culture of respect for human dignity when our own regard for our own dignity is held inferior?
Women are critical for the prosperity of economies and societies anywhere in the world, and more so in the Middle East. If the region is to ever stand a chance towards stability and prosperity, empowering women will have to be at the forefront of the development agenda. But this empowerment needs to start at the level of these deeply rooted and harmful belief systems.
Before we can venture into the economic and political empowerment realms, we need to expose our women to education systems and experiences that truly educate, enlighten and challenge. Initiatives that seek to reconstruct the understanding of basic values such as human rights, self respect and self worth are desperately needed at the grass-roots level, irrespective of gender, but more so for women. A focus on building curious minds and attitudes that embrace the diverse needs to precede ahead of Economics 101. We need to look at these fundamental challenges and imagine the world we can create if we transcend them. It would be one where mountains can be moved.