What is wrong with the majority of women in the Arab world? Why are they as cold as meat locker room to politics and public affairs? Is the cancer of de-politicization afflicting more women than men in this part of the evolving globe, and if so, why? If you believe that this subject is of importance to you, and how can you not, since women are the first line of defence against terrorism, extremism and indoctrination of the young, then consider the following facts, studies and observations that are based on common sense and everyday experiences.
"People will say with pride: 'I'm not interested with in politics.' They might just as well say, 'I'm not interested in my standard of living, my health, my education, my job, my security, my freedoms, my future or any future.'" Although Martha Gellhom's audience may not have been the Arab world, but her astute and sage observation in the Independent newspaper of London describes perfectly well the plight of women in that area.
Consider the following factors that are at play here as an illustrations and evidentiary proof of the existence of this disturbing phenomenon:
First, according to the United Nations' Arab Human Development Report 2005, there are in the Middle East more than 65 million adults who are illiterate, almost two-thirds of them are women. In fact, one in every two Arab women can neither read or write and some 12 million children still have no schooling at all. Can women engage themselves in politics if they can read a newspaper or understand a news report? Can they teach their children anything of significance if they are illiterate? The answer is obvious to all.
Second, there is the role of religion and women. At a December 2009 meeting of the Parliament of the World's Religions in Australia, The Elders group headed by Nelson Mendela and included Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, issued a statement calling on religious leaders to "change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions." The reasons are manifestly relevant when we consider the following points at issue and how they affect women's rights, participation and perceptions of themselves and the societies they live within: The Old Testament quotes St. Paul (1 Yimothy 2) as saying that women "must be silent." An Orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, "who has not made me a women." The Koran stipulates that a women shall inherit less than a man, and that a woman's testimony counts for half a man's. How can women feel and think that the public square and political debate is welcoming, open and fair for them when these contexts are at play there?
Third, cultural forces and the state of women. The perception of women as inferior human beings is prevalent throughout the Arab world. Arab popular culture is rich with proverbs that project an attitude akin to that which led to the burying of women and girls alive. In "Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World," see, www.mediterraneas.org, the author states: "In their various forms, these proverbs serve to underline the inferior social and moral position of women in society. Some go even further, considering a women to have only half a mind, half a creed, and half an inheritance." Plainly stated, in this cultural context, women's voices are drowned with derision, irrelevance and total disregard. Hence the absence of participation and involvement in the political arena.
Fourth, the Arab state structure, societal institutions, religious establishments, economic powerhouses, social, family, educational, political and all other important structures are controlled and dominated by male-made and male-governing entities. Cracking this deep "black hole" is virtually impossible given the enormity of the challenges.
Fifth, there is definitely a self-imposed apathy which also adds to the aforementioned factors. The fact remains, and it is evident from regular and consistent observations daily, that women view themselves as unwilling to enter politics for the fear of being labelled unfeminine and not adhering to the accepted social norms and traditions. This cycle of self-defeating and self-limitation adds oil to the fire and despair to the young generations who dream of something different and progressive in a region that Thomas Friedman incessantly writes about and describes as suffering from three crucial deficits: a) the freedom deficit, b) the education deficit, and c) the women's rights/liberation deficit.
What is to be done in order to affect change and open the doors for more women in the political process? Here are some remedies and ideas.
- Increased access to information technology is a must in the present age. A policy that allows adults and children to have access to the internet is helpful to open the windows of new ideas and the wind of change.
- Women need more role models to emulate the likes of: Hillary Clinton, Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Germany's Prime Minister, etc., in order to see clearly and directly the effects on the ground of their abilities and connections to the political process and to politics as the art and science of life itself in its highest forms.
- A wider and an all encompassing educational campaign is also of immense importance. It should start from elementary schools and reaching all the way to universities in all disciplines. That is how you try to change cultural attitudes, habits and undesirable traditions.
- Mentoring is also of enormous benefits as it offers guidance, experiences, hands-on practicality and a lasting legacy to measure and emulate.
Modernity cannot succeed or even materialize in a serious way in the wider Arab world without the active participation, emancipation, and yes, love of the political process and its civic role in creating a civic society worthy of present day realities and evolving discoveries of modern ideas and ideals.
Women, as well as men, should know that fear of politics is nothing more than a mental monster created for them, or they created, and a negative stream of consciousness they can easily dispose of. That is the only way to effect change and move forward in a stagnant and fossilized Arab world.