The Arab Woman You Don’t See – Part 2
By Queen Noor of Jordan
Women’s new empowerment will not be suppressed easily, however. So far, these have not been the traditional stories about women — especially Muslim women — that tend to show up on the news. Many do not imagine Arab and Muslim women have much in common with their counterparts in the West because of the selective, damaging and stereotypical images that the media commonly present. When I married King Hussein in 1978, reporters were constantly asking me how a progressive, educated, American woman could go live in such a repressive culture.
Those reporters did not know the Arab women I did — the doctors, lawyers, professors and entrepreneurs — many of whom became friends and advisers as I set my priorities for public service. The dedication and ambition of the increasing numbers of such women gives great cause for optimism about their prospects for shaping the future of the region. Providing these women with opportunities for partnering with international institutions and networks can enhance that transformative potential both within their own societies and for the benefit of our larger world.
Too many in the Western world still equate the images and soundbites describing women under Taliban and restrictive rule in other countries with the teachings of our faith and conditions throughout the Muslim world. Many worry that greater democracy in the region will give reign to more restrictive interpretations of Islam and a rollback of women’s rights. I think, however, that there is reason for hope for women within our faith itself.
Most westerners — and even some in our region — do not recognize that women were granted political, economic, legal and social rights by Islam in the 7th century — rights then unheard of in the West; rights that women were still struggling for in the 20th century in so many parts of the world — such as the equal right to education, to own and inherit property, to conduct business, to participate in decision making, to be elected to office and not be coerced into marriage. The oppression of women in parts of the Muslim world is not because of Islam, but contrary to it.
Male and female equality is enshrined in numerous places in Islamic scripture, such as the Quranic verse: “I waste not the labor of any that labors among you, be you male or female — the one of you is as the other.” And from the later teachings: “For the white to lord it over the black, the Arab over the non-Arab, the rich over the poor, the strong over the weak or men over women is out of place and wrong.” The true application of fundamental Islamic principles can actually empower women to play a crucial role in the process of peaceful change.
As popular demands progress to political and social transition in the MENA region, it is of critical importance that the women who have played such an important role not be relegated to secondary status yet again. They must not simply be forced to exchange an old for a new set of oppressions. Any reforms must continue the progress toward full human rights for women that our region so desperately needs, not only for the women’s sake. It is vital that MENA countries more urgently recognize that the status of women is the key determinant to the development of their societies. In turn, the international community can play a critical role in helping to build bridges that can further integrate women both locally and globally.
It is fitting that in Egypt, where Arab feminists first made their voices heard, women have played such an integral role, and have set something of a precedent, by courageously fighting for their unequivocal rights.
On this anniversary of International Women’s Day, almost a century since those Arab feminists raised their voices, it is time for women everywhere to take their proper place beside men as equal parents of new societies born in democracy and justice.
* Please send me your thoughts about power. Also stories of your own empowerment. When shared, these ideas and examples are extremely inspiring to others. Thanks.
The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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