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Mid East women fight uphill battle in patriarchal society

In the Middle East, representation of women in the public sphere is lower than in any other region. Women face enormous obstacles, ranging from sexual harassment and honor killings to ingrained patriarchal attitudes that belittle their intelligence and value. That is why it was so uplifting to watch the women of Tahrir Square take a leading role in the revolution of January 25

By Yael Lavie

About half a century ago Tammy Wynette, of American country music fame, had a hit single with a song called: Stand By Your Man.  Its lyrics are possibly one of the most terrifying examples of where western women were at the time, best illustrated by one of its verses (please read in thick American southern accent):

You’ll have bad times
And he’ll have good times
Doin’ things that you don’t understand

But if you love him
You’ll forgive him
Even though he’s hard to understand

The song begins with a promising recognition line: ‘Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman’ which none of us women around the world will disagree with, not since the song was written and to this day. It goes down hill from there to the ‘Just bear and grin it, hopefully barefoot in kitchen’ verses as the one above.

Indeed sometimes it’s hard to be a woman anywhere  – and most of the time it is very hard to be a woman in the Middle East. Here, standing by your man does not just mean baking brownies, mixing martinis and silently putting his ‘pain’ above yours while remembering to put on some lipstick at the same time.

Arab and Jewish women mark the 2009 International Women's Day in Tel Aviv (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The women of the Middle East live in a region that has spawned the history of patriarchal society, a modus operandi which in most nations across it is still strictly adhered to without any attempts to disguise it.

A laundry list to name a few:

Egypt: report by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights says 83 percent of Egyptian women are being exposed to harassment on the street and public transport almost daily. The highest statistic of sexual harassment in Middle Eastern countries.

Turkish Kurdistan: As Turkey tries to gain more favors with the EU in order to join it, it has been notified that if “honor killings” do not stop Turkey stands no chance of being considered as an EU member. Subsequently the Turkish government imposed stricter punishment on men accused of “honor killings” predominantly in the impoverished and oppressed Kurdish areas of Turkey. Subsequently again, the women and girls suspected of dishonoring their families, sometimes by merely being caught listening to the wrong music at the wrong place, have been faced with a new phenomenon called “honor suicides” in which the girl “suspected of dishonor” is locked in a room with a gun and rat poison, minus any food and forced to kill herself as to help the patriarchal traditional enablers avoid legal punishment.

Israel: The country that prides itself as the progressed democracy of the region is also the one that elected a president, Moshe Katzav, in spite of a fairly proven track record of systematically sexually harassing women and raping them for more than a decade – a fact known to his close circle and by assumption also his electors. Finally tried and convicted this year it is still a country that not only enabled him but also handed him a high powered ceremonial position.

As an overview, in a recent Freedom House organization study published by Sameena Nazir titled: Challenging Inequality: Obstacles and Opportunities Towards Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, the author details:

“The participation of women in political life in MENA countries is the lowest in the world. Women are not allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia. In some countries, women are barred from certain professions, and many women face social pressures to remain at home and eschew a career. Although some countries under review have enacted laws prohibiting gender discrimination, few offer women the practical mechanisms to bring complaints of bias”.

Rising up for equality in the Middle East is not going to be the same journey as the one for women of the western world. Indeed, It is hard to be a woman all over, sadly in this region rising up for your rights can cost you not only your reputation but your life.

That is why it was inspiring to see the women of Egypt march to the streets of Cairo on Tuesday, no doubt with new courage fueled by the recent revolution there. They returned to Tahrir square, where the revolution began and in which they played a pivotal role, for a “Million Woman March.” Their march was meant to remind Egypt that they should have a voice in its future – their rights granted upheld and preserved. You can rest assured their chants did not include anything remotely close to Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man –  and thank goodness that is so.

Yael Lavie is a writer, journalist and television producer living in Tel Aviv

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    1. Ben Israel

      Israel is hardly alone as a “advanced Western society” in having leaders who are extreme womanizers. The United States had John F Kennedy as President and he carried on in the White House itself. All the political establishment AND the media knew about it but they kept quiet about it.
      Later, there was Bill Clinton. Not only did the two groups I mentioned above know about, it came out in public during his first election campaign (the Gennifer Flowers) incident. Hillary and all the feminists backed him all the way.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben Israel- there is NO OTHER country in the western world that has political parties women aren’t allowed to run in or be elected to.
      There is also NO OTHER country in the western world where women are recommended by the high court to sit at the back of the bus.
      In fact, there is NO OTHER country in the western world in which international women’s day is celebrated in the local media by having readers vote for the top model of year, and where most of the readers have no idea that this isn’t really the idea behind that day.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Igor

      Ben- “extreme womanizer” and rapist? Some tiny little difference here.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Israel

      Yes, women have accused Clinton of forcing himself on them. Extreme womanizing leads to that sort of thing:


      But it is important to remember. Clinton is a “progressive”, unlike Katzav, so the media and the feminists will forgive him for it.

      How many Muslim women in Europe are active in politics?
      In Israel there are plenty of parties that do allow women to run for the Knesset. I suggest that you vote for one of those parties instead.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Well, you can google Hanife Karakus if you really didn’t get my point.
      (some of) Those women CHOSE not to participate- according to their customs or traditions. They aren’t FORCED by others to sit on the sidelines, even when they want to participate. Why should a woman that supports Shas’s agenda have to run for a different party? Where in the bible or shulchan aruch does it say that??
      How come hundreds of years ago RASHI’s daughters could do more than woman can today?? (including wear a talit by the way).
      There have been no new prophets and no new acts of god recently. the only thing there has been is a row of Israeli governments that have been allowing certain parties to get away with the abuse of women without ever stepping in to intervene because these govt. are paid to stay on the sidelines.
      THIS is the exact reason for why the situation in the orthodox community is deteriorating back to the dark ages, even though already a hundred years ago they were making progress in the direction of turning into thinking human beings, like their so-called-god had originally intended them to be.

      Reply to Comment
    6. BenIsLoco

      BEN lives in hs own version of reality. A cuckoo place, none the less his version of reality.

      God bless America is all I have to say when men prefer to stand up for men’s horrors in the mid-east and pretend there is even a remote course for comparison to America.

      Long live Golda Meir who responded to a rash of rapes and said to imprison the men and not let them out of their houses after dark instead of telling the women they shouldn’t leave the house after dark. While certainly she was not perfect either, let’s get real Ben, there is no greater nation in the world for women than America in spite all it’s faults and there is no worse stone age than the mid-east.

      Reply to Comment