Women’s Rights in the Arab World: What We Can Learn from the Mahsa Amini Protests in Iran
By: Norah Soufraji/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Following the killing of Mahsa Amini (or Jîna her native Kurdish name) by Iranian “morality” police, chants of Women, Life, Freedom are being heard across the globe. Protestors have flooded the streets of Iran’s cities demanding drastic social and political change. Memories of the distinctly youth and female driven Arab Spring come to mind. Because of Iran’s proximity and interconnectedness with the Arab world, it is worth thinking about what we can learn from their recent protests. Arab women share many of the same struggles faced by their Iranian and Kurdish sisters who have been leading the anti-government protests over the past several weeks.
The issue of mandatory hijab has been at the center of women’s protests in Iran. However, unlike in Iran and also Afghanistan, women in all 22 Arab countries are not required to wear hijab in public. Saudi Arabia was the last Arab country to require mandatory hijab but these laws were repealed in 2018 as part of a string of reforms from Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. However, some Gulf states do require “decent and respectful attire”, which is not always explicitly defined. Unofficial societal pressure to wear hijab can be encountered throughout the Arab world to varied degrees.
Country of origin, region, city, neighborhood, or individual family views are all factors which affect the extent to which Arab Muslim women face societal pressure to wear hijab. According to civil laws and many religious interpretations, hijab is a woman’s personal choice. Whether or not a woman chooses to be veiled, can unfairly lead to preconceived notions about her character, religiosity, morality, and in some cases even political affiliations. There is still room for improvement in regards to Arab societies dictating whether a woman should or should not wear hijab.
Equality Under the Law?
Another cause for concern shared by Iranian and Arab women is lack of equality in the eyes of the law. This can be seen in regards to restrictions on women’s movement and mobility, unequal rights in marriage and divorce, issues relating to women’s rights to guardianship over their children.
The severity of these laws varies on a case by case basis depending on the specific country in question.
In Iran, women must obtain permission from male guardians in order to exit the country. This policy is also written into law in countries such as Qatar and Iraq where women are required to obtain written permission from their male legal guardian in order to leave the country even if the woman is no longer a minor. If a woman is married, she must obtain permission from her husband or father-in-law. Lack of freedom of movement infantilizes women and for those whose male sponsors are unable or unwilling to give permission, women are prevented from pursuing opportunities for personal development and enjoyment. In some cases this can also stand in the way of escaping situations of abuse.
In the areas of divorce, there is great disparity between the rights given to men and women. Tunisia is the only Arab country which provides complete equal access to divorce for both men and women. Jordan and Morocco allow for women to pursue divorce due to “irreconcilable differences”. Like Iran, most other Arab countries give men complete unilateral right to divorce while women must prove cause for divorce such as infidelity or abuse. The burden of proof is often difficult to substantiate in court and can drag out divorce proceedings sometimes indefinitely if the husband does not agree to grant the divorce.
Another legal issue which Iranian and Arab women face is with regards to passing their citizenship to their children. Citizenship is often exclusively passed through the father regardless of whether or not the child was born in the specific country in question. This is true for Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza.
Financial independence is often a marker of women’s upward mobility and empowerment in society. In Iran and several Arab countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, and Palestine, women make up the majority of university attendees. Furthermore, in the MENA women comprise nearly half, and sometimes more, of STEM students. This is often at higher rates than their U.S. and European counterparts.
However, despite becoming increasingly more educated, women make up just a small fraction of the workforce after graduation.
The combined average percentage of women in the workforce in the MENA region is currently only at 19.7 percent according to 2021 figures from the World Bank. In Iran it is 17.3 percent. The highest percentage Arab country is Libya at 35.8 percent while the lowest is Yemen at 8.1 percent.
Whilst women’s access to the labor market can be related to several cultural and economic factors, it does speak to a larger issue of the nature of traditional prescribed roles of women. These prescribed roles stand in the way of closing the gap on true gender equality. We find that women who are employed and in control of their finances are less likely to stay in situations of abuse.
Violence Against Women
Rates of femicide and domestic violence is an issue which transcends national boundaries. According to Human Rights Watch, in Iran there is currently no law which prevents domestic abuse and protects survivors. Although a draft bill was introduced in order to combat domestic violence on Jan 3, 2021, the bill is yet to pass under the administration of Ebrahim Raisi. This bill also lacks provisions for criminalizing marital rape and child marriage.
According to Amnesty International, gender based violence and “honor” killings are a primary area of concern in the MENA region. In recent years many Arab countries have repealed laws which allow rapists to avoid prosecution by being allowed to marry their victim. However, such laws continue to be on the books in a number of countries. Since the pandemic, countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt have seen a marked rise in femicides.
Women, Life, Freedom
It comes as little surprise that Arabs and particularly Arab women have showed their solidarity with women’s protests and uprising in Iran.
In Tunisia, home of the first Arab female prime minister, Najla Bouden, and one of the more successful stories in the ill-fated Arab Spring, women were seen chanting “Women, Life, Freedom!” and protested by cutting their hair in solidarity for the Iranian women protesting mandatory hijab.
In Beirut, women from all parts of Lebanon came together in support of Iranian women chanting phrases such as “Iran’s Uprising is All Women’s Uprising”, “Our bodies; Our choice”.
The Iranian protests condemning the killing of Mahsa Amini speak to a larger issues of state violence and women’s oppression in the region and throughout the world. Women are an instrumental part of dismantling oppressive regimes and no true revolution for freedom can take place without the participation of women. We must stand in solidarity with the women of Iran and learn from their courageous struggles to achieve equality, democracy, and freedom. As Egyptian feminist Nawal Al-Saadawi once wrote,
“Women are half the society. You cannot have a revolution without women. You cannot have democracy without women. You cannot have equality without women. You can’t have anything without women.”
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