–By:Alexandra Kinias —
Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world was ruled by a woman. Megawati Sukarnoputri served as President of Indonesia in 2001. Bangladesh, the third populace Muslim country, had been ruled as of 2016, for the past 25 years by women; Khaleda Zia and Sheikha Hassina Wajed, respectively, were both elected as prime ministers.
The list of Muslim countries that were ruled by women includes Pakistan, Turkey, Senegal, Kyrgyzstan and Mali. Kosovo and Mauritius have female presidents. In Afghanistan, two female candidates ran for president against Hamid Karzai. Out of these eleven Muslim countries, none is an Arab, not even Egypt, the birthplace of Huda Sharawy, leader of the Egyptian suffragette movement and head of the Arab Women Union that influenced women movements across the Middle East. That raises the question of whether it is Islam or tribal culture that is hindering women’s advancement in the Middle East.
Even though gender equality is stated in the Egyptian constitution, women still can’t run for presidency or be appointed as prime ministers because parallel to the civil law in Egypt, the sharia (Islamic law) has the final word in deciding matters concerning women.
Because of the non-uniformity of Islam’s interpretations and implementations, women’s leadership is a debatable issue among religious scholars, depending where the religion is practiced. While the restriction on women’s leadership in many countries in Asia is limited to spiritual leadership (leading Muslims in prayers), it also includes political leadership in countries influenced by the tribal culture of Arabia. So not only women in Egypt and other Arab countries with Muslim majorities can’t run for presidency, but also in Lebanon, the only Arab country where only Christians can become presidents, no woman emerged as a political leader.
Male dominance is deeply engrained in tribal culture and women oppression existed in societies that predated Islam. Since the realization that girls were a profitable commodity, women became bargaining chips for tribal negotiations and their rape and enslavement motivated and attracted warriors to the battlefields. This culture perpetuated over the centuries and mutated through the various interpretations of the Quran to become the ideology that governs the lives of billions.
It is unrealistic though to throw the blame of women’s oppression entirely on this culture. Misogyny is a global social ailment and is practiced in societies where women’s rights are most advanced. However, as opposed to Muslim societies where misogyny is institutionalized, in western societies; laws that were drafted after fierce battles by women’s movements ensure gender equality before the law and criminalize the abuses against women. And while law enforcement turns a blind eye against domestic violence in the Middle East, the Islamic government of Indonesia is exerting extreme efforts to combat it by encouraging women to report such incidents. In Pakistan, however, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) drafted a bill in May 2016 recommending that men beat their wives to keep them in line. This bill came in response to a proposed law that would make it easier for women to report domestic violence. The CII opposed the law, and declared it un-Islamic.
The tribal culture of Arabia that hijacked Islam left its fingerprints in countries thousands of miles away from its birthplace and molded the lives of its followers across the globe into its tribalization form. In these societies religious scholars play the role of tribal leaders, drafting and supervising laws that guarantee women’s oppression.
And while the laws in the west enforce the civility of the nations, in spite of the new culture that travels with the immigrants under the cover of Islam, this nomadic culture is fragmenting identities of the countries it dominates. Today, the Egyptian identity that has thrived and survived over the millennia is standing at crossroads. It has been overshadowed by the tribal culture imported from behind the sand dunes of Arabia and affecting both Christians and Muslims alike, and especially women.
In Egypt, the women’s movement that reached its peak in the mid-fifties lost its momentum and witnessed a reversal over the past three decades with the surging influence of conservatism. In less than a year after Islamist Morsi came to power, the parliament had already proposed laws to reverse the ban on FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), to drop the age of marriage for girls below 16, and to abolish the law that gave women the right to divorce, thus ensuring women’s oppression. Luckily the Islamist parliament was dissolved before these laws were drafted.
The threat by the Muslim Brotherhood galvanized millions of women to take the streets side by side men to topple the theocratic regime. Women realized their power and are demanding more rights. The new administration has also recognized their power and is bestowing them with more privileges. For the first time in the history of modern Egypt, ninety two women were sworn in as parliament members, eighty four of whom were freely elected. The efforts to empower women are evident. While empowering campaigns are launched across the country, more women are taking leading positions in the government and more of them are choosing to remove the veil.
The road is long and bumpy. The conservative voices are clashing with the civil onse empowering women, to maintain their grip and control over them. The next few years are crucial in determining the path to where both women and the country are heading. The ultimate proof for the civility of Egypt is by appointing a female prime minister or allowing women to freely run in the presidential race. Until then, women empowerment will remain an unfinished business.