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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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On September 29, 2010, Jordanian journalist and activist Rana Husseini and Saudi social education activist Fawziah al-Hani joined the American Islamic Congress for a panel discussion atop Capitol Hill.  Bringing AIC’s new publication “Modern Narrative for Muslim Women in the Middle East” to life in front of lawmakers, Hill staffers, NGO executives and academics, Husseini and al-Hani shared both the progress made by women’s rights activists, and highlight areas where there remains much to be improved.  While many outside observers find Middle Eastern society to be a monolithic entity, Husseini and al-Hani showed how divergent the experiences of women in the Middle East can be.

Husseini, an internationally renowned crime reporter for the English-daily Jordan Times, spoke first to the harmful effects of generalizations made by many observers about Islamic society.  Drawing on her vast knowledge of issues related to honor killings, she noted that “honor killings are a global problem and they happen in all religions,” not just in Islamic culture.  As a member of the Jordanian press, Husseini spoke highly of the role of media in bringing awareness of women’s rights issues to the Jordanian people: “we see topics such as rape, molestation, and abuse reported almost every day” she says, which has helped mitigate the social stigma felt by victims of such crimes.

Husseini also credited the royal family for spearheading legal amendments designed to bring perpetrators of crimes against women to justice.  The first step to bringing about these reforms, she notes, was that the royal family “admitted we had a problem,” and got involved. “When a government acknowledges a problem,” she says, “then you can hold them accountable” when reforms prove to be insufficient or ineffective.  However, Husseini notes that government reforms are not enough to bring about an all-encompassing shift in attitudes towards women in Jordanian society.  She finds the remedy towards gender-based discrimination and abuses to be in improvements to Jordan’s education system.  “Education in our part of the world is not that great,” she laments.  “We’re trained to memorize, not to think critically.  We need to work on the teachers” to promote the critical thinking skills that in future generations will result in comprehensive social reform.

Al-Hani’s testimony bears witness to the radical differences in women’s experiences across national borders. Right away, al-Hani dismissed the idea that women’s right to drive should be the central issue of women’s rights campaigns in Saudi Arabia.  When it comes to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, “the whole world,” she says, “focuses on the driving issue,” but this disguises broader issues faced by women: “I don’t want to drive unless I’m treated as a human, and equal, independent and respected,” she proclaims.

Al-Hani finds that some of the worst discrimination faced by women continues to occur in government courts.  Women cannot appeal in court to defend themselves because there are no female judges.  Moreover, women’s identity cards hold so little value that she must bring two people from her family to prove her identity in court, in addition to four other people to prove that they are indeed her family.  In Saudi Arabia, political, legal, economic, and social status is the “biggest jail for women.”  Unfortunately, the positions Saudi Arabia occupies in the hearts and minds of Muslim around the world—as the birthplace and home of Islam—legitimizes many of the discriminatory provisions in Saudi law, and inspires others to replicate these models of gender relations in their own communities and nations.

Many women, she notes, do not even recognize their right to independent thought and actions.  At many women’s organization meetings, she finds that the women gathered “did not even talk about women’s rights at all.  They were just talking about social activities or child rearing.”  Frustrated by their lack of initiative, al-Hani asked the women whether or not it would be taboo to talk about their problems and “no one responded,” she laments.

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