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

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By Dorothy Smith

Originally Published by the Center for Private Enterprise, june 30, 2011

Though I am a woman, I have never focused in depth on women’s issues. Perhaps it was a counter-feminist within me that thought, “If we talk about women’s issues we’re perpetuating a difference between men and women. Or maybe it’s just that as a researcher on the Middle East, I steered clear of the ubiquitous discourse on the “Arab woman.” But a few recent events and stories have begun to chip away at this shell and spark in me a genuine interest in women’s political and economic empowerment.

The first was my participation in CIPE’s conference Democracy that Delivers for Women. In case you missed it, Stephanie Foster has a nice recap at the Huffington Post. Over the course of two days, women from across sectors and different countries spoke about education, entrepreneurship, technology, and more – and their relationship to women’s empowerment. But I’m not one for long, drawn out, up-in-the-clouds debates. So I was happy to hear examples of programs that have made it easier for women to start and maintain their own businesses, and to learn how financial independence has translated into political empowerment and support for democracy.

Soon after that, I was performing some background research on women and entrepreneurship, ahead of the Business Women Forum’s annual conference in the West Bank at which CIPE’s Chair Karen Kerrigan, Regional Director Abdulwahab Alkebsi, and Program Officer Amy Thornberry are presenting and facilitating discussions.

A quick internet search on women and business in Palestine returned this World Bank statistic: in the West Bank and Gaza women with a college degree or above account for 82 percent of unemployed women, compared to only 12 percent for men.

Why is that? What factors inhibit women working in Palestine, and how can these hurdles be removed? I’m sure this will be a central point of discussion at the conference.

Next, I read an article that describes how, while facing greater obstacles to doing business in the Middle East, women are slowly knocking down barriers to finance. The story gives excellent examples of how regulations and cultural characteristics have restricted women’s entry into the workforce. For instance, a woman entrepreneur in Saudi Arabia is likely to have difficulty registering her business because one cannot legally run a business from a home address. But as the article relates, more women becoming proactive: building their own investment vehicles, establishing their own financial firms, and creating outlets for their entrepreneurial spirit.

So women face all the same barriers to doing business as men, but these barriers disproportionally affect women because they are compounded by social and cultural norms, and in many cases unique legal environments.

I’m sliding, a bit reluctantly, down the path of women’s issues, and I’m actually eager to learn more about the unique circumstances that create disincentives for women to become entrepreneurs and work in the private sector, and how women and men are blazing paths to equal economic and political empowerment.



Al Masr al Youm, June 30, 2011

On Thursday, the 25 January Revolutionary Youth Coalition called for a massive protest in Tahrir Square on 8 July. Calling it the “Friday of Retribution”, the coalition hopes to put pressure on officials to speed up the trials of those accused of killing protesters during the revolution.

The coalition called on people to stay in Tahrir Square until officials meet their demands, including the immediate dismissal of Interior Ministry leaders involved in corruption cases and accused of oppression, particularly the directors of public security and central security.

In a statement, the coalition called for suspending any officers accused of harming protesters pending investigations, tracking all murderers and bringing them to a fair and speedy trial, opening trials of former regime stalwarts to the public, including that of former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and his assistants, and compensating people injured during the revolution as well as the families of the deceased.

They said instability in Egypt is due to the absence of political will to purge state institutions from National Democratic Party remnants and corrupt members, especially in the Interior Ministry.

They criticized the slow pace of trials and the decision to limit Prime Minister Essam Sharaf by not allowing him to choose his assistants and staff. Reliable sources told Al-Masry Al-Youm on Tuesday that the ruling military council refused Sharaf’s request to dismiss seven ministers.


Check out Sayidaty Magazine’s feature on AIC’s Dalia Ziada! For a closer look at the article, click on each photo below.








Second Update on Manal Al Sherif Manal Al Sherif, according to first reports of her sentence, was supposed to be released today. The local media has taken an official stance on Manal’s case. While columnists in these very same schizophrenic newspapers have taken the opposite position by supporting Manal and advocating lifting the ban on women driving. In one estimate, there were over 60 columns supporting Manal on Tuesday and Wednesday. Meanwhile the official stance is that Mana … Read More

via Saudiwoman's Weblog

originally published on

WASHINGTON – May 19, 2011 – Zainab Al-Suwaij, Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC), attended President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East today at the State Department.

Al-Suwaij is an Iraq native who participated in the 1991 uprising that for one week liberated 15 Iraqi provinces. Following the September 11 attacks, she co-founded AIC to promote responsible leadership for the Muslim-American community. She has spent the last six years leading nonviolent training programs in the Middle East, including publishing an Arabic comic book on Martin Luther King.

Al-Suwaij offered the following statement on the President’s speech:

“The freedom ride that began 65 years ago when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus has now come to the Middle East. President Obama correctly observed that through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the Middle East have ‘achieved in six months more than terrorists have in decades.’

“The people of the region have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to nonviolence in the face of deadly assaults by illegitimate rulers. Their courage should dispel stereotypes that for too long dismissed the Middle East’s potential for liberal reform.

“America’s pragmatic policy of the past six decades – banking on dictators – is now revealed as a failed long-term investment strategy. It ignored the forgotten yet central Middle East conflict – between the people of the region and their repressive rulers – which has now exploded onto our TV screens and Twitter feeds.

“Economic development alone cannot address the historic challenge before us, and simply holding elections is a recipe for disaster. To achieve lasting liberty and stability, America needs to take decisive action to nurture civic institutions that respect individual rights. We help build open societies by supporting unconditionally people who share these values.

“We at AIC are already working to translate the values the President expressed into tangible programs: via the ‘Know Your Rights’ education effort in Egypt, the ‘Ambassadors of Peace’ initiative in Iraq, and contests on liberty for young essayists and filmmakers across the region. As Muslim-Americans, we have unique contributions to make during this historic time.”

AIC is a civil-rights organization promoting tolerance and the exchange of ideas among Muslims and between other peoples. With the motto “passionate about moderation,” the organization has offices in Washington, Boston, Egypt, and Iraq.

مواطنات يطالبن بالمشاركة في الانتخابات البلدية

via صحيفة عكاظ – مواطنات يطالبن بالمشاركة في الانتخابات البلدية.

NPR recently conducted several interviews with Muslim women of various ethnicities about “what it means to wear the headscarf, and why they decided to stop wearing it in public.”  You can check out the article below, and listen to NPR’s interviews at their website.

Originally Published on NPR, April 21, 2011

For centuries, Islamic scholars have said that Muslim women must cover their hair. But many Muslim women don’t.

There are about 1 million Muslim women in America; 43 percent of them wear headscarves all the time, according to the Pew Research Center. About 48 percent — or half a million women — don’t cover their hair, the survey found.

The split between women who’ve covered and women who’ve never done so has existed for decades. But now a generation of women is taking off the headscarf, or hijab.

Although the scarf is a public, sometimes even political symbol, women say the choice to unveil is highly private, emotional and religious.

‘A Huge Responsibility’

Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, 27, grew up attending an Islamic school in Bridgeview, Ill., a tiny Arab enclave on Chicago’s southwest side. It’s a place where most Muslim women wear the hijab.

For 14 years, Abdelnabi was one of them. But after she graduated from college, she took off her hijab. Now, she has sideswept bangs, the kind that hide part of her face. She’s quiet, reflective and sometimes shy.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to walk into a room and be unnoticed,” Abdelnabi says. “When you wear hijab and you walk into a room, everyone notices you; everyone stares at you; everyone makes assumptions about you.”

“When you put the scarf on, you have to understand that you are representing a community,” Abdelnabi says. “And that is huge. That’s a huge responsibility. And I don’t know if it’s for everyone.”

Talking over falafel at her favorite restaurant, Abdelnabi explains why she stopped wearing the hijab.

She says that Islam teaches modesty — but wearing the hijab is taking it a step too far.

“I’ve done my research, and I don’t feel its foundation is from Islam,” she says. “I think it comes from Arab culture.”

The headscarf can be a divisive issue among Muslims.

Abdelnabi describes the response some people have to that idea: “It’s like, ‘How dare you question God’s will. How dare you?’ ” she says.

And in a tight-knit Muslim community like Bridgeview, Abdlenabi worries about offending fellow Muslims with her opinions — so during most discussions about hijab, she tends to keep silent.

“I sometimes feel like talking about hijab is like talking about abortion in mid-America,” she says.

Looking For A Change

Another woman in Bridgeview, Leen Jaber, 29, says that a few years ago, she also decided to unveil.

“I started wearing hijab at the age of 14,” she says.

Jaber says she wore the scarf for 12 years. But as her marriage started to fall apart, she took it off.

“I was going through a lot of difficult things. Perhaps I thought taking it off would just be one less thing to worry about,” she says.

“I never took it off saying, like, it was the right decision. I just took it off because I wanted to do it. I wanted to see if my life would be different — if I would feel any better about the problems that I was going through.”

But Jaber’s problems didn’t go away — in fact, they got worse. She lost her job, got divorced and moved in with her parents. That got her thinking more about God, and spirituality. One year and eight months later, Jaber put the scarf back on.

“It was a very different process than I had gone through when I was 14,” she says. “When I was 14, it was like well, everybody’s wearing it.”

Jaber is outgoing and chatty. She writes poetry, blogs and dreams of the day she’ll be onAmerican Idol.

She says it’s easy for some women to feel like the headscarf strips them of their individuality and turns them into a spokeswoman for the faith.

To avoid that, Jaber says, she is making sure other parts of her personality — like her singing — shine through.

Wearing The Scarf, Post-Sept. 11

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are a persistent theme in conversations about how to approach a Muslim tradition in modern America.

For some women, that tragedy had absolutely no effect on their decision to uncover. But for others, it was huge. They spoke of two distinct phases in their hijab life: pre-Sept.11 and post-Sept. 11.

Some of them said the terrorist attacks initially strengthened their desire to wear the hijab. They became diplomats for Islam; they said they wanted to represent a positive Muslim image, to counter that of al-Qaida.

But in the years that followed, that fervor waned, as anti-Muslim zeal grew.

And for some women, the scarf became a heavy burden to carry — one that affected the way strangers perceived them, the way colleagues treated them, and even the way fellow Muslims expected them to behave.

For others, the decision to remove their headscarf simply came down to a choice, as they grew older.

An Evolving Identity

Nadia Shoeb’s family is from India. Her mother never wore a hijab. Her grandmother never wore a hijab. But Shoeb put one on when she was 17.

Shoeb, now 31, reads from a journal she kept back then:

“Never could I have imagined when I put it on, that five years later, on a day just as random as the day I put it on, I would take it off.”

Eight years later, she still remembers that day clearly.

“That feeling is like, ‘I am going out without a shirt on’ — that sense of feeling exposed,” Shoeb says.

“I had really long hair, and I actually tucked it into my sweater, because I was feeling so embarrassed that, ‘Oh my God, I’m showing my hair — am I being immodest somehow?’ ”

“So that first day was quite difficult, just taking it off,” Shoeb says, “even though I looked like every girl on the street.”

America’s Religious Landscape

Shoeb’s decision was as much about religion as it was about her evolving feminine and American identity. She spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia, where she wore shorts.

After arriving in the United States as a teenager, she decided to cover, and eventually uncover, her hair. And Shoeb says she doesn’t find that surprising.

“The religious landscape of America is one in which — it’s a very deeply religious nation, but at the same time, it’s so fluid,” she says. “You know, people are born into one faith, and then they might still be Christian — but become of a different sect, or a different church.”

The phenomenon of veiling and unveiling — and even re-veiling — is part of that same tradition, Shoeb says.

“We might think that this is something particular to Muslim-Americans,” she says, “when in fact, that’s the story of our religious landscape in America.”

Shoeb has no intention of putting the scarf back on. But she also says she wouldn’t be the person she is today if she had never worn it in the first place.