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Women In Middle-East Oppressed? Think Again!

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By Misna Sameer:

Women in Middle East – Poor oppressed souls forced to cover themselves from head to toe by their polygamous husbands who consider them like a commodity. This is the kind of image that pops into a lot of people’s minds when they think of women in Middle East. Having lived most of my life in a tiny Middle Eastern country, Qatar, I am taken aback by the kind of preconceived wrong notions that exists among my friends in India. I don’t really blame them because this is the kind of image the world sees as a result of western media propaganda. They project the lives of a few women in some of the Arab society and generalise it for every woman living in the Middle East. As a person who has lived among these women, I can say that these women not only have all their rights, but in true sense, are the most empowered women in the world.

Women voluntarily wearing designer abayas (long over garment, essentially a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Islamic world) with the latest mobile phones in hand and a high-end designer bag in the other, hanging out in the malls, is a common sight in middle-eastern countries lie UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. With an exception of Saudi Arabia, these women drive around in their own cars. They holiday abroad with friends or husband. In short they live a plush and blissful life like any other independent woman.

One of the most striking misconceptions about Arab women is that they are less educated than men. This is not true, at least not in Qatar, where Qatari female graduates from Qatar University actually outnumber their male counterparts. Women education is given utmost importance with gender segregated public education with world-class amenities. The state also provides scholarships and grants to good students to pursue higher degrees from the west. The share of women work force is rapidly increasing day by day where they are treated at par with their male counterparts. Today, the Arab women have more and more opportunities to excel in education and earn scholarly achievements. Women hogging the limelight as leaders the field of politics, education and business are steering the Arab society and bridging the gap between tradition and modernization.

At the personal front, an Arab woman is not the damsel who is chained to an arranged marriage and forced to obey her father and now her husband. Unknown to many, under Islamic law, women also have the right to divorce (Khul). Women in these countries, exercise this right to escape bad marriages. It may be noted that a recent international study identified Qatar as the country with the 12th highest divorce rate in the world. According to 2009 statistics, the country has 0.97 divorces per thousand people. Many of these are initiated by women who are unhappy with their marriage, thus, these countries give their women the right to break free from an unhappy marriage with dignity.

No woman will have to put up with the whim and fancies of her husband because she can easily exercise her right to free herself from it. Another aspect of a marriage is that in these countries as per the Islamic law- the bride groom is supposed to pay a dowry (Mahr) to the bride at the time of marriage. This practice in its very essence upholds woman empowerment.

Middle-eastern countries are one of the safest havens for women in the world. Sexual harassment and rape are very rare among the nationals. In case of eve-teasing and any kind of sexual harassment, women are given the benefit of doubt and the offender is locked up, heavily penalised and deported back to his home country if he’s an immigrant worker. At any public places, women are always given preferential treatment out of respect. If you’re a woman standing in a queue, the men give you way. I have never had to wait for my turn at any counter in Qatar because men always step back to give way to women. I have never witnessed or heard of this kind of treatment of women anywhere else in the world. All the women out there, nowhere else in the world can you walk or drive alone past midnight without any fear like you can do in these countries.

In countries like UAE, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait or Bahrain, the head cover (Hijab) or the face veil (Niqab) is not compulsory by law. The women in these countries happily wear it out of their own free will as a sign of modesty and adherence to religious beliefs. Another social norm here is polygamy, though the young generation is increasingly moving towards monogamy. Polygamy is acceptable by the law and the society in the Arab world. As an Indian, it’s quite surprising to me that most of the times these women have no issues with their husbands marrying again. One of my mother’s Arab colleague said that as long as her husband provided well for her kids and herself and maintained equality between all the wives, she was fine with her husband marrying again. So when these women accept polygamy happily, who are we to point a finger at the society and its age-old practices? At least in this case, the other woman is the man’s legitimate wife.

The Middle-eastern women are happy with their own lives and live with pride and dignity. So the world better not point a finger at the Arab society and governments. Let us all stop sympathising and showing pity for with the women, because they are exercising their rights and much more.

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  1. Anonna Dutt

    I have friends and family living in middle eastern countries thus I do not believe at all that the women there are damsels who have to take care of the wishes of the father and the husband but there are certain things that I would like to contradict…. First, in a case of harassment why should the women be given the benefit of doubt, isn’t that unfair for the men. Second, I would like to be treated as an equal so I would gladly stand in a queue and get my work done. I have lived in Allahabad (India) and men have given me the opportunity to pass the queue, I did not like it a bit, trust me. Third, If I love a person I would want him to love me and only me so it is good that we have a law regarding monogamy so that we can lawfully ask for our right to be a wife or be divorced!

  2. Misna Sameer

    Hey Anonna,

    1)I was just stating a fact about how women are empowered in these countries.Yes,it could be unfair to men if women take undue advantage of the system.
    2)Men give you way not because they consider you any less human than they are,but out of sheer respect.We do give way or stand up to give a seat to our teachers or parents.Is that because you consider them weak?
    3)Well,that is your personal view on love and marriage and in fact,my personal view is just the same.However,many women in the middle-east don’t mind polygamy and they have the right to opine on matters.The women also have the right to divorce if they wish to.

    Thanks!

  3. Abhirup

    This is incredible content….in a way, it challenges prevailing beliefs…more of such stuff on yka – & its a step away from ‘world-class’

  4. Mayank

    This does put away the age old belief that Arab girls are oppressed but still many at times aren’t they threatened?? And also heard that for them divorce and then getting married again is not that easy.

  5. Akhil

    Although I never been to any of these countries, but I want to raise question regarding the “empowerment”. see, every country has a section of people who are indulge in making-up of nation including politicians, bureaucrates, industrialists and even people upto member of middle class families as they are indulged in some sort of services, but as far as “empowerment” is considered, this is the term which should be enforced to lower class and backward families(in order of financial conditions). For example, if wives and sisters of politicians, officials and even middle class women are getting quality education, hanging out in malls and exercising their rights then there would be no one to object as these countries are religion-specific where almost 95% people are of same religion and we cant call it as a “empowerment”, but is this same for the women of class which goes unseen all the times????(except “mall” thing.. :P)..
    Take India for example, which is a developing economy, not at all religion-specific and self-proclaiming as a upcoming “Super Power” is a victim of various social issues i.e. caste system, dowry, child marriage, etc.. and majority of the places where these issues are encountered are villages and poverty-strucken areas.
    So I want to be specific that if any nation want to step ahead in changing its image then it should be started at grassroot level. Are the women of poor and backward families able to exercise their all rights, get educated and even think to compete with men?? If Yes, then it would be called real “empowerment”.

    1. Misna Sameer

      @akhil:The rights the women enjoy are regardless of the class they hail from.Women of all classes are entitled to the rIght to mahr,divorce etc.

      Besides,in theses societies,a woman does not have any financial responsibility towards her family.The money she earns is her own(sort of a pocket money or extra allowance she earns) .They husband or father is required to pay for her regardless of her job.Of course,the woman can contribute ti the household if she wishes to.

  6. harsh

    i really like your style of writing..but pls take a look at this..
    i am now a little confused
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia

    1. Misna Sameer

      Thank you Harsh!
      Regarding the point you have raised,Saudi Arabia and Iran are two Arab countries that have moral policing and impose restricions on its citizens(men and women).But,trust me,it is not as bad as the media potrays it to be.I have myself been to Saudi Arabia twice.They only condition on woman clothing is that it has to be modest.The veil,the head scarf or the abaya are not compulsory.Moreover,here more women receive secondary and tertiary education than men.Like I mentioned in the article,in Saudi Arabia women don’t have the right to drive.I agree this is unacceptable.Saudi women,empowered by education and employment,are raising their voice against this and fighting for their rights.Let’s hope they get itt!=)

      But,the conditon of women is definitely not like what we see and read from the mainstream media.There maybe one or two instances where the law wrongly punished a woman.But that happens evrywhere.The judiciary does make wrong judgements at times everywhere in the world.But citing one or two instances and arguing that women are suppressed is not justifiable.

    2. Misna Sameer

      One more thing,Saudi Arabia and Iran are just two countries of the Arab world.In other Arab countries,the laws regarding women are quite lax.

  7. harsh

    i would not argue with you..as you have been to these places and i haven’t.. 🙂
    my opinions have been solely based on what i see in the news and sites like wiki…u sound very optimistic and positive about the situation..i hope we see good enough results in the near future..

    1. Misna Sameer

      Harsh,thanks for raising your point.The reason I wrote this article is to clear the misconceptionsreagrding Arab women.I’m glad if it helped you in it.Let’s hope and work for a better and freer world! =)

  8. Ms.Monik

    Misna Sameer
    I admire you… I am currently considering a move to Qatar as I have a friend who has been their working in the education field for nearly five years. She is from California and travelled to Qatar from Texas, where I currently reside and has absolutely nothing but amazingly great things to say about Qatar. She has actually become muslim and “as per her own choice” wears an abaya and niqab… She states to me always “I am American, and noone has or will take that away from me” She has even said on many an ocassion that she feels safer there for her, her husband and their children than she did here at home. That says alot… Her statements and your article move me and comfort me in the thought that I am making the right decision to relocate there from Dallas, TX USA. Thank you dearly!

    1. Misna Sameer

      Thank you, Ms.Monik.I’m glad that you found the article useful.I hope you enjoy your stay here as much your friend does! 🙂

  9. Akhil

    its great to see that the real image of Arab women are far away from what the media had set in the mind of the world..step like of misna’s are really needed to clarify the conditions and to aware the people with the right situations..as Ms. Monik’s a live example.. i hope for the gud…

  10. Fiona Dent

    mmmmm

    Sorry but a university education and a designer handbag does not signify power and equality! I have lived in the middle east too. The reason that there are few reports of rape in most middle east countries is because there is no point reporting the crime in a male dominated culture – you will be called a whore and never get justice. The UK has similar problems, we have spent years trying to change the attitude of the police, the courts and the prosecution service and it is still difficult to get convictions for rape. It is one thing to be proud of your heritage but don’t delude yourself that most women want to be second class in a male dominated culture. Lets face it, walk round Cairo covered from head to toe in a hijab and you will still go home black and blue from being groped. Put your energy into improving the world not accepting it’s faults.

    1. Misna Sameer

      @Fiona:I’m so sorry for the late response.

      1)I agree that a designer hand bag and univ eductaion is not the ONLY measure of equality and power.The word “empowermnet” is actually subjective.However, the point I was trying to emphasise is that these women are not uneducated,suppressed souls.I have also mentioned about the equality in divorce laws,employment opportunities,punishment for molesters etc which are all parameters to decide empowerment.

      2) The reluctance to report molestation and rape does exsist in every society for the fear of defamation.So it is baseless to point out only the Arab society and base your argument on a few cases of miscarriage of justice(which again could happen anywhere) which has been sensationalised by the Western media.In most cases,if proved guilty,the acccused is punished severly.

      3)Seriously?”black and blue from being groped”?!!!If you have face this kind of treatment with or without Hijab,I’m sorry.But its far from facts that I have heard from Egyptians who have lived all their life in Egypt.There may be a few anti-social elements in every society includng the Western society.But please do not generalise.Besides,Egypt does not represnt all of the Arab world.I have been to four countries in the middleeast and I have never faced any problems.

      4)”Proud of your heritage”?..I am not an Arab.I am an Indian and I live in the middle east.So there is no question of me trying to defend “my heritage”.

      Thank you!

  11. sameer

    (I know my comment is a bit late!!!!)
    I liked the way you have defended the way of life in the middle east, kudos to you for that…
    But then I feel there is no gender equality.
    If polygamy is something people are okay with then why not have polyandry too ??
    Why should only women adhere to certain moral and dress codes and men are free to do as they wish ??

    1. Misna Sameer

      Hey Sameer,

      My point here is Not to support polygamy because as I mentioned in the article,I cannot personally accept the concept of polygamy myself.However,Arab women accept it as a tradition and are NOT Forced into it.Why not polyandry?Frankly,I’m not in a position to answer it but I guess it is because men tend to be more polygamous than women by nature or maybe because it will cause paternity issues in case the woman bears a child.Polygamy has exsisted in human socities from a very long time.
      .A comprehensive survey of traditional societies in the world shows that 83.39% of them practice polygyny(polygamy), 16.14% practice monogamy, and .47% practice polyandry.(excerpt from by Satoshi Kanazawa in The Scientific Fundamentalist)

      2)In most countries it is Not legally binding on women to adhere to the dress codes.However the Choose to follow these dress codes becasue they believe it Liberates them from the gazes of other men.A level of modesty is maintained by both men and women in all these countries.Moral codes are binding on both men and women alike.

      Thank you!

  12. Jennifer

    Misna, I have no idea how the majority of Arab countries are functioning NOW, but I know that in the past, and possibly in countries different from your own, women have been shot for revealing “too much” skin, suffered honor killings for not being virgins, been given in marriage at 12 or younger, and all this has been done by law, allowed or commanded. Do you say that the Afghanistan laws, here, are false? http://www.rawa.org/rules.htm The Taliban gave women far, FAR less than safety.

  13. Jennifer

    Thank you for sharing Misna, I’m very glad you and others are living safely and/or that things have improved in the East.

  14. Jennifer

    Thank you for sharing Misna, I’m very glad you and others are living safely and/or that things have improved in the East.

  15. Jennifer

    Thank you for sharing Misna, I’m very glad you and others are living safely and/or that things have improved in the East.

  16. indian

    Misna , I happen to read your article today while congratulating you about the article and the passion with which you write. I am living in middle east for the past two decades and I do agree most of the points you say…. They fit to Arab women only … Think about the points below…
    a) If they are treating women well , the maids and servants working in their house also human being , how they are being treated…
    b) My wife hardly has any arab friends and no one will invite us for their wedding etc…
    c) Most of the Arabs feel they are superior and they do not have the knack of the euro-peons not to exhibit their racism openly…

    Yes I do agree Arab women are empowered and no one will undergo ill treatment just for the sake of being in the status of married…

  17. Sara

    I just got back last week from a trip to Andhra Pradesh, India. I greatly enjoyed my time. I know south India is much different than the “Middle East” ( I believe that is a very euro-centric name for a region of the world ). I came to the other side of the world, hoping that my impression that women are more oppressed there than in the West would change ( I have visited Hungary, Italy, Romania, the Bahamas, and all around USA ) . This was my first time to the Eastern hemisphere. I have no regrets; I assure you. However, from what I have seen makes me weep when thinking about the treatment of women. Perhaps I need to just visit Qatar for a few days on my next trip, I am afraid to make it longer because I am very passionate and sensitive. A high divorce rate does not prove women have the power to end their marriages. I view grooms giving their bride/ the bride’s family the mahr as disrespectful, but I also don’t like the idea of wedding rings here in the west, which is basically the same thing. A wedding to me is about finding a compatible life partner and not buying someone’s love. I wore traditional South Indian clothing my entire trip (very modest for me- I am a lifeguard so I am used to shorts, and a tank top when it is hot); i wore long pants and tunics/ dresses, mostly. The clothing is impractical in such hot weather, do not understand how women in the middle east do not constantly faint. I have never sweat so much in my life, and I felt the sweat could not evaporate off me to cool me down. I am from Florida (southermost USA state), where 35oC is common. One could say I am used to a bit of heat. I learned to wear light colors after the first few days; A black burqa must resemble living on venus. In the West, you have no fear of a mob running you down whether you are a woman dressed modestly or not. This cannot be said for the middle east. I stayed with a family in India, which sometimes would tell me to change my shirt, or put on a scarf to protect my modesty. If I had not, especially in one city we went to- i may have had pebbles thrown at me by onlookers. When I went sight seeing, men wore shorts and T shirts, sometimes they were even topless. I was oh so envious! I wanted to volunteer at a school, teaching girls about hygiene. The administrator ( a male ) told me the children were too young to learn about hand washing, brushing your teeth, an eating properly (they were 8-10!). I suspect he declined my offer because he was afraid I would be covering feminine hygiene, which through friends I made over there, I learned is not discussed. 2 girls whom are very educated (mechanical engineering students) did not know their own simple anatomy. Knowing oneself’s body is very important, especially after puberty. Throughout history, people have used appeals to tradition to justify heinous acts. Traditional does not equal ethical. All over the globe, women are oppressed, but I am not writing this to hurt anyone’s feelings.

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