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.