The President of the United Nations General Assembly, a lawyer and rights advocate from Bahrain, has issued a strong call for addressing the social, educational and other constraints impeding the equality of women in the Middle East.
“The concept of human rights is based on the notion that all human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms,” Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa noted in an address to a panel discussion Wednesday evening on Women and Human Rights in the Middle East at Rutgers University, New Jersey, United States.
“Yet, in the Middle East women face multi-layered and multi-dimensional discrimination that is embedded in our culture, government policies, educational systems and the legal framework.”
She said the situation stems in part from the interpretation of Islamic text. “Women are subject to family laws that are Sharia based which strictly follow the interpretations of Islamic scholars that lived 1000 years ago at the beginning of Islam. These interpretations are applied now without making any allowances to the very different social contexts of today,” she said.
“In fact, these interpretations are sanctified as holy which prevent them from criticism and change. This is one of the main reasons behind the discrepancy between personal status codes on the one hand and the current social circumstances on the other.”
Under family law, women cannot conclude marital contracts without a male guardian and cannot obtain a divorce without a court proceeding. Men can divorce their wives by a mere verbal declaration.
“These rules deprive women of their basic right of self determination,” said Sheikha Haya. “These rules deprive women from maintaining peace and security within their home as they are constantly threatened by divorce or polygamy.”
The General Assembly President blamed a “lack of rational interpretations of the text that integrate the current social circumstances” and called for “new interpretations of Islamic text in light of contemporary circumstances and needs.”
She said social structure also plays a part, especially the concept of the family versus the individual as the nucleus of society. This has led women to conform to the needs of men who in turn offer protection and financial support. “It has led women to accept a level of control and submission, even violence at times for the preservation of the family,” she said.
The structure has also “created a mentality that fears the autonomy of women, viewing it as a threat to the centrality of the traditional family, a threat to marital relationships and a catalyst to sexual freedom,” added the President. “These attitudes which were based on traditions are now associated with religion, making it harder to criticize or change them.”
Politically, women remain under-represented in parliaments and at higher government positions. “Even when they are ministers, they are often assigned ministries that reinforce their traditional roles,” she observed, citing a number of reasons, including the opposition of women themselves to their own involvement in politics. “We saw this in Bahrain in 2002 when the majority of voters were women but not one woman out of the eight female candidates was actually elected.”
Despite these circumstances, women have been active in influencing policy making and public opinion through other means, including the media, in petitions to Members of Parliament and government officials, and through their memberships in unions, political parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “Today, the Middle East is witnessing a proliferation of NGOs, many of which are active in women empowerment issues.”
Although the Middle East has come a long way in educating women, “the fact of the matter is that critical thinking, and the teaching of philosophy and theology are absent in our curricula; and they are essential in laying the foundation to review, evaluate and criticise the ideas that shape our societies,” she said.
“We are left with a fertile ground for fundamentalist ideologies and we have reverted to the past to solve our problems of the present.”
Stressing that the status of women must be examined in the light of the regional and international circumstances, she noted that the Middle East “continues to face the devastating effects of war, occupation, civil unrest, weak governance as well as the challenges of globalization, economic volatility, impoverishment, demographic changes and counter-terrorism measures which may negatively affect human rights and further constrain freedoms.”
Amid a prevailing determination within the Middle East to modernize and reform so that people can live without fear and want, “it is now, more than ever before, that the voices of women need to be heard,” declared the Assembly President.
“We must not only hear these voices – we must listen to them, and then act. So much of our future depends on our response.”
Sheikha Haya was honoured at the event sponsored by the University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies along with Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi for their dedication to women and human rights in the Middle East.
“Over the past three decades, I have strived to defend women’s rights in my home country, in the region of the Middle East, and more broadly on an international level,” said the Assembly President. “It therefore immensely gratifies me to see Rutgers recognize our struggle, not only as women from the Middle East but also as women who have dedicated their lives to advancing the rights of other women.”