THERE IS NO STRONGER CHARACTER THAN THAT OF THE WOMAN
Al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia, March 12
When God created man and woman, He was confronted with the question: To whom will he give the strength to give birth to the next man? God chose the woman. This is the great proof that women are strong.
Mothers have always been the mainstay of our families. Women, everywhere around the world, demonstrate the incredible and selfless ability to care for and educate the children who will become the future of our societies. Mothers are fully committed to this most important role in humanity, yet this role is only the tip of the iceberg, because women possess all the other human qualities ascribed to men and women alike. The question then is why, even in the most developed countries today, we still don’t feel like women have an equal footing in every aspect of society?
I am not an official researcher of gender equality, but when I look at human history, I see positions of power evolve as groups of humans confront each other and fight over limited resources. Here the biological evolution of men and women separated their positions in society – very much like in the animal world – on the basis of raw muscle and strength. Men and women had equal brains and intelligence, but the man held the upper hand due to his superior strength. What is the history of man if not the history of subjugation through brute force?
What is most surprising to me is that this division has prevailed for so long, and has continued to endure in an era when there should be no question of equality between women and men. This may seem more prominent in some traditional societies, but it remains true all over the planet. Let us consider Saudi women and how their role has evolved over the past century.
At the birth of our country in 1932, Saudi women retained a very powerful role, albeit largely confined to the home. Family was the woman’s decision and belonged to her, as were her duties, which in the 1930s occupied almost every waking hour. I grew up in a mud house in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s, and our lives were not very different from our Bedouin ancestors: We had no amenities or modern appliances to facilitate any of the household chores. There were very few cars, no electricity, no running water – which meant that the housework was enormous and required not only a full-time mother but also one or more aides, or, to put it bluntly, cheap labor. However, our poetry and the Koran have emphasized the importance and power of women, not least by including a complete surah (chapter) on women – mind you that there is no such surah for men.
Let us also not forget that the Prophet Muhammad’s wife herself was known as a super-intelligent businesswoman. And Jeddah, which is the second major city in Saudi Arabia, is distinguished from any other large city in the world, because its name literally means “grandmother.” While we Arabs often cite the Prophet’s saying “Heaven lies beneath the feet of your mother,” we cannot claim to have always honored our women throughout history. We may have provided praise to women, but we were sorely lacking in converting those compliments into reality.
At first, we were shy and afraid of letting girls go to school, until King Faisal’s wife, Ifat, established schools and colleges for girls and women. For a very long time, we must admit, women in Saudi Arabia were not treated equally as men. In this context, I would like to emphasize that there is no such thing as “giving women rights.” These rights are God-given, and women need not earn them. Unfortunately, these rights were deprived for a very long time. For example, Saudi women could not drive, open bank accounts, or even travel without the permission of a male guardian.
Just imagine the insult to a woman relying on the young man she raised to allow her to travel if her husband was no longer around. I am happy to say our current leadership has lifted all of these restrictions. We are going through a phase where we’re proactively bringing about change; not just waiting for it to come. The reforms implemented over the past five years have been profound and, from the darkest moment in our history, we can finally see some light. Only by ensuring that women receive their full rights will our men achieve their own rights. As Gloria Steinem said, “A feminist is anybody who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
We must all advocate for gender equality. Fortunately, our battle today is no longer about lifting old and unfair restrictions. Rather, it is about changing ingrained habits. I would like to see every Saudi man standing at the dinner table expressing his appreciation and admiration for the women of his family, apologizing for being part of a system that has kept mothers, wives and daughters back for so long. This is how we build a stronger country and a better society, and give hope to a new generation. –Hassan Yassin
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY AND OUR COLLECTIVE SCHIZOPHRENIA
Al-Mada, Iraq, March 11
Last week’s celebration of International Women’s Day led many Iraqi leaders, religious figureheads and notable politicians to join forces and praise the role of women – in society, in politics and in science. I read many of the statements these individuals made very closely. One of them in particular stood out, that of the Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers Hamid Naim Al-Ghazi.
In his remarks, Al-Ghazi said, “On this special occasion, we must remember and appreciate the tremendous sacrifices of Iraqi women, who are still working diligently and persistently to secure their rights.... We must protect women from all forms of gender-based violence and protect them, especially in the workplace.” Those who read this statement see the institutional and social reality of women at the height of their prosperity, but the reality of the situation and this land are far from these dreams, statements, congratulations and invitations, far removed from a black state that depicted women as swamps and outposts of injustice and ignorance.
What was striking about Al-Ghazi’s remarks was that they were among the few statements made that day that called into attention the stark contrast between the congratulatory statements and the real struggles faced by Iraqi women today. Indeed, most of those who congratulated women on the occasion of International Women’s Day were nothing more than hypocrites. None of them addressed the issue of institutional and social violence against women. None of them spoke about the tragedy of women’s suicide due to family pressures.
I followed most of the tweets that were published on social media platforms that day. Not a single one of them mentioned how difficult it is for a female university graduate in Iraq to find a job; how they must knock on each and every door, only to be turned down. Not a single tweet covered the issue of workplace violence; the fact that even those few women who manage to get a job have to deal with daily harassment. No one talked about the injustice Iraqi women are subjected to or the psychological harm they incur.
Iraqi women are victims of a male society that views them as inferior humans. They are subjected to harassment, violence and marginalization. Therefore, I would urge all of those who published congratulatory posts to re-read their remarks and ask themselves: Do they truly represent women’s lived realities? –Ruaa Zuhair Shukr
(Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)