The New Arab Woman

Article excerpt

On a crowded beach in Beirut, girls wearing head scarves and track suits splash in the waves. Their mothers picnic on the sand, chatting and sucking on hookah pipes. Down the coast, at the posh St. George's Yacht Club, well-oiled young women in bikinis lounge poolside, some with lips and breasts perfected by Lebanon's finest plastic surgeons.

It's easy to tell which women are traditional Arabs and which are more modern. Or is it? In today's Middle East, appearances can be deceiving. A "modern" Arab woman isn't necessarily one in Western clothes, and a veiled woman isn't always oppressed. The St. George's set may fly to Paris to stock up on Chanel, but that doesn't mean they work. Talk to the veiled women on the beach, and they'll tell you that their freedom has grown considerably. "Before, you'd just sit home to cook, clean and raise babies," says Ghada Ajami, who recently moved to Beirut from Michigan to expose her kids to Arab culture. "But now we've got the same freedoms as in the States. I can do anything here."

Discovering the new Arab woman on a single strip of Beirut coast is complex enough. Coming up with a profile that would fit all women in all 21 Arab League countries is virtually impossible. How to compare a Jordanian Internet entrepreneur with a Yemeni housewife? A Christian Palestinian poet with a Muslim shepherdess in the Atlas Mountains? As Arab societies try to balance traditional values with modernizing economies, women's rights and roles can seem schizophrenic at times. In Saudi Arabia, women can own businesses--but are banned from driving to them. Kuwait boasts women economists and professors--none of whom have the right to vote. Egyptian women work as managers in multinational corporations, but need permission from a male member of the family to travel.

One thing is sure: the old Middle East--where men worked and women were shrouded from the outside world--is fading fast. Elite Arab women have had access to good education for centuries; what's changed in the last generation is the rising standard of education for ordinary Arabs--men and women alike. Since the Beijing World Conference on Women five years ago, women across the Arab world have become better educated, more aware of their rights and readier to use them. Last year Qatari women gained the right to vote; some even ran for office--though none won. A constitutional court in Kuwait agreed last month to hear women's petition for the vote. The Internet and satellite TV have flooded Arab countries with sights and sounds unimaginable even three years ago. Cheap air fares have made it easier for Arabs to travel abroad. For some, globalization has meant transnational careers. "You go for a job, and your competition's a woman who's smarter than you are, who's better educated than you are and who's worked harder than you have," says Amar Captan, a Lebanese business student. "It's scary."

The changes are even more frightening for conservative Arabs. Women's rights cut to the heart of the Muslim Arab world's delicate balance between tradition and modernity. In the past Islamic clerics stressed women's roles as wives and mothers. Not until recently, when a freshly educated crop of women went back to the Qur'an to question male interpretations on issues from the veil to abortion, did Arabs have lively debates about a woman's place in society. Muslim women are now looking to role models like Khadidja, the prophet's first wife, who ran a caravan business in seventh-century Mecca. It's not just conservative clerics who feel threatened by women's new roles. …