Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Women and Empowerment in the Arab World

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Women and Empowerment in the Arab World

Article excerpt

EMPOWERMENT, JUST LIKE THE TERM "liberation" is a complex and relative notion that implies a scale of power, and a linear progression from one end of that scale to another. One could debate whether the purpose of social welfare policies are to empower citizens, women among them, or whether they are intended to give the impression of empowerment, thereby legitimizing nation-states, international organizations or other actors. I cannot engage in that debate in this article, so let us begin with the premise that women's empowerment is indeed the goal of such policies.

The daunting task of describing and evaluating women's empowerment precedes and should accompany planning--daunting, although more data has been collected, and there is an increased awareness of gender as a category of power and status. That is because we increasingly see empowerment alongside, or in combination with other phenomena and the study of gender has in many ways, revolutionized the study of other power constellations in society. The task is also intimidating because most scholars agree that it is important to avoid the essentialization of women in ethnic, religious, or national categories. Yet, we here refer to an explicit category of "Arab women" in order to theorize, (1) and so that readers of this essay can appreciate any discernible trends, despite the diversity of Arab women

The premise of social welfare policies is that women (and men) lack power and basic rights as citizens when they have limited income or access to other important services. These policies may not and usually do not acknowledge discrimination of women on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or religion; for instance, social welfare policies in Israel refer to Arab women's disadvantages on the basis of their low income status, but never to the element of racism or discrimination which accord to them as Palestinians (or Bedouin) as a group, but factors that oppress as women in Muslim societies are of great interest.

Women are by no means globally empowered. It seems that everywhere, economic and political power appear to be equally necessary components of empowerment. Women's disproportionate lack of political power is accompanied by their status as the majority of the poor. Their lack of power is demonstrated in the fact that one third of the world's women will be subjected to violence. Two million girls under the age of 15 are forced into the sex trade each year, and about twice as many women as men are affected with H1V in Africa. We must begin with this mention of the global problems of women so that the problems of Arab women are not overemphasized, or misconstrued.

We are not fully agreed on the definition of empowerment or what it in turn, will produce--political or economic power? Positive self-image? More or less serious exploitation of others (other poorer, or non-Arab women, (2) or men)? It has been very difficult to coordinate efforts aimed at empowerment with the various competing ideas concerning the tactics to be employed. And finally, I think it is important to reflect on the explicit aspects of empowerment that may have a bearing on the subjects of other articles in this issue that variously deal with social policy and women.

With this in mind, I will comment on some key events in various Arab countries or within communities of Arab women that highlight the uncertain track record of women's "progress" toward empowerment. For the purposes of this task, let us define empowerment as a condition in which women hold or are in the process of obtaining educational, legal and political rights that are equivalent or nearly equal to those of male citizens. Further, women are able to work, and advance in any career they select; possess economic rights to own and dispose of property, and pay for goods at the same rate as others. And, women should obtain bodily rights--the rights to control their own health and fertility, and prosecute those who engage in domestic violence, rape, harassment, or other violations of women's bodies. …

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