Women in the Middle East are on the move, but in decidedly different directions, depending on where you look. In less than 40 years, Cairo has gone from a city of Western fashion to a city in which the majority of women wear the hijab, or headscarf, and even niqab, an outfit that covers the female body, face and hands. Many attribute this trend to mounting Islamic radicalism, influenced by the brand of Salafism imported from Saudi Arabia. Yet, in Saudi Arabia King Abdullah has just inaugurated a new university in which women will study alongside their male counterparts without being forced to wear the hijab.
We turn first to political, scientific and cultural events in the Arabian Peninsula. In Kuwait, two female parliamentarians, Rola Dashti and Asil Al’Awdi, defied a fatwa, a non-binding legal opinion, by a local cleric ordering them to resign from their positions for refusing to cover their heads in accordance with the Islamic law of the country. Both women stated categorically that Kuwait is governed by a civil code and that there is no room in the country’s politics for Islamic dicta. The women viewed Islamic law as not having any authority in the matter and considered the fatwa inconsistent with the constitutional rules governing Parliament. A few weeks ago, the constitutional court ruled that the women could retain their seats in Parliament.
Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, unrelenting in his endeavours for reform, made history by inaugurating the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), an impressive high-tech $10 billion campus, where women students and faculty are not required to cover their heads or faces and will live on campus, studying and mingling with their male counterparts.
In Abu Dhabi recently, Haifaa Al Mansour, known for championing women’s issues, became the first Saudi female filmmaker to claim the $100,000 Shasha Grant–which provides production funding for the contest winner–for her screenplay Wajda, the story of a free-spirited 11-year-old Saudi girl coming of age in a restrictive society.
These positive events on the Arabian Peninsula involving women in politics, science and the arts stand in stark contrast to events in Egypt during the same period. The people and the parliament of Egypt were irate over recent remarks by the dean of Al Azhar University, Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, who said that women could not cover their faces with the niqab–which he referred to as cultural tradition that has nothing to do with Islam–when attending classes at the university.
When these events like this are juxtaposed with those in the Arabian Peninsula, important questions emerge about the reasons for the trends and countertrends in the Middle East concerning the status of women. Economics, education and leadership seem to be at the centre of the changing trends regarding the status of women in the Gulf countries versus in Egypt.
The inauguration of KAUST leaves no doubt that when the Saudi king decided to propel his country into the 21st century he recognised that education must be a cornerstone of that endeavour. The standard of living in the Gulf is also one of the highest in the world and the benefits of the economic boom are being enjoyed by the younger generation. The slow but steady progress of women in the Gulf countries is unquestionably attributable, at least in part, to economic prosperity and education
Why then, when we see more progressive attitudes about women emerging in the presumably more conservative Gulf countries, do we see the opposite trend in countries like Egypt, whose capital Cairo was once considered “Paris on the Nile”?
Although there is little doubt that wealth, or the lack thereof, is contributing to the diverging trends in the region, it does not fully explain why we do not see the regressive trends in Egypt manifest in other Arab countries like Syria, Jordan or Morocco, which also lack the Gulf’s wealth. The trends in Egypt are in part the result of an inferior educational system, at all levels. For the past 30 years, Egypt has invested little in its education system and managed it poorly through an endemically corrupt and inefficient centralised system.
It is too early to decide if either of these trends on the status of women in the Middle East will continue. What is certain, however, is that the divergent developments we are seeing today are as much a function of economic, educational and social factors as religious ones. It is therefore imperative for the United States and the West in general to understand the changes taking place and to support institutions that encourage further emancipation of women and discourage the counter-trends in countries like Egypt.
The George W. Bush Administration formed a coalition of the willing to wage a war in Iraq. The Barack Obama Administration needs to form a coalition of the willing to wage a war on poverty and ignorance in the Middle East. They should start by reallocating USAID funds to projects that will improve education for all, but particularly for women. Moving funds from the military to the masses will equally engender an appreciation among the population that is the most effective means to combat Islamic extremism.
Raouf Ebeid is an editor for Political Islam Online, where this article was previously published. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author.