ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Women in Transition

Whether wearing colorful robes and headdresses of desert lands or fashionable Western garb, Middle Eastern women have in common the experience of rapid societal change.

In Middle Eastern countries today, rapid changes are taking place. Caught up in the throes of these changes is the Middle Eastern woman.

Who is she? And what will she become? To understand or answer such questions it is necessary to see this woman in the context of a part of the world that is intensely religious. She is primarily a Moslem Arab. But she may also be a Christian Arab…or Jewish.

Whatever her religion, she has – for the most part – been brought up in a very traditional culture, and a culture that is now in the midst of transition.

Since the close of the colonial era, Middle Eastern women have come closer to achieving equality under the law than women in most other regions in the same time frame.

As the disparities between men and women were greater to begin with, however, it is difficult for anyone who is unfamiliar with the traditional status of women in Arab countries to see the change. In Turkey and Lebanon, for example, a woman had to be represented by her husband in court, have him administer her property and consent to her employment. In Iran, a woman needed her husband’s permission to travel out of the country. As recently as three years ago, legislation in these countries dropped such requirements.

In 1972 the historic first Conference on Arab Women in National Development was held in Cairo. The week-long program, (sponsored by UNICEF, the Arab League and the Arab States Functional Literacy Centre), drew participants from sixteen Arab nations. The emphasis of the Conference was not on changes which had already taken place, but rather on the obstacles which Middle Eastern women confront, and which many want eliminated. The concerns expressed were broad, and encompassed many problems ranging from high child mortality rates to the right to an education.

At present, employment opportunities are scarce for women, although certain professions such as nursing and teaching are opening up to them. In the Middle East women comprise only 5% of the work force, as compared with the U.S. where they represent 40%, or even Latin America, where they are 20% of the work force. More than one third of employed women in the area are in agriculture, while the remaining two thirds perform pre-industrial tasks such as weaving, sewing or food-packing.

One of the reasons for the small labor force has been the fact that the woman marries early, and is expected to attend exclusively to her husband and children. In certain areas Purdah – the isolation of women from all men except close relatives – is still practiced, which prohibits free movement in the public domain.

Another factor in the explanation of the small female labor force is Chadri – the traditional wearing of a heavy veil. Although Chadri is being abolished in some countries, it is still practiced by many women. Among Christian and Jewish women these two practices have no effect on work opportunity, except in so far as the low visibility of Moslem women has influenced attitudes toward women in general.

Also influencing attitudes toward females is the traditional right of Moslem men to terminate a marriage at any time, for any reason. Although Turkey and several other countries recently abolished this arbitrary type divorce, many Arab countries still permit “divorce by repudiation” – as well as polygamy.

Educationally, women are just beginning to fare better. Although the number of women students entering Universities has been increasing rapidly, however, 62% of all girls in Arab countries of school age never enroll for an education. At all ages, females have radically higher illiteracy rates than males. And although many governments have made education compulsory for all, basic education is often not provided – especially in rural areas – because of the lack of facilities, money and teachers.

Child and infant mortality rates, although decreasing, are still high in the Middle East. In the Sudan, almost fifteen per cent of the children die from untreated, but curable diseases. In Egypt, three out of four school-age youngsters suffer from malnutrition, even though the average family spends about half its income on food.

At the Arab Conference on Women, females young, old, modern and traditional agreed that women in the Middle East need programs that would enable their fifty per cent of the population to have a more humane quality of life. The primary areas in which action was called for were these:

  • To establish health centers where nutrition and health education would be provided.
  • To provide education for girls, encourage mixed education and promote the training of female teachers.
  • To protect women from “the chaos of divorce and the tragedy of polygamy,” and to set up a minimum age for marriage where none now exists.
  • To increase employment opportunities for women and offer improved vocational training.
  • To introduce legislation protecting the working woman from unequal pay, social services and health benefits.

Since the Conference – the first public forum in which the problems of the Middle Eastern woman were aired – many changes have taken place. For example, three years ago women won the right to vote in Jordan – one of the last remaining countries in the Middle East where women’s suffrage was lacking.

Women in the Middle East, of all religious backgrounds and all economic classes are now undergoing change more rapidly than at any other time in their history.

It can only be hoped that the progress they have made as architects of their own destiny will continue for their own benefit, and that of their families and communities.

Ronnie Treanor, formerly editor of this magazine, is a doctoral candidate in anthropology and writes for an international development agency.

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