TABLE OF CONTENTS
II. WOMEN IN POLITICS: POLITICAL OPPORTUNITIES
III. WOMEN’S SUBORDINATION AS A REFLECTION OF GLOBAL POLITICS
IV. PERPETUATION OF PATRIARCHY IN THE FAMILY DYNAMICS
Abstract: The hierarchical social relations inherent to any patriarchal system have resulted in women’s social identities becoming dependent on their relationship with men, as a fathers or husbands.1 Such relationships have encouraged the view that the oppression of women is the cornerstone of such systems and that their liberation is an essential condition for overcoming it.2 My question for this paper is: What is the relationship between patriarchy and women’s marginalization and absence in the political sphere? In this paper I will discuss how women are marginalized and silenced by force rather than by choice. To further elaborate on that it must be clear that women, especially in the Middle East, are constrained by different types of patriarchy. They are restrained from growing and aspiring to change power relations by the legal system, by the social conventions and the unequal power relations between male and female, and lastly by externalities that constructed the polity of the region. In order to further carry out this research paper, I will use a Marxist feminist theoretical framework to analyze the issue of women’s marginalization in the Middle East.
Keywords: Women, Middle East, Feminism, Patriarchy, feminist identity, Women’s marginalization, public policy, culture of silence
“ You know who’s against democracy in the Middle East? The husbands. They got used to their way of life. Now the Traditional way of life must change. If you don’t give equal rights to women, you can’t progress”
~ Shimon Peres
“Feminism has never been about giving a job to women. It’s about making life [more] fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; it’s about baking a new pie”
~ Gloria Steinem
These two quotes highlight the core of my paper. It will not talk about democracy as much as it will be discussing the role of women in the Middle East and how patriarchy heavily exists in the public sphere in the Middle East. Like Steinem’s quote, it’s not about adding women to the bowl of cake mix and stirring, it’s about creating a completely new cake mix that gives women equal chances and opportunities. The challenges Arab woman face with respect to political participation are, numerous and are often interconnected. The list is endless. Many of these obstacles stem from the patriarchal nature of society, in addition to being the major force within family structures. Although there are myriad differences between the Arab countries in the political and economic realms, patriarchy seems to be a common feature. The hierarchical social relations inherent to any patriarchal system have resulted in women’s social identities becoming dependent on their relationship with men, as a fathers or husbands.3 Such relationships have encouraged the view that the oppression of women is the cornerstone of such systems and that their liberation is an essential condition for overcoming it.4
My question for this paper is: What is the relationship between patriarchy and women’s marginalization and absence in the political sphere? In this paper I will discuss how women are marginalized and silenced by force rather than by choice. To further elaborate on that it must be clear that women, especially in the Middle East, are constrained by different types of patriarchy. They are restrained from growing and aspiring to change power relations by the legal system, by the social conventions and the unequal power relations between male and female, and lastly by externalities that constructed the polity of the region. In order to further carry out this research paper, I will use a Marxist feminist theoretical framework to analyze the issue of women’s marginalization in the Middle East.
In order for my readers to grasp a better understanding of my research paper, I will start by providing a list of definitions. In this reading I will not use the word “empowerment” since it is a liberal discourse, which illustrates that one party has power and another party lacks power. Therefore I will use the word “power struggle” to stress on the didactical relationship between different parties. To clear any confusion, it the difference between sex and gender should be identified. Sex is the biological attribution that differ men from women. Gender on the other hand is a set of socially constructed characteristics that govern the interaction between sexes; men and women (Kothari, 2002).5
There are multiple definitions of feminism. United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in defines feminism as “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” (UN Women, 2014).6 Another definition is “[Feminism] describes a culture in which women, because they are women, are treated differently than men, and that, in that difference of treatment, women are at a disadvantage; feminism assumes that such treatment is cultural and thus possible to change" (Lewis, 2015).7 I prefer the first definition because it is straightforward and because it does not advocate or share the blame of women’s unequal relationship to men, as a culturally bound factor. The second definition assumes that some cultures treat women as equal forces to men while other cultures don’t, which is not the case.
Defining what I mean by Marxist feminism is also important for the comprehension of this paper. Marxist feminism is an emancipatory, critical framework that aims at understanding and explaining gender oppression in a systematic way (Holmstrom, 1981).8 While there are multiple feminisms (e.g. radical feminism and liberal feminism) I see that Marxist feminism is the one with the least amount of fallacies, in addition to it being the most critical. According to Martha Gimenez, Marxist feminism, also referred to as critical or material feminism, is “A theoretical position held by relatively few feminists, who sought to develop the potential of Marxist theory to understand the capitalist sources of the oppression of women” (Gimenez, 1998).9 I have chosen a Marxist feminist framework of analysis because first, liberal and radical feminists ignored the class inequality and the economic realities of women’s lives (Holmstrom, 1981). Second, radical feminist analysis of patriarchy is not sufficiently historical, meaning that it ignores historical and material attributions that have led to the patriarchal attitude.
I have specifically chosen to use a Marxist feminist approach because it is “[an] emancipatory tradition of social theory built around the critical analysis of particular forms of oppression – class oppression and gender oppression respectively – rather than as well-bounded, integrated explanatory theories” (Wright, 1994).10 In other words, feminist Marxist lenses do not approach women as a separate entity that is not affected by other forces like class relations, economic power relations, and stability, rather that it explores all factors that may contribute to the oppression of women.
Furthermore Marxist feminism “it argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do make things needed to survive humanly. Work is a social process of shaping and transforming the material social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value” (McKinnon, 1982).11 In other words, Marxist feminism recognizes the socially constructed gender roles that govern the relationship between men and women in the public sphere, as well as that those roles are ascribed values according to the capitalist definition of value; labor time.
Moreover my admiration of Marxist feminism lies within its acknowledgement that women do not see men as the “enemy” rather that it believes that men and women have to work together to “overthrow the Capitalist system of economic exploitation”.12 Furthermore, Marxist feminists see that patriarchy is an ideology (a set of related beliefs about the world - in this instance, male - female relationships) that stems from male attempts to justify the economic exploitation of women. Additionally the approach concedes that the "family system" characteristic of modern societies benefits capitalism (and, by extension, the men who tend to dominate positions of power and influence).13
Those characteristics of Marxist feminism help me to highlight the aim of this paper, which is providing enough evidence that patriarchy is the main reason behind women’s absence of the political and public spheres in the Middle East.
This paper will be divided into three main parts. Part one will discuss women in politics and women’s decision-making autonomy. This will include women’s participation and political representation in Middle Eastern politics. This part will include a discussion about women in relation to the legal systems of the Middle East and how it poses a “glass ceiling” for the career growth of women. Part two will be discussing how global politics produce a perpetuation of patriarchy. This will also include a brief discussion about the “inside/outside” approach. The third and last part will tackle how the social structure and the socially assigned gender roles have affected women’s aspirations to challenge power relations.
II. WOMEN IN POLITICS: POLITICAL OPPORTUNITIES
All around the world women have been stuck in the private sphere, allowing their male counterparts to dominate the public and political sphere. Although the integration of women and their acceptance in the public sphere, as equally capable to occupy key positions and formulate intellectually critical opinions about the political arena, has been a gradual process that required decades of power struggle, it has been harder for the Muslim-dominated Middle East to come to terms with what they saw as a radical transformation of gender relations and ultimately power relations, due to their conservative, and colonial history. In the larger context of low women’s political participation globally, the Middle East suffers from even lower penetration of women in politics. As a medium towards development and international integration, women present a somewhat “untapped resource in the social, economic and political arenas in the region” (Akande, 2007).14 Akande’s point revolves around the inclusion of women in the social, economic, and political sphere as “producers” rather than as “consumers” or socially reproduced power relations. However Akande’s aspiration for the inclusion of women lacks to inform the readers about the judicial hinderers to this inclusion. Although the legal-structural reforms advocated by the liberal feminists, is of inferior importance because it does not encompass all contributing factors to women’s oppression, it is an important contributing factor, mainly because those laws are constituted in accordance with the capitalist demands.
The political-juridical structure determines over the women’s status in the society, their rights and access to resources. In the case of Egypt, laws criminalizing violence against women “are both vague and limited in their definition of the crimes they refer to,” (Harassmap, 2012).15 The failure of governments to set laws protecting and securing the rights and bodies of women contributes to their absence form the public sphere. A report issued by the UN Women in April 2013 reveals, “99.3% of girls and women are subjected to one form or another of harassment, which confirms the spread of this phenomenon in Egypt. 82.6% of the total female respondents announced that they neither felt secure nor safe in the street, while the rate of the sense of security and safety increases in places of education, in the home, within family circle and relatives and among friends” (Fahmy, 2015)16.
Although women have increasingly made efforts to change the power-relations by acquiring higher education in fields that were mainly reserved for the men, like law and medicine, in order to demand job opportunities in those fields, the legal system came served as hindrance. A perfect example for that is Article 10 in the “new” Egyptian constitution of 2013 that states “The state will work to strike a balance between the family duties of women and their work in society” (Amnesty International, 2013). Therefore in many countries, female judges, for example, are clustered in the family courts and lower civil courts, and a kind of “glass ceiling” prevents their promotion to the upper courts, this to “help” women balance their professional “obligations” with their household’s “obligations” – for example cleaning, cooking, and raising children. This further puts an emphasis on the socially constructed characteristics attributed to the females, forcing them to be in a state of “double-burden”, where they have to balance between their personal private life, and their professional public one. This can be further understood, in my opinion, in terms of global financial markets. Opening up the public sphere for women means that the income per family will increase. An increase in the family’s income makes them more susceptible to the purchasing of luxurious good, hence also making them more inclined to consume them, serving the interests of the property owning class;by assisting them in making more profit. Therefore it is safe to state that the case of Egypt can be generalized to the entire region of the Middle East, seeing that regardless of whether the state is a high-income monarchy, like Saudi Arabia, or a middle-income ‘Republic’ like Egypt, women are always in the margins when it comes to political life (Milton, 2000).17
Let us review Arab women’s participation in legislature (Sabbagh, 2005).18 The rate of female participation in the Middle East is the lowest in the world. The global average in January 2005 stood at 15.7 percent, yet in the Arab world it is only 6.7 percent. In contrast to most other regions of the world, in Arab countries women have generally been better represented in the upper houses of national parliaments than in the lower houses (IPU, 2005).19 This could be explained by the fact that ‘state feminism’ has been substantial to women and given them a larger share of upper house seats, since most upper houses in the Arab region are appointed. The question here being, who has the power to select and appoint? A personalization of the government has taken place and can, therefore, be misunderstood as an active process by states to the break down the social dichotomies.20 Rather it was upheld for the legitimation of the state due to the fact that ones appointing the selected females are males. This puts an emphasis on the power relations between genders and between classes. An appointed female does not mean that the power relations have been modified; rather it indicates that class relations are influential and affective, and that women in “powerful” positions are being placed there after a selective process amongst the property owning classes in accordance to the power struggle between genders. Moreover tools like religion and nationalism, led by values of patriarchy and superiority, are used to further perpetuate the class and gender relations in countries of the Middle East (Al-Ali, and Pratt, 2011).21
1 Margaret Helou, “Women and Parliamentary Elections in Lebanon”, in Hussein Abu Rumman (ed), Arab Women and Political Participation, (Amman: al-Urdon al-Jadid Research Centre, 2000).
2 Hisham Sharabi, “Neopatriarchy: Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society”. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
3 Margaret Helou, “Women and Parliamentary Elections in Lebanon”, in Hussein Abu Rumman (ed), Arab Women and Political Participation, (Amman: al-Urdon al-Jadid Research Centre, 2000).
4 Hisham Sharabi, “Neopatriarchy: Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society”. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
5 Uma Kothari, 2002, “Feminist and Postcolonial Challenges to Development”, in Critical Perspectives in Development Theory and Practice, ed. Kothari, U. & Minogue, M, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2002): 35-51.
6 UN Women, 2014, “Emma Watson: Gender equality is your issue too”, Herforshe.org. UN Women, 2014, www.herforshe.org, accessed 15th Arpil 2015.
7 Jona Lweis, “What is Feminism?”, About.com, February 2015, www.womenshistory.about.com, accessed 15th April 2015.
8 Nancy Holmstrom,”Women’s Work, the Family and Capitalism”, Science and Society, issue no. 45 (1981).
9 Martha Gimenez, “Marxist Feminism/Materialist Feminism”, (USA: Virginia Tech University, 1998).
10 Erik Wright, Explanation and Emancipation in Marxism and Feminism , in Interrogating Inequality: Essay on Class Analysis, Socialism, and Marxism, (London: Verso, 1994): 1-12.
11 Cathrine A. McKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory”, Signs, Vol. 7, No. 3, Feminist Theory, (Spring, 1982): 515-544.
12 Naomi Byrone, “What is Marxism”, Marxism, Socialist Party, 2011, www.marxism.org.uk/pack/history.html. (accessed April 28, 2015).
13 Dorothy, Smith, “A Biographical Sketch”, in 7 Femenist and Gender Theories, (New York: SAGE Publications, 1977): 318-324.
14 Abdul-Rahman B. Akande, “The Evolution Of Women In Middle Eastern Politics: Opportunities for Women In Parliament”, (The Fletcher School: Tufts University, 2007): 42-56.
15 Amnesty International: Harrasmap Report, 2012, “Egypt’s New Constitution Limits Fundamental Freedoms and ignores the Rights of Women”, 2012, www.amnesty.org, accessed 15th April 2015.
16 Nourhan Fahmy, “Violence against women still prevalent in Egypt: Amnesty International”, Egypt: Daily News Egypt, 2015, www.dailynewsegypt.com, accessed 15th April 2015.
17 Beverly Milton-Edwards, “Contemporary Politics of the Middle East”, (2000): 73-101.
18 Amal Sabbagh, “Case Study: The Arab States”, in International IDEA, Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers, (Sweden: International IDEA, 2005): 5-19.
19 Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), “Women in National Parliaments: Situation as of 31 January 2005”, 2005, http://www.ipu.org, accessed 15th April 2015.
20 Roger Owens, “The Search for sovereignty in an insecure World”, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012): 12-33.
21 Al-Ali, and Pratt, “Between Nationalism and Women’s Rights: The Kurdish Women’s Movement in Iraq”, (United Kingdom: Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 4, 2011): p. 337–353.