Women in the Arab world, progress beyond tradition

Interview with Doctor Nouha Belaid

English translation of Doctor Nouha Belaid’s interview about the role of women in the Arab world (edited by Nico Delfine).

The Arabic world is changing, also because of women’s role, which experienced a certain development in the last few years. More efforts are required and the most conservative Arab countries themselves should consider the strong need for a change coming from the civil society. We are pleased to offer you an interview concerning women in the Arab world with Doctor Nouha Belaid, Tunisian expert in media and communication as well as active in the defence of human rights and access to information.

Doctor Belaid, goal number five of UN Sustainable Development agenda deals, in particular, with gender equality

What is the general situation regarding women’s status in the Arab world?

“The status of women differs from one Arab country to another. Tunisian, Moroccan, Algerian, Lebanese and Jordanian women have greater freedom. Nevertheless, women of countries in conflict, like Libya and Syria, suffer more restrictions in crisis contexts. Moreover, especially Saudi women, or those from Gulf countries in general, are more framed in social values that have their origin in the Qur’an. No one can deny, after all, that Tunisian women have the best condition in all the Arabic world, considering the legal framework which protects their rights: Tunisia is the only Arab country prohibiting polygamy”.

The Arab world is very wide

Are there differences within it when talking about women’s status in public and private life?

“Definitely, there’s a big difference. In Saudi Arabia, women trying a case are rare, whereas this is a normal event in other countries. For example, Jordanian Queen Rania represents the model of a woman leader and she stands up for many causes: she is the promoter of project Edrak, sustaining online education in the Arab worlds. The same can be said about Tunisia and Egypt, countries where we assisted in demonstrations led by women during the Arab Spring revolution. Furthermore, in such countries, some women fill the role of Minister or political party leader. Nonetheless, this could never happen in Saudi Arabia or Qatar. The value of the woman, as a crucial social agent, is not the same for all Arab States”.

Africa is a complicated and heterogeneous continent

What was the social evolution of women of Maghreb in recent years?

“Many women occupied positions of leadership. For example, in Turkey, in 2012 Imen Bahroun was has been appointed President-Director General for Tunisian Public Television. The nomination of a woman at the head of public TV was a first in the Arab world and in the Maghreb. Some women occupied the position of Minister in areas such as culture, economics, tourism and these are happening for a few years. In Algeria, for example, Zhour Ounissi in 1982 was appointed Secretary of State for Social Affairs, between 1984 and 1986 Minister of Social Affairs and Minister of Education between 1986 and 1988. In Tunisia, Fethia Mzali was Minister of Family and Minister of Women between 1983 and 1986. In general, women are a crucial agent of society in the Maghreb. In Syria, similarly, Najah al-Attar designated as Minister of Culture between 1976 and 2000. In Yemen, Amat Al-Aleem Alsoswa occupied the position of Undersecretary of State for Information between 1991 and 2000 and Minister for Human Rights in 2003-2005. Obviously, certain nominations depend on political bias of the President or the Head of the Government of the country under consideration”.

Several Arabic countries experienced some development over recent years, opening up their economies

What was the real impact on the actual women’s participation in economic life and their access to business management on equal terms?

“The Arab woman has established herself in several areas, especially the economic one. In fact, we can find many women in management, leaders of large enterprises in the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa), and some of them are self-employed entrepreneurs. In the 2015/2016 Winter issue of Afkar magazine (Ideas), it was confirmed that, in MENA countries, 12% of women handle their own business, compared to 31% of men: women embark in a business venture and have to compete with the latter. In Morocco, for example, during the celebration of International Women’s Day, the issue 687 of Challenge magazine published a list of about fifty women that make the country move. In this way, for instance, Moroccan woman can affirm herself in the economic scene: this happens also in other Arab countries. The first international network of women leaders and managers was launched on January 24th, 2019, in Casablanca, during the inauguration of Women Association, which reunites the best of Moroccan business world, and more”.

We are living in the age of communication, technology, information and social media

What is the level of computing autonomy and independence of Arab women?

“The situation of Arab women in the area of computing practices is not different from one of the European women. In the presence of good infrastructure and the necessary equipment, digital skills of Arab women are advanced. In fact, if in some countries women do not have real freedom, the internet and social media constitute a shelter which allows them to have contacts with the outside world”.

Typically, society expresses the needs before politics is ready to comprehend change

How much work have Arab counties’ legislations still to do in order for us to talk about actual equality and inclusion of men and women in all aspects of political and civil life?

“Despite some countries have already passed that stage, there’s still much work to do in many others. This fact generally depends on the nature of the political system, on the place occupied by the region in governance, on the role of civil society in decision-making”.

In Western countries, the emancipation of women has contributed to the secularization of society

Can a balance be found between women’s right and religion in the Arab world?

“In many countries, especially those in the Maghreb, religion does not intervene much in the affirmation of a woman’s role in society. Even if Islam is the official religion in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, woman imposes herself in society and gets to occupy top positions. In the most conservative Arab States, woman’s access to public life is limited”.

Media of “main-stream” often treat the Arab world as a monolith

It would be interesting to know examples of nowadays Arab women’s activism

“In the past few years, there are more and more Arab activist women defending their freedom and gender equality. Arab Springs was already guided by individuals of both genders. In Tunisia, for example, Maya Jribi represents the icon of militant women for freedom and right of women, and she was the foundress in 2005 of the group Femmes journalistes sans chaînes (women journalists without chains)”.

By Nico Delfine

Translated by Elisabetta Castellotti

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From the World Sections Human Rights 2030 Agenda Gender equality


#MENA #maghreb #nouhabelaid #mondointernazionale arabwomen gender equality cultural revolution human rights civil rights political rights

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