October 14, 2019 in Culture

Modernization and the Women in the Middle East

This research papers discusses the condition of women in the Arab world and the role of the past decade’s modernization in various Arab counties in the development of women rights and standards of living. The following questions are raised: what is the treatment of the women’s rights and freedoms and if this kind of treatment is the result of modernization or the unique cultural, political and economic conditions in the Arab countries; how the women’s lives differ from country to country and are influenced by modern life. It is argued in the research paper that the women’s rights and condition have not improved equally and they differ from country to country (in the Arab world)—this being the outcome of the unique modernization conditions that are different from the Western countries. The following assumptions are reviewed as part of supporting the paper’s thesis: that the modernization translates into the gender equality; that the changing societies and cultures allow women to have better political and economic rights; and that the modern public sphere allows the women to overcome the traditional affiliations with the interpretations of the Islamic law and negotiate for better rights. The main theoretical framework for the research paper is taken from an article by Jocelyne Cesari, who maintains that the modernizing society in the Arab world has diverse publicly expressed opinions yet abides by the religious leaders. Cesari’s view is partially based on the theory of the public sphere by Talal Asad. In the paper, there is the literature overview, where the relevant viewpoints are discussed arguing in support of or contesting the thesis. The literature review section is divided into three parts, each focusing on the components of the thesis, namely the articles about the changing societies and their effect on the women in various Arab counties; the articles about the public sphere and its effects on women’s freedoms and rights; and the articles on the improved economic, political and cultural rights of the women as well as the conditions for the improvements. The paper concludes that there are many differences in the living standards and the rights of the women in various Arab countries, and that the improving women’s rights are an outcome of the unique conditions of modernization.

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Literature Overview

The literature that supports the view that the changing societies and cultures have diverse effects on the women in Arab countries:

An article in the Haaretz Press illustrates to which extent the women are differently treated in he changing countries of the Middle East. The women in Jordan have recently become able to marry foreigners, assign their nationality to their children, and travel without asking their relatives. It is notable that in this context of social change, they are still hampered by the proponents of the tradition. For example, there are still the instances of abuse and violence. Likewise, the women received many new rights in Saudi Arabia. They can now be politically active, vote, and be elected officials for the municipalities. Also, women can drive. As for the instances of domestic abuse, they are penalized. The evidence of their tradition is present in the men’s authority over the women relatives. The United Arab Emirates has been the most socially progressive country in relation to allowing women to access social services, education, and professional opportunities. This occurs in the content of viewing women as adulterers if they have sexual misbehavior. In Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria, the women still preserve the cultural tradition of covering and veiling, that has remained unchanged despite harsh political and other changes. 

In an article in The Telegraph, Strange argues that human rights and freedoms have regressed in the Arab countries like Egypt, Iraq and the West Bank. Part of the reason for the aggravation was the worsening political situation and conflict, where the women were the sufferers. The author calls the past ten years “a decade of insecurity”. It was not only the toppling of the Saddam Hussain regime (in Iraq) that negatively affected the women’s condition, but also the societal conflict and instability. This is most evident in the case of Egypt, where women suffered even more following the Arab Spring. Because the social changes had such an unexpected effect on people, who hardened the traditional Islamic views, the Egyptian women started to face a double-challenge of confronting the unjust regimes and the traditional practices. 

The Atlantic’s article by Fisher maintains that the Arab affiliation of a country does not automatically translate to the difficult lifestyle standards and the violation of women’s rights. According to the data by the World Economic Forum and a 2011 article in the Newsweek, few Arab countries rank very low per the quality of life indicator. These countries include Yemen and Saudi Arabia, yet the Sub-Saharan African countries are ranked even lower, particularly Sudan. The article states that the gender gap is present in many world’s countries and is more or less prominent depending on many conditions other than modernity and associated democratization and secularization.

Choy writes about the women in the Sullivan county, which has adopted the laws ensuring the rights and freedoms of women. This author describes in which ways the Arab women’s condition in Canada is unique to this country and society’s state. The law of the Sharia is present and practiced, despite the legislation. It translates into restricting male friendships, forbidding more than one boyfriend or husband, and requiring the women to cover themselves.  Still, the Arab women’s condition is different as they have the civic liberties and can revert to the legislation for the protection of their rights. In other words, the democratically modernizing society gives the women more than one option on how to lead their lives.

In the Harvard Gazette, Walsh expresses an opinion that the lifestyle factors impact the personal health and therefore are important. The main idea of the article is that the women in some Arab countries are confronted with too many problems that they cannot solve. In Sudan, they are compelled to marry when they are very young. Also, they suffer from the worsening of the economy and societal crises. In addition, there are the environmental and urbanization factors like the lack of the water resources, pollution, and reproductive health issues. 

The literature on the public sphere in Arab countries, that there are some different and contentions views, which means that the concept of modernization as secular, publicly decided, and good for women’s freedoms, as in the West, is/ is not an assumption:

In an article in the SSRC blog, Jocelyne Cesari proposes a theoretical framework for modernity. The author bases their views on the works by Talal Asad, who argues that there is a diversity within the Arab countries, for example there are the Sunni and Shiite traditions in the public sphere. As a result of the changing public sphere, the people in Arab countries can freely express and negotiate the freedoms and rights. Cesari examines how the existent believes are subject to change simply because there are contesting views. The people in different Arab countries may follow the Islamic believes and at the same time defend the human rights. In fact, the Muslim people in Europe accept the human rights as compatible with Islam. Still, for the Europeans, the modernizing pubic sphere means it is secularizing and free from the domination of religions. The people in Arab counties place a value on the definitions by Ummah, unlike the Europeans who face contesting realities and collectively decide to modify the individual conditions and freedoms. This “moral commitment” is claimed to be as a priority by the practicing Muslims. 

Brian Whitaker writes in the Al-Bab magazine that there are in fact different interpretations of the Quran. Thus the Arab societies are similarly subjected to the contentious views on the “universal human rights” and the Islamic law. The author questions the position that the Muslims’ human rights can be interpreted only in view of the Islamic principles. Also, it is stated in the article that there is only a perceived authenticity of the religious tradition. Whereas the people in Arab countries are subjected to accepting the prevailing interpretation, without the freedom to disagree with the imposed views. 

The literature supporting or arguing against the point that the changing Arab societies actually have new political, economic, and cultural freedoms that improve the women’s rights and standard of living; only these changes are slow and not necessarily comparable to the Western idea of modernization. 

Thalif Deen argues against the claim that it is an assumption that a modernizing society will institute the women’s rights. The author points to the instances of the women’s human rights violations such as the lack of women’s property related rights, the absence of protection from polygamy and young marriages, and the devastating effects of divorce. The modernization equals increasing the women’s part in the decisions impacting their lives.  Reversely, its absence means that the traditional “conservative forces” would overtake the human right defense victories and place the women back in the suffering positions.  This view is opposite to that by Cesari and Whitaker. The goal of the this article’s author seems to be to persuade that the cultural view of the inequality between men and women is simply a myth and an interpretation of the religious doctrines. Moreover, it is necessary to end the agenda of the conservatives in order to establish a just system that is favorable to the women’s rights.

Tiffany Reed describes the successful instances of the women’s defense of their rights, that resulted in improving their standards of living. The modernizing societies have improved the political, social, and the economic rights of the women in the Arab countries.  For example, women can now be educated, have a job and become active politically. The author underlines the factors that made these changes into a possibility, These include the education. Thus 68 percent of the university students in the UAE are women. As for the public sphere, its effect on women is that women can negotiate their rights with the government and bring legislative changes. Also, the cultural changes allows the women in Arab countries such as Iran and Turkey to choose to wear the veil. In fact, the veil became an attribute of asserting oneself and did not have to mean that the women covering herself is in a subjugated or unequal position. Thus the changing Arab societies improved the conditions for their women, but in a different way than the Western modernization. 

In an article in The Telegraph, Cassandra Jardine describes her impressions from an interview with an Arab women-leader. For many Westerners, the only known Arab women is Queen Rania of Jordan. Yet the author of the article comes to the conclusion that nowadays many women in the Arab countries are well educated, business leaders, and even the proponents of modernization in the Arab world. As recounted by the interviewed Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal, the women can now travel internationally and have public roles and functions. Thus only the traditional fundamentalists view modernization as Western-imposed process of change that can be harmful to women. The expected change is likely to be slow, yet it naturally occurs. It is a misconception is the women have lesser freedoms than men, according to the Islamic law. Thus the changing Arab societies become more modern, even though these changes are met with the opposition.


The literature review reveals that the countries in the Arab world have experiencing substantial changes in the past decade such as modernization, the Arab Spring and similar revolutions, as well as the removal of overtly oppressive regimes. At the same time, these changes did not bring about the desired improvements for women. It is the opposite: in countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, the socio-political changes resulted in the worsening of the women’s rights and standards of living. It is notable that the return of the traditional cultural view on the women as less equal than men is occurring at the same time as the attempts to modernize, negotiate better political and social rights, achieve the freedoms to travel and receive professional jobs, social security, and education. In the countries like the UAE and Iran, the women have been able to achieve substantial progress on many fronts, including the personal freedoms and politics. In all the countries, there is less acceptance of violence toward women, even though it happens, also because of the fast changes and the traditional opposition to modernization and change. Indeed, the freedoms have most regressed in the countries with a recent revolution such as Egypt and Iraq. It is important to address the women rights in the countries with the least protection of women such as Sudan, because of the devastating social and environmental condition, the lack of reproductive health rights, and the still-prevalent young age marriages that negatively affect the lives of women there.

It turns out to be an assumption that the Western-like modernization will lead to the separation of the public and private so that the individuals could select their believes and negotiate the freedoms at a public sphere. In the Arab countries, modernization allowed for the coexistence of different viewpoints about the Islamic view. Still, it did not create the collective-like democracy about the practice of religion. So, the people, including women, abide by the views of the religious leaders rather than the publicly decided legislation and secular believes. In other words, the women in Arab countries may seek to improve their rights and standards of living only in the context of prevailing cultural traditions, which are unique to each country. The Western concept of the universal rights is still useful, as the societies in Arab countries change their interpretations of past religious teachings that were useful for the previous societal orders. 

There are many economic, cultural, and political freedoms, that are both new and useful for the women in the Arab countries. Even though the conservative forces are present that oppose the changes in the women rights, they do not discredit the gains in the rights, but are part of the unique modernization process that is different that in the more secular West. Thus, the Arab women do not view the veil as a symbol of inequality and oppression, as is perceived in the West. And with the gradually increasing modernization, the women in Arab countries can also travel, have business enterprises, and hold public posts. Thus the women become equal contributors to their countries’ modernization. 


It is found in the paper that the modernization in the Arab world does not close the gender gap or equate to the women’s equality. More likely, women are several steps behind men when it comes to personal rights and freedoms, and alike to men, regard the tradition as allowing them to define the actual modernization. Also, the condition of women is vastly different in the many Arab countries, from Sudan to the Unites Arab Emirates (UAE). The uniquely modernizing societies allow for the improvements in the political, social and economic rights of women. The women’s rights are re-negotiated in the public sphere only in the more liberal counties like the UAE, while most Arab countries do not allow to contest the tradition in public. This is especially evident in the cases of the countries that underwent a fast change in an attempt to modernize, for example Egypt and Iraq. 

There are numerous women issues that require their better understanding and resolution, such as the impact of environmental issues on women, the reproductive health rights and early marriages, and the domestic violence against women. Also, the rights of the women living in the less modern conditions of the Arab countries appear to be more neglected. Such issues can be resolved as more women in the Arab countries receive education and assume public positions to advocate for women’s rights. The assumption that the public sphere does not allow for the social change may be overcome as more women have the rights to travel and assume the business and public posts.

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