Patriarchy still holds Arab women back

Sustaining a natural resource that improves everyone’s lives, children in particular, should seem like a no-brainer.

Shortcomings remain. Tunisian students at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities in Manouba. (AFP)


2017/03/12 Issue: 97 Page: 13


The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr



In my previous career as an English teacher in Damascus a decade ago, there was a gifted student who stood out above all others. One day, as she was preparing to enter university, I asked her what career path she would like to pursue; my assumption was that clearly an individual of her ability and drive could choose from pretty much any field that peaked her interest.

She said how she would like to be a doctor but that “after I get married, I’ll probably raise children” and that career, if it ever got going in the first place, would soon end.

For all I know in the years that have passed the student may be completely happy with whichever choices she made. The real loser, however, was not this individual woman but the entire country of Syria. Such a brilliant mind working to its full potential would have been an asset to Syrian, indeed any, society. In the workplace, my former student would have demanded more from her peers and led by example.

This anecdote is certainly not unique to Syria. Brain power and intellect are arguably the most misused resources in the region. Why? Because patriarchy — not Israel nor the United States nor the Islamic State nor religion — has kept women from contribut­ing more to a better society.

The male-led and -dominated authoritarian political regimes that have been in place for decades across the Arab world and broader Middle East have endured exactly because they mirror what takes place and is accepted in people’s everyday lives: The men of the house are expected to go out into the world and the women, broadly speaking of course, are to remain housebound.

The facts back this up: Women account for just 18% of political representation in the Arab world and, according to the 2016 global gender gap report from the World Economic Forum, which measures inequality between men and women, Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey and Iran, account for 11 of the 15 worst countries for women.

What is clear is that in an era in which political violence domi­nates the public and private discourse across the Middle East, the real issues of concern civil society and politicians should be focusing on is instead something that every individual knows and experiences in an intimate, subtle way.

Patriarchal systems served the largely tribal and family-domi­nated people of the region well until the early 20th century, when the world was far less connected and ideas of nation statehood did not amount to much. What went on in San Francisco in 1900 had little to do with the events of the day in Baghdad at that time.

In today’s globalised environ­ment, however, a world in which access to technology and the economic activities in the Middle East in particular have conse­quences for the wider world, the region is being left behind. Part of that is down to the fact that much of half the region’s human capital — women — is left on the shelves in the name of cultural norms.

There is no doubt that better access to education has allowed for improved economic independ­ence and self-reliance that have improved many women’s lives. About 60% of engineering students in the Gulf are women, according to a UNESCO paper, while female-owned firms and companies are hiring more workers than their male equiva­lents — a sign of their success. And there are public discussions — developments highlighted by Western media — over how women are attempting to achieve gender equality in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran that have not been heard in past decades.

Yet major shortcomings remain. According to the International Labour Office, 44% of young women in the Arab world are unemployed, the highest of any region.

A solution, in the words of Lebanese feminist Joumana Haddad in her book Superman is an Arab, involves pursuing a path in which it becomes “necessary, indeed vital, for men to re-evalu­ate their masculine identity and to realise that this identity is surely not dependent on machismo, tyranny, violence and possessive­ness towards (women)”.

Sustaining a natural resource that improves everyone’s lives, children in particular, should seem like a no-brainer. The sooner the patriarchs of the region realise this, the better.


Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).


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