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In the Muslim world, where religion often legitimizes dictatorships and regimes, the Islamic law is the basis for national legislation regulating individual rights.

Consequently, the application of the Sharia, which is often interpreted in a literal and restrictive sense, without any possibility of amending the precepts of the Koran as time passes and customs evolve, allows for the woman’s role to be kept marginal in society. This despite the 1500 years that have passed since Mohamed's coming.

The saving grace of the Middle East – though partially so – are the secular regimes that need to defend themselves from religion in order to hold on to power. In those nations, at least in part, the role of the woman is more relevant.

There are limited scenarios of freedom, like those of the Syrian Kurd women fighters of the YPJ (Yekineyen Parastina Jin – Women’s protection unit), the female units of the Peshmerga in Kurdish Iraq and the PKK. Kurdish women have always fought alongside their male counterpart to defend their ethnic group and culture, allowing them to win their freedom and individual rights on the battlefield.


There are also cases that lay somewhere in between, like the woman’s status in Algeria. After the liberation war against France (which caused over 1 million dead, mostly men), women were assigned a central role in the country’s reconstruction. This circumstance, however, did not prevent the Code of Family, drafted in 1984, to set rigid limits on gender parity and on the rights (especially in the matrimonial field) originally enshrined in the Algerian constitution.

Lately, the issue of Algerian women has been addressed by a specific UN committee for the elimination of discrimination against women. But there are still strong limitations: the women inherit less than their male siblings and are penalized in divorce cases, they cannot marry non-Muslims (while the men can marry up to 4 wives, provided their first wife agrees), they are discriminated in the job market and are juridically disadvantaged if they incur in family abuses.

Notwithstanding, Algerian women – when compared to the other nearby Muslim countries – enjoy a measure of freedom that other women are denied: they can study at any level and can choose who they wish to marry.

This is due in part to the long history of Islamic terrorism in Algeria, which makes the government less inclined to second social movements that have a rigid vision of the Islamic law. At the same time, however, these governments try to avoid further social conflicts derived from the fracture between Islamic and modern society.


Tunisia is the most striking case. After the ousting of the secular regime led by Ben Ali, the temporary stretch by the Islamist government of Rachid Gannouchi and the moderate reconciliation government, Tunisian women were able to acquire further social rights.

One of these refers to a 1973 legislation that prohibited Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslim men, at the risk of seeing their marriage invalidated. Now this limitation has been abolished because it was not in line with the new constitution drafted in 2014.

A few months ago, there followed another social victory for Tunisian women: the abolition of the so-called shotgun wedding, which cleared rapists from the legal consequences of their actions.

Tunisian women enjoy more liberty than those in other Muslim countries. Polygamy is banished by the social code issued by Bourghiba in 1956.

Yet again there is still a long road ahead: women inherit half of the wealth destined to their male siblings and the possibility to eliminate these last bits of discriminating social heritage are presently quite scarce. The patrimonial rules are derived from the Koran and are therefore defended staunchly by Imams in rural areas of the country. The clash between tradition and modernism has yet to elect a clear winner.


Egypt is also facing its social contradictions, caught between a secular regime, a traditional society, a radical opposition and the consequences of terrorism.

The Egyptian women are the first victims of these elements combined.

Initially, the regime tried to prohibit the use of the burkini, but they were soon forced to repeal the legislation. Was it religious discrimination, as many said? A violation of individual rights? A question of hygiene? The danger of crawling Islamism feared by the regime makes it difficult to find a compromise between tradition and modernity.

At any rate, the Egyptian parliament has recently approved legislation that prohibits female genital mutilation.

A special commission to monitor the “national strategy for the fight against violence on women” was created in 2015, proving that the issue is still an endemic social scourge.

Also, as in the other Arab countries, there is discrimination in the patrimonial field, in the field of divorce and in the custody of children. There is a very permissive approach to the so-called “honor-related crimes” and a silent complacency with regards to domestic violence.

Lastly, there are the “urfi” weddings (“traditional/customary”) which are not part of the official system but mere wedding contracts certified by a notary. A situation that leaves women without any legal defense.

Since 2013, Egypt have undergone a campaign of intimidation and persecution against variant sexual behavior that has led to arrests, torture and all kinds of abuses.

Kurdish fighter of the YPJ

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries

The recent news that Saudi king Salman issued a decree authorizing women to drive automobiles in the future had a widespread echo. Thinking that the decision could cause social and religious upheaval, the king arranged for the measure to become effective in 2018. Actually, the decision is likely ascribable to Salman’s son Mohammed whom, because of his younger age, is probably more inclined to hear the requests of the female part of the country.

This could be a positive element for Saudi society, seen the social and religious context in which the decision was taken, but it is also a very limited measure, compared to the way the world is evolving.

But in Saudi Arabia progress is very slow. In 2013, king Abdallah agreed to allow women to participate in elections and to become part of the Council of the Shura. Was this part of Saudi society’s evolution or was it just the late recognition of a long-denied fundamental right that could no longer be ignored?

The Saudi monarch thought the former to be true.

Almost all of the Gulf countries share a discriminatory approach on the role of women in society but in Saudi Arabia, being the cradle of integral Wahabism, the circumstance reaches new, extreme, heights.

Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law is governed by the radical interpretation of the Sharia and Article 8 of the Law defines the criteria for its application: justice, consultation, equality (“equivalence” would be the right term, since rights and duties are diversely distributed). According to the local social system, the parity of gender is embodied by this approach.

By virtue of this principle of “equivalence”, women inherit half of what their male siblings receive but are not forced to destine the wealth to their husband or children. The husband has an obligation to provide for the family. The husband should also guarantee the protection of the woman with regards to her relationship with the institutions (even though this guarantee strips women of rights and emancipation).

And there are other, collateral, obligations: women must guarantee the honor of the family; they must wear appropriate clothes (see the Niqab or the Abaya, period); they cannot be accompanied by strangers in public places; if they marry a foreigner, they do not pass their citizenship on to their children (unlike men); they must be escorted by their “mahran”; they can receive an identification document only if authorized by their mahran; they cannot work as lawyers and have to be represented by a male lawyer, even when divorcing; their witness account is worth half of what a man’s account is worth; they cannot travel abroad alone; they cannot manage commercial activities or have bank accounts, make reservations at hotels, rent an apartment, have free access to all public places; they must certify to their virginity in the matrimonial agreement (if the woman in question is not a widow or divorced); their husbands have the right to divorce without a reason; if they undergo domestic violence or marital rape, Saudi women are not protected by the law. And the list goes on and on.

Legal, social and religious limitations put Saudi women in a position of subjection compared to the men.

The small social victories of the past (other than driving a car – in the future – they can work in hospitals, government structures or laboratories where promiscuity is limited; women can also appear on TV) are not produced by an evolving society but by a social backwardness that the country has never really dealt with in a serious way.

mohamed bin etc
Mohamed bin Salman

The future

The Middle East and North African countries have societies that evolve less rapidly than the world around them, both with regards to gender parity and, obviously, with regards to other individual liberties.

There is always a connection between the denial of rights and fundamental liberties and the rights inherent to the status of women.

In the Middle East, there exists no democracy and no culture or specific sensibility on gender parity.

These traditional, patriarchal societies live in fear that external influences, such as the modernism of foreign nations, could alter the balance of powers and roles; not only within society, but within single families as well.

Sometimes, as is the case of Algeria, women achieve a better status thanks to the nation’s ordeals. Even the ISIS, now faced with military defeat, has authorized women to take part in the fighting.

But there are also positive influences derived from religious coexistence. These can be found in Egypt, where there are roughly 10% Coptic Christians and in Lebanon, where Shiites, Christians and Sunnis live side by side.

With the advent of the internet, television and all the other mass media where everything is visible without limitations of time and space, Arab and Muslim countries have trouble remaining free of new ideas and behaviors and denying the rights that others, in other parts of the world, have already granted to their people.

Muslim women still have a long fight ahead in order to win the freedom which is currently denied them by society. It’s not a mere religious issue, but rather a cultural one.

Examples like Israel, where two women were placed at the helm of the secret service Mossad, are like science-fiction for the Arab world. And there is also another problem: if the role of women were to change, it would probably have social repercussions, something that many regimes are afraid of. And this also slows down their resolve for emancipation.

There is much left to do. The Saudi legislation, based on the strict interpretation of the Islamic doctrine, strips women of their fundamental rights and bases their social and economic life on the existence of a male tutor (be it father, husband or brother). Saudi women cannot travel alone, open a bank account, inherit, donate, start an economic or commercial activity. To put it very simply, they do not exist as a legal entity.

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