De Facto Women’s Citizenship in the Arab State and in Family Settings: a Historical Perspective
“Woman” has not merely been the second gender throughout human history, but also a crucial social category on which forms of behavioral control have been imposed in the name of a nation, political independence, economic progress, or, simply, in the name of God (Donzelot, 1997; Altorki, 2000). Law has long played a role in maintaining a relatively low generalized status for women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Biased laws and institutionalized procedures lead to smaller levels of protection for women victims, when offenders are not held accountable for the committed crimes, such as domestic violence, marital and child abuse, sexual harassment, and honor killings in Palestinian Occupied Territories (HRW, 2006). In a similar vein, young girls in Yemen are forced into relationships and subjected to marital rape and any sort of violence from their husbands, in-laws and other members of their family. Indeed, Yemen’s personal status law has never set the minimum marriage age for both sexes (HRW, 2011). It is telling that the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report shows that the MENA region has made no improvements yet. Laws have therefore remained behind societal processes, or have not been enacted on an empirical ground, impinging on the social validity of de facto women’s citizenship.
Aside from gender hierarchies being omnipresent in any private and public sphere of life, and the social injustice that is involved in such hierarchies, the association of ‘’womanness’’ and motherhood to nation – as well as manhood and fatherhood to state – still survives nowadays, and raises further the issue of female citizenship in state-building projects. Especially in the current transitional era, in which most Arab states are dealing with historical changes. In the Arab world, the modern “nation-state” has mandated a masculine citizen. It is still the latter to ensure the perpetration of the state after the nation-state ‘’hyphen crisis’’, as conceptualized by sociologist Ulrich Beck (1999). As Souad Joseph pointed out in the speech she delivered in February 2015 at the New York University of Abu Dhabi, family has long been a vital instrument to the formation and transformation of the Arab state. In fact, within the family setting, state, labor force and societal organization are constantly reproduced, showing how state and family are unthinkable as social units independent from each other in the MENA region. For instance, both state and family units operate as controls on education and health, as well as marriage, divorce, nationality, and other personal status matters.
While the state-building processes in the Arab region emerged in the wake of the demise of empires and the implementation of western projects in the early 20th century, the traditional family remained a central part of social and political changes and policies. Likewise, the women’s role in family and society has often been codified and reified in legal texts despite changes occurring on the ground. Therein, among most Arab states, Lebanon legally recognizes eighteen different religious sects for family law, whereas Yemen and Tunisia are the only countries recognizing a civil personal status. The plurality of family legal codes in the MENA region has left regional women without a common legal paradigm able to make headway with a tangible progress in de facto and de jure citizenships.
Arab nationalist reformers like Qasim Amin in Egypt (Ahmed, 1992) have associated women’s emancipation with the potential modernization of Egyptian communities. Women’s labor and higher education, according to Amin, would have worked towards a modernized and stronger sense of “nationhood”. Palestine is a further regional scenario in which NGOs are pursuing the same objectives in the name of similar political ideologies. The emancipation of Palestinian women and their increased sense of national belonging are unavoidable instruments to achieve a fully-fledged Palestinian state.
It is hard to think of a place on this earth where citizenship is not a top-down project and process. Indeed, citizenship’s connection to political membership and civic privileges in state-centred societies is not certainly an Arab phenomenon. Consequently, rights and duties of citizenship have been primarily shaped as a masculine enterprise (Hale, 2000). Nevertheless, women keep experiencing citizenship differently from men not only in light of the hierarchical dimension of the orthodox male-female binary, but also in their belonging to particular social classes, ethnic or religious communities. In the present worldwide struggle for economic resources and for a higher social status, individual belonging, in fact, is complexly interrelated with disparities characterizing social relationships, socio-economic benefits, cultural and religious discrimination or recognition, and a diverse range of privileges in any society.
It is ultimately worth mentioning that the identification of the state with a particular Arab leader has always served as a key tool for national cohesion and civic obedience in the Arab states (Zubaida, 1988). The demolition of Iraq and Libya’s regimes was implying the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s and Moammar al-Qaddafi’s sons. Likewise, the Asads have seen themselves as ‘’fathers of the national family’’, the ‘’fathers of Syria’’. Such politics have effectively been able to shape the – although controversial – sense of nationhood of all citizens, despite the latter’s political stance towards the central state.
In this correlation, both state and family have been conceived and have evolved as masculine projects in that they imply a patrilineal descendance of power (Joseph, 2010). Predominant historical patriarchy has hampered a full understanding and experimentation of how gendered citizenship can offer a fertile ground for the equal role of women within Arab societies.
With Islamic extremism gaining – and losing – ground on a daily basis in the Iraqi-Syrian regions, and the sizeable outsourcing of foreign fighters migrating to the Middle East with their families to combat for the jihadi cause, further research should be conducted on the interplay between family, religion, and the emerging forms of statehood – which are challenged today, in their western modern version, by the reality of al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate – and on how the family unit can be reinterpreted in its presently growing transnationalization process.
In order to pursue higher equality standards and universal de facto citizenship throughout the Middle East, laws, on the one hand, should undoubtedly stand ahead the culture of a society while representing an ideal to be reached, as Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi often affirmed. On the other hand, laws that are more than one step ahead go wasted, remaining on paper while society is not maturing the same purposes. This is why it is fundamental to bear in mind that we are not going to achieve the ideal situation with a mere change of law: the gradual process should be undertaken with a change in education as well, prior to labor. And those in charge of reforming laws must have outstanding knowledge of their own society to set out attainable goals.
Ahmed, L. (1992) Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Altorki, S. (2000) ‘’The Concept and Practice of Citizenship in Saudi Arabia’’, in S. Joseph (ed.) Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East, pp. 215-236. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Beck, U. (1999) Che cos’è la Globalizzazione? Rischi e Prospettive della Società Planetaria. Roma, Italy: Carocci.
Donzelot, J. (1997) The Policing of Families. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hale, S. (2000) ‘’The Islamic State and Gendered Citizenship’’, in S. Joseph (ed.) Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East, pp. 88-106. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Human Rights Watch (2006) Occupied Palestinian Territory: a Question of Security.
Human Rights Watch (2011) How Come you Allow Little Girls to Get Married?
Joseph, S. (Spring-Summer 2010) ‘’Gender and Citizenship in the Arab World’’, al-Ra’ida, Issue 129-130, pp. 8-18. Lebanese American University: IWSAW.
World Economic Forum (2013) Global Gender Gap Report
Zubaida, S. (1988) Islam, the People, and the State. London, UK: Routledge.
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