Rethinking Women’s Human Rights in the Middle East

Wed, Jan 1, 1992


By Mahnaz Afkhami
In Women, Culture and Society: A Reader / Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company / 1992

I am privileged to speak here today, not only because it is an honor to be on the same forum with such distinguished colleagues, but also because of the issue that is the subject of the discus­sion. This, as I understand, is the first time that women’s human rights have been the subject of plenary discussion at MESA. MESA is crossing a threshold, taking up a topic that has already become, and which surely will remain, the test for all genuine discussions of human rights in this decade and into the years that will open the next century. It is equally important that this discourse concerns the condition of women in the Middle East, where the question of women’s human rights is bound to complex historical and intellec­tual foundations.

During the time allotted to me, I wish to make the following points: 1) Women have been wronged everywhere since the beginning of time and across all cultures. 2) Women’s human rights in the Middle East are violated not by Islam, but by Muslims. It is the Muslims as it is the Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, or followers of any religion who determine the forms of life they will lead and values they will respect. 3) Being victims of a patriarchal order sustained by traditional authority, it is imperative for women to seek political power and to help bring to power modernizing governments, that is, governments that move with history, not against history. 4) Middle Eastern women leaders, as indeed other women leaders, need to transcend their parochial cultures and achieve the ability to look at women’s condition, which is in a significant sense the human condition, from a global view­ point. They must become global leaders, for oth­erwise they will not be able to defend and promote rights that are historically valid against accusations that they are instruments of imperial­ist domination. The last part of my discussion will touch on the idea of global feminism.

Women have been wronged everywhere throughout history. Every culture is replete with anecdotes, aphorisms, similes, and metaphors whose point is to demean women. Women have been the toilers, the servants, the caretakers, the housekeepers, the nurses, and the unpaid workers ofall societies. They have been burned alive with their dead husbands, mutilated in order to please men, murdered in order to vindicate men’s honor, battered by husbands with the support of custom and sanction of law, and they have been raped in their own homes, in the streets, in offices, and in wars. They have been denied the right to repro­ductive freedom, the right to freedom of sexual choice, the right to divorce, the right to child custody, the rights to education, land ownership, equality under the law, decently paid employ­ ment under decent labor conditions, and respect for unpaid work that they ceaselessly perform at home and in the field. Where there is poverty, they have been the poorest; where there is illiter­acy, they have swelled the ranks; where natural calamity strikes, they have been the most vulner­able; where violence occurs, they have been the primary victims. Most of all, they have been kept systematically insulated from the society and the political process, and they have been rendered powerless. This is how it has been. This is how it is. But this is not how it needs to be in the future.

To say that we are on the threshhold of a new world order is probably trite but not untrue. To say that the new world order will necessarily benefit the women of the Middle East is probably naive. We are in a transition period that may prove extremely painful. On the one hand, never before in the history of the Middle Eastern countries so many women (and I may add, so many men) have been conscious of women’s rights as these rights are universally understood. Many Middle Eastern women not only believe in but have worked to produce such international docu­ments as the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, where article 26 provides that “All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law”; and the 1981 Con­vention on the Elimination of all Forms of Dis­crimination Against Women (CEDAW), where Article 2 affirms that states parties “condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue, by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimina­tion against women,” that this commitment re­quires that they “embody the principle of equality of men and women in their national constitu­tions” and “ensure, through law and other appro­priate means, the practical realization of this principle.” On the other hand, many Muslim governments that put their signatures to the Universal Declara­tion of Human Rights in 1948, affirmed it in the Tehran Human Rights Conference of 1968, and helped develop the World Plan of Action in the first UN Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975 and after, retreated in the 1993 in Vienna. They questioned the validity of the principles of universal human rights not on political, but on moral and cultural grounds. They rejected these rights even as aspirations. They argued that uni­versal human rights are in fact Western parochial concepts of human rights used as weapons of cultural imperialism and that the very fact of judging non-Western societies by these standards is doing injury to the communal rights of non­-Western societies; that, for Muslim countries, Islam provides the basic elements of a just soci­ety, including the fundamental rights of women.

This argument, supported by some cultural relativists, is injurious to the cause of women’s human rights everywhere, but particularly in the Middle East. It denies to women their rights ostensibly on grounds of religion. In reality, how­ever, it is a justification of patriarchal power to enforce and perpetuate injustice, for there can be no ethical foundation to denying an individual, man or woman, freedom and equal status before the law, when such freedom and right is under­stood and demanded. The concept of universal human rights is based on the principle that indi­viduals have rights because they are human be­ings. These rights allow them the widest possible choice, which, in turn, allows for the widest possible diversity.

The history of Middle Eastern women is bound inextricably to the history of Islam and to the myth that emotionally and intellectually sus­tain it. The ulama defined early and, over the years, precisely the proper place of woman in the Muslim society. The late Ayatollah Murtada Mu­tahhari (d. 1979), one of the more enlightened Iranian Shii clerics and probably the foremost authority on contemporary Shii jurisprudence re­garding women, provides a modern example of the Shii formulation of woman’s proper place~ He argues the naturalness of the differences between the sexes and the conformity of Islamic law with the purpose of divine (natural) creation.1 From the idea of purpose and order in the process of divine creation he deduces, among others, for­mally structured criteria of justice and beauty and concludes what amounts to the proposition that God, in His encompassing wisdom and justice, formally wills woman’s subordinate position in accordance with the requirements of nature.

This “natural” position for women has been asserted by all patriarchal religions throughout history. Indeed, the process of subjugation of women appears remarkably similar in all cultures. The originary myth usually treats man and woman more equitably, but once the historical process begins, woman is reduced to a vehicle of procreation-the axis around which woman’s history as myth or religion is organized.2 Thus, whereas man and woman are equal in the eyes of God, in their duties before Him, and in the divine promise of their salvation, they are rendered un­ equal by the terrestrial powers of patriarchy.

Woman’s insulation in the Muslim societies was legitimated by an effective socialization process that inculcated in her the idea that she was created to serve God and Man by being an obedi­ ent wife and a good mother. Thus, over the cen­turies, Middle Eastern women were effectively reconciled to their lot by an ethics ofwomanhood, derived from the presumed pronouncements of the Prophet and Imams and codified within an impenetrable discourse, created by an elite of male clerics and guarded by a system of exclu­sive rules. Thousands of hadith, whose authentic­ity is determined by a set of arcane rules on most of which there is no solid agreement, are adduced to keep women in their place. Examples of such sayings are legion. A prototypical prophetic hadith states that “A woman does not have one­ hundredth of the rights that a husband has over his wife.” And, according to another the Prophet declares, “If I could order any person to prostrate [sujdeh] before anyone except God, I would com­mand that women prostrate before their hus­bands.”3 There are, of course, other Qor’anic verses and prophetic statements that convey a far more positive picture of women’s rights and their appropriate place in society. In chapter IX, verse 71, for example, we find that ‘The believers, men and women, are awliya’, one of another.” The Prophet says in a hadith “All people are equal, as equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a white over a black person, or of a male over a female. Only God-fearing people merit a preference with God.” This is the side ofthe Qor’an and the hadith that has been systematically suppressed by the Muslim patriarchy.

The patriarchal order conceptualizes the tradi­tional society as timeless and encodes it in . dogma. But social relations change, cultures clash, values are exchanged, facts are redis­ covered, beauty achieves new aesthetic forms. People change as they encounter new experi­ences. These are simple and inevitable matters. Dogma, however, rejects them. It does not move from the reality to the idea; rather, it strives to conform reality to the idea. It does so by structur­ ing a discourse in which the truth resides beyond the realm of human relations. For the guardians of the dogma, the legitimating myth is always external to the humanity that lives it, or is forced to live it. It resides in God, in history, in the folk, or in the idea. This is the essence of fundamental­ism in Islam, or in any religion. This is also the foundation of totalitarianism.

The experience of Iranian women under the Islamic Republic is instructive for the under­standing of the relationship between a society that has evolved through history and a government that tries to conform this society to a particular ideological blueprint. The Islamic leadership pro­posed to undo what women had accomplished by replacing the secular vision, from which women had drawn the moral and political force of their arguments, with the Islamic model, which ren­dered the feminist position irrelevant.4 Once the Islamic Republic was firmly established, the gov­ernment began to rewrite the laws and rules relat­ing to women’s recently acquired rights. The new regime tried to force women out ofthe job market in a variety of ways, including early retirement of government women employees, closing of child­ care centers, segregating women and enforcing full Islamic cover (hejab-i islami) in offices and public places, and closing nearly 140 university fields of study to women.5 But the problems arising from the enforcement of the veil and other Islamic tenets in the streets and homes showed clearly that there were limits in Iran to what a fundamentalist regime could do. Women fought seriously for their rights, making the strict en­forcement of governmental intent costly. The re­gime succeeded in putting women back in the veil in public places, but not in resocializing them into fundamentalist norms. As the economy suffered after the revolution, women worked in villages and cities, often harder than men, to make ends meet. In time, they reasserted themselves in other domains: in the arts, in literature, in education and in politics,6 creating an atmosphere of tension and contradiction that has propelled the issue of women’s status to the center of the debate on the creation of an Islamic society in Iran.

What then is to be understood from this brief introduction?

First, traditional patriarchal societies suppress women everywhere, regardless of social, cultural or religious particularities. This point is impor­tant for the cause of Middle Eastern women be­cause it delegitimizes the clerical-patriarchal argument in favor of women’s separate-but-equal position by introducing a socio-historical and comparative dimension to confront and challenge the validity of the prophetic-eschatological dis­course. The arguments adduced against women’s rights in Islamic societies have been raised in the past in other religions, including Judaism, Chris­ tianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.7

Second, women achieve rights primarily through their own hard and persistent effort. In societies where conditions were more favorable and where they strived, it took them almost a century to move from total public invisibility to a position of visible political, social and eco­nomic presence.

Third, without the support of the modernizing state and its political organs, which are always controlled by men, women’s rights are unattain­able in an Islamic society. The law as the expres­sion of the will of the state is indispensable to the securing of women’s rights.

Fourth, Middle Eastern women can achieve rights mainly outside the sphere of traditional Islam and against the will of the religious leaders. On the one hand, they must transcend the tradi­tional Islamic discourse, which means they have to internalize and implement values that are es­sentially exogenous to their culture. On the other hand, they have to reconcile these values with Islamic prescriptions, if they are to communicate successfully with the masses of women in vil­lages and small towns and to enlist the support of at least a part of the political leadership.

Fifth, once rights have been achieved, they settle in the society’s collective psyche creating a new set of historical conditions and thereafter cannot be easily dislodged. The obverse of this statement is that lasting social change involves hard infrastructural transformation, resulting from persistent and diverse economic, social and intellectual stimuli and support. Since cultural change is not obtained by an exercise of will alone, the women’s rights dilemma cannot be solved merely by changing the rules of discourse. The discourse, however, is important because it defines the modality of politics, which is to say, the discourse is directly relevant to the achieve­ment or loss of political power. Unless there exists significant political power in favor of secu­lar human rights, Muslim clerical hierarchy is unlikely to condone women’s rights as interna­tionally understood. In the final analysis, there­fore, achieving women’s rights depends on achieving and dispensing political power. On the other hand, Islam lies at the core of the value system of the people in the Middle East. Thus, inevitably, the emotional attachment to Islam and the recognition that it is unlikely for women to achieve meaningful human rights within its com­pass make for intellectual schizophrenia. How is it then possible for women to engage the religious dialogue without foregoing their human rights?

The answer must fall in the realm of unity in diversity, in a marriage of values and aesthetics, in mind and heart woven into a drive for transcendence. We derive our special human distinctness from the particularities of our different and diverse cultures. But unless we take in the histori­cally valid idea, regardless of its origin, and weave it into the fabric of our culture, we will not exhaust the promise of our cultural heritage. We Middle Eastern women must become active agents in the process of our own cultural change, social evolution, and economic development by becom­ing advocates of cultural change, social evolution, and economic development everywhere.

The world is undergoing a qualitative change, an important aspect of which may be the weak­ening of the nation-state qua culture boundary. In the process, women may gain a chance to pro­mote on a world scale the kinds of ideas that are applicable to women everywhere. If we do, we will be able to critique the women’s condition in the East and the West from a vantage point that transcends the cultures of Abraham, Buddha and Confucius and thus will help the women of all “worlds of development.”

Waging our struggle in the colonial environ­ment, we Middle Eastern women have achieved a multicultural ethical and intellectual formation and a wealth of experience relevant to the devel­ opment of an internationally valid and effective discourse addressing women’s condition on a global scale. The question is whether this foun­dation can become a springboard for a global discourse. By definition, such a discourse must transcend the boundaries of Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, socialist, capitalist, or any other particular culture. It will be feminist railier than patriarchal, humane rather than ideological, balanced rather than extremist, critical as well as exhortatory.8 The global feminist discourse rec­ognizes that the problem of women constitutes an issue in its own right, not as a subsidiary of other ideologies, no matter how structurally comprehensive or textually promising they might seem to be. It insists in relating concepts to the histori­cal contexts in which they are embedded.9 Since “traditional” concepts are by definition founded in patriarchal discourse, global feminism must be skeptical of propositions that present them as liberating. This feminism is not anti-man; rather, it sees the world in humane terms, that is, it seeks a redefinition of social, economic and political principles of societal organization on the basis of non-paternalistic models. Realizing that such a feat can not be accomplished without or against men’s participation, it does not hesitate to engage men politically in favor of the feminist cause. On the other hand, given the present effects of the historical process, feminism will be critically aware of and fight against patriarchal structures and institutions. 10

The global feminist discourse rejects the no­tion that “East” and ”West” constitute mutually exclusive paradigms; rather, it looks at life as evolving for all and believes that certain humane and morally defensible principles can and should be applied in the West and in the East equally. The point is not that Middle Eastern women should forget the problems that are obviously “Middle Eastern” and intensely present. It is, rather, that unless they think globally, they will neither be able to mobilize world opinion for their cause, nor succeed in breaking out of the bounda­ries of patriarchal discourse on their own, and, therefore, they will likely fail to address their problems in a way that will lead to their solu­tion.11

The global feminist discourse neither takes nor rejects the West as the standard for the evalu­ation of women’s conditions anywhere-in the West or in the Third World. It transcends Western standards. It holds that there are significant issues of commission and omission in the Western dis­course that can be addressed profitably only from the global feminist position. The virtue of the global position is that it partakes of the wisdom of all cultures and that it accommodates differ­ences in the levels of economic and social development without succumbing to either the normlessness of cultural relativism or the self­ righteous parochialism of any particular culture.

The heightened awareness of female human rights today throughout the world makes possible a more unified and effective approach to the global feminist movement. Western feminists can help this process but only to an extent, be­cause they are burdened by two severe handicaps. First, they carry the onus of historical Western hegemony, even though they themselves are the victims of a taxing patriarchal order.12

Second, their problems as women are often of a different order than the problems ofwomen in Third World countries. Consequently, they appear alternately as self-righteous promoters of their own Western culture, when they advocate principles and rights that differ with the tenets of Third World socie­ties, or as self-deprecating defenders of atro­ciously anti-feminist conditions, when they explain away oppressive behavior in the develop­ing world on the grounds of cultural relativism.

Non-Western feminists can be instrumental in the development of a viable global feminism because they are free of the colonial handicap. As the world moves from a disjointed society of nation-states to an increasingly interconnected economic and technological system, and as the symmetry of the enclaves of poverty and back­wardness in the developed and developing coun­tries is increasingly apparent, it becomes easier for Third World feminists to develop a sense of empathy with their sisters in other parts of the globe. Indeed, unless such empathy is effected and expanded, patriarchal norms, for all practical purposes, will not be transcended and feminism, global or otherwise, will not fully succeed.

It is from this vantage point that the originary myth in the Islamic lore may be successfully engaged. Here is a chance for women to transcend the parochial discourse. By showing at once the similarity in the historical treatment of women in all societies and the need for women to deny the legitimacy of the patriarchal order in all cultures, Middle Eastern women can challenge the claim that there is something unique in Islam that separates it from other human experiences. The goal is to contest the right and legitimacy of the patri­
archal clerical order to be the sole interpreters of the values, norms and aesthetic standards of Is­lam-a religion that lies at the core of Middle Eastern culture. The truth is that there is nothing sacred about a limited and highly protected discourse, developed over centuries by a society of zealous men in order to produce and maintain a regime of control, a major function of which is to keep women in bondage-for ever.

*I wish to thank Guity Nashat, Miriam Cooke, Shahla Haeri and Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr for reading an earlier version of this paper. Their comments have been of great help to me.

* * A section of an earlier version of this paper has been published in Mahnaz Atkhami and Erika Friedl, eds., In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1994).

1 Mutahhari, The Rights of Women in Islam, op. cit.
2 See Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Ellison Banks Findly, eds. Women, Religion and Social Change (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985); also chapters by Denise L Carmody, Rosemary R. Ruether and Jane L Smith on Judaism, Christianity and Islam respectively in Arvind Sharma, ed., Women in World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).
3 Majlisi as quoted in Adele K. and Amir H. Ferdows, “Women in Shii Fiqh: Images Through the Hadith,” in Nashat, ed. Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder: Westview PreSs, 1983) p. 59.
4 The important factor here is the replacement of a model of humanism, democracy and progress as the ideal with a model derived from Islam as interpreted by Muslim clerics in pre-modem times. The essentials of the new model were contained in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, particularly in parts referring to velayat-efaqih (rule of the religious jurist), hierarchy of guiding values, and women.
5 Iranian women’s first massive postrevolutionary demonstration for freedom and rights was held on Women’s Day on 8 March 1979, less than a month after the Revolution. Since then, women have remained at the center of the regime’s ideological and political concerns, as any casual reading of any of Tehran’s daily newspapers at any given time will show. For a recent study of women’s conditions in universities see Shahrzad Mojab, “Control-e Dowlat va Moqavemat-e Zanan dar Arseh-ye Daneshgahha-ye Iran (State Control and Women’s Resistance in Iranian Uiliversities),” in Nimeye Digar, no. 14, Spring 1991, pp. 35-76.
6 See, for example, Hamid Naficy’s discussion of films and Azar Naficy’s discussion of literary development in contemporary Iran in this volume. For women in education see Mojab, “Control-e Dowlat va Moqavemat-e Zanan ….” op. cit.
7 Even now such arguments are raised in the West by the Catholic church and until recently by the Anglican church to oppose women’s ordination as priests.
8 I realize that these terms are problematic. The function of a global discourse is to define and clarify the concepts invoked by these terms in a way that is suitable to the requirements of an equitable system of gender relations in the 21st century, if not earlier in the so-called “new world order.” For a critique of approaches to feminism, patriarchy and Islam see Deniz Kandiyoti, ”Islam and Patriarchy: A Comparative Perspective,” in Nikkie R. Keddie and Beth Baron, eds. Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 23-42.
9 For a relevant critique see Christine Delphy; ”Protofeminism and antifeminism,” in Toril Moi, French Feminist Thought: A Reader, op. cit. pp. 80-109. See also Linda Kauffman, ed. Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
10 For some possibilities of what might constitute a discourse that has a chance of transcending fixed sexual polarities see Julia Kristeva, “Woman’s Time,” in Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore, The Feminist Reader, op. cit., pp. 198,-217.
11 What appear as obstacles to the development of a global approach to a feminist social and literary criticism, namely, the contemporary emphasis in universities on cultural relativism, on one hand, and on textual and deconstructionist analysis, on the other, may prove a positive force for the future involvement of Third World women in the construction of a global discourse. The transition from parochial/relativistic to a global approach is already taking place as more and more feminist positions are advanced mutually through intellectual representatives of Western and non-Western cultures.
12 Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel, eds. Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

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