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Islamophobia is hindering gender progress in the Middle East

Negative stereotypes are still standing in the way for gender equality progress in the Middle East, according to recent discussions in the United Nations Office in Geneva.

All regions of the world face specific challenges related to the advancement of women’s rights. Yet the Arab region is under the microscope a lot more than the West.

This according to discussions during a panel held on 15 September at the United Nations Office in Geneva.

Progress in the Middle East

Despite growing instability and social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa,  encouraging developments are taking place in the Arab world.

Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan have recently repealed discriminatory laws allowing rapists to escape justice if they marry their victims. Additionally, in Algerian, Tunisian, and Iraqi parliaments, women occupy more than 20% of the seats.

The United Arab Emirates and Egypt have likewise introduced legislation enabling women to benefit from equal rights and opportunities as their male compatriots.

Similarly, other countries in the Arab region have rolled out initiatives to advance the status of women. According to the panelists, Arab nations are making headway in gender progress.

Islamophobia holds back progress

Despite these encouraging signs, misconceptions abound. According to the panel, “Women’s rights in the Arab region: between myth and reality”, the mainstream media may be the cause. Global news sources still stereotype Arab women. The result is a misleading picture of the rights and representation of women in Arab society.

The rise of extremism, Islamophobia and right-wing populism further to exacerbates the issue. Women are often depicted as oppressed, weak and voiceless.

Arab societies are assumed “guilty” for alleged failures in advancing women’s rights. The experts at the conference call for a need to correct “orientalist” perceptions.

Islam under the microscope

The relations between Islam and women’s rights have also been the subject of widespread debate among women’s rights experts.

Viewing Islam through the lens of terrorism, some women’s rights authorities consider the primary religion of the Middle East incompatible with women’s rights and gender equality. The misconception that Islamic principles are hostile and discriminatory towards women is still a mainstay in global discussions.

Tackling misconceptions

Islam is portrayed as a “hostile religion to women”, according to the panel. Viewing the region’s culture through the Western lens cannot solve this, say experts. Simplistic solutions to challenges in the regions abound, but they don’t assess the teachings of Islam.

None of the research into barriers for women in the Arab world take Arab women’s perspectives into account.

In the book “Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism”, written by Dr. Susan Carland in 2017, Arab women do not see Islam as an obstacle to fight sexism, discrimination, and marginalization of women.

According to interviews in the book, Islam’s teachings of equality empower the majority of Arab women. However, the experts at Geneva believe mainstream media still underplays the role of Islam in redefining women’s rights in modern societies.

Beyond naming and shaming

Myths around the status of Arab women still exist. According to the panel, challenging these stereotypes should be a priority. This is crucial to help decision-makers and women’s rights experts correctly identify a common agenda to promote gender equality on a global scale.

It will enable women’s rights experts from the Arab region and the West to shift from “naming and shaming”.

For the experts in Geneva, the call to action should move away from assumptions of moral superiority to constructive dialogue and joint solutions. Advancing the status of women requires a unified attempt by the Arab world and the West.

The global agenda

Empowering women is vital to long-term socioeconomic sustainability. Yet no society in the world can claim to have achieved true gender parity. With this in mind, the United Nations has made gender diversity one of the key sustainability goals for the world at large.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) includes specific provisions to member states. SDG 5 in particular, commits to gender equality.

Both men and women are meant to enjoy “equal rights”, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nearly 70 years on, gender equality is still not recognised as a fundamental right.

It is also becoming a guiding principle for nations looking to build a just and inclusive society with the highest rate of growth.

As in the West, the enhancement of the social status of women is of high importance in the Middle East. The challenges to gender equality aren’t limited to one region. Every nation in the world needs to chart a more inclusive agenda to enhance gender equality. This starts with creating suitable framework responding to its specific needs. In short, women’s empowerment and gender equality should remain a global objective, achieved through international collaboration.

Countries around the world need to create a more inclusive agenda to enhance gender equality. In short, women’s empowerment and gender equality should remain a global objective, achieved through international collaboration.

Hoda Al-Helaissi (Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council), Amr Ramadan (Egypt Ambassador), Dr. Susan Carland, as well as members of the Geneva Centre, Idriss Jazairy and Dr. Hanif Al Qassim were on the panel.

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