Assembly President urges greater female public participation in Middle East

Sheikha Haya

4 June 2007 – For genuine gender equality to take root in the Middle East, more women must take leadership positions in the public sphere, the United Nations General Assembly President said today in an address to the Senate of Spain in Madrid.

“The Middle East is a vast, diverse region and the status of women varies significantly from one country to the other,” Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa – a legal expert who has championed women’s rights for 30 years – of Bahrain said. “Women in some parts of the region still face multi-layered discrimination that is deep-rooted in our legal framework, culture and educational system,” she added.

Citing some of the problems women in the Middle East face, Sheikha Haya noted that in many countries, they are hindered by family laws which have been interpreted “subject to completely different social contexts in today’s world,” and she stressed the importance of basing interpretations of Islamic texts to the needs of the 21st century.

“Often traditions are associated with religion, making them far more difficult to criticize or change,” she observed. “This has created a mentality that fears the autonomy of women because it is viewed as a threat: a threat to the traditional family and a threat to marital relationship s as well as a catalyst to sexual freedom.”

As a result, she said, some men consider women physically incapable of carrying out certain duties, which has the consequence of women doubting their own capabilities and “accepting a level of control and submission, even violence at times, to keep the family intact.”

Sheikha Haya also called for the implementation of curricula, focusing on such subjects as philosophy and theology, which encourage critical thinking.

“These subjects lay the foundation to review, evaluate and criticize the ideas that shape our societies,” she noted, adding that education should respect diversity and equip future educations with the skills to openly tackle obstacles we face today.

“We should not be left with fertile ground for extremist ideologies,” she said. “We should not allow those who want to limit us to the past to solve problems of the present.”

The Assembly President pointed out that in recent elections in Bahrain and Kuwait, many religious leaders pushed for women to not be elected, arguing that a woman’s place is in the home. She added that some women themselves do not want other women to be involved in politics, which they see as unfeminine and a threat to society.

However, she emphasized that despite women in the Middle East remaining under-represented in the public sphere – including in parliaments, at high government positions and in multilateral institutions – many play a key role and influence policy and public opinion through the media, petitions to governments and their participation in union, political party and non-governmental organization (NGO) activities.

“Indeed, there is a long tradition of women’s involvement in NGOs and civil society institutions in the Middle East,” she said. “It is a trend that needs to be strengthened by all.”

Sheikha Haya is in Spain on a three-day visit to Cordoba, Seville and Madrid, organized by Casa Arabe, an international institute of Arab and Islamic studies.

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