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Reflections on Authoring the Chapter on Young Women for the 2016 Arab Human Development Report

[Cover image of 2016 AHDR] [Cover image of 2016 AHDR]

After a long delay, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has finally published its latest Arab Human Development Report, ADHR 2016: Youth and the Prospects for Development in a Changing Reality. In this text, we would like to share our misgivings with the final product—more specifically the chapter we were involved with as authors, as well as the process that led to its publication.

Together, we comprised the team that was tasked to write a chapter on young women in the region. We were aware of some of the shortcomings and controversies around previous development reports. Of most relevance to us in this respect was the 2005 AHDR: Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World.[1] Nevertheless, we were encouraged and inspired by the academic coordinator of the project, Dr. Jad Chaaban. We felt confident that his intellectual and political vision for the report would allow us to produce a nuanced text that would neither show young women as mere victims nor romanticize their agency.

We sought to provide an account that avoided reinforcing a linear narrative of development and modernization, or tropes of neoliberal empowerment. Instead, we wanted to show a diversity of experiences. Similarly important for us was to emphasize the significance of political economies, class, and an intersectional approach to gender—in addition to the impact of war and conflict, and of imperialist and neoliberal policies and interventions. We aimed to do this without glossing over the systematic and structural inequalities and forms of injustice many women in majority Arabic-speaking countries face. Our vision was to recognize the power of prevailing gender norms but also highlight the numerous ways many young women challenge hegemonic gender ideals—through their everyday lives, their sexualities and relationships, their political mobilization, and their cultural and creative expressions.

While we very much enjoyed working with the academic coordinator of the report as well as the other co-lead and background authors, we were quite taken aback by the way UNDP handled the process. After intense and productive consultations with the academic team, our chapter ended up in an obscure editorial process that lacked any proper consultation or transparency. On several occasions, we were told that a launch was imminent, but were subsequently left without any information for long periods of time.

We heard nothing from UNDP for over a year. Finally, we were sent a version of our chapter that we almost did not recognize, despite being advised that only minor edits had been administered. Large sections of our text had been excised, including one in which we gave examples of ways in which young women transgress norms surrounding marriage and heternormativity; another dedicated to young women as producers of culture; and a further section about online activism. Many country-specific examples we had presented were replaced with generalized statements, explicitly contradicting our desire to emphasize nuance and resist homogenizing the region and the societies within it. Sections in which we provided an intersectional analysis—such as the ones on social and political conservatisms, on multiple forms of gender-based violence, and on sexual health and education—were shortened. Examples that showed how economic and racialized inequality intersect with gender-based violence were deleted, including one mentioning the plight of migrant domestic workers.

We were given less than two weeks to review the revised chapter, in which the changes had not been tracked. This left us with very little time to finalize the text, particularly in view of the long delays as well as lack of engagement and communication for over a year. Simply put, the imposed time frame was insufficient. We jointly produced and submitted a long list of required edits, objections, and suggestions. We received constructive replies to many of our comments, but many others were simply ignored. That was the last we heard before publication of the report.

It is our understanding that several Arab ambassadors were involved in the process of reviewing the report. We doubt it is a coincidence that the only chapter of the new UNDP Arab Human Development Report that was censored—and we use this term advisedly—in this way is the one addressing young women. While we felt that the chapter was sufficiently restored to attach our names to it (see published version here), we remain dismayed that sections in which we provide complexity and nuance, and ones pertaining to young women challenging gender and sexuality norms as well as their cultural and creative expressions, have been totally eliminated from the final report.

In what follows, we reproduce the chapter as it was originally submitted, and highlight the main sections, paragraphs, or sentences that were ultimately deleted before final publication as a demonstration of the dynamics we describe above.[2] Those sections, paragraphs, and sentences are indicated by the purple color font they appear in.

[1] See, for example, Lila Abu-Lughod “Dialects of Women’s Empowerment: The International Circuitry of the Arab Human Development Report 2005,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41 (2009), 83–103.

[2] We say “main sections” because the deletions highlighted are only those that are most significant. The version published by UNDP contains many more smaller changes that we have not highlighted, and indeed remain difficult to trace. 


Chapter 6 of Arab Human Development Report 2016:
Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality

Young Women: A Mixed Picture (As Originally Submitted, Not Published)

6.1  Challenges facing young women in Arab countries

Legal barriers to equality

Legal barriers to gender equality are a challenge facing young women across the region. Of the Arab states, all but Somalia and Sudan have signed and ratified the Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and 15 of the 22 Arab countries have a constitution that explicitly grants equality between men and women (recognising equality before the law and/or featuring anti-discrimination clauses)[i]. However, Arab signatories to CEDAW have placed reservations on the latter which go as far as to empty it of it foundational substance, and despite the right to equality granted constitutionally, in most Arab countries there are no laws that directly ban discrimination. Moreover, while several countries’ constitutions explicitly mention the state’s commitment to protect women against all forms of violence, these commitments are often contradicted by Penal Law that gives leniency to male perpetrators in certain crimes of violence against women, such as spousal violence,[ii] rape, and so-called ”honour crimes”[iii].

There are significant differences between men’s and women’s rights to pass citizenship to their children and spouses in most Arab countries. In 13 Arab countries, the law does not allow women to pass citizenship to their foreign spouses,[iv] and they cannot pass it to their children in 10 Arab countries.[v] Laws on the right to pass citizenship are important in terms of their symbolic and practical meaning; they give insight into dominant constructions of national identity, and the way these relate to gender norms. Women in some countries can only pass nationality to their children in certain cases.  In Kuwait, a woman can pass on her nationality only if the father is unknown or has died, or if there has been an “irrevocable” divorce.  In Lebanon, a woman can pass on her nationality only when the child’s father is unknown.  In Yemen, women can pass their nationality to children if they are divorced, widowed, abandoned by their non-Yemeni husbands, or if the father is unknown or has no nationality. In Morocco, nationality can be passed only to the children born of foreign Muslim husbands, and in Saudi Arabia only to sons not daughters. In addition to that, women can apply for passports without husband or guardian permission in only in 12 Arab countries,[vi] and many countries such as Saudi Arabia require women to be accompanied by a male guardian in order to travel[vii].

Although family law differs from country to country, it tends to enshrine unequal gender relations, limiting women’s rights in matters of marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Family law or Personal Status Codes (PSCs) remains a core source of symbolic and material inequality in Arab countries (Moghadam, 2004: 147). PSCs contain a patriarchal bias that is legitimised by religious institutions and thus difficult to contest. The legal basis of the PSC in most Arab countries is Muslim Jurisprudence (Fiqh), which is supposed to reflect Shari’a Law, but which, in reality, reflects patriarchal interpretations of it.  Regarding marriage, in some countries a legal guardian must either carry out the contract on the woman’s behalf or approve the marriage contract. Muslim women are forbidden from marrying non-Muslim men in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In Oman, women are free to approve their own marriage contract but are forbidden from marrying non-Muslim men. In some countries, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, for example, family law conflates rape with the crimes of adultery or premarital sex, meaning that if a woman cannot prove that her rape was non-consensual, then she is liable to be tried for zina (fornication).  PSCs largely code women’s status in terms of male guardianship and authority.  This framing of gender relations can give complicity to domestic violence, as a husband’s violence towards his wife can be considered a form of Ta’dib (correction or discipline).

Nonetheless, some improvements have been achieved in terms of legal rights issues in the past decade. In Morocco and Tunisia, PSCs have been amended to espouse more egalitarian gender relations, and some progressive amendments have been observed recently in Algeria and Bahrain.  Although PSCs are a good indicator of gender discrimination within Arab countries, it is important to bear in mind that they do not necessarily reflect the realities of gender relations between women and men, or the gains that women are able to make by manoeuvring and manipulating the system.  Furthermore, and as will be shown in the part on mobilizations below, women and men are challenging and contesting legal inequalities by proposing alternative religious readings and their own visions of equality.

Representation in Formal Politics

Improvements have been made in the past decade regarding women’s electoral rights and political representation. Globally, women make up 21.4 percent of parliamentarians. Progress in Arab countries has been slow; at the current rate, it will take nearly 40 years to reach the parity goal in parliaments.[viii] In 2012, women in the Arab region held only 14.9 percent of total seats in national parliaments.[ix] The number of seats currently assumed by women in Arab parliamentary bodies is below 4 percent in six countries; namely, Qatar (0%), Yemen (0.3%), Oman (1.2%), Egypt (2.2%), Comoros (3%) and Lebanon (3.1%) (Table 6.1).[x] The introduction of a quota system in countries such as Palestine, Iraq and Jordan, ensure the presence of women in representative assemblies from municipalities to parliament.  Following the introduction of a quota, in 2012 Algeria became the first Arab country to surpass the 30% target for female parliamentary representation put forward in the Beijing Platform for Action[xi] and the general recommendations for CEDAW. 

Table 6.1: Political Representation of Women in Arab Countries Representative Assemblies

* Figures correspond to the number of seats currently filled in Parliament.
Source: IPU database accessed on August 2014 and previous archive.

Women’s presence in parliament does not necessarily signify an improved situation in the political realm nor has it necessarily contributed to gains in political rights or women’s rights in general.  Numerical increases belie the complexities of women’s entry into formal politics and the conditions therein.  In some places, the introduction of a quota has simply led to nepotism towards female relatives of existing politicians.  Even when this is not the case, women suffer unequal treatment and condescension. Furthermore, they still do not have the decision-making power that male politicians have. In Iraq, for example, no women took part in the negotiations to reach a compromise government after the parliamentary elections of 2010 and only one woman runs a ministry – the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.  In 2009, Nawal Al-Samaraie tendered her resignation as Minister of Women’s Affairs due to lack of power and resources, saying, “My resignation is a warning to the government and a protest against its inability to evaluate the needs of women” (IRIN, 2009). Furthermore, the inclusion of women in decision-making positions does not ensure that measures to advance equality will be increased.  For example researchers and activists in Iraq and Palestine (Al-Nadawi, 2010 ; Jameel Rashid, 2006, ; Mekki Hamadi, 2010; Richter-Devroe, 2008 ) have noticed that the introduction of a quota has enabled women coming from conservative religious parties to enter the parliament. Thus, many female parliamentarians have actively supported measures and laws that undermine women’s rights.


Speaking generally, young women’s access to education in Arab countries has improved considerably. Arab countries have successfully provided access to public and free education for most girls and boys (see Figure 6.2).  Except for tertiary education, female education attainment has been increasing significantly since 1970. Enrolment in primary education in developing regions reached 90 percent in 2010, up from 82 percent in 1999.[xii] In 2011, female net enrolment in primary education reached nearly 82 percent in the Arab region, compared to a world average of 88.3 percent. The ratio of female to male primary enrollment in the Arab region leveled at 91.8 percent in 2011, compared to 97.4 percent worldwide.[xiii] Literacy rates among adults and youths are on the rise and gender gaps are narrowing. In 1990 there were 90 literate young women for every 100 young men; by 2010 this had narrowed to 95 literate women for every 100 men.[xiv]   

Country can be as important as gender in dictating young people’s access to education.  The number of female children of primary school age that are out of school ranged from 2,500 in Qatar and Syria, up to 597,200 in Yemen; while the number of male children of primary school age that are out of school ranged in 2011 from around 2,200 in Qatar and Oman, up to 351,750 in Yemen.   In certain locations – particularly the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) - young women’s participation in education is actually rapidly outpacing that of men’s (Ridge, 2009.  For example, some countries like Qatar and UAE even have the highest female-to-male university enrolment ratio in the world.  Even amongst extremely conservative families, young women’s educational achievement is often encouraged and prized.

Figure 6.2: Female Education Attainment in the Arab Region, 1970-2011

Source: World Bank, WDI September 2014.

Nonetheless, heavy challenges remain for young women in their access, completion, and fulfilment of a good quality education.  In situations characterised by conflict and/or poverty, young women’s educational opportunities are significantly lessened.  Furthermore, young women in rural and nomadic communities have less access to education than those in urban locations (Lewis and Lockhead, 2007), in some cases due to transportation difficulties.  Poverty, conflict, and rural living often have a similar effect on young men’s education.  However, for women these factors can intersect with gendered experiences; the prevalence of early marriage in some locales such as Yemen, or young women’s responsibilities to take on care-giving roles when families are disrupted by war, such as in Iraq and Syria.  Furthermore, for young women who have had access to education, some challenges remain in the quality of content of the educational system, , and young women’s concentration in “female” disciplines (relating to care-giving and the service sector) can narrow their future opportunities by curtailing their access to further study and employment in supposedly “male” areas.


Young women are struggling to find meaningful, fulfilling, and properly remunerated employment, especially women seeking their first jobs after graduating. The proportion of women who work outside the home has increased in all Arab countries in recent years, especially among women in the Gulf, who have benefited from government policies that seek to “nationalize” the labour force and lower unemployment. Women in  Arab countries work mainly in   in the public sector;as in Jordan for example 82 percent of women’s positions are in the public sector.  However, in the past 30 years the economic situation has been characterized by two interrelated phenomena that have contributed to what has been termed the “feminization of poverty”[xv]. First is the transition from Keynesian to neoliberal economies, which has been accompanied by an international division of labour that is reliant on cheap female labour, in a context where women remain in charge of reproductive work and domestic labour.  Second is the emergence of temporary, part-time, casual, home-based jobs, in conjunction with the decline of the welfare state in the core countries and the development states in the Third World (Moghadam, 2009). Privatization and restructuring has in many locations, most notably in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, led to lay-offs that have affected women disproportionately.

Employed women face similar challenges as elsewhere in the world: they are often paid less than men for the same jobs and they are often faced with the double burden of employment and domestic work.  Furthermore, women, and especially young women, often struggle to be taken seriously or acquire decision-making positions in the workplace. Connected to this is the prejudice and harassment that many young women face at work; while some employers take harassment seriously, this is largely at their discretion, as no Arab country has legislation directly prohibiting sexual harassment in the work place.   Furthermore, young women, as all women, face discrimination in laws regulating pensions and benefits as men are considered the bread winners of the family. 

The case of domestic workers who have migrated into as well as within Arab countries, mainly in the Gulf States, is revealing of both the vulnerability and precariousness of female cheap labour in the world. The kafala (sponsorship) system, which governs the relationship of domestic workers to their employers and recruitment agents, forbids the former from changing an employer or leaving their employer’s place of residence, leaving them open to extreme exploitation in terms of working hours, standard of living, and systems of debt bondage (Human Rights Watch, 2008, e.g.).  For these women, the feminization of poverty and an under-regulated market has been both the source of their need to migrate, and the root of their exploitation in their new places of residence.

Employment and, more broadly, economic opportunities are linked to women’s rights and their exposure to gender inequalities. Statistics at a world level show that the more women have access to economic opportunities, that is to say, the more women are independent financially, the less they face gender inequalities. In Arab countries, the lack of economic opportunities coincides with high level of gender inequalities (Figure 6.4).

Figure 6.4: Gender Inequality and Economic Opportunities

Source: UNDP Human Development Report 2013; WEOI regional calculations based on EIU data.
Note: The Gender Inequality Index (GII) is rated on a 0 to 1 scale where lower is better. Here, GII scores are multiplied by 100 for ease of comparison. The Women’s Economic Opportunity Index (WEOI) is rated on a 0 to 100 scale where higher is better.

Gender-based violence (GBV)

GBV is a problem that affects women in various manifestations across the region.  Certain forms of violence are of concern to young women in particular.  Early and forced marriages are forms of GBV that by nature affect young women primarily.  “Honor killing” – alternatively referred to as “femicide” or “qatl al-nisaaffects young women at higher rates than older women.  In Jordan, for example, 81 percent of victims are below 30 and the largest sub-category of victims is aged 19-24 (Mansur, Shteiwi and Murad, 2010). Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) also relates particularly to young women; although usually carried out during childhood, FGM is entwined with ideas of sexual propriety and marriage prospects, which especially affect young women .  While “honor” crimes, early and forced marriage, and FGM are perhaps not as endemic in the region as media coverage would have us believe, they are nonetheless some of the most serious challenges to young women’s rights and freedoms in the places where they continue. 

While physical abuse is generally prohibited by law, none of the Arab countries explicitly recognises marital rape as a crime, and special protections against domestic violence are rare. Although recently repealed in Morocco, laws that allow rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victim remain on the law books in various Arab countries (Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and Palestine), similar to European countries such as in Denmark (until 2013) and Russia.[1]

All of these forms of violence are in various ways related to deprivation, poverty, and insecurity.  Generally speaking, poverty and rural living correlate directly with incidences of FGM (UNICEF, 2013: 20, 37).  Similarly, of the women who are victims of “honor crimes”, most are not only young, but also from impoverished families.  A study from Jordan reveals a strong correlation between poverty and “honour crimes” in relation to both victims and perpetrators (Mansur, Shteiwi and Murad, 2010).  As is discussed in the chapter on war and conflict, the physical and economic insecurity caused by conflict can be a lead determinant in earlier or less favorable marriages for young women.  No stratum of society is immune from GBV.  However, the ability to seek judicial redress or medical treatment for GBV, or the opportunity to seek services to escape from domestic violence, can be heavily dependent on a woman’s social standing and access to economic resources.

While “honor” crimes, early and forced marriage, and FGM are some of the most highlighted forms of GBV, there are many other, more insidious forms of violence that young women deal with on a daily basis, in which their gender interacts with other forms of marginalization.  For example, young women in conflict and authoritarian and/or militarized states exhibit higher rates of GBV than elsewhere.  Furthermore, GBV experienced by young women can be changed and/or worsened if they belong to another subjugated group.  For example, while sexual harassment is known to be a widespread problem facing young women in Egypt, for women of ethnic minorities this is often accompanied by racist abuse (see accounts from Schwartzstein, 2014; Khalid, 2011, e.g.). 

For some young women, sexual violence is bound to their economic status as a denigrated ethnic or religious group.  This is the case for young women of Yemen’s muhamsheen (“marginalized ones”), a marginalized minority of people identified by their darker skin color and often known as al-akhdam (singular khadem, meaning “servant”). Racial stereotypes about muhamsheen women’s supposed sexual immorality expose them to violence.  Their work as night-time street cleaners and their over-crowded and exposed living conditions (the result of their impoverished situation) add fuel to these stereotypes (Housing and Land Rights Network and Habitat International Coalition, 2007: 11). Likewise, the extreme levels of physical and sexual violence reported amongst domestic workers in the Arab region are closely tied to the economic violence they suffer, and compounded by views of them as racially inferior, especially for sub-Saharan African women (Human Rights Watch 2008; 2013; Migrant Rights 2014).

The Challenge of Social and Political Conservatisms

One of the main challenges currently facing young women in Arab countries is the prevalence of conservative social and political forces.  As conservative factions gain power, women become more highly policed in their movements, behaviour, and dress, while choices about their life trajectory and sexuality tend to narrow.  Interestingly, many conservative Islamist parties can promote a normative and discriminatory gender ideology - considering women as legal minors and suggesting that their bodies must be covered in order for them to be deemed moral and respectable - and at the same time be the main avenue for their political participation via their parties and groups.  Conservative discourses, religious or secular, tend to involve a rejection of “Westernization” and a promotion of an “authentic” national or regional (and often religious) culture. Considering the Arab region’s history of colonial subjugation and the continued imperialism it suffers, it is not surprising that such arguments are powerful. However, these concerns about authenticity and “Western-ness” focus primarily on family, gender, and sexuality and thus are played out on women’s and non-heterosexual people’s bodies.

Young women occupy a distinct position vis-à-vis nationalism, communalism, and sectarianism.  On a basic level, young women's social position tends to be denigrated by both their gender and their age, as patriarchal relations privilege not only male gender, but also seniority (Kandiyoti, 1988). This is exacerbated by young women’s tendency to be more globally connected through their use of new media, and the ensuing accusations of being disconnected from their parents’ generation and “too Western.” Insofar as transnational youth culture is translated into changing fashions in clothing, such generational “difference” becomes highly visible on young women's bodies.  Finally, young women’s demographic position, which places them as part of a large youth population that is postponing marriage, puts their sexuality under particular scrutiny, exposing them further to the effects of social and political conservatism.

While conservative gender discourses are not new in the region their prevalence is currently massive; patriarchal family and gender discourses are flourishing in unstable times, and their circulation across borders is fuelled by new media technologies. What is more, conservative gender discourses are not the preserve of religious groups, but are found across the social and political spectrum, including within secular factions.  The attitude towards women's roles and status promoted by conservative actors can be seen in Lebanon, where Islamist parliamentarians and the Lebanon’s Dar al-Fatwa (the highest Sunni Muslim authority in Lebanon) , in addition to other religious authorities, mounted a fierce resistance to the recent domestic violence bill drafted and submitted by feminist organisation KAFA.  Invoking the common discourse of foreign interference and lack of cultural authenticity, Dar al-Fatwa issued a statement that claimed that “[The draft law] was not introduced to improve women's status, but rather to break up the family similar to Western ways, which are foreign to our society and values” (Kalin, 2014). The effect of conservative resistance was that although the bill was passed, the strong language and content of the original document was lost in the final version, and elements harmful to women were added, such as a recognition of “marital rights to intercourse” (Bashour, 2014).  PSCs are a primary site for the power of conservative patriarchal forces and are viewed as the legal arena meant to preserve religious or cultural norms. This is owed in part to the origin of the PSC as a site for struggle for national liberation against European colonialism. 

6.2 Family, Marriage, and Reproductive Rights

Changing Family Patterns

The ‘Arab family’ is undergoing significant changes. Over the past decades, patriarchy and family realities have encountered contradictions and challenges linked to economic development, demographic transitions, legal reforms, and women's increasing educational attainments[xvi].  Declining fertility rates, changes to the structure of the family, widespread women's rights activism, and a conservative backlash are all signs of the questioning of patriarchy in Arab countries (Moghadam, 2004). However, family structures do not follow a linear evolution - progressing from the extended family to the nuclear - as is commonly believed.  For example, data from Egypt shows that last century most families were nuclear and much smaller than today (Fargues, 2003).

Marriage remains an integral institution in Arab societies; as elsewhere, state institutions and laws in enshrine marriage as the norm, and reinforce its centrality to the social fabric. However, the emergence of a new social group ,“the singles” is an important feature of the changes in Arab families. The mean age of marriage has increased significantly;.  whereas 50 years ago, the average age of marriage for women in Arab countries was around 18, it is now around 25 (Table 6.3).  The highest average ages are found in Libya (31), and Lebanon (28), in contrast to Algeria, Jordan and Tunisia (24-25), Egypt and Morocco (21-22), Iraq (20), and Yemen (22), which are at the other end of the scale (ESCWA, 2013; Moghadam, 2004; De Bel-Air, 2012).

Table 6.3: Mean Age at First Marriage

Broadly speaking, in poorer and more rural countries, the marriage age has not risen as drastically as elsewhere, and levels of women's education have been a positive correlate to women's marriage age (Carmichael, 2011).  Mean-based comparisons of marriage age between rural and urban settings within countries produce surprisingly small discrepancies. However, studies specifically measuring early marriage (under 18) reveal that such marriages tend to take place in rural and impoverished contexts, with conflict and lack of education also acting as strong determinants (PRB, 2013;World Vision, 2013). The increased level of education of young women is among the main factors explaining the changes in the age of marriage. In order to pursue their studies, many educated young women are choosing to delay their marriage until after their graduation. Even in the oil-rich countries that are known for their conservative gender norms, an increase of unmarried young women has been apparent; the average age of marriage in Qatar, Kuwait and UAE is 25 while it is 22 in Saudi Arabia (Table 6.3). The general trend towards delayed marriage is also closely related to economic crises and high levels of unemployment, particularly young male unemployment (as men tend to bear the financial burden of marriage);setting up a marital home is increasingly unachievable in the economic climate (Obermeyer, 2000; Singerman, 2011).

The legal marriage age is still lower than 18 in many countries in the Arab region. Despite some progress the minimum legal marriage age is still low in several countries (Table 6.4). Moreover, in most of the countries in the region, a woman needs a waly (male guardian) in order to marry; that is, women are not allowed to marry on their own without the authorization of their father or elder brothers or uncles. Nevertheless, women’s rights activism in some contexts has managed to make advances. Morocco’s reformed Family Law (Mudawana) in 2004 and Jordan’s campaign on the issue of marriage age both aim to raise the marriage age for young women and extend women’s rights in the family, and constitute encouraging examples of successful women’s rights initiatives discussed later in this chapter.

Table 6.4: Minimum Marriage Age for Men and Women in Arab Countries

Note: In Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, a marriage below the minimum age can be conducted with a judge’s authorization.

Reproductive Rights and Marriage as a Norm

Sexual and reproductive health of young people is characterized by a lack of access to information; sexual education curricula are very rare, and health service providers often neither recognise the need of youth in that matter nor make them welcome, particularly if they are not married. Apart from Tunisia, national programs addressing young people’s sexual and reproductive health are inexistent (DeJong J., Jawad R., Mortagy I.& Shepard B. , 2005). As we have shown in the preceding section, the mean age of marriage is rising due to increased education and employment, but precarious forms of marriage are also reported such as temporary marriages practiced under the name of zawaj al-mut’a (literally “pleasure marriage”) in Shi’a contexts such as Lebanon and Iraq for example, and zawaj al-‘urfi or miswyar (“customary” and “traveller’s marriage”, respectively) in Sunni contexts like in Egypt. The few studies carried out on these forms of marriages show that the latter privilege men over women, who are denied most of their marital rights (Rashad H. et Osman M., 2003).

Data on unwanted pregnancy and abortion as well as on Sexual Transmitted Infections/HIV/AIDs are very limited.  Young women’s sexuality and childbearing before/outside of marriage are generally considered a great taboo. The stigma is reflected in how governments approach illegitimate children born out of wedlock: in various countries, unmarried mothers are not able to register their babies, and children of unmarried parents have limited nationality rights.  The actual choices and coping strategies of young women who get pregnant vary greatly, however, reflecting the specific social and legal contexts in which they are embedded.  Moreover, the mobility and displacement associated with conflicts in many Arab countries today is itself a risk factor for the transmission of Sexual Transmitted Infections (STI) as it has been the case in Sudan where an HIV epidemic was largely driven by the civil war in the South. Regarding contraception, four in 10 married women of reproductive age living in Arab countries use modern contraception (Table 6.5). Unwanted pregnancies are very common especially in poor countries such as Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. These countries are where contraceptive use is the lowest and where 77 percent of maternal deaths in the Arab region occur (Abdul Monem A., Ashford L., El-Dawy M. & Roudi-Fahmi F., 2012).

Table 6.5: Population and Reproductive Health Indicators for Selected Arab Countries

Notes: *a The data for Palestine refer to the Arab population of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. *b Population data refer to North Sudan (estimated at 80 percent of the total population for South and North Sudan); other data refer to all of Sudan. – Data are not available. *c Regional total includes all 22 members of the League of Arab States; those not shown in the table are Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Kuwait, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.
Definitions: Total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman would have if current age-specific fertility rates remain constant throughout her childbearing years. Any method includes modern and traditional methods. Traditional methods include periodic abstinence, withdrawal, prolonged breastfeeding, and folk methods. Modern methods: include sterilization, IUDs, the pill, injectables, implants, condom, foam/jelly, and diaphragm.
Sources: United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2011); United Nations Population Division, World Marriage Data 2008 (New York: United Nations, 2009); Carl Haub and Toshiko Kaneda, 2011 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2011); WHO et al., Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990 to 2010: Estimates Developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, and The World Bank (Geneva: WHO, 2012); Iraq Central Organization for Statistics & Information Technology and Kurdistan Regional Statistics Office, Iraq Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2006, Final Report (New York: UNICEF, 2007); and special tabulations by PAPFAM.

Lack of information and access to health care and services due to poverty and lack of education are the main factors of unwanted pregnancies. In Morocco, in the 78 percent of married women who would prefer to avoid pregnancy, 67 percent are using contraceptive means while 11 percent are not. According to a 2012 report by UNFPA these 11 percent have ‘unmet needs’, which is to say that they have no access to contraceptive (Table 6.6).

Table 6.6: Women With Unmet Contraceptive Needs by Background Characteristics 

Percent of Married Women Ages 15 to 49 Who Prefer to Avoid a Pregnancy but Are Not Using Contraception

* Limited education ranges from no schooling to less than six years of school attendance. Basic education is defined as six to nine years of school attendance. Secondary+ includes high school graduates with 12 or more years of education. ** Wealth quintiles (five groups of equal population size) are based on an index of surveyed household assets. Data are shown for the first (poorest), third, and fifth (richest) quintiles.
Sources: PAPFAM and DHS.

One particularly harmful consequence of unintended pregnancy is unsafe abortion, especially when women face legal barriers to obtain­ing a safe abortion, as is the case in most of the Arab countries. Abortion is illegal except to save a woman's life in 13 Arab countries,[xvii] and is legal in order to save the mother's life or preserve her physical and mental health in eight (WHO, 2011).[xviii]  Only in Tunisia is abortion legally available without restriction on the reason (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2007; UNDESA, 2013). According to the WHO, in countries of northern Africa alone, nearly 1 million unsafe abortions were performed in 2008. Complica­tions of these abortions accounted for 12% of maternal deaths in that region. The unavailability of legal abortion puts the weight of the state behind the existing dissonance between later marriage and the taboo around premarital sexuality. The disconnect is especially notable in countries like Libya and Lebanon where the highest marriage ages combine with the strictest position on abortion.

Within the countries where abortion is illegal, seeking illegal abortion is likely to mean different things for different women depending on where they live.  In addition to the legal disparity between countries, within each location, level of service provision, and class/wealth add further differentiation in the choices available to unmarried women.  For example, while young women seeking to terminate pregnancy in Cairo are likely to seek out drugs, which are relatively easy to acquire and safe to use, women in rural areas are likely to rely on different means. In one rural area in Upper Egypt, 92% of women who had had abortions sought the services of a friend, neighbour, or traditional midwife to carry out the procedure.  Indeed, a young woman's socio-economic standing can be as important as whether or not abortion is legal. A middle-class woman living in a city where illegal abortion medication is easily purchased might be presented with more choice than an impoverished woman in a rural environment where abortion is legal but services are geographically and financially inaccessible.

Furthermore, easy access to abortion (whether legal or not) in a context where unmarried pregnancy remains highly taboo can lead women to a fait accompli. When being an unmarried mother is not considered an option, young women may have an abortion even when desperately wanting to keep the child. Of course, legal, safe, and accessible abortion is never anything but desirable; the health implications for women undergoing illegal abortions are huge (PRB, 2008), and being unable to seek abortion can constrain women's life choices by pushing them into undesired marriages.  However, social stigma and the absence of welfare for single mothers severely constrain young women's choices in such situations, even when the procedure is legal and/or readily available. 

The expectation of virginity and the pressure to marry as the only possible frame for sexuality is the dominant reality faced by young Arab women. The phenomenon of hymen reconstruction surgery is revealing of this prevailing marriage/virginity norm that is imposed on young women. The high cost of this procedure (i.e.: $1000 in Egypt) is not only testament to the demands for it and to the continued importance of female virginity, but it also illustrates the complex relationship between economic privilege and empowerment. The procedure offers an opportunity for the individual woman – on the condition of an amount of wealth – to avoid social stigma without completely forfeiting the desire to pursue her sexuality.  The woman's resources thus give her more control over her sexuality and its consequences and allow her to improve her life prospects. However, the existence of the procedure as an option conversely acts to entrench patriarchal attitudes towards female sexuality.  It does so, firstly, simply by perpetuating virginity as the expected state for unmarried women.  On a more subtle level, the presence of the hymen reconstruction surgery in popular consciousness – even if not a widespread phenomenon – has arguably contributed to a climate in which “virginity” is deemed to revolve around much more than genital penetration (Sa’ar, 2004). Such an example illustrates the need to situate individual instances of empowerment (along with the resource-based privileges that underlie these) in the larger picture of systemic power relations.

Negotiating “Waithood” in the Parental Home

The consideration of women, socially and legally as non-independent individuals – as part of a family frame, as daughters, sisters and then wives – produces friction when examined in response to the huge youth population in general and the vast number of unmarried young women in particular.  For young women, an important part of the picture is the ways their freedoms are constrained by family members, as they grow older and continue to live in their parental home. Social and economic factors shape the possibility for young women to find a suitable partner, as the gender norm of man as breadwinner of the household and woman as mother prevails, although concrete realities are often very different. The idea that higher education is inappropriate for women, especially when it requires one to live far away from the family home, is still an obstacle in some contexts, mainly in lower class and suburban regions. More subtly, variation is evident within national contexts according to factors such as class, minority/immigrant status, and geographical location.  For example, research has shown that some Sudanese women living in Egypt are subject to closer policing of their propriety (especially towards the opposite sex); they are expected to “protect” their morality in the face of a majority society that is deemed as posing a threat to traditional morality (Fabos, 2001). 

While certain freedoms are reduced, others are increased – such as the ability to pursue educational and social activities without the worry of supporting oneself financially. Furthermore, the family is a key source of emotional and social support for many young women.  This can be especially important for young women who experience oppression along lines other than gender, with the family acting as a haven away from external experiences of discrimination and disadvantage based on migrant status or ethnicity.  Discussing gender relations in Palestine, Moghadam (2004) notes that the structural violence of Zionism has contributed to a Palestinian (neo-)patriarchy which is highly deleterious to women. However, studies of the everyday lives of Palestinian women, such as Shalhoub-Kevorkian's (2012) research of women's birthing experiences in Occupied East Jerusalem, can reveal that on the everyday level, husbands and family members feature as the most important form of support for young women in difficult times. Embattled situations can paradoxically strengthen patriarchal social organizations while also strengthening young women's reliance on and appreciation of family members. 

Departing from the Norm

Despite the limit poses by the law, many young people choose to transgress social boundaries. In contexts when intra-communal marriages is more a norm than an exception, interfaith and inter-communal marriages appear as a strong challenge to the norm.[xix] In Lebanon where marriage and Family Law is community-based (each community has its own Family Law) such couples have to marry outside the country and then can ask for recognition of their marriage inside Lebanon. While marriage continues as the social norm, not all women are adhering to it.  Despite the stigma of being a ‘anis (an “old maid”) many young women are deciding to stay unmarried in order to be able to focus on their career, or political activities, and explain their departure from the marriage norm as a way to preserve their independence and autonomy: “Better to be alone than not well accompanied” has become an important statement expressed by young women who cannot find a partner that is deemed suitable for them, and that they approve of. Indeed, 7 to 21 percent of Arab women aged between 30 and 39 are single (De Bel-Air, 2008). A growing gap between young women and men is noticeable: while young women are generally more and more educated as well as increasingly economically independent, young men are facing unemployment and are more and more incapable of fulfilling their expected role as “breadwinner” of a household. This socio-economic reality has a direct impact on the possibilities for young women to define their role within the family, and as the social stigma of being a man incapable of supporting the household prevails, staying unmarried is an option for young women who seek to live outside the traditional division of gender roles within the family and society. Mainly in urban areas, a limited number of young women buck the trend by living with male partners out of wedlock.  Such living arrangements remain scarce in Arab countries in comparison with most other regions, and are illegal where religious personal status laws are enforced. The freedom allowed to such norm-breaking couples is dependent on various factors. Cohabitation is firstly dependent on a certain level of financial independence.  Also, such living arrangements tend to be more feasible in urban locations, where attitudes are more relaxed, laws less enforced, and couples are afforded levels of anonymity. Ibtissam Lachgar, a co-founder of a campaign group for individual liberties in Morocco notes that while she lives relatively undisturbed with her boyfriend in central Rabat, they cannot stay in hotels if they take trips outside of the city as they are always asked to show a marriage certificate.   Mériem Cheickh’s (2011) research on young Moroccan women living far from their families and sharing an apartment in Tangier reveals an evolution in what is deemed ‘transgressive’ in urban Morocco. Despite the fact that these women are living on their own, and that many of them have sexual relations outside marriage and even multiple relationships, they are not living “at the margins” of the society. Cheickh considers that these women’s way of life has been normalized because it corresponds to “massive transgressions” occurring in the period of youth, where these practices are tolerated because they are perceived as transitional. The women themselves consider that it corresponds to a period between their departure from the family house and their marriage. Thus, some women choose to live outside the norm without questioning the norm itself.

Another way that young women are refusing the expected path from unmarried girlhood to marriage is by pursuing non-heterosexual relationships.   Again, the freedom to pursue such relationships and to form communities depends on various factors, not least of which is urban life.  However, we should be wary of assuming that high socioeconomic status and education correlate positively with the possibility of openness about sexual orientation.  The collection of stories published by underground queer Lebanese group, Meem, dispelled a hypothesis that class would dictate family acceptance of homosexuality (Meem, 2009:18-19).  The struggles of gay women are not disconnected from those of heterosexual women who break marriage and sexuality norms.  As the authors of Meem’s book Bareed Mista3jil (“Express Mail”) note, “coming out” in the Arab context can mean coming out as a “rebellious woman,” a feminist, and/or a woman who disregards marriage expectations, as much as it means coming out specifically as a lesbian.  Indeed, the authors argue that it is “as bad” to be a woman who wants to live alone, have unmarried sex, or marry someone from the “wrong” background as it is for a women who wants to pursue a relationship with another women (Meem, 2009: 14-15).

6.3 Young Women’s Mobilizations in a Globalized World

From feminism to social justice

Young women’s presence in mobilizing on social and political issues has been most notable recently in the uprisings across the region. Within these actions, young women have not only participated, but have also taken lead roles. In terms of campaigns and activism focused primarily on women’s rights and gender equality, various issues have been addressed, from legal rights (reforms of the PSC, the Penal and Labour Codes) and political representation, to gender-based violence and harassment.  As gender-specific injustices are closely tied to wider forms of inequality and injustice, it is no surprise that in much of women’s mobilization, gender-specific and broader issues are addressed in unison. This has particularly been the case for the young women involved in the recent popular uprisings, who have used the momentum of the protests and transitions, and the climate of questioning authority to promote gender justice as an integral element of social justice.  This was seen, for example, in the International Women’s Day gathering in Tahrir Square in 2011, where Egyptian women gathered  to ensure that women’s rights issues constitute essential claims within the broader issues being advocated for, such as economic justice, freedom of expression, and labour rights. 

Some of the most powerful feminist mobilisations tackle gender-based violence while denouncing the broader structural violence that underpins it.  For example, a Palestinian feminist initiative, the Committee for Resisting Women's Killing, has insisted on using the term qatl al-nisa (“femicide”), to work against the legitimization and justification of these crimes and also in response to the Israeli authorities’ use of the term “honor crime” to attribute such violence to Palestinian (and Arab) “culture.”   The act of re-naming is deeply political in a context where discourses around gender-based violence are only one small part of a larger discourse in which Israel consolidates itself as a civilized nation in a “barbaric” region (Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Daher-Nashif, 2012).  Similarly, the prominent Palestinian group Women Against Violence Organisation has denounced the failure of the welfare system, and the underlying Zionist motives behind the privatization of shelters and other services for abused women. Such initiatives exhibit a re-politicization of gender issues in a context that has been marred by NGOization (Jad, 2003; 2007); Palestine has seen an influx of funds from international donors that ostensibly support the drive for women’s rights, but never address the issue of Israeli occupation (nor other countries’ complicity in it).

The approaches taken in women’s activism in Arab countries are as diverse as the topics addressed. Women’s activism stretches across the spectrum of traditional party-based politics, to lobbying, informal activism, and alternative cultural productions.  Historically, Arab women’s movements comprise different strands: liberal feminist, reformist, anti-imperialist, nationalist, Marxist, Islamic, and Islamist.  Today, an international human rights framework is employed by many women’s rights activists. However, in a context where much of the population is sensitive to or supportive of Islamist-oriented political projects, Islamic feminist movements have emerged.  Groups taking this approach focus on the radical transformation of Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh), or otherwise use Islamic arguments to challenge gender inequality. Examples include the burgeoning Saudi women’s movement that focuses on challenging male guardianship laws, and the Libyan group The Voice of Libyan Women (founded 2011) which has organised a campaign using religious texts to challenge domestic violence, among many others (Voice of Libyan Women, 2014). Many groups combine religious approaches with human rights frameworks, arguing for the compatibility of the two, for example the transnational Musawah movement (Box 6.1).  Other groups pragmatically shift their framework depending on the issue in question, or the authority being lobbied. Meanwhile, many  initiatives across the region are pursuing secular frameworks across a broad spectrum of political trends. 

Obstacles to Women’s Mobilisation

One obstacle faced by those mobilising for gender equality is the suspicion that such groups are often met with.  One reason for such suspicion is the history of “state feminism” within the Arab countries.  State-building and modernising efforts in many Arab countries in the 1970s and 1980s led to policies pushing for women’s education and entry into the workplace alongside men.  Subsequently, in order to consolidate state power, women’s unions were incorporated into the ruling parties.  As such, feminism continues hold some associated with an authoritarian past, and a lack of independence from the ruling political class. The “NGOization” (Jad 2003; 2007) of the women’s movement in the past two decades or so has also fostered suspicion of women’s mobilisations.  The weighty presence of global funders has helped create a damaging view that feminist groups are “inauthentic” to local culture, or are “agents of the West”.   Nonetheless, feminists are creative in their response to such discourses, employing more easily accepted local and vernacular language and points of reference, and framing their campaigns in less controversial terms, whilst retaining radical aims. 

Another obstacle facing women’s rights activists has been the authoritarianism of political regimes.  Authoritarianism currently poses a major obstacle to women’s political organizing, through crackdowns on dissenting views, closing down of civil society organisations, and repressive (often violent) responses to public gatherings.  Such problems have most recently become even more acute in Egypt, in the form of mass arrests and detention of protestors, including many women’s rights defenders in June 2014 (Nazra, 2014). We have also recently seen the Sudanese government’s violent suppression of dissent, and the arbitrary closure of important women’s organisations, such as Salmmah Women’s Resources Centre (WLUML, 2014).  Again, to avoid such impositions, women’s groups often frame themselves in terms of philanthropic or community projects, or under the banner of women’s health, or otherwise limit the scope of the campaigns to specific concrete targets, such as the 149 Alliance in Sudan which was founded to campaign against the law which conflates rape with the crime of adultery (section 149 of the Penal Code) (Refugees International, 2011). Another response to authoritarianism is, as will be outlined later, the use of online spaces to share information and mobilize.

Another serious obstacle that women activists face when working on gender issues is the ways in which the latter are often side-lined by broader movements.  This tendency continues to be observed in relation to gender activism within the Iraqi Kurdish region, for example.  Kurdish women’s rights activists often find themselves left to decide between having their gender concerns aired among mainstream feminist groups who do not address the specificity of their position as Kurds, or else letting go of feminist or woman-centric demands in order to be included within the male-centric struggles for national liberation (Al-Ali and Pratt, 2011). The problem of being side-lined has been a pressing issue within young women’s activism in the recent uprisings.  While the presence of young men and their shows of solidarity with women’s struggles have been a notable positive shift evident in the uprisings, some young women have nonetheless experienced marginalization in male-dominated social movements and many have suffered abuse during demonstrations.  Furthermore, young women’s involvement in uprisings and revolutions has not necessarily led to an inclusion of women or their demands in post-transition political landscapes. In Tunisia, for example, the centrality of women and feminists in the uprisings was followed by the election of the Islamist Ennahda party to power, who have since attempted to undo legislation safeguarding women’s equal status, and have posed obstacles for long-standing women’s rights groups (Al Yafai, 2012; Middle East Online, 2013)

A New Political Consciousness, Transcending Divisions

Young women’s massive participation alongside men in demonstrations, which included physical confrontation with security and armed forces, has been a considerable galvanizing and consciousness-raising experience in countries such as Yemen, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Egypt.  Such bodily involvement in new spaces of protest and solidarity has contributed to a political imaginary in which the wider public, as well as women themselves, recognize young women as important agents of change.  This is particularly the case in places where women’s involvement in protests has constituted an unprecedented shift, such as Bahrain (AWID, 2013).  Furthermore, many of the new initiatives that have sprung up in the wake of the Arab uprisings, have taken forward the belief in participatory democracy into their organisational structures leading to grassroots organisations with less hierarchy and bureaucracy.  These initiatives are re-politicizing the NGO-dominated landscape of women’s rights and social justice work.

The experiences of popular uprisings have made headway in bridging divisions within the women’s movement and the wider landscape of activism.  The spaces of mobilization and expression found within street demonstrations, informal gatherings, and the online sphere have often been characterized by an overarching framework of dignity, which softens the divides between different religious and political positions.  This has been taken forward and incorporated into many of the gender-focussed groups formed after the uprisings, such as Cairo-based Imprint Movement (Harakat Basma) (Box 6.2). Salime's (2012) research on the February 20 Movement in Morocco and mobilizations around the Moroccan Familial Code (hinged on the debate between equality and “complementarity” of the sexes) not only found that feminism has penetrated the social imaginary of a new generation of activists but also that many young women mobilizing in favor of equality were not anti-Islamist or anti-religious. According to many participants in the pro-equality demonstrations, the debate and the mobilizations around the constitution has marked a new generation of activists that is willing to advocate for women’s rights and gender equality despite coming from different religious and political standpoints.  Amar (2011) and Singerman (2013) point out that the various initiatives concerning women’s rights in Egypt have gathered young and older activists from diverse backgrounds and spanning different discourses from the “UN human rights” angle to the Islamic feminist framework. In these looser forms of activism, the presence of young men alongside women has also been remarkable, especially in mobilizations focused on gender-based violence and harassment, such as Imprint (Box 6.2).

Some of the most remarkable elements of young women’s activism are the ways in which young women are broaching new topics, particularly issues of body and sexuality.  With the exception of the writings of well-known intellectual figures and activists such as Nawal al-Sa’dawi and Fatima Mernissi, such issues have not tended to be directly addressed by Arab women's rights activists, as many felt that social, religious, and cultural boundaries posed strict barriers.  Nevertheless, alongside the diverse campaigns on sexual harassment, FGM, and femicide launched in the last few years, an emerging milieu of young urbanized and educated women’s rights activists is tackling gender norms, sexual choices, and questions of body politics more directly. Lebanon’s Marsa Sexual Health Center, for example, launched a campaign in March 2014 called “Your Right, to Self-Care” which promoted women’s sexual health and wellbeing. To launch the campaign and to mark International Women's Day 2014, Marsa asked over 20 women living in Lebanon about their feelings towards intimate parts of their bodies.  The powerful video that was produced was posted on YouTube and achieved a wide reach on social media.  Although still relatively marginal in the Arab context, the groups that have recently emerged to address issues of sexuality and heteronormativity can be seen as indicative of a burgeoning trend. 

Online activism

The centrality of social media is a common characteristic of young women’s activism across the Arab countries.  The Internet is an important platform used by young women activists, many of whom were already bloggers and cyber activists in the years before the uprisings. Young figures such as the Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni was 28 years old when she covered, through her blog and using her real name, the first weeks of the uprising at the end of 2010.  Asma Mahfouz was 26 years old when she posted a now well-known YouTube video on January 18, 2011, vehemently asking people to join the gathering at Tahrir Square in Cairo. Examples of prominent young cyber activists that played a key role in the mobilizations are numerous: from Isra’ Abdel Fattah, known as “Facebook girl” for her role in launching the April 6 Movement in Egypt, to Zaynab al-Khawaja known on Twitter as AngryArabya, as well as her sister Maryam al-Khawaja in Bahrain, and Danyah Bashir in Libya known as the “Twitterrati.” Many activists act as journalists through their blogs, as well as reporters of human rights abuses, and the “viral” dissemination of this online journalism can make it very difficult for mainstream media to ignore it.  Furthermore, the online connectedness of activists continues to play an important role in inspiring strategies from one country to another, and building solidarity networks across borders, as it did during the uprisings.

In countries where uprisings have not occurred and which are dominated by authoritarian regimes, online initiatives are an essential way for youth to express their concerns. It is not surprising that Saudi Arabia is one of the Arab countries that, as well as having a very high number of charitable and philanthropic organizations, is a place where online activism and initiatives are among the highest in the Arab region. To give an example of a mobilization led by young women, since the 1990s a “women’s right to drive movement” has emerged in Saudi Arabia.  In the context of the Arab uprisings, Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old working woman in Saudi Arabia became the figure of a new campaign launched in May 2011 when she posted a video on YouTube and Facebook of her driving a car. The campaign is very revealing of the importance of cyber activism and the way a local initiative can take a transnational dimension: the Women2Drive campaign has spread widely to other Arab countries and has received support across the Arab region, as well as a significant amount of coverage in Western media. In a sense, the high publicity of the driving campaign has overshadowed the other initiatives in Saudi Arabia, whose audiences are mainly local and regional. 

Combining online and offline activism has in many places been a successful strategy for launching campaigns, such as those around sexual harassment which have been especially notable in Egypt and Morocco. Loubna Hanna Skalli (2014) shows in her research on the subject that although women’s rights groups have mobilized against gender-based violence for the past few decades, recent initiatives signal interesting shifts in how the young generation of women (and men) behind these initiatives are conceptualizing the links between sexual harassment, citizenship, and the gendering of democracy. Egyptian initiatives like Cairo-based Nazra for Feminist Studies and Harassmap - a blog mapping sexual harassment in Egypt through SMS reporting - and Moroccan initiatives such as Women-Shoufouch have invested in digital technologies (mobile phone and Internet) as well as online social spaces (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) to expand on the traditional repertoire used by earlier generations of feminists (marches, petitions, and legal lobbying). Their work in recording the brutality and frequency of sexual harassment through testimony collection, and the circulation of this information on social media, in online publications, and traditional media has been very effective on the ground.  Furthermore, online media serves as an effective tool for women activists to share news, strategies, and tools across borders.  The short animations entitled “The Adventures of Salwa” which were produced by a group of Lebanese feminists have reached online audiences across the Arab countries and beyond, while HarassMap since its founding in 2005 and its subsequent publicity online, has received enquiries from activists from 25 other countries seeking to replicate their model.

Young women as producers of culture

Young women are creatively challenging male-dominated cultural production and injecting critical questions about gender and social justice into the popular imagination.  Young women feature as political actors in ways that are often considered outside of politics proper, through their production of art, design, music, and literature. The famous “first lady of Arabic Hip-Hop,” British-born Palestinian artist and activist Shadia Mansour, has chosen to rap in Arabic, despite growing up in the United Kingdom, as a political act for the defense of Arab culture. Her lyrics tackle issues of Israeli colonization, Western imperialism, and capitalism. As an artist and an outspoken Palestinian activist, she has contributed through her solo music and collaborations – with other political hip-hop artists in the UK, the Arab world, and Latin America – to the political awareness of young people living in the West and in the Global South on issues of racism, imperialism, and neoliberalism. Moreover, young female musicians are introducing hybrid and creative music styles.  In Lebanon, for example, Beirut-born electro-pop singer Yasmine Hamdan co-founded the ground-breaking band Soapkills, which is considered to be the first indie electropop band in the Middle East.

Young women are also contributing to a growing body of literature that challenges gender norms and social injustice more broadly. The book Banat al-Riyadh written by Saudi woman Rajaa al-Sanea at the age of 24 and first published in 2005 in Lebanon, is an example of this new literature that addresses issues of gender norms and discrimination from a youth’s point of view.  Bothaina al-‘Isa published the novel Irtidam lem yesma’u lehu dawi   in 2004 at the age of 22 years old.  The book narrates the story of a young Kuwaiti woman who, while in Europe, is confronted for the first time in her life by a “bidun”, a stateless young man from her country. Through a love story, the author tackles a very sensitive subject, and questions the discriminative policies of her country towards the members of society who lack citizenship rights. Young women authors are increasingly addressing social and political issues in addition to sensitive and taboo issues related to relationships, intimacy, sexuality, often employing innovative styles and forms to express themselves.   

In cinema, several prominent young female directors have emerged in the last decade.  Their works deal with important gender, social, and cultural issues in very aesthetically creative, articulate, and original ways. Nadine Labaki is a young Lebanese director, scriptwriter, and actress, who became famous for her film Caramel.  The main characters in Caramel work as beauticians in a small salon in Beirut. Through their everyday and love life, issues of beauty, social, gender, and sexuality norms are addressed gently and humorously. Haifa al-Mansour, who is considered one of the first Saudi female film-director, gave an interesting and original insight into Saudi society through her 2012 film Wadjda. Through the story of a young girl and her dream to ride a bicycle (which is forbidden for women), and against the backdrop of her Riyadh household in which her mother is struggling to accept the second marriage of her husband, the director directly questions Saudi society's conservatism and the restrictions imposed on women.

Young women’s presence in the cultural areas of music, literature, and film can be considered a political act in and of itself.  Firstly, women’s activity in these spheres (and the recognition of their work) challenges men’s over-representation in the cultural canon; it exhibits women’s ability to excel in these cultural fields, and, for young women especially, challenges notions that they are not capable of or qualified to make cultural commentaries of social issues. Secondly, these women producers of culture are bringing stories based on female experience into public consciousness.  Counteracting the dominance of stories written from male perspectives, they introduce concerns that are central to many women’s lives into public discussion.  Women’s cultural production has also been used as an addition to other forms of political mobilization.  The creativity of many young artists, musicians, and writers was highlighted during the uprisings where many young women accompanied and led the protests with their poetry and music. The song Kelmti Horra of young Tunisian singer and composer Emel Mathlouthi became an anthem of the Tunisian revolution.  The campaign against sexual harassment in Egypt was accompanied by myriad cultural productions. The film 678 is a good example: it was used as a campaigning tool to show positive masculine role models and to illustrate how women from different social backgrounds experience street sexual harassment.

Young women’s contributions to the cultural sphere are not without their problems and complexities. For the young women artists who have become famous, their high-profile status is often related to a privileged societal position.  Many more young women artists, writers, and singers exist who come from more marginalised background but whose image and lack of resources and connections have extinguished their chances of becoming well-known.  Indeed the few well-known examples we give here are by no means representative of the vast body of young women producing art and culture.  What is more, it tends to be the case that young women’s mainstream success is conditional upon their products remaining within certain aesthetic and discursive boundaries.  For example, Nadine Labaki’s 2011 film Where Do We Go Now? tackles issues of sectarianism and gendered experiences of conflict, but employs stereotypes of masculinity and femininity to do this.  Furthermore, as is the case the world over, female musicians’ widespread appeal is often dependent on their image fitting accepted standards of female beauty.  However, these compromises do not negate the merit of the work produced. Popular appeal is important, as it brings women’s perspectives to a wider audience, and introduces gender issues “indirectly”, which can help them reach people who are less receptive to overtly political products.

6.4  Conclusions

Although common characteristics exist in the experiences of young women in Arab countries, specificities in different countries’ political, legal, and economic contexts inflect young women’s situations heavily.  The plight of young women in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, for example, are inextricably linked to the countries’ respective conflicts as discussed in chapter XXX, with war leading to experiences of violence and displacement that young women living in relative peace are not subjected to.  Women in Gulf States, for example, occupy a complex gendered space where national wealth and economic privilege (at least for women with citizenship, rather than migrant workers) meet strict social structures based on regressive interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence, meaning that while they may live free from threats of violence in terms of war or displacement, they are likely to have little recourse to challenge violence in the home.  In terms of mobilisations, authoritarian contexts, for example, push women’s activism further into the online realm, whereas women in other countries have had greater opportunity for offline actions.  Forms, styles, and focus of young women’s activism also vary according to different experiences of popular uprising and revolution.  It is of high importance to recognise this diversity in experience across the countries in question; not to do so reproduces the stereotypes, which have fuelled the imperialist policies responsible for devastating the lives of many women (and men) in this part of the world.

As well as differences from country to country, there are significant variations of young women’s experiences within each country. Although no section of society is immune from gender-based violence, the latter is often related to other forms of structural violence and marginalisation .  For young women in poor rural areas, lack of access to contraception is likely to be compounded by lack of access to safe abortion in the case of unwanted pregnancies, in contrast to a relatively larger range of options for women in cities. Economic conditions within rural areas also contribute to the greater prevalence of child marriages and gender-based violence, such as FGM.   Even within cities, migrant status and race can dictate the obstacles women face; by virtue of her immigrant and indentured status, a migrant domestic worker in the Gulf has little room to challenge the oppressive structures that affect her life.  On the other hand, educated, non-migrant, urban-dwelling, middle-class young women might have more room to challenge oppressive norms and structures – be that through participation in an organisation dealing with  “taboo” topics, or through day-to-day choices, such as  “non-traditional” living arrangements.  What is more, the intersections of class, location, and ethnicity do not necessarily work in predictable ways. For example, while marginalization due to rural living often negatively impacts upon young women (higher rates of child marriage, and lower educational attainment, for example), there are forms of discrimination that urban women are more exposed to, such as sexual harassment (UN Women, 2013). Being an immigrant can subject young women to racist harassment, whilst simultaneously providing community support networks, to take another example.

While questions of culture and religion are often central to discussions of women in Arab countries, political economy lies at heart of the situation.  While concepts of “culture”, “stigma”, and “taboo” are present in young women’s lives, these concepts are one part of the picture, rather than the driving force behind inequalities.  The negotiations that young women engage in in relation to the marriage market and their immediate families, for example, has been seen to be very much related to changing demographics and economic necessities.  The threat that social and political conservatisms pose to young women, and especially activist women, are serious, but the impact of patriarchal and authoritarian forces is tied to complex geopolitics rather than being an ahistorical feature of Arab “culture”.  With regards to women’s entry into the workforce, the realities of the labour market and women’s opportunities within it are as crucial to consider as any cultural sanction against women working outside the home.  Likewise, the disempowerment of young women migrant workers in the Gulf cannot be divorced from an economic model, which prizes the free market at the expense of human rights and freedoms. 

The situation facing young women in Arab countries is thus intrinsically linked to the neoliberal economic model that has become widespread in the last 25 years or so.  Indeed, the challenges facing young women in the Arab countries have many parallels with those living in other parts of the Global South (and some migrants living in the Global North).  Moving away from the “cultural” explanations of women’s situation and towards one based on political economy is important for various reasons.  Firstly, it is integral to breaking down the damaging stereotypes previously mentioned.  Secondly, if we explain inequality as stemming from “culture” then we give credence to those who define culture along patriarchal lines and do a disservice to progressive voices.  Finally, recognising structural factors behind inequality is necessary to achieve meaningful and sustainable change, while interventions based solely on “cultural” analysis are likely to have only superficial effects.

Many young women refuse to take the back seat: they want to stay side by side with their male peers in mobilising for change. The recent uprisings raised the political consciousness of many young women, and the gender-based violence they faced during this time gave rise to more outspoken claims for gender equality.  In turn, increasing numbers of young men are standing alongside young women in advocating for gender justice, as part of a larger vision of societal transformation.  Even in the locations depicted as most repressive, such as Saudi Arabia, young women and men are using creative and locally-grounded tactics to disrupt accepted discourses about women's roles and freedoms.  Others are challenging entrenched patriarchal norms through the way they conduct their personal lives down to their most intimate relations: those who do not conform to gender and sexuality norms are expanding the very parameters the norm itself.

Young women in Arab countries are anything but passive victims.  Women in these countries, as in many other locations, are suffering due to instability and conflict, gender-based violence, exclusion and discrimination in work and education.  These problems should not be downplayed.  Nonetheless, despite and in reaction to this situation, young women are far from victims of circumstance.  Contrary to the mainstream global media depictions of women in Arab countries - which paint the latter as passive, oppressed, and voiceless – these women are negotiating and contesting systems of power in diverse, creative, and transformative ways.

6.5 Recommendations


  • All Arab states should sign CEDAW without reservations, implement it fully, and report on it as required.
  • Gender equality should be embedded in national constitutions, and national laws should reflect commitment to CEDAW. This includes addressing gender biases in PSCs and penal codes.
  • National governments should implement measures that help women’s access to and achievements within the labor market, especially strengthening structures such as state childcare, which help women to avoid the “double burden”.
  • States should strengthen the public sector, investing in state education, healthcare, and welfare.
  • Just as gender should be mainstreamed in poverty-reduction programs, programs addressing gender inequalities should also be accompanied by an analysis of the distribution of wealth, and the political economy.


  • Policy-makers and national and international organizations need to carefully consider the diversity between countries within the region.
  • Policy-makers and national and international organizations need to pay special attention to the diversity of experience within each country; differences in access to economic resources, urban/rural settings, and majority/minority status shape levels of women's social inclusion, opportunities, and freedom within each national context.
  • Policy-makers, researchers, and women’s rights advocates should conduct empirically-based, context-rooted and detailed analyses to map the complexities of the intersecting power structures that affect women’s lives.
  • Analysts should move away from a simplistic focus on culture and tradition when assessing gender norms and relations in Arab contexts. Pathologising 'Arab culture' as inherently damaging to women suggests the impossibility of ground-up improvement, which is thriving among many young women in Arab countries.
  • The international community should put pressure on Arab governments that clampdown on activism and political organizing.  International bodies should focus on the fulfillment of the rights to freedom of association, organisation, and speech so that young women have the space to challenge the injustices they face.
  • States should recognise Palestine and condemn Israel in the international arena in order to address one of the major forms of structural violence that intersects with gendered violence in the region.
  • International powers should resist the attempts at international level to accept and/or codify cultural relativism, which give leniency to GBV, damage women’s struggles as activists and feminists, and give credence to oppressive forces.
  • Anti-VAW/GBV initiatives should be led by local women (and be seen to be).  Relatedly, donors should play a less prescriptive role; funding to local women’s organizations should use a flexible reporting framework that allows for organizations to dictate the direction of their projects as they see fit, and according to changes in their situations. 
  • Funders should refocus to grant ‘core’ funding rather than being overly “project-driven” which depoliticizes and “NGOized” women’s groups.
  • International funders and allies should support initiatives that promote progressive Islamic values, feminist religious interpretations, and Ijtihad.  That said, they should not assume that such groups are somehow more ‘authentic’ than secular-minded peers and automatically fund faith-based groups over secular ones.
  • Funders and allies should support groups that address women’s rights and freedoms with an intersectional approach and that take into account the larger oppressive structures that we have highlighted as contributing to higher levels of VAW/GBV.  For example, groups addressing economics and instability behind child marriage, or addressing all stakeholders in the economy of FGM (taking into account the income needs of older women who perform cutting, etc.)
  • NGOs should not be strengthened at the expense of state provision
  • Funders should support initiatives that work to consciousness-raise on issues of gender inequality and social justice with groups of young women and young men
  • Funding should be dedicated to young women’s meaningful and transformative political participation, in social movements, lobby groups, unions, and parliamentary politics.  Meaningful and transformative participation means that which is not tokenistic, and which is informed by sensitivity to gender inequality and oppression.  Such initiatives might include: feminist leadership and political participation trainings; initiatives to engage young women in democratic processes including elections; gender sensitivity training for women who are already engaged in politics.)
  • Funders and allies should support initiatives that help women in under-regulated sectors of the market to form co-operatives, support systems, and unions, and for those lobbying for better regulation of their employment
  • Funders and allies should support to initiatives that mobilize men for gender justice and focus on positive masculinities, while care should be taken to ensure that the priorities, direction, and framing of such projects remains women-led. 



Box 6.1: Islamic Feminism Across Borders: The Musawah Movement
Box 6.2: An Inclusive Space:  Egypt’s Imprint Movement


Figure 6.1: Infographic on PSC differentials in Arab countries
Figure 6.2: Female education attainment in the Arab region
Figure 6.3: Female labor force participation rates 1990-2012
Figure 6.4: Gender inequality and economic opportunities


Table 6.1: Political Representation of Women in Arab Countries Representative Assemblies
Table 6.2: Maternity leave in Arab countries
Table 6.3: Mean age at first marriage
Table 6.4: Minimum marriage age for men and women in Arab countries
Table 6.5: Population and Reproductive Health Indicators for Selected Arab Countries
Table 6.6: Women With Unmet Contraceptive Needs by Background Characteristics 


[1] The law related to sexual violence was finally amended after harsh criticism especially pointed by a report of Amnesty International in 2008 and repeated in 2011.

[i] Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, , Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Somalia (Provisional Constitution), Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia explicitly enshrine gender equality in their constitutions in some way (although not all of these country explicitly define and prohibit gender discrimination).  Other constitutions – of Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirate (UAE), and Yemen –  (and Libya’s Interim Constitutional Declaration) either make generalized commitments to equality which omit explicit references to sex or gender, or make statements on women’s equality that are ambiguous. 

[ii] Only Tunisia and Jordan provide special protections against domestic violence, and none of the Arab countries explicitly recognises marital rape as a crime

[iii] Such as Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In Saudi Arabia, there is no written penal law; it is based on Sharia law which is subject to various interpretations by individual judges. In Sudan, criminal law based on Sharia, allows discrimination against women in many issues.

[iv] Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia (applies only for non-Muslim husbands), UAE and Yemen. In Qatar, the Qatari Citizenship Act (No. 38 of 2005) grants foreign husbands the right to apply for Qatari citizenship, but it is subject to extensive restrictions. 

[v] Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Sudan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2012, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahayan of UAE issued a one-time decree granting citizenship to 1,117 children of UAE women married to foreigners. In Qatar, the Qatari Citizenship Act (No. 38of 2005) grants noncitizen children the right to seek Qatari citizenship, but it is subject to extensive restrictions. In Egypt, children of Egyptian mothers and Palestinian fathers cannot get citizenship and the law still prohibits them from joining the army, the police, and certain government posts

[vi] Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, Sudan (unmarried only) and Tunisia.

[vii] Legally women in only 13 Arab countries can travel freely without husband or guardian permission  namely Algeria, Bahrain (clearly stipulated in the constitution), Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and the UAE,

[viii] Inter-Parliamentary Union, Women in Parliaments Database, as of 1 December 2013

[ix] World Bank. WDI 2014

[x] Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women in National Parliaments, as of 1  January 2014.

[xi] The Beijing Platform for Action (BPA) was elaborated during The Fourth World Conference on Women organized by the United Nations in Beijing in September 1995 and aimed to put forward the goals of equality, development and peace. The BPA has pointed out the diversity of women’s voices, the recognition that despite progress, women still suffer obstacles to achieving equality with men, and that further progress is hindered especially by the poverty suffered by so many women and children.

[xii] The Millennium Development Goals Report 2013, United Nations

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] This term was coined by Diana Pearce in 1978 in relation to her research in the United States (Pearce, 1978) Pearce, Diana. 1978. "The feminization of poverty: Women, work, and welfare". Urban and Social Change Review 11:28–36, it has since come into common parlance and used in reference to women’s economic position on a global scale.

[xvi] In contrast to the Orientalist and stereotyped views on the “Arab family,” an important body of scholarship has explored the diversity and heterogeneity of families in the Arab region. Despite the common characterization of the “Arab Family” as endogamic, and patriarchal – both patrilocal and patrilineal as the older male is the dominant figure – the realities are more complex and intertwined with other essential elements, such as class, ethnicity, urbanity/rurality, the nature of the state politics towards the family, etc. Each of these categories define and characterize the concrete realities and the symbolic meaning of the family, and therefore the family itself. Indeed, Suad Joseph (1996), for example, shows that in certain circumstances maternal relatives are more important than paternal relatives as sources of social status or emotional support. Residence for newly married couples also remains more a result of economic and sociological pressures than necessarily a desire to be patrilocal (Joseph 1996). Endogamy, which is considered to be a main feature of Arab families, according to Fargues (2003), is mainly observable in rural areas. Meanwhile, polygamy and households larger than the nuclear family might be more common in specific regions.

[xvii] Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Libya, Palestine, Lebanon, Oman, Mauritania, and Djibouti In some of these countries it is explicitly allowed by law, while in others the allowance is only implied through general legal principles.

[xviii] Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Comoros. The specific reasons vary from country to country.

[xix] Consanguinity in marriage ranges from a low of 18% in Lebanon to a high of 56% in Northern Sudan where expectations that both Muslim and Christian women will marry their first (parallel patrilineal) cousin remain rooted in many parts of Arab countries, especially in rural areas. 



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