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Women in the Middle East

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Women of the Middle East have far been viewed as an oppressed group. From the desert sands of Saudi Arabia to the mountainous lands of Afghanistan, Arab women have faced many hardships in their society. While the role of a woman is meant to be nurturing and domestic, many have moved on to a more modern view, and have taken on the role as educators and laborers. Arab women threaten the traditional family structure by doing so; however, for many it is a sacrifice they are willing to make, as they see that the world has more to offer than just household chores and childbearing. A battle between culture and religion has arisen, as Islam allows women the right to education and a separate income from their spouse. And as Arab women continue to seek education and work, society’s expectations hover over them, giving more strength to those who oppose such actions.

In that past decade or so, Arab women have risen in the workforce, and have included a solid education in their early life achievements. However, the idea of a successful, educated Arab woman started long ago, dating back almost 1500 years ago, when the wife of Prophet Muhammad, Khadija, owned her own caravan and was her own employer; a successful one at that. However, after the Prophet’s death, the status of women slowly began to decline, and by the early 1900’s, Arab women’s status had been dwindled down to that of oppression and non-education. Because of this, several feminist women movements arose in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the most famous one led by Huda Sha’rawi in Egypt (Sidani 2005). Even though these feminist movements helped encourage Arab women to get back on the rise in society, only a handful were able to achieve that, as many countries such as Saudi Arabia still held the status of women back.

It is important to note that Arab women are not just Muslims, they are Christians as well. And so the idea of a woman taking care of the family and watching over the home is not a foreign idea to these two monotheistic religions (Read 2004). However, Muslims have taken their religion more seriously, and while each Middle Eastern country has its own Islam per se, the ones who rule by Islam take what they want from the religion and throw it out of context to satisfy what they wish to achieve. This is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

While some countries do not allow women to work, many do, and so the number of Arab women entering the workforce is on the rise, as well as the rate of women achieving secondary education. In most cases, women outperform men at all levels (Finlay, Neal, and Tansey 2005). Still, there are many cultural factors that are keeping the number of women in the labor force very low. In Arab Gulf culture, many girls are married at a young age, as compared with other societies, such as America or Great Britain. The younger the girl, the less of a chance she has at entering the workforce, since she barely has time to even finish school. Also, the average Arab Gulf family consists of many children, and having ten children is not very unusual. Because of these two factors, early marriage and big families, women have little or no chance at succeeding in the work force, unless they choose a job that will fit in with this lifestyle, and there aren’t very many. Because of woman’s role in the home, she is viewed skeptically as to whether or not she can rise to positions of authority. Also, since culture is a large influence, jobs that allow women to work closely with men are not favored, and the smallest thing such as shaking a man’s hand can be viewed as a social taboo (Finlay, Neal, and Tansey 2005).

One country that is a bit more advanced than the Gulf is Lebanon, and the women there have achieved a higher level of societal acceptance than many women in the Gulf. Lebanon’s government does not mandate certain things such as covering or wearing the veil, and male-female interaction is publicly allowed with no reprocutions. Also, Lebanese women have a tendency to sexually express themselves; not by actions per se, but by body language and dress, and these factors give the other Arab countries- especially the Gulf ones- a reason to talk and look down upon them.

Thus is not the case in Egypt. Women there are forced to quit working to take care of their families full-time, because their society feels that if a mother neglects her children to work, it can affect the child’s behavior later on, and create delinquency amongst the youth. Although in the past twenty years the role of women and men being seen as equal has been accepted, most families raise their sons to be educated and independent, and the daughters to work alongside their mother in the home. They domestic the females from early on, and teach them that this is the only role they need to know. The women who do work are limited to secretarial, teaching, and nursing jobs, as these roles are seen fit for mothers (Mostafa

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