March 7, 2013 Special Dispatch No. 5222

Female Saudi Columnist: Status Of Women In Arab World Is Improving Due To Political Decisions, Not Popular Will

March 7, 2013
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 5222

In her January 15, 2013 column in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Saudi academic Amal 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hazzani addressed the erosion of the status of women in the Arab world over the past year, saying that many had suffered verbal or physical attacks. However, she said, the negative and abusive treatment of women is historic and does not originate in the Arab Spring.


Also in her column, Al-Hazzani criticized women themselves, noting that some do not implement their rights and fail to take opportunities for bettering their lives, for fear of censure. She stressed that women must deal with change and difficulty if they want to improve her situation.


The following are excerpts from the column:


"During the past year, many women in the Arab world, in various professions, suffered verbal or physical attacks. Doctors, media personalities, and academics faced invective that reached the level of slander and accusations of unbelief and corruption. [This was] especially [apparent] on the internet, which allows [users] to curse freely; [Arab] societies are new to free speech and have yet to learn how to use this gift responsibly.


"When [female] Egyptian political activist 'Ola Shahba called a press conference,[1] her appearance terrified us: Her face was swollen from beating, and she had two black eyes. She spoke in quiet desperation and with the wisdom of the oppressed.


"[At the press conference,] Shahba, who fell victim when she went out to protest against the Egyptian draft constitution outside Al-Ittihadiya Palace, condemned her arrest, harassment, and beating – in full view of the police – by President Mursi's loyalists. Apparently, she expected the Islamic [activists] to treat her as something of value, as set out in Islamic law, [but] her hopes were dashed. [Her attackers] turned out to be ordinary people who had not heard of this directive by the Prophet.


"'Ola Shahba is not the only woman to be attacked by Islamic elements or by others during the months of the Egyptian revolution. Historically, women have always been the greatest spoil of war, and the main weakness of every rival, up to the appearance, in the 1950s, of laws protecting human rights.


Egyptian activist Ola Shahba after being beaten by Muslim Brotherhood supporters[2]


"In Tunisia the situation is even uglier: Women stand trial on ridiculous charges, in order to humiliate them and rub out the gains they have made since the era of the late president Habib Bourguiba. Even during the rule of Ben 'Ali, Tunisian women did not face such harsh social conditions.


"In Saudi Arabia, the state seeks [to create] job opportunities because of the shocking[ly high] unemployment among women, which is unmatched in the world. [But] this unemployment is not true unemployment; it doesn't mean that there are no job opportunities. It means that there are cultural barriers, pits, and obstacles that prevent [women] from accessing them.


"I do not want to dwell on [the situation in] Yemen, because there are stories there that seem fantastical – but they happen all the time. For example, the story [related in] the 2010 book titled My Name Is Najoud, I Am 10 And Already Divorced, about the inhuman social situation faced by women in far-flung rural areas of Yemen and elsewhere in Arab countries. This situation makes the girl into a bride-to-be who is subjected to advice on childbirth and obeying her husband – at an age when her peers elsewhere in the world are... getting chocolate all over their faces.


"In Kuwait, women were excluded from parliament [in February 2012] following the victory of [an Islamic] majority, which considers them inferior. [The Islamic bloc] boldly mocked them, and accepted their exit [from parliament] as only natural. The only thing that brought them back into parliament, in the recent [December 2012 elections], was a decree by the emir that introduced an amendment to the election law...


"What happened in Kuwait is what is happening now in the other Gulf countries. The woman gains social rights as a result of a political decision, not popular will.


"The first thing that occurs to a civilized person is that most women's problems can begin to be resolved by legislation to protect them. But in truth, most Arab countries are still arguing about the importance of passing laws criminalizing harassment, violence against women, and underage marriages – [laws that would] lead to the prosecution of those who curse [women]...


"The picture in the Arab region might not be as black as that in the East Asian countries, where girls are shot for wanting to study, a husband cuts off his wife's nose and ears for disobeying him, or [a woman] self-immolates because she can't stand her life. But neither is it as rosy as it is for European and American women, even though many don't know that women do not yet have full rights in the West [either], especially when it comes to work... Thus, it is clear that there is a direct relationship between the status of women and nations' progress...


"The absurd thing is that many Arab women do not have a harmonious relationship with the [advantages offered by] this technological development [i.e. the internet] that allows transparency and frankness. [Instead,] some have drawn their swords against society, conduct their affairs argumentatively, and defend their rights by attacking.


"Other women have the idea that this climate of openness is [actually] harmful to women. [They think this] because they live in conservative societies, and in some of these societies it is unacceptable for a woman's name to appear in public. This has deterred a broad sector of women, making them fearful of public criticism, so they retreat, or hide behind a man.


"No achievement comes without a price, and no change happens without a reason. This is the hot kitchen of public life, and women must internalize and patiently accustom themselves to the changes and difficulties it involves. They can either accept [these difficulties], or feel sorry for themselves and reconsider stepping outside their homes.


"Those with the courage to overcome [these hardships] must fight for [their rights]."


[1] In early December 2012, female liberal political activist 'Ola Shahba called a press conference at which she related how she had been abused by Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supporters after participating at an anti-MB protest, while members of the security forces stood by doing nothing; read excerpts at


[2] Image:, December 7, 2012.

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