What is the role of women in the Arab world? Is the status of women in Arab society changing?
In May 2005 Kuwait's parliament approved constitutional amendments to give women full political rights and in the following month the first female cabinet minister was appointed.
Since then western leaders have urged more Middle East countries to expand the role of women in society and politics.
How are women's roles changing? Are you an Arab woman? What are your expectations for the future?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we have received so far:
I have read through all the comments on this page and I am somewhat torn between the two sides. As a women living in the UK I am very lucky that so many people before me fought for my right to vote, to work, and to live what is essentially an equal life - there are areas where we are still behind but that is up to the women to change that. I do however, feel that when a woman in this country chooses not to have the career and chooses the family life, she is looked down upon by society, perhaps even more so by other women. Is this liberation? Perhaps the Arab world do have it right in a lot of areas, respect women in society for what they want to do if they want to work and have an education, great, but if they choose to raise a family and look after their husbands then celebrate that, do not try to change it. After the argument has settled, it is up to the women in each country to fight for what they believe.
Jill, Scotland, UK
I live with a Sudanese Muslim girl who is a brilliant student and wants to do a PhD here at Loughborough. She is going home for a couple of months and we don't know if she'll be back because of the pressure on her to get married (she is 29) and have children, despite not being in love or particularly wanting to. This wouldn't happen with men and I think it stinks.
Sam, Loughborough, UK
I am surprised at comments about India over here. Indian Muslim women are amongst the most forward looking and confident. Have a look at Shabana Azmi or Sania Mirza. We in India believe that it is education that cures the ills of wrong beliefs and ignorance. Similarly, you will see the confidence and democratic thinking in Muslim women in the Arab countries where they are allowed proper education and not derogatory training in Madrassas. It is not a question of Arab, Hindu or Western woman, It is a question of education.
Anuj Bahl, New Delhi, India
Just one look at the comments shows that some people are experiencing more liberties than others. Still it is painful to read that some women seem to prefer 'protection' to liberty while it seems a bad sign to me to even have to make that choice. Why are some societies still not safe enough for women to be in? Why are they being kept unsafe for them? There is nothing holy about being bullied.
Eveline, Wageningen, Netherlands
The oppression of women is not exclusive to the Arab world but it is a falsehood to suggest that equality for women is simply a corrupt Western idea. History shows that many cultures in the past gave much more equality to women than some of today's societies.
Griff, Cardiff, Wales
Playing devils advocate: Is it not hypocritical to promote a multi-cultural society one day and condemn the same cultures for their traditions (right or wrong) another? If we want to accept a multi-cultural society in the UK, and further a field, should we not respect the traditions of such cultures without imposing our own standards on them? Should we not be prepared to take the good with the bad?
Ellis Birt, Worcester, England
One word - choice. If Muslim women are happy to wear traditional clothes and follow Islamic traditions, that's fine. However, think about those who, given a choice, would like to experience a little more freedom. This doesn't necessarily mean following Western culture as we're definitely not paragons of virtue.
The Arab world is so varied in culture, leadership and follow different strains of Islam, or have greater or fewer mixes of religion. It is impossible to generalise the 'Arab world'. Who are we to judge with no real knowledge of what it is like to live there? (exceptions for those who have!) Who are we to judge when we have such a small percentage of women in parliament by comparison to, yes, some Arab countries? Who are we to judge when women are still getting paid less for jobs of equal value? Shouldn't we be urging more Western women into society and politics?
Deana, Swindon, UK
I think the Arab world has produced some good examples of strong female role models as there has been a female Prime Minister in Pakistan, and Queen Rania of Jordan. However, with the good comes the bad notably the hudood laws in Pakistan where a woman who has been raped has to produce 4 male witnesses. That is barbaric. Educated women can defend themselves, but until the law changes the poorer illiterate women will continue to suffer under such injustices.
Like most of these debates, I think what people are doing is getting culture and religion mixed which is wrong. Islam does give women rights like all religions. However, what occurs in the Arab world is nothing to with Islam. The moment we realise the clear distinction we are more likely to agree on the similarities between the two spheres.
As far as my country of Algeria is concerned things have changed about 25 years ago. I have gone to school, then high school and then to Uni with no problem at all. I drove at the age of 18 and I come from a humble family too. I think we had more girls in our dept at Uni than male students. In the Algerian war 1954 the Algerian woman fought as hard as the man to win the independence and we have quite a few brave ladies to remember. My own mother was a freedom fighter in 1959. So yes the status of the Arab woman is changing, but we do not want to resemble the western woman, we have our traditions and religion to preserve too and we are proud of what we are.
Fatima, Oran Algeria
It's so easy to judge Arab women and not recognise the level of diversity that exists within Arab society, when you hear horror stories on Amnesty, it's easy to close your mind and judge. All news in the media is sensational/bad news, as that sells. Imagine you're an Arab working in an English women refuge and that's been all your experience of English people, unless you think outside the box it is easy to assume that all English people are battered women waiting to be liberated. So please stop, think and don't judge a book by your cover - oppression, injustice, inequality and the opposite exists in all societies, traditional or modern and in different ways - let's not compete but work together to help all women in all societies.
Sultana Begum, London, UK
It is important to define what is meant by 'female liberation' or 'freedom for women'. Every cultural and religious background interprets gender equality differently. Western culture may have a different view of female liberation than the Islamic religion. But as a Muslim myself, I admit that many of the Arab governments have a distorted image of the treatment of women in Islam. They prefer to follow traditions and customs rather than follow proper Islamic teachings. This is where the problem starts.
A couple of posts here have reference to India. When did we become part of the Arab world? All in all Indian women - Muslim or non-Muslim enjoy far more freedom than their counterparts in certain Islamic countries. And as a democratic society, with a free press reports of violence against women in India.
Vishnoo Rath, Kolkata, India
Any changes in the Arab world would require culture and religious transformation. Therefore, I really don't think Westerners have the right to impose culture modifications in the Muslim world. In my point of view, women in the Arab world should keep to their own traditions and faith. I wish outsiders would stop interfering and let the Arab people make their own decisions.
Raimundo L Santos, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Many people (male and female) in the Arab world look at various social problems (divorce, abortion, STDs) in the West and put the blame on women's liberation. The reality is the Arab world has many of the same social problems but they tend to be swept under the rug. Arab/Muslim nations ignore their widespread social problems and pretend that they have better and purer societies than those of the West.
Ahmed, Chino, CA USA
The one thing that will make a monumental difference to Islam and will, over the course of two generations or so, reduce the influence of the extremists is the emancipation of women. The sooner it happens the better.
We've had 43 American presidents and not one of them women. I wouldn't advise anyone else on gender equality.
Rakesh Sharma, US
The role of women is changing in the Arab world at a very fast pace. I think that every woman in the Middle East, or anywhere in the world for that matter, should have all of the same rights that men have. Woman are just as capable and competent as men. On the other hand, there are woman who have been brain washed since birth. Some have been taught that their soul purpose in life is to get married, have children, and be a house wife. I know that sounds bad, but many women are happy with that way of life. But at the end of the day, some will even admit that woman are by far more competent than men are.
Hassan Amidhozour, Tehran, Iran
It is great that the Arab world hasn't accepted the western idea of liberation blindly. For a glimpse at what this liberation has caused please go to the have your say main page and click on: "Are young women drinking too much?"
Mohsin Khan, London
I believe women in Arab countries are often miserable creatures. I myself live in an Islamic Country, and a lot of restrictions are confronting women rights in there. For instance women couldn't possibly choose their own attire, and in some countries they can't even use a cell phone. I think this is a huge disaster and UN must do something for that.
Sajad, Islamabad, Kermanshah, Iran
Women are most definitely oppressed in many Arab countries. You only have to trawl through Amnesty International sites to read the horrific reports of 'honour killings', girls being married off to old men and so forth.
Let's hope for democracy in the Middle-East before we talk about any kind of women's role in Middle-East.
Mansoor Kayani, MD, USA
I am a Muslim woman living in Canada. I strongly believe that it is not the religion that is at fault but the few so-called scholars and extremists who interpret the meaning and idea of Koran wrongly. They are the ones who force women to stay imprisoned within the four walls of their homes; wear black veils keep them away from knowledge. Here knowledge is not education but I refer to the ability of questioning and reasoning. I believe any religion including Islam first be understood and then practiced.
I do not think that religion is constraining the liberation of women in the Arab world. It is mostly social norms and customs which have not improved since the middle ages! I am not an Arab woman, I am an Arab man, a journalist. I have had the honour of representing women in my country at a recent gender equality UN meeting in Cairo. The meeting focused on how women do not have the right of giving citizenship to their children, or spouses. That is a basic right, which 90 percent of women in the Arab world do not have. If I take a look at my country, Jordan, we have "honour killings" and 8 women in parliament out of 110. However, there are good indicators, literacy is more than 80 percent, internet use among women is more than that among men, and so is enrolment in schools and universities. I believe that by focusing on education, women in the Arab world will be able to call for their own rights.
Rami Abdelrahman, Sweden
The Arab women belongs at home where she must take care of her children and comfort her husband. Men and women are different and Allah has different roles for each. The Arab woman shall stick to traditional values and avoid being corrupted by western ideas of equality etc.
Fathi Shkaki, Malta
Women may very well have "some" rights in the Arab World. However by no means does the Arab world reflect a legitimate understanding of Islamic teachings when it comes to Islam. On the contrary, the Arab world and its leader have exploited Islam and its teachings to further their demented, ignorant and intolerant beliefs.
Muath M., Brisbane, Australia.
The fact that this discussion is so heated demonstrates that the problem is still disturbingly real, in both the western world and the Middle East. Women don't have equality in either culture. If they did, we wouldn't need to hear about women being "sexually exploited" or "protected and honoured." Many strides have been made in both cultures, but they both still have a long way to go.
Louise, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
As a woman working in the centre of Brussels, where there are a very great number of North African immigrants, I see and am subject to the problems that Muslim women face daily. The majority have to cover themselves, often totally, gloves included; they cannot buy their own clothes: the men do it for them; must walk a respectful distance behind their husbands; and when they go to the mosque, have to use the back door, the main door being reserved for men. I have spoken to some and they do not like the situation but have to suffer it or be in serious trouble. To the gentleman who said that Islam has been egalitarian since the 7th century, I would reply that it has never progressed any further.
Samantha Martin, Brussels, Belgium
Samantha Martin, Brussels, Belgium comment is typical of western misunderstanding and sometimes lack of open mindedness. Yes in your experience you may come across a few oppressed women but you don't speak for all. As a veiled woman I feel offended that we need to be 'liberated'. I can say the same in France or now in Germany where Muslim women are being forced to unveil to attain their basic right to go to school or work there or the many women forced to be both a man and a woman, work and run a family and housework, and the level of drinking and drugs abuse and depression representing this - so no thank you!
Islam Soudani, London, UK (Iranian national)
It is interesting to see how many male posters here are quick to say that Arab women are not oppressed because plenty of them have reasonable jobs. Freedom is not necessarily about what you do, but what you should be free to do if you choose. This means you should be free to not behave "according to your culture" if you so choose. If anyone from the Islamic world would care to cite an example of an Islamic country where a woman would be free to go out on her own to a nightclub, have sex with whoever she chooses (including another woman) or convert to Buddhism, then I will accept that that country does not oppress women. Any suggestions?
Max, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Islam may well recognise women's rights and regard them as equal in places such as Turkey and Pakistan, but like many issues in the Arab world Islam is used as a political tool to further Arab ideals especially by fanatics and rulers who continue to misinterpret and manipulate true Islam and fuse it with local Arab culture, where women are still regarded in many places as personal property, second class citizens and have to obey the will of the male dominated society, that denies many of them from education and only accepts them in the traditional role of a women in Arab society. Basically with no rights at all.
Mar Israel, London
I am a English woman married to an Arab living in the Arabian Gulf for over thirty years. Yes women can work, vote and drive here, but they are still under the domination of men. When I wanted to learn to drive or work I had to have my husband's permission, willingly given I hasten to add, but there are those who refuse. Divorce is very difficult for a woman and if it is she that requests it, she will not get anything and, if she gets custody of any children (unlikely if she has asked for the separation) the amount the father has to pay is negligible, even if he is comfortably off. There is a woman's movement trying to improve things, a centre for abused women will soon be available. Fortunately this is one of the enlightened states, but there is still a long way to go. It all depends where you live in the Arab world as it is comprised of many countries all at varying levels of female emancipation.
It is not that some Arab women cover themselves up, the question is are they forced to cover themselves up? Can they drive without a man? Can they own property? Can they socialize with people of the opposite sex?
Patrick, Ohio, USA
I find it disturbing that many seem to think the Western culture is assuming superiority because it feels women deserve not only rights or options but equality. Respect, liberation, these terms mean nothing if they are not the same for everyone.
Annie Turner, Boston, USA
One of the greatest injustices to women in western society is the notion men have put upon them that they have to act like men to get respect in society. This practice is gender discrimination and killing of womanhood. Its shows a male dominated society at its best! If you study the Arab world before Islam, you will find great similarities to current western practices regarding women. The sexuality of women is always exploited in these societies just like we are currently seeing in the west. Arab women are fortunate not to face this today.
Qureshi, Boston, MA, USA.
I don't know why all this fuss about Arab women liberation. Women in the Arab world are liberated in a way that suits their own culture. I mean they are liberated in terms of rights and freedoms. Arab women don't need a Western style of freedom to be introduced to them. In terms of equality, the number of women civil servants in Egypt for example is more than the number of men. You just go and pay a visit to any government agency and you will find women occupying the majority of positions. In terms of education, I don't know a single female who has dropped out of school among the people I know. If there is illiteracy it applies to both men and women. Gender discrimination is now but a hoax, at least in my country. In Egypt women now do everything and occupy all positions, from Ministers to taxi drivers.
AbdelRahman Ismail, Giza, Egypt
I am not an Arab women but I have Arab women colleagues. Most really cherish the money they earn. It liberates them from many injustices they otherwise would have to suffer quietly. Without money, the future is bleak.
I am an Algerian woman who fought the Western imperialism during the Algerian French war. In Algeria, the Parliament vice-president is a woman, The governor of Tipaza (highest departmental position) is a woman, no woman in the US has reached this position yet! We have more women in the government than the UK/US. We had a woman who ran for the Algerian presidency during the 2003 general election (never happened in the US and only once in the UK). In the 70s the highest military grade of Colonel was a woman (no woman in the western hemisphere has reach this position yet). I've been to UK/US and seen how women are treated, abused both mentally and sexually and to top it all it's all right for men to have different partners but for women to do so she's considered to be a whore. Misinformation on the Arabs has been for a long time present in the Anglo-Saxon world!
Souad, Algiers, Algeria
Why is it that the western style of life is always regarded as the best? I am an Arab woman, I've never felt like a second class citizen in any way, in fact it's the opposite. Arabs, men and women want the Americans out of their countries and a change of government - not into a western style, but a style of their own. They can't make that change if they are not given the time and the choice. And as long as there is oil in the Middle East, there will be no change for Arabs - women and men.
Nada, New Zealand
I fear that the west has a preconceived idea of what a liberated woman is, and until the west sees this kind of Arab woman, it will continue to believe that Arab women are far more oppressed than western women. Most of my female Muslim friends find this whole discussion very patronizing, and consider the woes of the western woman to be far worse. The call from them would be 'put your own house in order first'.
Mrs Stokes, Redditch, UK
It really is a matter for the women in the Arab world to address. It is absolutely not a matter for the western world to attempt to extend their sphere of interference. There is enough distrust as it is without the need to plunge headlong into more cultural controversy.
Sam, Colchester UK
I fell off my chair when I read Asad's comment. If Islam gives women so many rights, why aren't women in Saudi Arabia permitted to drive, why must a woman in some Islamic nations must cover the very definition of their identity - their face, and why is it that son-less widows in areas where Sharia law is prevalent find themselves at risk of starvation because they are not permitted to go out and work for food? As for Arab society giving women respect - I didn't feel very respected on my honeymoon in Egypt by some of the men who felt they had a right to make suggestive comments even though I was in modest clothing and walking next to my husband. Any move in the Arab world where women are given more respect in their society is a good thing.
Sara Tindall, Oxford, England
Women are respected more in Islam and Judaism than in Christianity. The Koran says that women do not need to work outside of the home, but if they choose to, their earnings are for them alone. Would a Western woman be so lucky? We hear about terrible abuses of women in the name of extremist Islam, but where does this occur? India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia. Women in the Arab world, with the exclusion of Saudi Arabia, actually have more choices than in the West. They get college degrees, they may work, raise a family, provide a good home for that family, but they are not expected to do all at the same time as women are here in the West. The West needs to stop assuming superiority.
Nancy, New York, New York
To Zeca from Brazil, before criticizing how we treat our women - which you know nothing about- I advise you to pass legislation to prosecute those who kill street children in Brazil. With all the abortion, sexually transmitted diseases and illegitimate children born in the west every year, our women are better the way they are - protected and honorable.
Nizam Yagoub, Saudi Arabia
When we in the west see an Arab women covered in black we say that she is oppressed, but when we see a nun covered in black, nothing negative comes to our minds. People don't realize that Islam was a radically egalitarian religion in 7th century Arabia. Arab women had been enjoying more rights centuries before their European counterparts.
Bilal Sultan, New York, USA
Islam is the only religion that gives the most rights to women. The Arab society gives utmost respect to not only their own women but to women all over the world. We should not try to teach them what we think is right because here in the West also, women got the right to vote only about 80 years ago and even today, women say that they do not get the same treatment as men do in career and salaries. I think let time take its own course. Many Muslim countries now have women in the parliament. Pakistan for example has more women MPs than England.
Asad, Leeds, UK
A lot of social factors constrain the rights of women in many parts of the world, and often there seems to be no great appetite for change among the women themselves. This, as was the case in the West, will only change gradually. On the other hand, governments which actually deny people rights on the basis of their gender (such as Saudi Arabia) should be treated in exactly the same way as countries that denied their citizens rights on the basis of race, such as the old Apartheid regime in South Africa.
Max, Abu Dhabi, UAE
How can anyone point the finger at women in the Arab world and say women's role is domestic, it is not true. Apart from arranged marriages which are slowly disintegrating in the Arab world, everywhere else women have equal opportunities, in education and employment comparatively to India, women have much more rights and freedom in the Arab world, apart from the Wahhabi orientated Saudi Arabia, and are found to be much more educated and full of life. I think one should look at women's role in India and the South-East Asia, to find that there is a problem that women are seriously domesticated. The West is always undermining the Middle East for its faults, however having spent a year in Syria, I found a varying degree of roles of women there from modern, to traditional, to professional and a very educated mass of young people, where the average age of 65% of the population is under 25, back in 2000.
Arab women should have the same rights and roles as women in the West, but all women worldwide need to be able to see the end of the glass ceilings that men erected years ago and that some men are carefully protecting. It's not just an Arab issue.
CC, London, UK
This is a matter for the Arab world. But the rights of Arab and other Islamic women in the West must be the same as those of other women in the West (the same is true of men, of course, but that's another story) which is why I am pleased by the action of the Ontario government in not allowing Sharia or other religious tribunals to meddle in legal decisions. It is, for example, out of the question for daughters and sons not to have equal rights of succession if a parent dies without making a will.
Women in Arab countries always played an important role in their societies. Like their counterparts in Western societies, those living in cities fared better than those living in the countryside. Poverty and injustice determine how women are treated. I am an Arab woman who still remembers when, during a harsh war, I went to school by myself (1st grade) and, when I came home for lunch, my wonderful illiterate father was waiting for me with a box of colored pencils and a pinafore. I travelled the World over and where ever I went, women are treated the same way because of their social status. Your subject is Arab Women, you should ask: "what are your expectations of the future for women in the World"? I believe that a lot of men are afraid of women taking over but, also, there are some women who do not want other women
to play a major role either. It is the same old story with the human race.
Kheira Leehy, USA
Definitely there should be more of a role for women at least in the higher echelons of the civil service and government. But the same can be said of Western women. Apart from Margaret Thatcher, who else has been a leader of Britain? And the US has yet to produce a woman president. But these countries are preaching to others about more rights for women, which is like waving a red rag to a bull.
Bilal Patel, London, UK
Are Arab women ready for emancipation or are they still so subservient to men? Women in the Arab world have the brains and the oomph. Their contributions are so vital in shedding the hegemony of men. Why don't they realise that; or are they so shackled by their upbringing and roots to go against the establishment? Women have so much to offer. They are the backbone of any society. What are Arab governments doing to bridge the inequality between men and women?
Pancha Chandra, Brussels, Belgium
The Arab world is not one monolithic body as many would like to think or as implied even in the question as it is posed. Women in many countries in the Arab world have had varied levels of participation in society, outside the home. Women in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia have been participating in public life for at least 50 years. Their numbers in the political, medical, engineering and other professional fields are substantially more than even here in Canada. So this broad brush finger waving to the Arab world from the West needs to reflect all of reality not only taking the worse of some members of a group and attribute it to the whole, for if we did that would could be said about us in the west.
Eric, Toronto, Canada
All women, regardless of race, should have the same basic human rights as men. All humans deserve to be treated with respect, and should not have to fear reprisal for speaking their minds when the situation deems it. Women should also have the same educational rights as men, and the opportunity to stand on their own if they so desire. Most women of Arab nations now are in essence slaves to the more educated men-slavery is never right, nor should it be tolerated.
Jenna, Harrisburg, IL, USA
Hopefully recent events in Kuwait show a sign of things to come throughout the Middle East. It's shameful to think that in the 21st century women are still being treated as second class citizens. It is fact that more women in government and business brings about more change and progress and it's about time that the politicians and the men of the Middle East see this.
Jason Robinson, Dublin, Ireland
Women in the Arab world should have all of the rights and privileges that the men in the Arab world have. They should be afforded the same rights and privileges that women in the rest of the modern world enjoy. What man would want any less for his daughter or wife.
Allen Graves, Long Beach, California, USA
Arab women need more freedoms like any other women in the world especially health care and education which are the basic needs for life. Arab women also need a better recognition from political leaders because their involvement in everything should make life easiest for all mankind all over the world.
Peter Tuach, Minnesota, USA
Arab women should not be given full rights. Just look at the mess it's led to in the West: broken homes, broken families, soaring divorce rates. When women are no longer financially dependent upon their husbands, they no longer have any reason to stay once romantic love fades, and its society and its children that suffer. The less political and economic freedom women have the better.
Phil Owar, Los Angeles, California
Ultimately women's' roles should be the same as in the West but there has to be a transition period first. It is not so very long ago that suffragettes were fighting for the vote in the UK and, even after that, the perceived role of women for generations was in the home. The Arab world has not travelled as far along our "progressive" path and we should beware of raising the expectations of women too quickly.
Gordon Jackson, Nanaimo, Canada
For someone like me it is impossible to understand a form of living in which women are treated like second class citizens and forbidden the right of ruling their own lives. I hope there were progress in Arab countries in passing legislation and enforcing policies pro-women and pro-society.
Zeca, Campo Grande, Brazil