Gender and the State
Through its powerful institutions, policies, and programs, the state can have both positive and negative impacts on Middle Eastern women. This impact can be observed in several domains (see Norton et al., 1997; Kandiyoti, 1991b). Perhaps the most important is in the broadly-defined economic sphere (see Moghadam, 1993). Economic empowerment is the key structural factor that direcdy promotes gender equality. Unless women have economic independence, or at least some degree of economic autonomy, the struggle for equality is less viable.
The state can help women's empowerment by facilitating their entrance into the job market. Much of this is predicated on the prior role of the state in raising the level of literacy and educational attainment among women. As the level of female literacy continues to increase perceptively in the Middle East, the state's role in integrating women in the economy becomes more central. A relevant corollary issue is the level at which women enter the job market. The small number of women in managerial, executive, or administrative positions in the Middle East attests to the continued difficulty of this process.
Another arena where the state's role is important is at the political and legal level. This level encompasses a large set of issues including those that are concerned with rights of citizenship for women, the impact of civil and criminal codes, and the place of women when the process of political and economic liberalization begins.
An important difference between the Islamic world and the West in regard to citizenship rights is how these rights are formally categorized. In the West, non-gender-based citizenship is the norm, even though in practice, full and complete citizenship rights and equality are not always the case. In the Islamic world, however, the norm is to grant different categories of people different citizenship rights. Hence, women and religious minorities enjoy a different category of citizenship rights than males and Muslims (see Imam, 1996; Joseph, 1996). The problem becomes more serious for gender relations when different citizenship rights are legitimated by religious law and as a matter of faith. The situation is especially applicable to inequalities embedded in the Islamic personal status laws and the criminal code.
Another issue that is not often formally addressed is the impact of economic and political reform and liberalization on the status of women (Walen, 1994). The situation is relevant to the Middle East because even limited women's progress has often taken place under authoritarian but generally secularist regimes. When regimes undertake political reform and move away from rigid authoritarianism, there may then be unforeseen consequences for women. This is especially the case when inclusive politics ushers into the central political arena those "illiberal" forces that are not positively inclined toward preservation or promotion of women's rights. In such situations women lose the state not only as the key protector but also as a partial promoter of their cause (Brand, 1998; Hatem, 1995). Although there is no easy answer or solution to this problem, it is an issue well worth pondering because of its significant consequences, especially in the short run.
A final, less tangible but significant issue concerns the general social acceptance of gender equality and the process of change that leads to it in the Middle East. The acceptance process is slow and time consuming. It is predicated on the socialization experience and the norms and values that are inculcated in individuals as part of the process. The key agents of socialization--family, school, and place of employment--play essential roles. The state's position vis-a-vis these agents is not insignificant, as it can help expedite the process of change through its influence on them.
The Middle East, then, is in a special predicament on the gender issue and women's rights. Excluding the special case of Israel, three countries in the region (Egypt, Iran, and Turkey) have had a history of women's movement in the twentieth century. Even in these countries, progress has been at best uneven and not always linear. Although some gains have also been made in other parts of the region, the Middle East continues to lag on issues of gender equality. Unless reversed, the Middle Eastern gender gap will continue to adversely affect the quality of life and politics in the region as well as critical bread and butter issues of equity, efficiency, and economic growth.
The Case of Iran
The place and role of Iranian women in the Islamic Republic is complex and does not allow for simple characterization. The issue of women's status and their proper role has engaged the regime, women, and others in an intense and at times circular debate. It has become in many ways an existential issue with its own particular dynamism (see Afkhami and Friedl, 1994; Moghissi, 1994; Paidar, 1995; Kazemi, 1996; Esfandiari, 1997, Mir-Hosseini, 1999).
From the perspective of reform, the gender issue in the Islamic Republic is an example of at least partial success with a clear possibility for even further progress. It is a situation where a set of harsh and extremist measures on women, introduced and implemented by the revolutionary regime, were progressively modified. The reasons for the reforms are rooted in the activities of women's groups and organizations (especially those whose Islamic credentials could not be easily challenged), the complexities of the Iranian society which does not allow for simple, dichotomous, and excessively hierarchical gender separation in public life, and the exigencies and logistical needs of the Iranian state during the long course of the Iran-Iraq war. Additionally, politicization of women during the revolution and the resultant sense of empowerment, especially among women of lower socioeconomic status, gave women a political voice that they have never relinquished. The combination of these sets of forces eventually forced the state and its reformist contingent to agree to slowly liberalize restrictive laws and regulations.
More specifically, three chronological stages (with some overlaps) characterize the gender reform process in Iran. Phase one began with the establishment of the Islamic Republic after the national plebiscite of 1979 and ended in the early 1980's, soon after the Iranian forces expelled the Iraqis from occupied lands. Phase two lasted for the duration of the war until its termination in 1988. The final and continuing phase began with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the important constitutional revisions of 1989--which consolidated both civil and military bureaucracies, strengthened the executive branch, and converted Iran into a presidential system.
These three stages reflect a reform trajectory that moves gradually toward greater openness to women's roles, further inclusion in the system, and partial shifts away from rigid and intolerant positions of the past. The fact that gender reforms have taken place in an authoritarian system with strong ideological postures legitimated with religious dogma, makes the issue particularly poignant. It reaffirms the contention that, given a certain combination of forces, reformist movements are possible in authoritarian systems.
Three general developments affected women's lives in the early years of post-revolutionary Iran: (1) the introduction of a set of norms and ideological pronouncements on gender and the enforcement of veiling and segregation of sexes in public space; (2) the implementation of a number of explicit or implicit restrictions on educational access, choice of occupations, and opportunities in the state bureaucracy; (3) the creation of a new legal system with drastically modified criminal and civil codes that placed women in a highly disadvantaged situation.
All three of these developments have been progressively modified in later chronological phases, especially in phase three. Women activists were particularly instrumental in moderating and modifying the actions of the state. Their opposition to gender restrictions took several different forms, ranging from the use of the media and the press to debate gender issues to active use of reformist organizations to promote women's rights. Some of the state policies and regulations (such as the revival of the institution of temporary marriage) did not take a firm hold. Women also used other forms of explicit and subtle resistance to challenge the system and gain incremental power in the peripheries of the political system. These included the use of various forms of the "weapons of the weak," such as disobedience, refusal, subversion, and dissimulation.
The net result has been some degree of improvement in women's legal, political, economic, and social positions. Although gender equality is not the norm of the Islamic Republic, the women of Iran have taken noticeable strides. If the reform movement in Iran succeeds, especially with the election of President Mohammad Khatami and his greater receptivity to gender issues, then the future of gender equality is by definition more promising.
Conclusion: Gender and Culture
The process of reform in gender relations that has progressed so painstakingly in Iran will most likely have some impact in other parts of the Middle East. The earliest women's movements in the Middle East were spearheaded in Egypt, Turkey, and Iran. It is not surprising that at least some of the most relevant discourse and debate on gender issues are also taking place in these same polities. If gender reform continues in Iran and the most recent improvements in marriage laws in Eygpt expand their scope, and if the Turkish society is able to take the lead in gender roles for the whole of the Middle East, then there is much reason for hope.
The prospects for gender reform in the Middle East are helped and hindered by both structural and cultural changes. As far as structural factors are concerned, demographic transformation particularly stands out. Demographic change in the Middle East is major and multifaceted. It also contains two significant and non-mutually exclusive components that are likely to help gender reform--women and youth. The predominance of youth and the incipient activism of women is a continuing and expanding trend in the Middle East. In 1998, some 40 percent of the population were under the age of 15 (Dervis and Shafik, 1998, p. 507). This percentage is increasing rapidly with some individual countries exhibiting much larger youth ratios. Moreover, this young population is substantially better educated, is politically and socially conscious, has greater access to mass media, is technologically savvy, and has traveled far more than their parents both at home and abroad.
An increasingly more significant element of the Middle Eastern population is its women. The remarkable recent rise in the rate of female literacy has created a better informed and an increasingly more active group. Similar to the male youth, females will also demand entry into the job market and some voice in the system of governance. Whenever these demands are thwarted in a sustained fashion, grievances will emerge. When individual grievances are articulated collectively, and the blame is placed on the regimes, serious potential crises can develop. In such situations, groups with strong cultural presence and claims to legitimacy (particularly the outlawed Islamist organizations) will have a fertile environment to recruit and train dissidents. In these circumstances, it will be difficult for force alone, or any form of what has been called "legal violence," to be effective in the long run as the final arbiter of disputes. Hence, unless political and economic reform is undertaken by the Middle Eastern regimes, pressures from below have the potential of erupting into anomic or organized revolts.
Perhaps the most problematic of the challenges facing the Middle East in the next millennium will be cultural. Although I do not share a cultural determinist view of the Middle East, I do note the presence of important Middle Eastern cultural issues that will influence its domestic, regional, and international politics. The next millennium will see culture used once again as an easy and escapist explanation for Middle Eastern developments by both those inside and out. This will happen even when basic structural trends are far more likely to explain events than particular Islamic or Middle Eastern cultural norms. The situation is made more complicated because many within the Middle East will express developments, policies, and events in cultural terms irrespective of their validity.
There is also a set of worldwide developments with cultural connotations that transcend Middle Eastern boundaries. These developments amount to a form of "cultural implosion." As an observer has remarked, "in recent decades, migrations from rural to urban regions and between countries, as well as business travel, tourism, radio, television, telephones, taxes, the Internet, cassettes, newspapers, and magazines, have shrunk the world stage, bringing cultures into contact and sometimes into conflict" (Cohen, 1998, p. 29).
These trends have made vast and deep imprints in the Middle East and elsewhere. In the Middle East, the impact has been particularly severe on the society's traditional foundations and has challenged many of the deeply rooted values. The regional response to these developments has taken several different forms. One response has been the acceptance of change and a real attempt at acculturation and accommodation of differing cultural patterns. Many Middle Easterners have come to accept, incorporate, and find a workable medium between these new factors and their traditional value systems.
Another response has been defensive and in the form of apologetics for Islam and the Middle East. Some of those in this category have made efforts to insulate themselves from what they consider to be "alien" cultural influences by finding greater solace in the traditions. Yet a third response, which also borrows from the second, has been to organize, resist, and fight what is considered cultural intrusion from the outside. Clearly this does not mean rejection of technological advances. Resistance is not to technology but to cultural, economic, and political domination by the West.
In the next millennium, the politics of the Middle East will attempt to infuse culture into political, economic, and demographic developments. To use Clifford Geertz's phrase, culture will provide the "road map" for making sense of the complicated new realities of life (Geertz, 1964, p. 62).
On the positive side, these efforts can be constructive, as they will help the progressive evolution of Islamic modernism. Since Islam has never been a static civilization, and has had a rich tradition of modernism, a successful fusion of Islam and modernity can remove the cultural bias from the interaction of the Middle East with the West (see Binder, 1988).
Two specific and contentious issues will stand out in the process of Islamic modernism. The first concerns modifications of certain Islamic practices, especially in personal status laws and the criminal code, that are detrimental to gender equality. Success here will go a long way to reduce some of the more pronounced cultural tensions and animosities that have pitted tradition-bound Muslims against the West. Even if these laws are not formally removed from the books, their gradual erosion (and non-adherence to them in practice) will help transform the situation. Clearly, progressive changes in personal status laws in the Middle East will be a critical step toward gender equality.
The second issue involves central themes of governance, people's sovereignty, and democracy. There have already been some important and influential beginnings in this domain by those who find Islam, popular sovereignty, and democracy compatible. Noted Islamic modernist thinkers of the present Middle East--the likes of Hasan Hanafi, Muhammad Shahrour, and Abdolkarim Soroush--have already advanced the idea that it is necessary to reorient critical Islamic themes in light of the developments of modern society. Since these thinkers and their followers remain faithful to the essential precepts of Islam, their potential impact can be significant.
The reverse side is, of course, the progressive politicization of Islam in the hands of Islamists and other radical groups and organizations. The future will not necessarily see a diminution of radical Islamist politics. As in the past, the Islamists will be able to organize the disaffected and the excluded, challenge the established order at home and be an irritant and even a serious threat abroad. Their message may be about jobs, economy, and politics, but it will be expressed in cultural forms. Should such developments take place, it is likely that reform in gender equality will suffer.
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