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Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D.

Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D.

Posted: March 8, 2011 11:24 AM

On International Women's Day, Demand That Uprisings Throughout The Middle East Overturn Patriarchal Tradition


This guest opinion was written by Maryam Zar, JD, an Iranian-American, who returned to Iran in the late 1980s, and worked in advertising. In the early 1990s she was an editor at the Tehran News, an English language daily in Iran, a position she held until 1995 when she returned to the U.S. She founded Womenfound, Inc. this year, an organization with a mission to raise money and awareness for women in need around the world.

On Sunday in the Ivory Coast, women were massacred in an ambush while protesting peacefully in the streets. Last week in Libya, women were gunned down while being used as human shields by mercenaries. Still, despite these attacks, women are out in protest across the Middle East and beyond, asking insistently for change, fundamental fairness, and their rightful place in society.

Women have taken part in revolutions before in the Arab/Muslim world, and, despite a change-of-the-guard, their plight has consistently remained unchanged. They are sent home with little impact to their immediate lives despite their sacrifices. Economic participation remains limited, social inclusion is inhibited, and full civic participation is still illusive, even as we mark the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.

Why is there such resistance to women's rights and economic freedom across the Muslim world?

Some contemplate that it may be religion. Some think it must be the nature of the Eastern woman. Some have come to believe it is simply the eternal destiny of Muslim women to serve, rather than to be served.

Truth be known, it is tradition ... simply deep-rooted Tradition.

It has been long ingrained in mythology and legendry that the good Eastern woman is to serve quietly and to live out her days subservient to the dictates of her master and patriarch. Today, as modernity would have it, many young women in the East are questioning the wisdom of this tradition, and its applicability to their emancipated instincts.

Still, the state of women in Muslim countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia is worrisome. Not because they are battered and beaten just as the men are amidst the brutal crack-downs confronting protests, but because their emancipation is only in the minds of women. It has not permeated the folklore that creates the Muslim lifestyle. Until it does, many women will continue to be battered and beaten at home as well as on the streets.

Women who live in societies where they are required to cover their heads as a condition of being female necessarily live in a society that expects them to be subservient. That is not to say that all women who choose to wear head-coverings are subservient. No. If that is a choice made of free will and not higher command, then it is independent of coercion and emblematic of a faith that is to be respected. However, when tradition compels the woman to be marked as separate and apart from the men, there is an element of control. From its mildest to its most oppressive forms, Hijab hinders one or more of the senses and is part and parcel of a tradition to disable and debilitate women by limiting their power of movement and perception.

When I see pictures of emancipated women with flowing hair and make-up, yelling in protest on the streets of the Arab world along-side their veiled sisters, I worry. I worry that the two groups are not hollering for the same kind of change. They stand next to each other, grudgingly smiling at one another in hopes of respectful co-existence, thrusting their fists and voices into the sky as one voice for change. But the new order will not suit them both the same. One is risking life and limb for change that she thinks will mean equality and emancipation for women, while the other is taking part in an exercise to consolidate the power of religio-centered politics with its influence in civic life.

To see a change in the Middle East toward fundamental fairness and equality for women, the vernacular of society has to change, just as fundamentally as the politics. No government anywhere across the domino landscape of revolutionary Middle East today will proclaim the equal rights of women, and actually bequeath those rights to them without the sustained and committed pressure of regular men and women in society, who stand up and assert that fundamental fairness and not a skewed custom of long out-dated conventions, should rule the land.

Tradition trumpets the subservience of women; it must yield to democratic systems that champion their empowerment.

As we mark 100 years of International Women's Day, talking heads and pundits who have attained the emancipated status of 'role models' sit in the comfort of television studios and theorize about the plight of women in Arab and Muslim countries who are displaying the courage for change. The pundits proclaim that until women attain educational and economic equality they cannot be truly empowered. But to begin to attain that equality women must battle Tradition -- and tradition will be tightly held in place by strong willed men loath to give up the power it gives them. For that reason, pro-democracy organizations everywhere, must raise a collective howl against the prevalent domestic exploitation and abuse of women in villages and towns across the Arab world.

Well-funded, well-connected, well-networked organizations that aid, empower and represent the rights of women should come together and fuel grass roots efforts that provide basic education to women and girls across the Muslim world. These organizations must win people over to the idea that women are equal and that they must have all human rights.

Starting this year, on the centennial of a long-standing global struggle, let us stand together, make a difference, and change women's lives forever -- for the better.