The status of women in the Middle East was the focus of a conference held at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston Tuesday. Several panels including a total of 20 scholarly experts discussed such issues as education, politics, marriage, sexuality and reproductive health at the day-long event. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from Houston.
If there was one clear theme at the conference it was that women in the Middle East and the Islamic nations of North Africa are not passively living under the thumb of patriarchal societies, but are actively demanding a greater role in society. In spite of rigid rules in some nations that restrict them, women have found ways of asserting their rights, according to a number of academic observers.
Janine Clark, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph in Canada presented information about so-called honor crimes against women in Jordan. She noted that pressure on the government there to protect women has come from public protests organized by women. She said women throughout the region face many similar issues.
"If women have fewer rights than men and if they appear to be second-class citizens, it is not because women have not tried to alter the situation, nor is it necessarily because of the supposedly rigid nature of patriarchy or Islam," said Clark. "Rather, we must look at the authoritarian nature of the political systems in the region and, to a lesser extent, to the political instability at large."
Valentine Moghadam, Director of Women's Studies at Purdue University, argued that empowerment of women starts with access to education and that women who have been educated are the ones who stand up to authority.
"Women activists, who typically come from the more educated segments of society, are challenging the status quo, voicing their demands for equality in the family and society, and calling for women's economic, political and social empowerment. This trend is seen across the region, although the level of intensity and the organizational approaches vary by country," said Moghadam. "Even relatively conservative societies, such as Bahrain and Kuwait are feeling pressure as activists demand that women receive their full rights as full citizens."
She says educated women in the Middle East are leading movements that call for egalitarian family laws, nationality rights for women, criminalization of domestic violence, greater economic participation and political rights.
One nation where there has been a tradition of educating women is Iran. Shahla Haeri, Professor of Anthropology and Director of Women's Studies at Boston University, noted that Iranian women have found many ways of gaining access to education and good jobs, in spite of a government and legal system that has thrown barriers in their path.
"Women have increasingly resisted the unfair treatment in social, political and economic spheres and challenged the ethics of the discriminatory political and legal practices that permeate their daily lives," said Haeri.
She says women in Iran have used cyberspace to connect with others, both inside and outside their country, and have successfully maneuvered to avoid government attempts to restrict free dialogue on web sites. She also noted that Iranian women have remained faithful to their Islamic religion, while rejecting the formal, legalistic interpretations that have come from the patriarchal authorities in that country.
Tuesday's conference was the first of a series of conferences on the status of women and human rights in the Middle East to be held at the James Baker Institute at Rice University.