Women stood side by side with men in demanding liberty and dignity during the events of 2011 in the Arab region. Their role in the struggle was widely hailed, to the extent that one such activist, Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, won the Noble Peace Prize together with two others. In 2014, another Nobel Prize was awarded to a young woman who challenged patriarchy, transcended Pakistan and the Muslim world, and promoted the rights of education for young women. Her name is Malala Yousafzai.
But, many reforms advantageous to women and communities in the region, such as those of family law,[i] have stalled or even rolled back in the past seven years, mainly due to conflict and patriarchal norms. Gender inequality, on average, is the most pronounced of any world region in the Arab states, as measured by indicators on women’s political participation, economic empowerment, and access to justice, as well as rates of sexual and other forms of violence towards women and girls. In nearly all human development indices, apart from life expectancy and some areas of education, men outpace women. Yet, women comprise 50 percent of the population, don’t they deserve better? And why aren’t Arab men doing more to promote gender equality?
Challenges are specific to each country in the MENA region, and it is certainly worth noting that gender inequality and misogyny are endemic globally. As one writer put it, “culturally engrained sexism is not particular to Arab societies… it’s a problem that Arab societies have, but it’s not a distinctively Arab problem.”[ii] Young women in Arab countries, including the State of Palestine, are hardly passive victims, and many are challenging and transforming systems of power and exclusion. Still, more men need to get engaged as equal partners in the struggle for equality.
The State of Palestine, similar to many countries, has a gender inequality problem. The symptoms – be it high unemployment rates among women or the prevalence of violence, further reinforcing unequal power dynamics – is strongly exacerbated by the oppressive policies and conditions of the occupation. Yet, born out of the struggle for independence and identity, a greater focus on basic rights for all begets hope. The State of Palestine recently formulated a national strategy to fight violence against women, engaging the participation of survivors of violence. However, due to the inability of the Palestinian Legislative Council to convene, no laws have been passed. Although there is a strong recognition among men and women that gender equality has not been achieved in the Palestinian state, approximately three-quarters of men and nearly 87 percent of women agree with the statement, “We as Palestinians need to do more work to promote the equality of women and men.”[iii]
Fortunately, the need to close the gender gap has been recognized. Key recommendations include:
- The need to document cases of innovative initiatives that focus on working with men and boys to promote gender equality and positive and non-violent masculinities by identifying their successful and/or replicable characteristics, the main obstacles that were overcome, and their relevance for policy and practice development in the State of Palestine.
- Place more focus on education and upbringing, particularly on the family, in the creation of role models and early childhood experiences. For example, families that encourage daughters to be more independent and to take on non-traditional professions contribute to increased future options for young women. In short, men’s privileges are taught through culture, society, and family. In turn, values that promote equal rights can translate into, and are reinforced by, legislation and institutions. The importance of having open discussions around gender norms and stereotypes is the first step in addressing the issue.
- Men need to be held accountable for the suppressive actions and behaviors they commit, including violence against women and girls. Men's responsibility is necessary for justice and to enable the healing of individuals and society. Legislative change and the effective implementation of laws, at all levels, are needed to promote and protect women’s rights, including in the family.
- There are many global coalitions and non-governmental organizations focused on men’s responsibility in strengthening gender equality. Groups such as White Ribbon or MenEngage Alliance are creating networks that aim to impel men to fulfil their obligation as advocates for change. The State of Palestine needs such organizations. Moreover, safe, comfortable, and at times separate spaces are needed for both men and women to discuss the political, personal, and organizational dimensions of gender equality.
- It is important to address structural causes of inequality at the level of policy, legislation, and procedures, including employment opportunities. For example, the introduction of quotas in electoral procedures can lead to more women leaders. But if the absence of women from positions of political authority persists, it is more likely that the State of Palestine will continue to promote men’s interests over those of women. The enabling factors for continued engagement, however, need to be further addressed and improved. The change that is needed goes beyond changing legislation or increasing participation ‒ the mind sets of men must be changed.
Gender equality, be it in the State of Palestine, the Arab Region, or the world, is not a “women’s issue” but rather an integral component of a comprehensive human rights and development agenda that must be adhered to by both men and women. More men need to step up and accept feminism, the belief in and organized advocacy for the notion that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Feminism should not be stigmatized for men, but must be championed. Moreover, men need to realize that the dominance of one group over another leads to a less productive, less healthy, less educated, less progressive, and less content society. Just as all Palestinians suffer under the occupation, men, too, suffer from a lack of gender equality and pervasive gender roles, hindering them from reaching their full potential.
[i] For Palestine, see Nahda Shehada, Debating Islamic Family Law in Palestine: Citizenship, Gender, and ‘Islamic’ Idioms, available at file:///C:/Users/HP/Downloads/Metis_174383.pdf; and Penny Johnson & Rema Hammami, Change and Conservation Family Law Reform in Court Practice and Public Perceptions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Summary and Report of 2013 Family Law Survey Findings, Institute of Women’s Studies, Birzeit University in collaboration with Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) and with support from UNDP, December 2013, available at http://iws.birzeit.edu/sites/default/files/2016-12/Family%20Law%20Survey%20FINAL%20WEB_Penny%20and%20Rema_0.pdf.
[ii] Max Fisher, “The Real Roots of Sexism in the Middle East (It’s not Islam, Race, or ‘Hate’),” The Atlantic, April 12, 20, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/the-real-roots-of-sexism-in-the-middle-east-its-not-islam-race-or-hate/256362/.
[iii] Understanding Masculinities: Results from the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IAMGES) ‒ Middle East and North Africa (MENA), UN Women and Promundo, 2017, available at https://imagesmena.org/en/.