Thursday 27 April 2017

W is for...Women...and Wrong impressions

is for

Egyptian musician Maii Waleed, collaborating here with Zeid Hamdan, a Lebanese producer, in Hsafeer Ba'aeid 

and also Dina el Wedidy, another emerging Egyptian musical star, with her Sokoun (Tranquillity) -

And if you are not in the mood to read a long and somewhat cantankerous post, you should stop while the going is feel-good with this music.  But if you want to feel hot and bothered like me, then go right ahead…


I keep getting these vibes from non-Arabs about how Arab women are ‘oppressed,’ ‘not empowered,’ ‘can't access education,’ and somehow ‘forced’ to wear the hijab. Let’s talk some facts and kick the stuffing out of these stereotypes!

Firstly, Bahrain, where I am now: Bahraini women’s situation in particular is different from their much larger and notorious neighbour Saudi Arabia. Here’s an excerpt from a book by a couple of Western authors, one of whom grew up in Bahrain.

Bahrainis are more politically advanced than elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf because Bahrain has a longer exposure to Western style institutions. Prior to 1930, the Ruler of Bahrain appointed a British advisor who introduced elements of British law into the Bahraini legal system. Bahrain was the first country in the region to hold parliamentary elections in 1973 and 2002, women were probably the first in the region to have the right to vote.

Culture Shock! Bahrain: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette – Harvey Tripp, Margaret Tripp.

According to the UNDP study on Gender Inequality, Bahrain is second among the GCC countries in Gender Inequality Index (GII), second to UAE by a hairsbreadth. Here is a recap:

GII 2016
Global Rank (in 188 countries)
% women’s share of seats in parliament
% female population 25+ with some secondary education (male)
% women  in labour force (15+)
65.7 (44.2)
77.4 (64.5)
61.6 (55.6)
Saudi Arabia
63.3 (72.1)
59.8 (57.1)
37.5 (49.9)
56.8 (58.1)
53.0 (55.4)
34.1 (35.7)
78.5 (82.7)
26.7 (33.2)
35.8 (55.5)
70.9 (67.8)
34.8 (43.4)
54.5 (68.2)
Chart-topper n benchmarks
96.1 (97.4)
81.3 (84.6)
95.4 (95.1)

It leaps off the page that in most Gulf countries, more women than men have secondary education. Bahraini women certainly are not denied schooling!  In twenty years, I haven’t met a Bahraini who was not literate. The overall literacy is 95.7% here, so it figures! 

A greater percentage of women participate too, in the labour force in the Gulf as compared to other Arab nations. Political participation is a different matter altogether, but then again, nowhere in the world is it perfect, is it? Not even in the strongholds of democracy do women have adequate representation, so what of these here, which are just a few decades into their lives as independent nations? 

Now onto Egypt, where I was just before I came to Bahrain. Egypt is a painful instance of regression over the last few decades, they started out very differently.  Again, don’t take my word for it, I am an outsider, read what Alaa al Aswany, a famous Egyptian author, essayist, social commentator and a US-trained dentist, has to say:

In the aftermath of the 1919 uprising against the British occupation, the pioneering Hoda Shaarawi took the Turkish burka off her face at a public ceremony as a sign that the liberation of the country was inseparable from the liberation of women. Egyptian women were truly the pioneers for women in the Arab world: the first to be educated and to work in every field, the first to drive cars and fly planes, and the first to enter parliament and government.  But at the end of 1970’s Egyptians fell under the influence of fundamentalist ideas and the Wahhabi school of thought proliferated, with the support of oil money, whether through satellite television or…the Egyptians who worked for years in Saudi Arabia and came back saturated with fundamentalist ideas.
On the State of Egypt – the Issues that Caused the Revolution.
Alaa al Aswany.

For all the depressing figures, there are still many, many educated women working in every field in Egypt, and across all of Arablands.  A quarter of the Egyptian female population is still more than 10 million.  

This is not to claim that women’s situation is not a concern – in Egypt particularly - Wahhabism, Female Genital Mutilation and sexual molestation remain major issues.  But it is equally wrong to assume all Egyptian/Arab women are uneducated, powerless, browbeaten, spineless wilting lilies, covered top-to-toe in veils, who don't know their own minds. This attitude is patronising and insulting and frankly, weird. Read about some prominent Egyptian women here

And watch this Saudi video which went viral last year.  The lyrics translate to 'Oh God rid us of these men.' :) Times they are a-changing, even in the final bastion of patriarchy! 

Oh yes, nearly forgot - the misplaced Worry re hijabs. I've known Arab and Muslim women who wear it, and those who don’t. As a random example, I once knew a young woman who wore the hijab to work because she didn’t want to “deal with hair issues at 6 a.m.” and never covered her hair for social occasions/in the evening.  And I have known others, deeply devout, who wore it as a religious duty. Some women wear it as an identity marker, others as a fashion statement. There's no law that forces women to wear the hijab in Bahrain. Or Egypt, though there has been a spike in veiling as mentioned before.

It seems to me beyond belief that the hijab is conflated with degree of freedom, or ambition, or education, or anything else. It's a non-issue, women should be free to make their own choices re attire and not be discriminated against for wearing/not wearing a scarf, or a dupatta, or a certain length of hemline, full stop. People really need to get over this obsession with what women wear, everywhere in the world! 

An apology for the length of this post, and thank you for your patience if you've read through till here.  It's just one of those topics where word limits get thrown into the wastepaper basket. 

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2017 


  1. Unfortunately, it's always easier, I suppose, for people to fall back on stereotypes. It's so much more convenient than actually educating one's self.

    1. You've put it in a nutshell with your usual perspicacity! The stereotyping's bothersome.

    2. Thanks for the compliment. It means a lot, coming from you.

  2. What an interesting post. You're right: We hear this stuff but have no authentic frame of reference. Thank you.

    1. My pleasure entirely :)

      Seriously though, the data's available on-line, and Arabs in the West write often enough in the media to dispel the ideas...

  3. The United States is busy taking one big step backward for women's rights. We elected an incompetent over a woman for President. However, some of the fake news had an effect.

    I'm glad of the progress in Bahrain for everyone.

    1. Nothing political - would have been nice to see a woman in the White House.

      Bahrain is among the more progressive nations in the Gulf and even the wider ME. Iran, Saudi and Afghanistan somehow manage to cloud all perceptions. Tunisian women for instance have done better than the Western democracies as political representation goes, but that isn't a widely known fact.

  4. It is good to get it off your chest, so to speak. I found your rant very educational. The problem here in the West is two-fold: 1. Media here concentrates on what is wrong in the world, not what is good. Therefore we hear primarily of the instances where women are oppressed by Islam. 2. The general population in the West is globally ignorant. Therefore, we hear one story of Arab women being mistreated and we assume they all are. And we know that to assume makes an "ass out of U and me". 😒
    Perspectives at Life & Faith in Caneyhead

    1. It is not only in the West/USA that assumptions are made - similar stereotypes abound in the East also, specifically South Asians have a pretty negative view based on zilch research...

  5. It is so much easier to accept stereotypes than to do research, because research takes effort, while believing in stereotypes doesn't take much thinking or investigation at all. Meantime, the last video and its "guest star" - so that was made before our American election? It's good to see ourselves through other eyes.

    1. I think the video was after the results were declared and before Mr Trump's inauguration, probably in Nov or maybe Dec 16.

  6. Very well said! No matter where you are in the world, there will be women who are empowered and those who are oppressed. My hope is that all people on the planet will be treated with dignity and allowed to get as much of an education as they can attain and use it to make their best life.

    Some women may be oppressed (everywhere on earth), but even they have thoughts and hopes and dreams and they should be freed to follow those.

    1. True! Women are subjected to abuse and rights violations everywhere, it's a matter of degrees. It has nothing to do with ethnicity or faith, more a matter of social class and education. If education is the leveler, then Arab women have more educational opportunities available to them than many others elsewhere in the world. Social systems for women to remain in the labour force can be vastly improved in the East, and in the Arab world also.

  7. W is for wonder. The Wonder of a World that is changing. Eyes are opening up. Even in this fine post are signs. Thank you.

    1. Very true, the world is changing, just not fast enough in some quarters. Thanks for your support!

  8. Whoa and wow. Am I guilty of misperceptions? Yes, I apologize. Your A to Z has been very Worthy for an ignoramous like me. I am not ugly verbal, but I admit to many wrong assumptions. Rant and Sigh and keep writing- I have learned SO much. Thank you!!

    1. We all use generalisations - helps make sense of a diverse world, that's prefectly acceptable so long as we keep an open mind. Not being ugly verbal is also an act of compassion and must be acknowledged! Many people are not so, spew violent/harmful words based on nothing but their own prejudices.

      Thank you for being here throughout.

  9. A wonderful insight to women in your part of the world. You. I'm sure have opened the eys of many people.
    Excellent "W" post.

    1. Thank you. People open their own eyes, or not, as they prefer :) I just write about what I see and experience...

  10. Prejudice and sterotyping are always Woeful, and the West is certainly guilty here.
    I have thoroughly enjoyed the Wonders you have introduced, illustrated displayed in this series, and will miss my daily dose.

    1. Not just the West, I get quite a lot of it back in India as well...

  11. Thank you for choosing to write about Arab women Nilanjana. Qatari women, like their Bahraini counterparts, are educated, ambitious and empowered.
    I've worked closely with Qatari women and I find myself defending them (and their image) whenever non-Arabs start discussing them.
    A well worded post. I should keep the link handy on my phone for future reference:)
    The last video was a treat to watch--times, as you say, are a-changing.
    W is for Warp and Weft

    1. I'm not surprised. All the Gulf monarchies are similar on education more or less, and women are no different from anywhere else in the is the first step to empowerment.

  12. No worries Nila - I will definitely be back to read and inwardly digest all your posts on Arabiana ... particularly this one - thanks ... just a brilliant series - delighted you chose it for us ... cheers Hilary

  13. It doesn't matter what you say, and even what you see: people always think that Morocco is Arabia! Most tourists/visitors from Western countries tell us things that: "you don't see women in the street". That's just wrong in this city. I have even literally counted the number of women and men in the streets and public places.

    And I don't mean that women here aren't facing bigger problems than men. Unfortunately, we are, in the whole world (to different degrees, of course).
    Eva - Mail Adventures

    1. I so hear ya, Eva! The stereotypes are really entrenched! I find women here moving around quite freely in public places, both the Khaliji women and the expats.

  14. Most comprehensive again Nilan! All those comments deriding Arab women were from those armchair critics who thought the Arab world stood still. Bahrein and Egypt certainly had much to show. Sadly though for some reasons as you've said Egypt regressed. It was a pity.


    1. Egypt, even after regressing, is quite a place. The statistics don't show the considerable number of ambitious, creative and brainy women.

  15. I remember that third video from last year. I had repressed trumps face in it though.
    Finding Eliza

    1. It's quite a provocative video all in all considering Saudi Arabia.

  16. I've certainly had long posts during the A to Z as well. This was interesting though. Glad to read that women in Bahrein are so well educated. I don't know how the numbers for literacy compare in the U.S.

    1. Literacy in the USA is around 86% overall. But USA is also a huge and hugely diverse country. Bahrain is tiny, a big rock in the Gulf, and delivering education to a population of 1.3 million in a single uniform curriculum is a vastly different proposition as compared to 325 million spread over those vast tracts of land...

  17. As with all your posts in the series, this one has been most welcome.

  18. This is a helpful post. Being non-Arab, all I know about Arab women is what I read. which is always suspect anymore. Thanks for sharing your (not at all)cantankerous thoughts.

    1. Thanks for being here, glad you didn't find it cantankerous :)

  19. It's amazing how much i learn from your posts, each day. Thanks for the wonderful compilation.
    Best wishes,

    1. I learn new things through the A-Z every year, one of the reasons I'm a fan. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  20. I just finihsed reading the book "kabul beauty shop" by Deborah Rodriguez and all I read was how the women were ill treated in Afghanistan; your post is refreshing from that perspective and I am happy to hear not all Mulsim countries/cultures dominate women mindlessly into covering themselves up or not stepping out of house or most important haveing education!!!


    1. That is one of the problems I think, Arabs are equated to Muslim and Muslim equated to subjugation of women. Terribly mixed-up and wrong. There are many varieties of Muslim and Islam, and even within the Arabs there are many sects and different interpretations of the rules and laws. Except for Afghanistan, I haven't heard of any Muslim country that denies girls education as a policy, certainly no Gulf country does it and I don't think it's done anywhere else in the ME.

  21. I'm learning so much from your posts. I guess I only hear what they want me to hear. So thank you. By the way, I love the second video to bits.

    Another day in Amble Bay!

    1. True, selective focus always in the media. They have to think of their circulation/viewership, so clickbaity news gets more coverage. Glad you liked the video :0

  22. i posted on women too! i always like seeing how women dress because it tells you a lot about a person. Wish Western women wore gorgeous colors and flowing outfits such as in the Saudi video.
    - Joy @ The Joyous Living

    1. I'm not so sure people read the things the women actually want to express through dress, if they at all do. Communication is a two way street. Eastern women do seem to prefer more colourful outfits than their Western counterparts.

  23. I guess it comes down to what the news and media filter over to us in the West - and that tends to be the negative aspects. A woman who is successful is not as newsworthy as one who's repressed. Thanks for this thoughtful and well-researched post.

    1. True. And a bit sad that. A successful woman should be as newsworthy as a repressed one in a just world. Thanks for reading.

  24. Being a non-arabic and a person who has never been to arabic countries, we believe what is portrayed in the media and articles but your post is givinfg a totally different perspective.
    Thanks for sharing :-)

    1. Yes, the media representations are pretty one sided and mostly highlight the negative. Positive stories are less newsworthy, I'm not sure what it says about us readers :)

  25. So many speak and form opinions without information.... sad to say.

    Affirmations for a Good Life

  26. Well, if I should go with the Muslim women I know personally, I'd say they are far from be subjugated to their men or crippled in any way.

    A very close friend of mine (who lives in UK, though she is Pakistani) told me once something very similar to what you're saying here: at least in her society, a woman is free to use the vail as she pleases. And some reasons, as you pointed out, have nothing to do with religion.
    When I first met her, she never wore the vail. She told me she went through a period she wanted to wear it, years before I met her, for a question of fashin, as she told me. Then, a few years ago, she started to wear it because "I now know what it really means" she told me, though she didnt' elaborate on that.
    But she made me laugh when she reccounted me that when she decided to start wearing the vail, she communicated it to her husband, and he said, "Do whatever you want, love. Just don't blame it on me!"

    The Old Shelter - 1940s Film Noir

    1. So funny what the husband said! :D

      Though on second thoughts, this stereotype of 'forced veiling' automatically stereotypes the Arab men as obnoxious chauvinists. More chauvinistic than any other men elsewhere. Not funny for the Arab males at all, I should think.

  27. Something people on social media have brought up of late, and a point I haven't considered before, is the nun's habit. They cover themselves and dress vert conservatively, but that's considered religious freedom.

    Yet the hijab is automatically seen as a tool of oppression. And of course, there's the irony of 'liberating' a woman by telling her she can't wear something...

    1. The same story with the burkini I think in Europe...people are allergic to women choosing for themselves!!

  28. Great rant and much appreciated, given all the bullshit propaganda out there! I don't understand the controversy surrounding hijabs. They are fairly commonplace here and some of them are beautiful! Burkas are another story, since they obscure the face and that is an issue in legal situations. My next door neighbours are Muslims. The wife seems happy and not the least bit 'oppressed'.

    1. I have Muslim friends in Canada and they tell me quite definitively that it is more accepting of Muslims than USA or Europe.

      I've rarely seen the full face veil, called the niqab in Arabic, used here, except by Saudi ladies. Haven't really noticed full face coverings anywhere either in Bahrain or in Egypt. Not a common practice. The full face burka has legal ramifications, but the burkini does not cover the face, why the French felt compelled to ban it is beyond me. Agree with you on the hijabs being beautiful and elegant in some cases.

    2. I've only seen 3 or 4 full face burkas and they were in metropolitan Toronto. Not common here, either. There has been no mention of controversy about the Burkini in Canada and I don't understand the French ban. It should be a matter of personal choice! Canada prides itself on its multiculturalism. One of the reasons I love living here!
      From the Canadian government website:
      In 1971, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy. By so doing, Canada affirmed the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation.

    3. Couldn't agree more on the mode of dress being a personal choice! Kudos to the Canadian government for its liberal and inclusive policy - we need more of those around the world!