Much has been written about women's rights and empowerment in the Arab world, but local women still rank low compared to the rest of the world in socioeconomic, educational and political development. This is because they face inequality and discrimination that often results in illiteracy, childhood marriage, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
A report referenced by the United Nations Development Programme “identified gender inequality as one of the most significant obstacles to human development in the Arab region”. It said “stereotypical gender roles are deeply entrenched” and limit women's opportunities despite the efforts of social organizations and the legal guarantees for women's integration in Arab states.
Sherifa Zuhur defines empowerment “as a condition in which women hold or are in the process of obtaining educational, legal and political rights that are equivalent or nearly equal to those of male citizens”. We do not need to analyse research to understand that empowerment is necessary and beneficial for women. Unfortunately, despite the work of women's rights advocates, women in the Arab world still lag behind.
To develop a workable solution, we must examine the root of the problem. Unlike what people might think, religion is not the main deterrent of women's development in the Arab world. Rather, Arab customs and tribal laws—essentially Arab societies—are to blame. Although Islam honors and bestows rights upon women, some people ignore this and misuse religion to oppress women.
Arab cultures consider women half of society. But ironically it is the society of people that creates most injustice and deterrents for women, preventing them from exploring their potential as do men. Arab societies are inherently patriarchal, thus women's empowerment must begin with a revision of social traditions.
In the Arab world, gender discrimination begins with upbringing, as most households raise boys and girls differently. Parents give boys ample liberties and privileges, but remain protective toward girls. They expect boys to become achievers, leaders, providers, and girls to become caregivers, followers and supporters. This gender-based tradition of raising children creates a cultural cycle that shapes Arab societies.
Before we can enforce the laws or policies that empower women in the Arab world, we need to challenge the way people think and perpetuate cultural practices. We must incorporate social and cultural reform in our educational system to teach people the concept of equality. The clergy and influential citizens can also profoundly impact the cause for gender equality in Arab society. Trained staff could organize relevant seminars and workshops to expose people to new ideas that help men and women work together to build a better world. Local governments and the media could actively support campaigns that increase awareness and discourage discrimination against women—in rural and urban areas.
During the Arab Spring men and women supported each other in the fight for human rights, democracy and justice. That revolution included brave leaders who were female. As time passes, we hope the positive effects of the movement also revolutionize the way people think, to empower more women and include their leadership in Arab states. It is always important to support Arab men as human beings, in their efforts to improve conditions for women; but it is equally essential for women to support each other and work toward establishing equality in society, and abolish unjust laws.