Women and power in the Middle East

In a series exploring women in international affairs, Alanoud Alsharekh and Azadeh Pourzand speak to Gitika Bhardwaj about the evolution of women’s rights across the Middle East.

Interview Published 21 May 2021 Updated 24 July 2023 15 minute READ

From women’s rights becoming interlaced with nationalist movements that swept across the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century, to women gaining the right to vote in countries from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia over the last 16 years, talk us through the history of women’s rights across the region.

Alanoud Alsharekh: I think a common theme across the region has been the intersection between women’s demands for more rights and the history of colonization.

These two facets have intersected as a result of the fact that most of the Arab Middle East was colonized by Western powers with notable exceptions such as Saudi Arabia.

Therefore, in a lot of places, the struggle for women leaving the domestic sphere and entering the public one has been tied to nationalist movements trying to overthrow colonial powers across the region.

Azadeh Pourzand: When it comes to Iran, in particular, women’s struggle for equality has a long history that dates back to before the Constitutional Revolution in 1906.

During this time, women were pushing for different things, including the right to education, but these women, or rather those whose work we have predominantly heard of, were mostly elite women involved with the struggle and, although these women were a key part of the revolution, once the revolution happened, they were mostly side-lined.

Then, during the Pahlavi era, there was a diverse range of women everywhere whether they were veiled or unveiled or wearing miniskirts or not. Women within the elite, in particular, campaigned to amend family law, which happened eventually in 1975, making this body of law as close as possible to gender equality for women. 

But, even then, the women at the forefront of the struggle for legal equality faced resistance particularly from religious figures. 

Then in 1979, women were present in masses during the Islamic Revolution, yet the Islamic Republic of Iran rapidly marginalized women as soon as it established its rule. There is a question about whether revolutionary women had specific demands regarding women’s rights, nevertheless, the principle of gender equality was completely undermined by the political apparatus that came to power as a result of this revolution.

Since then, over the last 40 years, it’s been a complex story in terms of women’s struggle for equality given that containing women is a core pillar of the Islamic Republic as well as state-sponsored repression against women’s rights campaigners.

Women have done a lot to gain every little bit of freedom they have, they have fought for it, and they have paid a high price for it too. 

There have been generations of Iranian women from diverse backgrounds who have fought for women’s rights over the years, but unfortunately, it hasn’t translated into substantive progress when it comes to legal reforms, although their courageous campaigning has increased the awareness of women’s rights in Iranian society. Women have done a lot to gain every little bit of freedom they have, they have fought for it, and they have paid a high price for it too.

It’s been 10 years since the death of Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, sparked protests across Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and beyond, unfolding into the Arab Spring, yet much of the grievances remain a decade on. In light of the eruption of protests across the region again in 2019, how have women been involved in the popular protests and how far have women’s rights fit in with the calls for change?  

Alanoud Alsharekh: In terms of the revolutions that we have seen recently in Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, for example, it was very interesting that a lot of them were labelled, ‘althawrah untha’, meaning the revolution is female, because of these emblematic women that we saw amid the popular protests, like the lady who kicked a security guard in Lebanon, or the lady on top of a car in Sudan. They became symbols of the movements that were unfolding. 

But have these revolutions served women and women’s rights? It’s a complicated question because usually, during times of nationalist concern, the needs of women take a backseat as the issue of overthrowing an oppressor becomes more important than gender equality. We saw this happening during the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square where women protestors were harassed even though everyone who was protesting was on the same side.

There are all of these dismissive attitudes that claim that it isn’t the time for addressing women’s issues as if women’s issues are divorced from the world of men and war. So it is interesting to see the mobilization of women during times of crisis but also the lack of support that women face during these times too. 

Azadeh Pourzand: In Iran, since the recent popular protests in 2019, mobilization has become impossible but I do think that because different groups of people in Iran are struggling with everything from economic fragility to the coronavirus crisis, it’s creating a foundation for common ground among all Iranians.

We have a strong female presence in Iranian civil society at the moment fighting for everything, not just women’s rights, but all human rights. In addition to the ongoing struggle for gender equality, such as against gender-based discriminatory laws, women’s presence in football stadiums, wearing the compulsory Islamic veil or the Iranian #MeToo movement, are also examples of women involved in the country’s struggle for minority rights, children’s rights and labour rights among other areas of social justice.

This makes me hopeful that there is solidarity developing among all those who have limited rights to come together in the years to come. It’s a first step but it’s a good start.

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Iranian women during a football match between Iran and Cambodia in Tehran on 10 October 2019. Iran had barred women from attending football matches for over 40 years but women were allowed to attend for the first time in decades after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its controversial male-only policy. Photo: Getty Images.

Iranian women during a football match between Iran and Cambodia in Tehran on 10 October 2019. Iran had barred women from attending football matches for over 40 years but women were allowed to attend for the first time in decades after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its controversial male-only policy. Photo: Getty Images.

— Iranian women during a football match between Iran and Cambodia in Tehran on 10 October 2019. Iran had barred women from attending football matches for over 40 years but women were permitted to attend for the first time in decades after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its controversial male-only policy. Photo: Getty Images.

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The concept of men and war is interesting given that war disproportionately affects women and girls. In light of the rise of global terrorism over the last 20 years, and its impact on women, and the growth of strong-man leadership around the world, which women leaders have argued has led to a deterioration of women’s rights, how far is the notion of toxic masculinity an issue in the Middle East?

Alanoud Alsharekh: You can’t tackle terrorism without looking at women’s issues such as the role of mothers in the lives of young men and women who choose to go down a path of destruction. This is because, for me, terrorism is very much intertwined with the domestic space and how much agency a woman has in her own home and in her own community.

But that’s not necessarily the kind of counter-terrorism argument that men are having so I think it’s so important to realize that we can’t have a gendered lens looking at national security issues when that gendered lens is just male. Things can fall through the cracks when you do that particularly during times of upheaval, chaos and change. 

Women are one of the greatest casualties of crises so political upheaval is not female-friendly. 

One of the arguably positive narratives of the participation of women in the recent protests across the region is, as you mentioned, being seen as emblems. But how do you move beyond women being seen as emblems to meaningful political change in order to ensure progress keeps happening beyond times of crisis? Furthermore, do you feel that women have also been the targets of negative narratives too? Who do you think has a role to play in developing these narratives and counternarratives?    

Alanoud Alsharekh: Wherever there is an overarching nationalist cause, women’s issues, as I mentioned, tend to take a backseat and, if you make too much noise about it, then you are seen as betraying the cause. This is a dilemma that women have faced across the region for a long time.

In recent years, we’ve seen misogyny in the Middle East become heightened when different agendas have been jostling for precedence. Indeed, factions – sectarian or religious – whether in Lebanon, Iraq or Iran, have left no room for women’s issues because it’s never thought of as being immediate even though it’s an immediate concern for everyone.

Women are one of the greatest casualties of crises – they are more likely to be let go of their jobs, they’re more likely to suffer from the ravages of war, they’re more likely to have their health issues ignored – so political upheaval is not female-friendly.

In Kuwait, we saw euphoria between 2005 and 2009 when four women were elected to parliament, but then soon afterwards, the media coverage shifted drastically to become very harsh and judgmental. It turned to the way they were dressed or how emotional they were yet this was a conversation no one was having about all of the men elected to parliament.

In fact, Kuwait has a colourful parliament where people, mostly men, get into physical altercations all of the time yet no one talks about how emotional they are. But, these four women, were being called disappointing. People still say: ‘We gave women a chance but they were awful.’  But it’s not like the same argument is being made to discount over 50 years of men in parliament.

There seems to be resistance to women in politics everywhere but politics is so hostile to women in Kuwait guided by an entrenched belief that women are not fit for political leadership so we need to change the narrative around women in politics by giving them a platform where they can develop themselves.

If we look at the results of all of this media coverage it’s just a vote for men again so I think the media had a destructive part to play in this case. But it’s not just the media. It’s also curriculums in schools and colleges which don’t reflect the reality of a two-income household. Instead, they still show women as being in the domestic space as the primary caretaker, not that there’s anything wrong with this, but it doesn’t reflect the reality where the majority of the graduates at Kuwait University are women.

There’s a problematic stereotyping that’s intertwined with the traditional religious idea of the ideal woman who is a martyr to her family – she stays in the home, she doesn’t raise her voice and she is obedient to her father, brother and husband. It’s an endless hierarchy of obedience, compounded by laws that still speak the language of guardianship, especially laws that justify disciplinary violence in the name of this guardianship. 

We have failed women in protecting them wherever they are in the world but, in the Middle East, we have failed them more so because we have given people leeway when it comes to women’s morality and this shouldn’t be the case.

Azadeh Pourzand: There have been so many protests that have erupted around the world over the last few years whether in Lebanon, Iran or Iraq or outside of the Middle East such as in Chile, Hong Kong and the US.

It’s exciting when you look at the headlines and there are all of these women at the frontline of these protests but I believe there is a duality. While it is exciting, there are at least two problems when it comes to seeing women as emblems in these protests.   

The first is that focusing on women taking part in these protests takes away the continuity of their activism which has often been going on before the protests and is often going to be going on after the protests too.

The second is that sometimes, with Iran at least, it feels like Iranian women get glorified for their courage but then there is a crown put on your head and you are expected to change the country but, it’s like, what kind of change do you want? It can lead to a burdening on women. 

That said, I don’t think that women in these protests shouldn’t be highlighted. I just think sometimes the messaging should be more than just simplifying a more complicated story. Narratives and counternarratives sometimes work on people, and I understand why, but I just wish people would look beyond.

People are tired of this dark depiction of the Middle East, and so, when there is a glimpse of hope, they want to hold onto it, but gender equality in the region is a long struggle.

It was inspiring to see women from different generations on the streets protesting in 2019 but the protests were highlighted in the Western media without exploring the intricacies of the history of women’s struggle for equality in contemporary Iran. 

That’s because images are selective right, like, how many photos and how much footage about the protests are shown in media coverage around the world? It’s an issue of visibility that becomes too much of a simplistic metre to assess change.  

Nevertheless, many Iranian women have used media platforms as an opportunity, no matter how limited given state-sponsored repression, in order to express their grievances and voice their demands too.

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Iraqi students take selfies with a member of the Iraqi security forces during ongoing anti-government protests in the central city of Diwaniyah on 31 October 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Iraqi students take selfies with a member of the Iraqi security forces during ongoing anti-government protests in the central city of Diwaniyah on 31 October 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

— Iraqi students take selfies with a member of the Iraqi security forces during ongoing anti-government protests in the central city of Diwaniyah on 31 October 2019. Iraq's leaders have been attempting to produce a solution to mounting protests over corruption, unemployment and the ousting of Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, that have left hundreds dead. Photo: Getty Images.

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How has the global technological revolution affected people power across the Middle East? What role has technology played in bringing together women across the region in demanding more rights? In addition, with social media, what has been its advantages for women but also its disadvantages in light of the disproportionate targeting of women across its platforms?

Alanoud Alsharekh: When you look at the Middle East, there’s different levels of agency that women have in different places and, for me, the self-awareness that women have developed about the fact that, though they have the same qualifications as men, they’re being discriminated against in terms of getting a job because of their gender, has in part been due to social media, which has liberated all of us. It has given everyone a platform that is immediate and accessible to, not only people in your country or region, but people around the world. 

But, because of this, it has become hard to control the narrative on social media by governments too. The world has gotten to meet, let’s say, Saudi women on social media platforms, and so, a multiplicity of narratives have been able to emerge which is no longer what the state decides.

But there are pitfalls. When you look at the social media reports covering the Arab world, you find that men outnumber women, at least the women that are not using aliases.

Plus there’s a burden of ambassadorship on women where, if I’m speaking, I’m expected to represent the ideal Kuwaiti woman. Women will get comments like, ‘Why aren’t you wearing a hijab?,’ and, ‘These aren’t issues that a good woman should talk about.’

Then there is also a constant accusation that, if you are a woman in a post-colonial place arguing for women’s rights, you have been corrupted by Western thought and that you, therefore, have an agenda that’s not organic, as if, arguing for equality in your country is not an organic principle. 

So, social media can be a very frustrating place for women and, certainly, they get trolled a lot more online then men and they are exposed to a lot more hate speech online then men too. But this is not unique to the Arab world. This is a phenomenon that women face everywhere.

Azadeh Pourzand: I think the global technological revolution has played an important role for women in Iran in terms of how they express themselves although women have been quite connected in Iran for a while.

I think social media platforms, in particular, have done two things. First of all, they have given a voice to those who otherwise would have had to go through a lot of hoops to have that voice. But then the social media environment is so crowded too, that again, their voice may not be heard.

Second, it’s been an opportunity for lots of discussions. In a country like Iran, the government wouldn’t want these kinds of exchanges between different groups and, unfortunately, more often than not, they get quite heated but perhaps it’s part of having the ability to have a debate.

Persian Twitter, despite being filtered by the Islamic Republic, has been a space for many discussions and hashtag movements among Iranians inside Iran and abroad. But, in my experience, while it’s an important place to be as a human rights advocate, it’s a depressing place too. If you are a woman and you have an opinion, which may be a different opinion from others, your gender is the first thing that’s targeted.

Many of us on social media have been targeted as women, some presumably supported by the Islamic Republic, but not all. If you’re old, they say something about you being an old woman, and if you’re young, they say something insulting about you being a young woman. Being a woman is too easy a target for a lot of people. You have to admire the women who, despite all of this, decide to continue to campaign for more women’s rights. 

While our voices get louder, and we become bolder, the demands for a changing social contract are becoming a reality.

Given the progress that has been made in recent years in countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Tunisia, what do you think of the scale and pace of change for women in the region? Can we expect much to change over the next 10 years or so? What lessons can the women’s movement today learn from the women’s movements of the past?

Alanoud Alsharekh: I see women becoming louder and less timid. The ideas of taboo subjects have shifted a great deal such as from when we started the conversation around honour killings. We were told that this was a very sensitive subject and good girls shouldn’t be talking about it but we took guidance from organizations in Lebanon and Jordan that had dealt with this for over a decade and, five years on, it’s no longer a taboo subject. We’ve forced it into being a topic of conversation particularly by lobbying for a domestic violence law that finally passed in August 2020.

While our voices get louder, and we become bolder, and we no longer subscribe to this idea that being a good girl is being blindly obedient, I think the demands for a changing social contract are becoming a reality – and it’s not something that we are going to see down the line – it’s something that we are seeing already across the Arab world even though the results may not match our aspirations right now but there’s certainly movement. 

There is also a lot of momentum coming from the top, not just at the grassroots, which is optimistic to see because it’s not going to be enough without real political will.

I’m from the last generation in Kuwait that wasn’t allowed to vote when I turned 21 until we fought for it and I’m certain that my daughter’s generation will never have to think about these kinds of things. Her generation gets to start farther down the line than mine did and I started farther down the line than my mother’s and grandmother’s generations did. For that, I’m very grateful to the women who fought far more difficult battles before me.

I am also hopeful because young people’s attitudes to women at work or to women in politics is different than that of the generations that have come before them. Being part of a more globalized, more interconnected, more technology-driven world, has made the anti-West argument, for example, less potent because young people don’t seem to have this bi-cultural anxiety. They’re fine with embracing the fact that they can choose or reject whatever part of their inherited identity they want to.

The refrain we’ve been hearing since the Arab Spring 10 years ago, and again in the recent protests in 2019, is that the appetite for change across the region has not gone away. Now, what that change will look like, we don’t know, but it’s there and that, in itself, is a spark of hope. 

The pandemic has complicated all of this though. In one way, some people are arguing that it’s made the playing field more level for women but, at the same time, it’s also making it even harder for women not least because of the challenges of women working from home where there is an expectation to be a full-time caretaker plus a full-time worker. So, in some ways, it seems that everything has become more difficult for women too. 

Azadeh Pourzand: I think women in Iran are going to do what they have always done which is to not give up on their struggle.  

One important lesson for Iranian women is, when looking back to the involvement of women in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, one minute you’re an instrument for change, and then, you’re marginalized again, so for me that’s something all women should be aware of.

I’m of the belief that we need global solidarity when it comes to women’s rights in countries like Iran, including from more democratic Muslim countries and the Global South at large, rather than just from the West, because with that comes heavy historic baggage that becomes simple for a government like the Islamic Republic to attack. Indeed, Iranian women’s rights campaigners have unfortunately had to largely work in isolation due to state-sponsored repression as well as the strategies of Western countries to isolate Iran.

But it is important for all of us to expand our understanding of women’s rights beyond women in protests while paying all due attention to the protests too because these protests are incredibly powerful but there needs to be constant engagement around the world about women’s issues and I think that comes with international support.

Nevertheless, while it is difficult to remain hopeful when you see all of the persecution of human rights activists in Iran, it is impossible not to be hopeful when you see the incredible resilience of Iranian women too, some of who have continued their struggle for equality even from inside prison. So, overall, I would say I’m cautiously hopeful about the future.