HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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The Middle Eastern Challenge

In Egypt, 99% of women have been sexually harassed in some way. Americans traveling to Istanbul say that they can’t take public transportation without being felt up. This ISIS propaganda magazine basically acknowledges them using women as slaves (page 15). Saudi Arabia held a women’s right conference with only males. There are countless examples of women in the Middle East suffering from a male dominated society. However, there are efforts being made to counter this. Saudi Arabia is attempting to set a higher age for adulthood so young women cannot be taken advantage of. King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run for the 2015 municipal elections. Women in Jordan can now travel without permission from a male relative. Progress is slow but inevitable if the Middle East wants to keep up with times.

One of the world's largest conferences on women without any women!

One of the world’s largest conferences on women without any women!

Similar to how the women in the US had to fight for suffrage, the women (and men) in the Middle East need to make a stand. What makes it more complicated is that there are multiple countries, each with different problems. Various militant groups shuffle around from country to country (e.g. Taliban coming to Afghanistan) and there are not too many resources for some of the Middle Eastern countries to counter this from happening, which is why other countries occasionally step in to help. To me, it seems like the places under sharia law are the places that are having the toughest time reforming to a sexually equal society. This is especially true where the people are accustomed to manipulating the law for personal benefit. Though it might seem absurd to locals, I think separation of church and state is the answer. I say this because the sharia law that dominated the pre-modern society worked during that time, but it is clear today that the Middle Eastern societies are far behind. Even though they have natural resources, they lack the freedom and democracy that allows countries to excel. These are the places that a resolution has to be made to ensure the protection of women and the necessity for a promising future.

An interesting front to see this play out is Israel, a country where women’s rights are much further along then surrounding states. The women there have suffrage and the ability to join the army (though there’s lost of opposition making it difficult). They had a female prime minister in 2010. However, the parliamentary representation is still ~18 percent. Marriages and divorces are dealt with by the religious courts of the person’s religion. This in my opinion is where the women get shafted. Similar to sharia law, women have to get consent from their husband in order for the divorce to be legal. In 2010, Israel finally passed a civil union law that allows people with no officially defined religion to be recognized together (gender-neutral also) but this is for a mute part of the population. Once again, I have to conclude that where religion and state coincide, there are setbacks. Now I’m sure the current leadership will be opposed to a constitution and democracy due to the fact that they are losing power. However, let’s take a look at Great Britain. The once highly regarded Queen Elizabeth, monarch of the state, is now merely a figurehead to her people. Similarly, the sheiks and other various leaders in Middle East will have to gradually step down with more and more decreasing power. A leader only has power while the subjects are willing to follow them.


A question that came up to me while writing this is why women are still suffering in the 21st century. After some research, it seems like the best answer is that because men are suffering too. They too have little freedoms and are oppressed by autocracy. This might lead them wanting to have some control of their lives and the one place where they feel to do so is the household. I’m certainly not saying this is all men or that it is the sole reason, but it could be a contributing factor to domestic violence and gender inequality. Another way to help is to ensure the law is actually upheld. Sure it might illegal for you to rape a woman, but you need to be able to get sentenced in an uncorrupt system in order for people to believe in the law. Look at Egypt, where there has only been 1 known prosecution for female genital mutilation since the 2011 revolts and it failed to prosecute the perpetrator. The system is slowly improving as 2014 has shown that some men have been put in jail for attacking women, but everything takes time.

-Alykhan Lalani




  1. amiteichenbaum says:

    I think that women, and certain men, really suffer under these governments because the government is run by personal interpretations of the religious texts. In addition to that, the religious text is sexually discriminating even without interpretation. Along with the laws, the citizens take it upon themselves to strictly enforce their personal beliefs, without punishment. There are countless cases of women being killed in “honor killings”(no justification of this is found in Islam). This will continue as long as there is no one preventing it from happening. Separating the religion from the government is not feasible because no one with power wants this to happen, not even the citizens want this. These countries are notoriously immune from international pressure. In all honesty, I find myself seeing this as helpless. Without brutal military force to remove those in power, somehow re-educate all the citizens on basic human rights and respect, and maintenance of this new hypothetical government, nothing will change.

    • nsumi3 says:

      While very difficult, I don’t know that the situation is hopeless. Just look at our own history: more than 120 years passed before women gained the right to vote here. The path to equality is not an easy or quick one, nor is it even over for us. I think as the autocracies begin to diminish (maybe 25-50 years down the road), in one way or the other, as they eventually must (tyranny isn’t exactly a stable solution to governance), we’ll start to see progress in social justice develop hand-in-hand.

      • jenglish7 says:

        Agreed, there is definite historical precedent for such a path. And at the risk of reducing efforts at suffrage to a “waiting game”, changing the paradigm requires shifting the consensus viewpoint away from one of gender inequality. And unfortunately this generally isn’t something that happens overnight.

  2. mdsmith910 says:

    I too believe that separation of church and state is required to start making a change for oppressed women. However, changes to the religious structure may cause chaos in political and social tensions currently in place. This may end up leading to more problems than not if the government is not willing to accept and enforce changes.

  3. Travis says:

    I completely agree with you when it comes to a separation of state and religion. I admit, I am biased due to the fact that the United States has laws that separate government from religion, but hey, it’s worked so far. The reason that I feel that State and religion should be separated is that it causes an internal conflict of interest. Sometimes what’s best for the state may not be what’s best for the religion. In situations where a decision between state and religion has to be made, elected officials will choose whichever of the two sides they are more biased to. I personally believe that countries in the Middle East cannot fully explore their potential if they disadvantage women, but I’m pretty sure they would beg to differ. Religious beliefs run deep and are very powerful. Even if the situation may seem wrong from our perspective, it will be very difficult to change the situation. As comments before mine have mentioned, the society has to be willing to change and it will take a very large amount of convincing to even make them slightly consider a change.

  4. coreilly says:

    I think separation of church and state is an interesting point, however for the vast majority of the Middle East, the state was founded from the church. Most of their laws and overall mindset come straight from their religion, making it difficult to separate the two. I believe in the distant future women may have equality in the Middle East, but they are obviously in no hurry to get to that point. As in any society, they are reluctant to change. It will take a few strong movements over a long period of time to change anything in my opinion.

  5. kimpgt says:

    It is astonishing to see that 99% of women in Egypt have faced some type of sexual harassment. I am glad to see that efforts are being made for women’s rights. Saudi Arabia held a women’s conference, but there were no women present, which is ironic. This could be due to a security issue where women may not be particularly safe.

    Fortunately Israel has some progress with women suffrage, the ability to join the army and to hold political positions. It would be great if other countries would follow suit and support each other, similar to what they do now in response to terrorist attacks.

  6. jackjenkins2015 says:

    It is clear that for centuries, men have used religion to put themselves above women. I am glad that in the past few years, we have moved as a society towards more equality between women and men. We still have a ways to go here in the US, but I believe we are headed in the right direction.

    However, it seems that Middle Eastern countries are much further behind in their acceptance of women as equals. I am definitely shocked by the statistics you pointed out (99% of women, wow!) and saddened about the womanless Women’s Conference. Though I am glad Israel has gotten the ball rolling, I don’t think that influence will really help other countries in the Middle East. Israel is a nation-state highly tied to the US, which may influence their social policies. Other states do not feel so friendly towards the US or to Israel, and may use that as a way to avoid listening to the call for social equality. I definitely think this is an important issue and one of many that will be on the forefront of Middle Eastern issues for the next several years.

  7. cryan3232 says:

    I had no clue that the problems in the Middle East were this bad. The issue in Egypt with regard to sexual harassment is eye opening, and seems to have become commonplace and almost overlooked at this point. I think you make a good point about the separation of church and state. Many of these countries tied their laws to ancient ideas with regard to women. And while progress has been made, entire separation is most likely the only possibility for the progress that needs to be made.

  8. trevormcelhenny says:

    Separation of religion and government would certainly help foster a more positive environment for women’s rights (amongst other things) in some middle eastern nations, but as someone else mentioned, the fact that people hold so strongly to such antiquated gender-biased beliefs is the real problem. If your religion, the quintessential set of ideals and beliefs that determines how you will live your life and treat others around you does not have allowances for the equal treatment and rights of women, and you have been thoroughly immersed into this rhetoric, misogyny is the most probable outcome.

  9. lmoghimi3 says:

    In my opinion separation of religion and government is always a good thing. You should never force people to abide by certain rules of a religion whether they are of that religion or not. One of the main problems here is the way that the religion is being interpreted. The Muslim religion is not inherently bad, but the way it is interpreted can cause harm to groups of people especially when that interpretation is forced on everyone in a country and is by just a few people in power. This can be said about any religion, fortunately for us our country has progressed far beyond this level, but you can still see America grappling with this issue when you look at things like gay marriage.

  10. vlobo3 says:

    I feel that it is quite a tragedy that women are treated so poorly in the Middle East. And I agree that something of great proportions need to be done to help aid in this area. I also agree that many misuse and manipulate religion and religious teachings to do terrible things. However, I would like to pose a few questions for you and my peers:
    How do we know the basis of setting these federal laws? How do we know what is right and wrong? Where did these federal laws come from? If you asked almost any “sane” person about if stabbing another person to death is a crime, they would say yes. But how is it that someone who is “sane” would answer it in that way? Why would they say yes, without any hesitation?
    Even if we try to have a separation of church and state, most of what we say is “right” and “wrong” comes from religion, from natural law, especially in America. I don’t think many would disagree with me that a lot of the fundamental and basic laws that we have in this country come from religious roots. As much as Americans declare that there needs to be a separation of church and state, it will never fully be, since the foundations of federal law come from the natural laws of religion. There will always be debate on the interpretation of what that natural law actually is and means, especially if religious values are being compromised with federal laws that have been interpreted from those natural laws. In the same way, that will be the case in the Middle East. However, I think there are ways to go about doing this, some of which you stated. I think there is a need for federal laws for the region as a whole that declare the basic rights of each human being, rather than each state or community having their own understanding and interpretation of law, that yields these kinds of terrible consequences. So in a sense, yes, there will be some separation of church and state, but I just don’t think it could ever fully happen, nor that it ever should fully happen.

  11. jyount6 says:

    I think we really need to investigate motivation for allowing women to be equals in some of these Middle Eastern countries. From their perspective, men are in power. Why would they want to give that up? Women in the workplace would only saturate the market for perspective hires. Men don’t respect women in the sense that if women became elected officials, who would listen to their words? Who would obey their laws? The status quo will stay as it is, and even with pressure from other countries to change, what are these countries going to say? “Well, I guess you don’t want to help us, so we’ll just have to try to export our resources elsewhere, hope other countries want our oil…” They have no reason at all to change with the exception of maybe a few dissidents that likely would no longer have the respect of their peers after speaking out. This might just be an unfortunate reality of the Middle East.

  12. nrassam3 says:

    Separation of Church and State is a must be. As many mentioned it will lead to chaos. But with any change comes a challenge and that challenge will take time to resolve but it will be rewarding at the end of the day. If communities remain oppressed they will remain in their old habits and will not be able to ride the wave of the technological revolution.

  13. corypope6 says:

    I agree that the most effective way for women to gain suffrage and other basic rights that Middle Eastern men enjoy without question that they need to make a stand, but the problem with this is that there is no outlet for women to get organized in most countries. As mentioned in the Qadi and the Fortune Teller, and as is still custom in most Middle Eastern countries (Saudi Arabia excluded), women have to travel with a male family member. Women in the United States could gather together and discuss ideas when their husband went to work. This allowed them to become organized and garner support for their cause, but no such institution like this exists in the Middle East, which muffles the voice of the women.

  14. apabst3 says:

    When I read a piece like this it reminds me that the problems we have in America with the separation between church and state are barely an issue compared to those kinds of problems in the Middle East. I still think that America has a long way to go to fully separate church from state, but luckily we are much farther along then most Middle Eastern states. It is said that women are being oppressed in the name of religion. It is sad that women face such violent repercussions if they were to try to stand up to the oppressive laws. Hopefully women in the Middle East can find support from organizations in the West to help support their fight for freedom.

  15. wcarter31 says:

    “After some research, it seems like the best answer is that because men are suffering too. They too have little freedoms and are oppressed by autocracy. This might lead them wanting to have some control of their lives and the one place where they feel to do so is the household.”

    I feel like this statement is very true. That said, I feel like this applies in much more than just the Middle East. I have seen this in the US as well, a country regarded as being much better off in terms of individual liberty than the countries practicing Sharia Law, so this leads me to believe that this is a human problem and not necessarily a regional problem.

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