Skip to main content

Law and Women in the Middle East

The legal status of women in the modern Middle East has been in transition since the early part of the twentieth century. Customary laws, Islamic laws, imported European laws, and reformed versions of Islamic laws affect women in" Varying degrees in the different Middle Eastern legal systems, and the status of women does not seem to have been settled in any of them.

Legal issues involving women's status in the Middle East tend to be quite different from those in the West. Although there are feminist organizations in Middle Eastern countries, they tend to be small and to lack significant input into the political process. Thus, the improvement in the status of women has not resulted from pressures from women's groups as much as from the desire of male members of the political elite to modernize and industrialize their societies, using law reform as a tool of social engineering. It is where political leadership has judged that legal reforms in the status of women would promote the achievement of full modernization that reforms have been made.

Often these legal changes have been far in advance of the state of social evolution; it may take many years before some segments of Middle Eastern societies feel the impact. While reform may be immediately significant for educated women in major urban centers, illiterate women, particularly those in nomadic or rural communities, may not understand their legal rights or enjoy the independence and resources required to benefit from legal reform. Thus, the effects of legal changes in these societies tend to trickle down gradually.

It is important to remember that the problems of male-female inequality that have most typically concerned Western feminists are different from those facing Middle Eastern feminists. Generally, Middle Eastern women enjoy something close to legal equality with men in political life, access to education, professional opportunities, and salaries - goals for which Western women have long had to struggle. Moreover, Islamic law has from the outset given women full legal capacity once they attain puberty. Even in medieval times Muslim women enjoyed rights that Western women only won much later, such as the right to own and manage property, to sue and to be sued, and to enter into contracts and conduct business. In contrast, where Middle Eastern women have been severely disadvantaged has been in the areas of family law and inheritance, where women are accorded fewer rights than men and are subordinated to male authority.

While the situation of women has been generally worse under customary than under Islamic law, Islamic law itself has many provisions that leave women at a clear disadvantage - an irony of history, since these same provisions at the time of their promulgation in seventh century Arabia originally advanced women's rights vis-a-vis the then existing norms. Under traditional Islamic law, child marriages were allowed; a girl could be forced into marriage by a qualified male relation. While a woman could marry only one man at a time, men were allowed up to four wives and an unlimited number of concubines. Women were legally required to be submissive and obedient to their husbands; were they not, their husbands were entitled to beat them and to suspend all maintenance payments. Obedience included never leaving the house without the husband's blessings; a husband could gel the assistance of the police to forcibly return his wife to the marital home if she were absent without his leave. Her contacts with persons outside the family were similarly subject to restriction at her husband's wishes.

White Islamic law schools have differed in the details of their rules of divorce, women often could not obtain a divorce unless their husbands cooperated. In contrast, a husband was able to divorce a wife anytime simply by uttering a divorce formula. Observation of actual cases suggests that many husbands tended to abuse this extremely easy method of divorce, which led to a great deal of insecurity and anxiety for many wives. Divorced women often found themselves in poverty, because Islamic law required the husband to support children from the marriage permanently, but his divorced wife only until the expiration of three menstrual cycles after the pronouncement of the divorce (or delivery of a baby if she were pregnant). In addition, women inherited only one-half the amount of males. This discrimination is somewhat mitigated by the fact that males alone were supposed to bear the expenses of maintaining their wives, children and households, and seems less severe when one recalls that under many of the regimes of customary law that have prevailed to this day in the Middle East, women inherit nothing.

The provisions of Islamic law affecting women have been jealously guarded over the centuries, in part because so many of them are set forth in the text of the Qur'an, regarded by Muslims as the eternally valid Speech of God to mankind. Thus, the influence of European powers, which dominated the Middle East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries both politically and culturally, did not lead to an abandonment of Islamic law in the areas of family law and inheritance even though other areas of law were being Westernized through the borrowing of European law codes.

Since obtaining their independence from Europe, most Middle Eastern governments have undertaken legal reforms directed at reducing the inequalities between men and women, but they have had to face strong opposition from Muslim clerics (the ulama or fuqaha) as well as from other conservative religious forces, who charge them with violating the Divine Law. The greatest progress in law reform has been thus achieved by governments which were least dependent on the good will of the Muslim clergy. Women achieved something approximating legal equality with men under the forceful leadership of the charismatic nationalist heroes Kemal Ataturk (in Turkey in the 1920s) and Habib Bourguiba (in Tunisia in the 1950s), under the Shah of Iran in the 1960s, and in the Marxist states of the Peoples' Democratic Republic of South Yemen and Somalia in the 1970s.

In other Middle Eastern countries, governments had to compromise in their attempts to improve women's status. They were assisted in these attempts by liberal Muslim intellectuals, who propounded new interpretations of Islamic law that justified modifying the rules propounded by medieval jurists to accommodate the changing circumstances of modern societies. Typically, various modest reforms were enacted via statutes, including such measures as raising the age of marriage and requiring a bride's consent, placing conditions on a husband's polygamy, reducing the legal support for a husband's right to demand obedience, enhancing the ability of wives to obtain divorces over their husbands' objections, increasing a husband's financial liabilities to divorced wives, restricting a husband's ability to divorce his wife out of court and without cause, and some very modest reforms in the law of inheritance to the advantage of female heirs.

The only country of the Middle East to resist any concessions to modernity has been Saudi Arabia. There, women suffer disabilities beyond those required by most interpretations of Islamic law, such as being required to be totally veiled anytime they appear in public, and being forbidden to drive anywhere in the Kingdom.

Until very recently, it seemed it was just a matter of time before women achieved equality with men. However, the Islamic resurgence of the 1970s has threatened the gains that women have made. As a result of the increasing political influence of Islamic fundamentalism, the liberal interpretations of Islamic law that had previously gained popularity have been discarded by many Muslims in favor of more conservative ones. The Islamic fundamentalist movement has campaigned to forestall any legal changes that might undermine male domination and privilege in the family and to eliminate reforms that have enhanced women's rights - a campaign which invokes traditional interpretations of Islamic law as its justification. Many, although by no means all, Islamic fundamentalists are calling for rigid sexual segregation and the restriction of women to the roles of wife and mother. Their goals include eliminating coeducation and setting up special curricula to train women for lives as housewives, removing women from jobs outside the home, limiting their political role, prohibiting birth control and abortion (both of which were permissible according to most medieval jurists of Islam, who did not see in these practices any threat to morality or traditional sex roles), removing women from the legal profession and the judiciary, and imposing rigid dress codes designed to insure that no man outside a woman's immediate family sees more than her hands and face.

One sees the impact that Islamic fundamentalism can have on women's status in Iran, where in the wake of the Islamic Revolution most of the legal reforms benefiting women have been cancelled and women have been relegated to traditional roles in the home. Women are now subject to harsh criminal penalties if they let so much as a single lock of hair show in public.

Outside Iran, fundamentalist groups are pressuring other governments to follow the Iranian and Saudi models and some regimes seem willing to make concessions to them in the interest of defusing political tensions. However, while many feminists in the Middle East have denounced the policies of the Iranian government, it is not unusual to find women who support the fundamentalists' demands and voluntarily adopt the behavior they call for. For many women in the Middle East, equality with men and personal freedom do not seem to be meaningful goals. In the minds of many women, equality and freedom have become associated with undesirable aspects of Westernization - having to perform full-time jobs both in the workplace and in the home, the disintegration of the family, the decline of morality, and, ultimately, social breakdown. Many see in women's liberation a Western plot to undermine native culture so as to facilitate Western political and economic penetration of Middle Eastern societies. In contrast, the principles of Islamic law as promoted by fundamentalists seem to offer stability, security, and a way of preserving cultural identity and integrity.

The legal status of women in the Middle East is currently unstable and problematic. It is clear that whatever progress was made in the area of women's rights is not irreversible. The previous situation, where a Westernized political elite imposed legal reforms on societies that were still largely very traditional, may now be reversed. In the wake of the Iranian example, some Middle Eastern governments are seeking to reassign an inferior legal status to women at a time when an ever-growing segment of their societies has been influenced by the women's liberation movement in the West. Under these circumstances it seems certain that the legal status of women in the Middle East will remain a hotly contested issue.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.