How Women’s Studies Could Drive Change in the Arab World

Women’s studies has much to offer in the search for solutions to some of the Arab world’s most pressing social and economic problems today, yet it is often ignored by policy makers.

Why is it that we face skepticism when we promote women’s studies as an important field for paving the way toward achieving gender equality? The question is especially apt in the Middle East where female status isn’t at its best—a fact that needs to be stated whether we like it or not.

Female representation and gender equality are increasingly featured on global and national agendas. Even nations that aren’t in total compliance with international standards for gender equality still list it within their economic and development plans, understanding the importance it poses for their global political image and the lift it can give to their economies. Gender equality is a necessary part of global citizenship and a prerequisite for local and regional stability and prosperity.

A Narrative of Our Own

Arab women’s studies was born out of not just necessity but also self-affirmation. There was a need to break free from the dominant U.S.-European intellectual frameworks that for so long limited how feminist theory defines “other” women’s struggles and “other” feminist movements. The dominance of Eurocentric scholarship was challenged in the late 20th century by theories of “third world women” and “postcolonial women,” offering alternatives to the previous blanket definitions that were void of real-life experiences of “different” women.

Realistic representations of Arab women entail a deconstruction of layers of fabrications and requires a rewriting of history, which is a lengthy and taxing process. Scholarly studies are the best way to tackle this imperative mission through their main remit of building and spreading knowledge.

Universities in Arab countries have been criticized as being consumers of Western knowledge and incapable of producing authentic knowledge that corresponds to these nations’ own troubled histories and uncharted future.

Women’s studies is a field that can defy such suggestions of academic incompetence, as it is a panorama of multiple disciplines and thus able to present a multi-angled, comprehensive, and realistic representation of the changing and ever-evolving subject matter.

Women’s studies will help us produce an authentic narrative that communicates counter-stories by scholars who have first-hand experience with the Middle East, some of whom are female academics from the region. (See a related article, “The Legacy of Fatema Mernissi, Moroccan Feminist and Scholar.”)

Modern discourse on education is highly grounded in global humanistic values of equality and inclusion. A strong current tendency among universities is to align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. While gender equality stands tall as Goal No. 5, it is also embedded in most of the interconnected goals.

There are many in academia who still believe that our mission is not to merely respond to the job market, feeding it with what it needs today. We believe that the main role of education is to contribute to building just and inclusive societies, and what we teach is a main factor in doing so. Gender equality as a new discourse in Arab societies can only be taken seriously if it is embedded within an academic discourse that can translate through political endorsement and civil society engagement to effect societal change. Education, civil society, and political will are needed to tackle gender equality collectively, and bring about lasting change.

Applications for Current Issues

Women’s studies as an academic discipline is relatively new in our part of the world. Lying within the humanities and social sciences, it transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries, and its theoretical foundation incorporates socio-political, economic, and feminist theories. To study women in Arab countries or the Middle East and North Africa region (I use the terms interchangeably here) is to study them within their historical context, based on the interplay of religion, politics and culture, and then ground them in their economic and political realities.

Women’s studies brings in contemporary debates on citizenship, migration, development and health. As a subject matter, women’s studies and the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment in some of the Arab countries have become a part of the state-building narrative. However, most women’s empowerment plans fail because of a lack of foundations, whether structural, educational or vocational. Women’s empowerment starts from education, preferably early on in the lives of women, within a structure that is modified to embrace women’s new roles and aspirations.

The discourse on gender equality is also important for national economies. Increasing  women’s participation in the workforce tends to boost economic growth, and the benefits are greater than previously thought, a recent study by the International Monetary Fund found.

Needless to say, the economies of many Arab countries lag in terms of development. Exceptions include Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which regularly rank among the richest nations of the world in terms of gross domestic product per capita. However, the discrepancies between the “economically struggling” countries and the “prosperous and wealthy” countries in the Arab world are vast.

Furthermore, the growing interest in the region in women’s economic participation, and its interconnectedness with human development plans, needs an academic grounding that would make sense of the statistics out there. For example, the participation of women in the workforce in the MENA region is proportionally small, yet their educational attainment is high. Meanwhile, their freedom and mobility are considered among the lowest in the world.

Getting Behind the Numbers

Numbers can be either manipulated or underplayed by states so that they don’t reflect reality. Therefore, the realities behind the statistics need to be disclosed and studied. Women’s studies is an area that is equipped to do this by engaging with economics and development theory to provide a model with the tailored measurements required to disclose the real issues. Women’s studies can become an academic tool for making knowledge-based economies that are grounded on inclusion and equality become reality.

When my colleagues and I mapped the MENA region for programs on gender or women studies, the results were disappointing, yet revealing. There is evidently a gap in scholarship and scholars, and a vacuum that is filled by imported scholarship that recycles information about Arab women since precolonial and colonial times.

It is time that we give Arab women their overdue rights for accurate representation. Arab women need to be situated within their specific geopolitical context and celebrated and acknowledged for their diversity and differences, without trying to confine them to a single image.

We believe that teaching women’s studies is one of the major drivers for social change in any society, and gender awareness. A reflection on policies cannot happen unless a force for change comes from within societies in the form of researchers, scholars, women’s rights and gender equality advocates, activists and practitioners—including politicians.

Amal Al-Malki is the founding dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar.


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