The Progression of Feminism in the Middle East

Whatever your personal opinion of how successfully London hosted the Olympics, it cannot be disputed that the Olympics brought to light how the Muslim countries are finally starting to make breakthroughs in feminism. For the first time each participating country had a female athlete competing.

In 1972 Saudi Arabia participated in the Olympics for the first time, but it was adamant that women would not participate. There was nothing in the Quran to say women should not partake in sports, but religious extremists felt that it would not be appropriate for women to participate in such a widely publicised activity, especially one seen as masculine. However, two female athletes competed for Saudi Arabia in the 2012 Olympics; Wodjan Shaherkani was knocked out during round 32 of the women’s +78kg judo, and Sarah Attar finished last in her 800 metres heat but with a new national record. The results may not seem outstanding, but they will be remembered for more than their athletic ability.

On the other hand Saudi Arabia and its civilians were not as willing as may seem. Saudi Arabia was forced to include a female athlete by the International Olympics Committee or otherwise not participate at all. It is not entirely surprising then that Saudi Arabia ‘bit the bullet’ and allowed some female athletes to compete in order to showcase some of its male athletes. Moreover some critics have felt that this was a poor representation of Muslim women. The athletes still observed their faith during the competition, with Wodjan Shaherkani even wearing a swimming cap to get around the rules. The main point is that although progress may be slow and may be met with some criticism, it is also met with much support and the Saudi Arabian authority is unlikely to backtrack on these issues.

Some may see it as oppressive that Shaherkani felt the need to have to wear a swimming cap to appear modest, however the appearance of sticking to the Sharia laws in the public eye can also empower Muslim women. This has been clearly highlighted by the recently created Egyptian TV channel ‘Maria TV’ which is run and presented by women dressed in niqabs. This was previously prevented by Hosni Mubarak but, with the revolution in Egypt, new opportunities arose for Muslim women who wear the full veil. The show is unlikely to support many Western feminist views, but it doesn’t stop the channel’s creation in itself standing against the traditional view that women were subordinate.

Saudi Arabia was thought to have taken this one step further with its recently announced plans to build an industrial city solely for women in Holuf. Yet, the authorities corrected this and said that it would provide employment opportunities for both men and women. Although this is not as grand a gesture as a whole industrial city with jobs solely for women, it does not prevent the fact that certain jobs will be kept for females.

Admittedly the jobs being kept for women are likely to mainly include textiles and food production, but it has been a struggle for women to even get these opportunities. This is important as a job in itself can bring in some financial independence for women. Not only this but it highlights that women do have an important role to play in society and that they have a voice; mirrored ultimately by the fact that King Abdullah promised women would be able to vote in the 2015 local elections.

To a Western civilization the Muslim countries still have a way to go in giving women any equality or identity. However, there are tentative steps in the right direction. There are those who will criticise some aspects as being wrapped in with the same religious oppression as before, but every movement starts somewhere and even countries like the United Kingdom started off with stringent inequality. One thing is for certain; with all the developments and media coverage on events like the Olympics, Muslim leaders cannot avoid progress any longer and ‘only time will tell’ how these developments take shape.

Llewys Howells

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