Middle East Has the Presence


If the Assad regime falls, however, civil war could well begin again, leading to a partition of the country. For the time being, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have been least affected by the revolutions, and it is by no means certain that regime change there would result in governments any more tolerant of minority groups.

Contrary to its current situation, Islamic civilization in the golden age of the Ottomans experienced a flourish of art and culture that blended Arab, Persian, Egyptian, and European elements, and the result was an era of incredible intellectual and cultural advancements. At the height of its power and glory, the Ottoman Empire controlled all of the present-day Middle East, all of northern Africa, with borders as far east as the Indus Valley, making it among the largest empires of all time and one of the few states ever to extend direct rule over three continents. Through this channel, Islamic arts and sciences entered European consciousness, including ancient Greek and Latin knowledge about medicine, physics, astronomy, mathematics and engineering that had been lost in the West. Muslims nations had great universities, libraries and observatories when these did not exist in Europe. In this way, older knowledge was reintroduced into Europe, making the Renaissance possible. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda had dreams of rebuilding this Muslim Empire and Caliphate from Spain to Indonesia and the Philippines, although this would not be a desirable model to follow since it really would mean a clash of civilizations. This medieval political, religious and military structure cannot be wished back into existence in any case, nor would its authoritarian and patriarchal characteristics be desirable in the 21st Century. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Ottoman Empire that contemporary governments in the Middle East could borrow is its respect for learning and education, openness to new ideas and pluralism of thought and opinion, rather than imposing narrow religious and ideological restrictions on the human mind. This is easier said than done, and it is difficult to imagine that it will happen in Iran or Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future, but if this type of change does not happen at all the region will remain trapped in its current social, economic and political malaise.

3) What obstacles have historians faced in researching women's history in the Middle East? Are these obstacles specific to the Middle Eastern context, or are they applicable to a range of cultural contexts? Develop an argument with reference to AT LEAST TWO specific obstacles.

In the Middle East, the regimes most repressive toward woman are Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, rather than Jordan, Syria, Turkey or Egypt, although even there of course women are second-class citizens, frequently wear the hijab, and are denied equal economic and educational opportunities. To be sure, patriarchy and the belief that women are naturally inferior to men existed long before Islam -- or Christianity for that matter -- and can be found in East Asian nations that were never under the sway of either religion. It may not even have been the intention of Jesus or Mohammad to oppress and segregate women, or relegate them purely to cooking, cleaning and child care, but throughout history this had been the norm in virtually every society on earth. As recently as 200 years ago in North America and Europe, women were the property of their fathers and husbands, forced into arranged marriages with no divorce, could not own property, and had little recourse against sexual and physical abuse. So it was in most of the world before the women's rights movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries, which obviously have not yet taken hold in the Middle East except perhaps among the most educated and elite classes of women. Moreover, in history, most of the common people were illiterate, and women generally had fewer opportunities for education than men, regardless of their status or social class. Because of this, as well as their social and economic powerlessness, recovering the history of women is often difficult or impossible, particularly those from the peasant and working classes.

Few countries in the world are as severely oppressive and patriarchal towards women as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies, in political, economic, cultural and social life. This is readily apparent even at airport terminals, where women and men must stand in separate lines at the immigration and customs desks, and in stores and restaurants that have separate check-out lines for women and women. Women cannot travel, apply for identity cards or go into business without the permission of their nearest male relatives, and they cannot have male clients or serve male customers. In Saudi Arabia, until this year, they were not even allowed to drive or vote in municipal elections, which are the only elections allowed in Saudi Arabia. Women are not permitted to appear in public uncovered and without being accompanied by chaperones or male relatives. Over half of university graduates today are female and nearly one-third of public administrators, but until 2009 no women had ever held a cabinet-level appointment in Saudi Arabia.

According to Sharia law, women's court testimony carries only half the weight of a man's, and husbands are permitted to divorce them without cause. Only a few liberal women have ever challenged the authority of Sharia law or the ulama (religious scholars) although many others have searched Islamic history and traditions in order to find less repressive attitudes toward women in the Qur'an. In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, the ulama have always controlled the status of women, and regarded them as physically and mentally inferior, subject to the guardianship of men. Women writers did begin to appear in the 1970s and 1980s even in this extremely repressive and patriarchal society, and they used history and religion to appeal for an improvement in their condition. Rhetoric and even poetry has always been important for the leaders of a tribal society, and thus use of public speech and writing was unusual given that women's lives were literally supposed to be concealed, covered and private. Women writers pointed out that the Qar'an had affirmed that men and women were equals, and that Muhammad had allowed women to speak in public, serve as leaders and teachers and to demand their rights. These traditions had long since been forgotten in Middle East, but that did not change the historical reality.

With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1970s and 1980s, and the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the Gulf State elites and clergy began to take an even harder line against women's rights. In fact, the ulama have feared women as possible agents of Westernization and sought to repress them as much as possible, even if this hinders the region's economic development. Until the 1960s and 1970s, women were generally not even permitted to work outside the home, and even after that time their employment was always gender-segregated. Of course, this is not the case in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Syria, where women do not have to be veiled and can work and attend school with men. Women's share of economic activity is low in the Gulf States, though, and they cannot go into business without the permission of their nearest male relative. Except in international companies they cannot be employed as secretaries or clerks to men, nor can female doctors and nurses treat male patients. Women are not allowed to work in banks and offices with men. In contrast to the West, most are married by age 24. There are women-only gyms, travel agencies and sections of restaurants and cafes, and even separate check-out lines for women. Women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to study subjects like engineering, journalism or architecture, and they cannot travel or study abroad with the permission of their nearest male relative. Until 1959, women could not attend school at all, and since that time they may only attend separate schools and classes from men, nor can women teach male students or even attend faculty meetings with female teachers. They are not allowed to appear in public without male chaperones, and if they are raped they may be flogged with 90 lashes for being in the company of males who are not related to them.

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States have never been democracies, of course, and political life is dominated by the king, princes and bureaucratic elites, who also control most of the economy, and at these ruling class levels women play almost no public role at all. Like all regimes in the Gulf princes and monarchs have feared a Right-wing Islamic revolution since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, which makes them hesitant to advance any reforms that would improve the status of women. Even in the present…