Dr. Huda Zurayk’s “What Tomorrow: A Day in the Life of an Arab Woman”
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard University
At the Harvard University Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies, Dr. Huda Zurayk’s argued that our understanding of the daily life of Arab women is radically inadequate; the basic health indicators used in understanding the quality of life Arab women in the Middle East need to be broadened to include contextual historical, cultural and economic dynamics — contexts that often explain the constraints upon women’s full realization and the transformation of their environments in the Middle East. In the presentation, Dr. Zurayk’s reflects on how Arab women continue to live in inequality, lower quality education, insecurity and the uncertainty of war and conflict in the Middle East and appropriate responses and strategies to reach Arab women in their varying backgrounds.
The first area Dr. Zurayk explores is women’s literacy. Looking at Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia between 1990-2011, her research showed that while there were gains in literacy for everyone, there remains however significant work to overcome ongoing differences in literacy between men and women and between low-income countries and medium to high-income countries in particular. Dr. Zurayk argued that despite reports from the IEO showing significant progress in literacy in Arab countries, little attention has actually been put on the quality of education young Arab girls as given and the class divisions — a quality education that concretely empowers Arab women in the capacity to fully participate and transform their environment — what Dr. Zurayk terms “transformative education”.
The question of the quality of education seem to also pertain to labor participation for Arab women in the Middle East. Weak economic development along with social cultural constraints have also kept labor participation and education opportunities for Arab women severely limited — two indicators that support the independence and autonomy of personhood. In 2010, research showed only 20% of women older than 15 years old participated in the labor force in Saudi Arabia while only 25% in both Lebanon and Egypt, and 32% in Sudan– findings that have remained relatively unchanged since the 1990s.
For Dr. Zurayk, one reason in particular has been family formation dynamics in the Middle-East. While research has shown that family formation between the ages of 15-19 sharply declined from 1990 to 2010, ages between 20-24 only did so slightly, declining from 66% to 52% in Sudan and from 58% to 39% in Saudi Arabia. Fertility indicators also moderately declined from 6 to 4.6 children in Sudan, from 4.8 to 2.9 children in Egypt, from 3.3 to 1.9 children in Lebanon and from 6.2 to 3 in Saudi Arabia. Dr. Zurayk argues that marriage and childbearing continues to be a major component of women’s role in society. More research is needed however to understand and further harmonize the conflicts between education, labor participation and family formation for Arab women in their cultural contexts — in particular adapting a context specific role of state sponsored childcare and training center/refresher courses for parents returning to work.
Another is redefining female health in terms that empower women. Dr. Zurayk argues that while there has not been progress in this area, research has also narrowly defined female health in terms of mortality rate. Life expectancy for Arab women while increased in recent years in the Middle East, has still remained unequal across it. Life expectancy in Egypt is 74, while only 62 in Sudan. Maternal mortality rates per 100 000 live births is also unequal. In Saudi Arabia and Lebanon it is 24 and 25 respectively, three times as high in Egypt with 66 and out of proportion with 730 in Sudan. Dr. Zurayk argues that our definition of health needs to include ill health (i.e., the prevalence and seriousness of diseases/health causes) and well being in context.
The basis for such a redefinition she argues is the Giza study.[i] In that study, two villages in rural Giza on the outskirts of Cairo City were selected to study the prevalence of gynecological conditions for Arab women. The women were invited to take a survey and then a medical exam at a medical centre. The study revealed surprising severity and range of conditions that include reproductive tract infections for 51% of women, genital prolapse 56%, suspicious cell changes 11%, and urinary tract infections, obesity, and anemia. While a health centre ran by a female physician was available in the area, the centre reflected the government’s priorities in understanding the number of women visiting the centre in particular for health and family planning — a condition that also complimented an epistemic deficit in the way Arab women understand their own condition, a lot of whom recognized their conditions as women’s lot in life and not as treatable.
Dr. Zurayk argues that more multi-perspective reporting like the Giza study are needed to consider the well-being of women and their suffrage in context of cultural, psychological, social dynamics. For instance, we must recognize the social cultural contexts in which Arab women are embedded– first and foremost, the historical rootedness and traditions of patriarchy. Male power and dominance in particular as inherited from the colonial experiences of the 20th century remain a legacy in present structure of government and legal administration in the Middle East — structures that impose codes of behavior and that continue to associate female roles and family honor to chastity. Patriarchical traditions also reinforce conservative interpretations of Islamic law or Sharia, particularly in the requirements of male guardianship over women and the subordination of women in matters of inheritance and marriage, including guardianship in matters of health, but also in education, identification and passports and signing contracts in Saudi Arabia.
Work by NGOs in the Middle East have promoted reform in family law making both men and women responsible for the family, recognizing self-guardianship and reform to the minimum age of marriage to 18 along with the right of divorce for women. However, a lot more work is needed. Measures that have criminalized domestic violence, improved economic and political participation through a quota system for appointment to the upper house have been successful in promoting a more equal treatment for women. Dr. Zurayk notes that particular attention and care is needed to ensure greater economic participation of Arab women in the western driven globalization of the capitalist market system and the ideology of neo-liberalism. Unbalanced privatization, the end of the welfare state have forced to worsening economic conditions for Arab women, work migration, higher levels of poverty, instability and conflict. Women’s work in the Middle East is also marginalized due to low levels of pay and household work continues without recognition. She argues that Arab women are incapable of contributing to family and an independent source of income. The contexts of war are particularly hard on women who are often left to take care of their families themselves while seeking refuge.
In Dr. Zurayk’s concluding remarks, we need in addition to the work outlined above not only to have more women in positions of leadership and in politics but more women being visionary models for educated young women in the Middle East. She argues in this regard that there is a role for citizens in other powerful states to pressure their elected officials when they do not involve and engage all women. Western states can also do more by ensuring that their government foreign aid is spent on issues that are a priority for women. We need to ask whether all women are receiving an education that give them the skills the transform their lives, whether they receive comparable support in labor force participation when studying their health and well being.
[i]Hind A. S. Khattab, Nabil Younis, Hudá Zurayk, Women, reproduction, and health in rural Egypt: the Giza study, Cairo: The American University Press, 1999.