The Middle East and North Africa: Social Change and Women’s Rights

Valentine M Moghadam. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

In many ways, the recent past has not been kind to the women of the Middle East and North Africa. Economic stagnation in a post-oil boom era, the spread of patriarchal Islamist movements, the persistence of the authoritarian state, the nonresolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have all left their mark on the legal status, economic well-being, and security of Middle Eastern women. And yet, despite these travails, and to a certain extent because of them, women in the region have developed strategies for survival and empowerment and have evolved in ways that shatter every stereotype that has represented them as victimized, passive, and traditional. They are building strong women’s organizations, conducting research, demanding equal citizenship, and networking internationally. In the process, they are changing the nature of the public sphere and helping to build civil society in their countries.

Two important events related to women’s rights in the region have marked the early years of this third millennium. The first was the reform in 2003 of Morocco’s personal status code (the Mudawanna) granting Moroccan women new rights; this followed a long struggle to which Moroccan women’s groups and a regional feminist network, the Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité, had made indispensable contributions. The Moroccan family law has been called epochal in nature. The second event concerns the 2004 Arab League Summit held in Tunis, where the host nation surprised the other member states by calling on them to “consider the promotion of the rights of Arab women as a fundamental axis of the process of development and modernization of Arab societies” (Labidi 2007, 7). Although this statement implies something unique about Tunisia’s approach to women’s rights, it is also suggestive of the recognition slowly being accorded to women’s participation and rights.

This essay examines some of the main developments that have affected Middle Eastern women in recent decades and in which they have been involved. It begins with an overview of characteristics of the population of Middle Eastern women and proceeds to discuss those economic and political processes that have had the greatest impact on them. It ends with an elaboration of the growing women’s movement and its principal demands.

Characteristics, Defining Features, and Variations

Since the 1980s, the subject of women in the Middle East has been tied to the larger issue of Islamic revival, also known as fundamentalism, political Islam, or Islamism. The rise of Islamist movements in the Middle East has reinforced stereotypes about the region, in particular the idea that Islam is ubiquitous in the culture and politics of the region, that tradition is tenacious, that the clergy have the highest authority, and that women’s status is low everywhere. How does one begin to assess the status of women in the Middle East? For some, one must begin with Islam—and Islam is either deemed to be responsible for women’s second-class citizenship and male domination or is regarded as the source of women’s rights and empowerment. In either case, it is the status of women in Islam that is being scrutinized, rather than the social status of groups of women in actually existing Middle Eastern societies.

The focus on the status of women in Islam may be important to theologians and to believing women, but it does little to satisfy historical, social science, or feminist inquiry. For one thing, Islam is experienced, practiced, and interpreted quite differently over time and space. The Tunisian sociologist Abdelwahab Bouhdiba (1985) convincingly showed that although the Islamic community may consider itself unified, Islam is fundamentally “plastic,” inasmuch as there are various Islams—Tunisian, Iranian, Malay, Afghan, Saudi Arabian, Senegalese, and so on. To understand the social implications of Islam, therefore, it is necessary to look at the broader sociopolitical and economic order within which it is exercised. Similarly, to understand the social positions of Middle Eastern women, one needs to examine the sociopolitical and economic environment within which they are situated. Whether the Koran’s message regarding women is inherently conservative and hostile or egalitarian and emancipatory is not irrelevant to social scientific, historical, or feminist inquiry, but it is less central or problematic than it is often made out to be. Certainly, Islam as a religion is not the defining factor in shaping women’s lives in Middle Eastern societies; one needs to examine economic and political factors, including social-structural characteristics.


Women in the Middle East constitute a diverse and heterogeneous population, and their social positions within and across countries vary by social class, ethnicity, age, education, and location (urban versus rural). Other important factors that shape women’s legal status and social positions are the country’s social structure and stage of development, as well as the nature of the state and its economic, social, and cultural policies. There is no archetypal Middle Eastern woman, but rather women inserted in quite diverse socioeconomic and cultural arrangements. The fertility behavior and needs of a poor peasant woman are quite different from those of a professional woman or a wealthy urbanite. An educated Saudi woman who has no need for employment and is chauffeured by a Sri Lankan migrant worker has little in common with an educated Tunisian woman who needs to work to augment the family income and acquires status with a professional position. There is some overlap in cultural conceptions of gender in Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, but there are also profound dissimilarities (and driving is only one of the more trivial ones). Saudi Arabia is far more conservative than Tunisia in terms of what is considered appropriate for women.

Women are likewise divided ideologically and politically. Some women activists have aligned themselves with liberal, social democratic, or communist organizations; others have lent their support to Islamist/fundamentalist groups. Some women reject religion as patriarchal; others wish to reclaim religion for themselves or to identify feminine aspects of it. Some women reject traditions and time-honored customs; others find identity, solace, and strength in them. More research is needed to determine whether social background shapes and can predict political and ideological affiliation, but in general women’s social positions have implications for their consciousness and activism.

Economically, the countries of the region include oil economies that are poor in other resources, including population (Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates [UAE]); mixed oil economies (Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria); and non-oil economies (Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, Yemen). The non-oil or mixed-oil economies have a more diversified structure, a hinterland, and large populations. Some countries have more developed class structures than others; the size and significance of the industrial working class and the modern middle class, for example, vary across the region. There are differences in the development of human capital, in the depth and scope of industrialization, in the development of infrastructure, in standards of living and welfare, and in the size of the female labor force.

Politically, the state types range from theocratic monarchy (Saudi Arabia) to secular republican (Turkey and Tunisia). Many states in the Middle East have experienced legitimacy problems, which became acute in the 1980s. Political scientists have used various terms to describe the states in the Middle East: authoritarian-socialist (for Algeria, Iraq, Syria), radical Islamist (for Iran and Libya), patriarchal-conservative (for Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia), and authoritarian-privatizing (for Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey). Most of these states have strong capitalistic features and some retain feudalistic features. The term “neopatriarchal state,” adopted from Hisham Sharabi (1988) , is a useful umbrella label for the various state types and most of the states in the Middle East. In the neopatriarchal state, unlike liberal or social democratic societies, religion is bound to power and state authority; moreover, the family, rather than the individual, constitutes the universal building block of the community.

The neopatriarchal state and the patriarchal family reflect and reinforce each other. Of course, in some cases, modernizing or revolutionary states have undermined patriarchal structures, or have attempted to do so, through legislation aimed at weakening traditional rural landlord structures or the power of tribes. But most states have been ambivalent about transforming women and the family.

The 1990s saw the beginnings of political liberalization or quasi-democratization in a number of countries (notably Turkey) and the emergence of vibrant democracy movements in others (notably Iran). But Middle Eastern states remain authoritarian, and citizen participation is limited (Richards and Waterbury 1996; Henry and Springborg 2001). This sometimes adversely affects the operations of women’s organizations, as shown in this essay.

Across the countries one observes a variable mix of religion and politics. Although Turkey is the only country in the region with a constitutional separation of religion and the state, the Constitution of Syria states that “The freedom of faith is guaranteed. The state respects all religions. The state guarantees the freedom to hold any religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order” (Article 35). The constitution also guarantees women “every opportunity to participate effectively and completely in political, social, economic, and cultural life” (Article 45). In Syria, as in many countries in the region, urban women, especially those who are educated and professional, enjoy a degree of freedom comparable to their counterparts in, for example, Latin American countries.

The economic and political diversity in the region results in intraregional differentiation in gender norms, as measured by differences in women’s legal status, education levels, fertility trends, employment patterns, and political participation. For example, gender segregation in public is the norm and the law in Saudi Arabia but not in Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, or Syria. After the Iranian Revolution, the new authorities prohibited abortion, discouraged contraception, and lowered the age of marriage for girls to puberty. Not surprisingly, fertility rates soared in the 1980s (though they dropped in the late 1990s after a policy change). But in Tunisia contraceptive use was widespread in the 1980s and the average age of marriage for women was 25 (today it is 27). Turkish women were given the right to vote in 1934, and in the 1950s and 1960s women began to occupy a large share of high-status occupations such as law, medicine, and university appointments. Women’s participation in government as key decision makers and members of parliament varies across the region. In almost all the countries, women vote, run for parliament, and are appointed to governmental positions. About 25 percent of judges in Algeria and Tunisia are women, whereas some other countries still ban women from judicial positions.


Despite this diversity, there are some common characteristics that are particularly noticeable when comparisons are made with women in some other regions. These common features are relatively high (though declining) fertility rates, gender gaps in literacy, relatively limited access to paid employment, and underrepresentation in the political system. Moreover, women in nearly all the countries of the region experience second-class citizenship due to certain provisions in Muslim family law and patriarchal cultural practices and norms.

It is difficult to reconcile women’s rights with Islamic law (sharia), which remains unfavorable to women with regard to marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Most of the countries in the region are governed to some degree by the sharia. This is especially the case in the area of family law, although in some countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran) the penal code is also based on Islamic law. (In the Jewish state of Israel, family law is based on the halacha and supervised by the rabbinate.) Tunisia modernized its family law immediately after independence, and further reforms were adopted in 1993. Turkey’s family law was not based on Islam but was quite conservative nonetheless, until the women’s movement forced changes in 2001. Elsewhere, family laws based on Islamic texts continue to govern the personal and family status of women and hence confer second-class citizenship on them.

There has been much discussion of women’s low labor force participation and relatively limited access to paid employment in countries of the Middle East and North Africa. In the past, this was largely a legacy of the oil boom era (from roughly 1960 to the mid-1980s), with its capital intensity and relatively high wages for men. State legal policies play a role, too, and Muslim family law has reinforced the “patriarchal gender contract” (Moghadam 1998).

Women in the Middle East have always been involved in political movements (e.g., independence, national liberation, and socialist and feminist movements), but their presence in formal political structures (e.g., political parties, parliaments, governments) has been more recent and remains limited. Except in Turkey, where women were given the right to vote in 1930, other countries granted women voting rights in the 1950s (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia), the 1960s (Algeria, Iran, Libya, Morocco, the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) or even later (Iraq, 1970). Their limited political participation, therefore, has partly to do with the relative novelty of elections and partly to do with the patriarchal gender system. Although women are found in the rank-and-file and leadership of political parties (e.g., Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey), nowhere have they reached a “critical mass” (30 percent and above), and their appointment to party or government positions has been largely a form of tokenism.

Barriers to women’s participation in formal politics, therefore, remain formidable, but at the start of the new millennium, there were some encouraging new developments. For example, the establishment of a gender quota system in Morocco resulted in a 10.8 percent female share in the November 2002 parliamentary elections. In the summer of 2002, President Bouteflika of Algeria appointed an unprecedented five women to cabinet posts, and in 2006, both women and men stood for election and voted for the first time in that country’s history. Nine women entered Parliament, gaining 22.5 percent of the seats (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2006).

These positive developments have come about partly as a result of the pressures of globalization (certainly in the case of the UAE) but also due to changes in the characteristics of the female population, which results in rising expectations among women. Increased educational attainment and smaller family size have freed up women’s time for civic and political engagement. Fertility rates are high in the poorest and most conservative countries: six births per woman in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza)—and in the latter, adolescent fertility rates are also very high. But fertility is declining dramatically elsewhere; it ranges from 2.2-2.5 births per woman in Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, and Lebanon. (In 1960, the average fertility rate in the region was 7 children per woman.) As educational attainment grows among women in the Middle East, the gender gaps narrow. Although illiteracy is common among women in the older age groups, and universal schooling has yet to be achieved in some of the poorer countries (notably Yemen), enrollment rates for girls at the primary and secondary school levels are rising and are nearly at a par with boys. In Iran and the UAE, girls can expect to complete at least 11 years of schooling.

Most significantly, women in the Middle East are more likely to enroll in universities than they were in the past. In 2003, more than 50 percent of college students in Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were women; in Libya, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia, 40 percent of college students were women. Young women have been entering into higher education fields of study such as engineering, medicine, law, commerce, and finance, and they are increasingly graduating with degrees in mathematics and computer sciences (Moghadam 2003: 139-140; Roudy and Moghadam 2004.)

Rising educational attainment as well as declining household budgets in a post-oil boom era led to growing involvement by women in the formal and informal sectors of the economy, and their share of the labor force increased between 1980 and 1997. This is particularly true of countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, where women’s participation in the labor force was previously negligible and the economies relied almost entirely on foreign contract labor. The 1990s saw increases in women’s employment in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Algeria, largely in the teaching and health professions and to a lesser extent in sales and services. Women’s involvement in manufacturing is found in almost all the large countries, but it is greatest in Tunisia and Morocco. In Egypt, Jordan, Iran, and Turkey, the growth of women-owned businesses, and especially of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), has been a noticeable trend. An elite corps of professional women is found in both public and private sectors, but their numbers in the highest administrative and managerial categories are small.

The growing mass of educated and employed Middle Eastern women has taken part in national-level movements and is increasingly aware of international or global developments. The United Nations (UN) Decade for Women (1975-1985), four UN world conferences on women, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the global women’s rights agenda have all influenced domestic politics and discourses in the Middle East. Women’s organizations are now vocal and visible throughout the Middle East, and they look to the UN’s women’s rights agenda for legitimacy and support.

Having provided a broad introduction to the status of women in the Middle East and North Africa, it is now time to turn to the gender dynamics of three issues that have dominated politics in the societies of the Middle East and North Africa: political conflicts (including wars and revolutions), Islamist movements, and the question of veiling.

Conflict, Fundamentalism, and Women in the Middle East

Like other regions, the Middle East has had its share of revolutions, wars, civil conflicts, and political movements, all of which have produced dramatic changes that affect women and men profoundly, if differently. Revolutions are a special case of political and social change that usually result in strong states that can carry out reforms and political change, including change in the status of women. A case in point is the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), once known as the Cuba of the Middle East, which in the 1970s sought to release women from patriarchal kin control, integrate them into economic and political activities, and establish a progressive family code. By contrast, the Iranian Revolution produced an Islamic republic, which in the 1980s instituted gender segregation, veiling, and Islamic laws and norms, including a Muslim family law that reinstated polygamy and unilateral male divorce and emphasized women’s wifely duties and childbearing responsibilities. The evolution and complex longer-term outcomes of these two separate revolutionary experiments provide rich material for scholars of revolution, the state, and social change. The PDRY, or South Yemen, merged with the more conservative North Yemen in 1990, and the process of unification resulted in the revision of the family code, a diminishment of women’s rights, and the elimination of the official discourse of women’s emancipation. In the second half of the 1990s, the Islamic Republic of Iran saw the emergence of a movement for political reform—along with movements of women, youth, and intellectuals from Iran’s large middle class—that appeared to defy the clerical authorities and reject many of the state’s laws and norms.

Modernizing and revolutionary states have been crucial agents in the advancement of women by enacting changes in family law, providing education and employment, and encouraging women’s participation in public life. This occurred in Egypt during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, where a kind of “state feminism” emerged (Hatem 1992). The Iraqi Baath regime in its radical phase (the 1960s and 1970s) undertook social transformation by introducing a land reform program that changed the conditions of the peasantry and by establishing a welfare state for the urban working classes and the poor. In its drive against illiteracy and for free education, the Baathist revolution produced one of the best-educated intelligentsias in the Arab world. Many studies credited the regime with giving women the right to have careers and participate in civic activities.

But all this went terribly wrong in the 1990s, as a result of the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the subsequent sanctions regime. Conditions worsened immediately after the American invasion and occupation of 2003. The destruction of the country’s social and physical infrastructure, the collapse of the state, the emergence of looting and lawlessness, and the iron fist of an occupying power have heightened women’s insecurity and disempowerment (Al-Ali 2007).

Political conflict or war can certainly wreak havoc on societies and on the population of women, as has been the case with the Arab-Israeli wars, the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanese civil war, the 1991 Gulf War, and the Algerian civil conflict of the 1990s. But paradoxically, it can also bring about a heightened sense of gender awareness and political activism on the part of women. In some cases, an unexpected outcome of economic crisis caused by war could be higher education and employment opportunities for women—as a study in Lebanon found (Zureik 1991).

The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 certainly allowed the Islamic state in Iran to strengthen itself, to impose its will upon the population, and to compel women to conform to its rules on veiling and segregation. However, a study of women’s employment patterns in postrevolutionary Iran in 1986, notwithstanding the exhortations of Islamist ideologues, found that women had not been driven out of the workforce and their participation in government employment had slightly increased relative to 1976 (Moghadam 1988). This was attributed to the imperatives of the wartime economy, the human resources needs of the expanding state apparatus, and women’s resistance to subordination. A subsequent study confirming this hypothesis (Poya 1999) found that the mobilization of men at the war front and the requirements of gender segregation had resulted in an increased need for female teachers and nurses. In Iraq, too, the mobilization of female labor accelerated during the war with Iran, though this was apparently coupled with the contradictory exhortation to produce more children.

Wars may open up space for women—especially in the economic domain or labor force—but they can intensify patriarchal attitudes. In Iran, during the war with Iraq, women were constantly harassed by zealots if they did not adhere strictly to Islamic dress and manner. Those women who complained about hijab or resisted by showing a little hair or wearing bright-colored socks were admonished to “feel shame before the corpses of the martyrs of Karbala”—a reference to an incident in Shiite religious history as well as to the fallen soldiers in the battle with Iraq. Still, an unintended consequence of the war was to override early ideological objections to female employment in the civil service. As the Iranian state apparatus grew, and as a large proportion of the male population was concentrated at the war front, women found opportunities for employment in the government sector that Islamist ideologues had earlier denied them. Eventually, the war had a deteriorating effect on employment for both men and women. Yet in the 1990s the Iranian authorities encouraged women to take up fields of study and employment they deemed both socially necessary and appropriate for women, especially medicine and teaching. Meanwhile, Iranian women themselves began to issue calls for the modernization of family law, more employment opportunities, and greater political participation.

Another example of the complicated gender dynamics of political conflict pertains to the Palestinians. Their expulsion by Zionists or flight from their villages during the nakba transformed rural Palestinian life and the structure of the family (Abdo-Zubi 1987). As the Palestinian national movement grew, it enabled women to participate politically in what became the most secular and democratic movement in the Arab world. In the 1970s, Palestinian women’s political activity and participation in resistance groups expanded, whether in Lebanon, the West Bank, or Gaza or in universities or refugee camps. During the first intifada, Palestinian women organized themselves into impressive independent political groups and economic cooperatives. Internationally, the best-known Palestinian women have been the guerrilla fighter Leila Khaled and the diplomat and English professor Hanan Ashrawi—two contrasting examples of roles available to Palestinian women in their movement. But the national movement also produced notable writers with a feminist consciousness; Samira Azzam and Fadwa Tuqan, for example, combined a critique of patriarchal structures and a fervent nationalism to produce compelling work.

At the same time, the Palestinian movement has exalted women as mothers and as mothers of martyrs. This emphasis on their reproductive role has created a tension on which a number of scholars have commented (Abdo 1995; Peteet 1996; Rubenberg 2001). During the latter part of the 1980s, another trend emerged among the Palestinians, especially in the impoverished Gaza Strip: Islamist vigilantes who insisted that women cover themselves when appearing in public. The frustrations of daily life, the indignities of occupation, and the inability of the secular and democratic project to materialize may explain this shift. What began as a sophisticated women’s movement in the early 1990s that sought feminist interventions in the areas of constitution writing and social policy experienced setbacks toward the end of the decade, as the West Bank and Gaza faced Islamization and continued Israeli occupation (Hammami and Johnson 1999).

Algerian women have been involved twice in conflicts that have profoundly affected them: the war of liberation in the 1950s and early 1960s and the civil conflict between Islamists and the state in the 1990s. But whereas their earlier participation was conducted within a nationalist frame, the later struggle was framed as feminist, modernist, and antifundamentalist (Cherifati-Merabtine 1994; Moghadam 2001). In the Islamist terror campaign that followed the military’s decision to prevent the Front Islamique du Salut from taking over the government after their electoral victory in 1991, numerous women and girls were raped or killed, and a number of women activists were assassinated. Nonetheless, Algerian women formed many new women’s organizations and developed a critique of both state autocracy and political Islam. Throughout the decade, they championed modernity and individual rights while also holding on to the socialist legacy of equality of citizens. They were critical of past practice, which subsumed the woman question under national liberation and the building of Algerian-style socialism. The ideological and cultural divide between Islamist and non-Islamist women activists was enormous; feminists distinguished “women of the modernist trend” from the women of the Islamist movement. According to one such activist-theorist, Doria Cherifati-Merabtine, the modernist women’s movement comprised mainly older university women from the first postindependence generation of intellectuals. She observed that these women “have learned, at their expense, that no change is possible if the outlook on woman and her place within society does not evolve” (Cherifati-Merabtine 1994, 42).

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism and political Islam has had significant effects on women throughout the Middle East. Women themselves have been divided for and against these movements. There have been important differences among Islamist movements; some have sought state power or have used violence whereas others have been satisfied to influence public policies or take part in governance nonviolently. In most cases, however, Islamist movements have been preoccupied with cultural identity and authenticity, and this has had implications for women’s autonomy and range of choices. Women’s crucial role in the socialization of the next generation makes them symbols of cultural values and traditions, and thus they are expected to behave and dress in prescribed ways. Some Muslim women regard this role as an exalted one, and they gladly assume it, becoming active participants, though rarely ideologues, in Islamist movements. Other women find it an onerous burden; they resent restrictions on their individuality, mobility, and personal freedoms. Such nonconformist women may rebel in various ways: they may discretely pursue alternative lifestyles, they may leave the country and settle elsewhere, and they may join or form women’s rights organizations.

The spread of fundamentalism and political Islam also generated polemics surrounding hijab (modest Islamic dress for women) in every country, and (re)veiling has spread since the 1980s. Scholars within Middle East women’s studies tackled the conundrum in different ways. Some emphasized the personal choice and enhanced opportunities for mobility that veiling represented, especially for the women of the lower middle class and conservative families. Others stressed its link to the appeal of fundamentalism and religious identity among women. Yet others pointed out that veiling was compulsory in some countries (notably Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran) and that elsewhere one could discern strong social pressures on women to veil and thus achieve respectability. What is more, such social pressures often took the form of harassment and intimidation by self-styled enforcers (men) of correct religious behavior and public morality.

Polemics on veiling have spread to Europe, where the historical and political context is quite different from that of the Middle East. But in both regions, veiling can be regarded as an identity marker (of piety, of tradition, or of a distinct cultural or religious group), and it can be regarded as associated with political Islam.

Women’s Movements and Feminist Organizations in the Middle East

In response to the rise of Islamism, and to address the problem of second-class citizenship and economic marginalization, women in the Middle East have formed dynamic women’s movements that seek to challenge patriarchal gender arrangements; expand women’s civil, political, and social rights; and empower women economically and politically. Women’s institutionalized second-class citizenship is being questioned by women’s organizations throughout the region. Using a variety of legal and discursive strategies, women’s rights advocates call for: (1) egalitarian family laws, (2) the criminalization of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women, (3) women’s right to retain their own nationality and to pass it on to their children, and (4) greater access to employment and participation in political decision making. They are also pointing out that existing family laws are at odds with the universal standards of equality and non-discrimination embodied in international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action. In many Middle Eastern countries, women’s rights organizations are made up of highly educated women with employment experience and international connections. What is more, the nature of women’s organizations has changed, and their activities have become more deliberate, self-conscious, and political. The many women’s NGOs that have formed offer employment, professional, and leadership opportunities and are often self-defined as democratic, feminist, and part of civil society.

The global women’s rights agenda and the UN conferences of the 1990s—especially the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, which took place in Cairo, and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, which took place in Beijing—created a favorable opportunity structure that allowed for the proliferation of women’s organizations and women-led NGOs in the Middle East. Whereas the 1950s-1970s saw women involved almost exclusively in either official women’s organizations or charitable associations, the 1990s saw the expansion of many types of women’s organizations. At the same time, increasing state conservatism in some countries forced women’s organizations and feminist leaders to assume a more independent stance than before.

Women’s organizations in the Middle East typically fall into seven types: service organizations, worker-based organizations, professional associations, women-in-development NGOs, research centers and women’s studies institutes, women’s auxiliaries of political parties, and women’s rights or feminist organizations. The latter are the most significant contributors to citizenship, civil society, and democratization. They target women’s subordinate status within family law, women’s low participation in formal politics, and violence against women. The groups include the Lebanese League for Women’s Rights, along with the Permanent Arab Court to Resist Violence Against Women (The Women’s Court). In North Africa, the Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité was the major organizer behind the Muslim Women’s Parliament at the NGO Forum that preceded the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995. In preparing for the post-Beijing follow-up, the Collectif formulated an alternative “egalitarian family code” and promoted women’s political participation. The Tunisian wing of the Collectif, the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates, formed in the late 1980s, is well known for its principles of secularism, democracy, human rights, and women’s autonomy. The Moroccan wing of the Collectif worked diligently to promote reform of the country’s highly patriarchal family law, and a few words about its work illustrate the dynamic nature of women’s movements in the region.

In the early 1990s, Moroccan feminists launched a campaign to reform their legal status and social positions. The campaign began with the One Million Signatures petition drive, and King Hassan II agreed to some amendments of the family law in 1993. The movement continued to press on, with media campaigns, conferences, and publications. In 1998, the appointment of a new prime minister—the government of alter-nance—created a new political opportunity structure for the women’s movement, as the Youssoufi government was committed to social development, human rights, and women’s rights. In 2000, controversy emerged over the government’s proposed national plan for women’s development. An ambitious document to extend education, employment, and political participation to Moroccan women, the plan came under attack by conservative Islamic forces, especially because the reform of family law was inscribed in the plan. In response, Moroccan feminists took to the streets in support of the plan, while the government of Prime Minister Youssoufi sought to institute a “social dialogue” to promote the plan. In the face of overwhelming opposition from Islamist forces, the government had to withdraw the plan. But victory came in October 2003, when a royal commission recommended reform (and a bombing in Casablanca by Islamists ended the stalemate). Morocco’s new king issued a royal decree supporting reform of the family law, and the parliament adopted it in January 2004. The reform of Morocco’s highly patriarchal family law has been rightly regarded as a landmark event (Sadiqi and Ennaji 2006).

Another way the women of the Middle East and North Africa have been contributing to democratization and civil society is through literary efforts, including the publication of books, journals, and films. Morocco’s Edition le Fennec has produced numerous books on women’s rights issues as well as many literary works by women. The very lively women’s press in Iran acted for years as a stand-in for an organized women’s movement. Shahla Lahiji’s Roshangaran Press has published important feminist works as well as historical studies, while the Cultural Center of Women organized by Noushin Ahmadi-Khorassani and others produces feminist analyses, calendars, compendiums, and journals. Zanan (Women) has been among the most widely read magazines in circulation since it began in the early 1990s. Feminist newspapers are produced in Turkey, and the Women’s Library in Istanbul contains research and documentation on women and gender issues. Al-Raida, a quarterly feminist journal of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, at the Lebanese American University, has featured such topics as women in Arab cinema, women and the war in Lebanon, women and work, violence against women, sexuality, and criminality since 1976.

Coalition building with other civil society actors is a key strategy of women’s organizations. Throughout the region, women’s rights activists have sought the support of progressive clerics and theologians; this is especially the case with “Islamic feminists” who seek an egalitarian and emancipatory interpretation of Islamic laws and norms. One type of coalition building, therefore, has involved secular and religious advocates of women’s rights. In the Maghreb, and especially in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, feminists have worked with human rights organizations and trade unions to push for reform, raise public awareness, and build institutions. The various centres d’ecoutes—counseling centers or shelters—are products of feminist activism that entail collaboration with other local actors as well as with international donors. These are most evident in North Africa, where Tunisia’s Femmes Democrates established the first centre d’ecoute. They now exist in Morocco as well, as does the centre d’ecoute that has been hosted by Algeria’s main trade union, the UGTA, since 2003 (Moghadam 2007).

How do feminists engage with a state that is not democratic? In some cases, feminist organizations keep their distance from state agencies, preferring independence, autonomy, and a certain ideological purity to prevent co-optation. In other cases, women’s rights groups prefer to avoid marginality and irrelevance by engaging with public officials and state agencies or taking part in state-directed or state-funded networks and initiatives. In some cases women’s organizations and feminist leaders have been rewarded—with appointments to senior positions or government backing of new programs to enhance women’s participation and rights. The engagement of women’s rights activists with the state is illustrative of a “critical realist” approach (Moghadam 1998; 2003). That is, feminists are critical of the neopatriarchal nature of the state and the way it reinforces their subordinate status, and they are aware that the authoritarian Middle Eastern state limits the political participation of citizens, including women’s rights activists. The Egyptian state, for example, closed down the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association for its criticism of Egypt’s role in the 1991 Gulf War, imprisoned and prosecuted the sociology professor and human rights activist Saad eddin Ibrahim in 2000-2002, and in June 2003 refused to grant a license that would enable the New Woman Research Group to function as an NGO. In Iran, the state authorities have arrested and imprisoned women’s rights protestors, denounced feminism as an alien and imported ideology, and refused to sign the Women’s Convention (CEDAW). In January 2008, the government summarily closed down the popular women’s magazine Zanan. In response, the Iranian women’s movement—activated since 2005—has launched its own One Million Signatures Campaign to raise awareness about gender injustice and to legitimize its call for law reform and the repeal of all discriminatory laws. It also launched an international appeal for support to save Zanan.

Middle Eastern feminists are highly critical of the state but are acutely aware that the state is an unavoidable institutional actor. They therefore make claims on the state for the improvement of their legal status and social positions, or they insist that the state live up to commitments and implement the conventions that it has signed—notably, CEDAW.


The turbulence and dramatic changes of recent decades have affected Middle Eastern women in different ways, but women have hardly been passive onlookers. Instead, they have actively taken part in movements for social and political change—revolution, national liberation, human rights, and democratization—and they have formed and led their own movements. Surveys show that such women have the support of a considerable part of the population. The World Values Survey, for example, shows that the people of Egypt and Turkey (surveyed in 2000 and 2001, respectively) have “high confidence in the women’s movement”; among women, confidence is high in those countries as well as in Jordan and Morocco. However, on some other measures of support for gender equality, the public shows considerably more conservative views (Moaddel 2007). The Arab Human Development Report of 2005 (UNDP 2006), which focused on the status of women in the Arab region, commissioned a public opinion survey in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. The results are encouraging in their liberal views of gender equality and women’s economic and political participation and rights. On veiling, 36 percent say it should be obligatory, 50 percent say there should be a choice, and 12 percent say no. Societies, therefore, appear polarized on issues pertaining to women’s rights, rather than uniformly conservative.

Social and political change in the Middle East has been neither linear nor uniform but contradictory and paradoxical. The effects on women have been similarly complex. But in analyzing the changes and their effects, one is struck by the potentially revolutionary role of middle-class Middle Eastern women concerned about second-class citizenship. These women are not acting out roles prescribed for them by religion, culture, or the neopatriarchal state; they are questioning their roles and status, calling for greater rights, participating in movements, and taking sides in ideological battles. In particular, they are at the center of the new social movements for democratization, civil society, and citizenship—however difficult and limited these have been thus far.