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Jewish World Review April 29, 2004/ 8 Iyar, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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Where women can't march | Hundreds of thousands of women in pink and purple marched on Washington this week, many bearing placards and banners bashing George W. Bush, demonstrating "on behalf of women's lives."

Ten thousand miles away, hundreds of thousands of women in black from head to toe couldn't march if they wanted to, but they have a champion in the president of the United States. If they want to talk about "women's lives," they're well advised to do it in whispers.

Nevertheless, some of them can see a vision of democracy and decent treatment, if only dimly through the narrow slits in their abayas, the heavy black garment in which they must confine themselves.

The excitement of women in liberated Afghanistan, throwing off their chadors, has been plain for the rest of us to see. In Iraq, the Governing Council has agreed to set aside a quarter of the seats in the coming parliament for women. Like it not, and a lot of the men no doubt don't, this will enable women to speak up and out.

These women will be the exceptions in the Islamic world. Women now occupy only 3.5 percent of the seats in Islamic parliaments. Even where women have some representation and are cabinet officers, ambassadors, undersecretaries, governors, mayors, judges and hold lesser positions of leadership and management, they comprise only a fraction of what ought to be.

Islamic women have a heroine in Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian agitator for women's rights who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of women and children. She has felt the heavy hand of abusive male power in her home country.

Ebadi was one of the first women appointed as judge by the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, but she was purged when the radical Islamists came to power in 1979. She was told she could not work as a judge because she was a woman and such was forbidden by religious law. She regards the dress that Islamic men force on women as symbolic of control, and she appeared at a press conference in Paris last year with her head uncovered by the traditional scarf.

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"What could be a simpler and a more fundamental individual right than to dress as one pleases?" asks Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian woman writing about "The Woman Question" in the Wilson Quarterly. The status of women in the Middle East, she says, is the "key barometer of progress."

Women's roles, rights and wrongs in the Middle East are not, as often believed in the West, monolithic. Such roles are determined by each country's history, culture and traditions. Family law regulating marriage, divorce, child custody and a woman's right to work outside the home expands and contracts with political pressure. While women themselves have been a major force for change, they need all the help they can get from outsiders.

A United Nations paper, startling for its unaccustomed candor, reported in July 2002 that some Arab academics and intellectuals blame Arabs themselves, and not the usual suspects in the West, for their economic, social and political shortcomings. The U.N. examined issues in 22 countries and found that a major contributing factor for misery in all categories is the denigration of women in Islamic society.

Although illiteracy is declining, half of Muslim women cannot read or write. More women are entering the work force but integration into the labor market remains the lowest in the world. The Internet offers promise to women in the Middle East, as it reduces isolation and taps into information and support systems, but only a tiny fraction of the most educated and prosperous women have access to it.

The most dramatic difference between Judeo-Christian and Muslim civilizations lies in the treatment of women, but this has been largely ignored or misunderstood for centuries. Even Verdi, in his famous opera "Aida," got it wrong.

"Aida," first performed in Cairo to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, tells the story of an Egyptian general struggling between the love of two women, the pharaoh's daughter and Aida, an Ethiopian slave who is daughter of the Ethiopian king. The general is driven to treason and condemned to death rather than give up Aida.

But in the Cairo of 1871 he need not have struggled with choosing - he could have taken both as wives or one as a wife and the other as a concubine. The historian Bernard Lewis ponders whether Verdi was sending a subtle message to the Egyptians.

The struggle for women's rights in the Middle East has been stubbornly resistant to change. "Sadly," the U.N. report observes, "the Arab world is depriving itself of the creativity and productivity of half its citizens." That deserves a placard, too.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS