When Antun Sa’adeh established his party in 1932, there were too many manifestations and issues that engulfed women in his society. Women were placed below men in every category, were discriminated against in every domain and were not supported by law in many cases. They were excluded from politics and denied entry into high-paying jobs and into the “corridors of power”, whether in governance, business or other public domains. In some underprivileged areas, girls were denied education. Those who received secondary education were denied higher education, which was considered as privilege enjoyed by men. It must be noted that by the late nineteenth century, “it was comparatively rare to find women of any class in the Middle East who had more than an elementary education”1 as many conservative opponents of women’s education believed that it was pointless to educate women because they would not make any use of it since their natural role was to be wives and mothers. Moreover, the education of women was viewed as a dangerous business and a challenge to male authority. Many were “reluctant to allow women to be educated outside the home fearing a loss of control over their ideas and activities.”2
It was owing to the establishment of embryonic state education system and the spread of mission education by Western missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, from Britain, Europe and the United States, that colleges and secondary schools for girls became popular for the elite groups of all religions. However, Syrian girls “were actively insisting that they be allowed a college education and were asking for admittance to the [American] University [of Beirut]”, which was recognized as an institution of higher learning for male students.3 In her article, which focused on the experience of Syrian women with the American Presbyterian Mission in Lebanon, Ellen Fleischmann reported that “girl graduates from the secondary schools began to ask why the privilege of higher education was denied them when their brothers enjoyed privileges which had been open to men for more than fifty years”.4 She added: “In 1920, the American University of Beirut (AUB) faculty voted ‘reluctantly’ to allow women to enter the schools of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy” under the condition that there were at least three women who would be enrolled together.5 The acceptance of women students to the university and consequent introduction of coeducation was an experiment and not a deliberate act. The American University did not intend to encourage coeducation, but it reluctantly opened its doors to women to satisfy three demands: of women eager to receive liberal education or to pursue professional training at the university, of market demand for female medical, and educational personnel, and of a generation of alumni or faculty members who wanted higher education for their daughters.6 During the turbulent social and political conditions of 1920s Lebanon, several generations of women students entered the American University of Beirut as regular students and earned their degrees after facing ambiguous treatment and numerous challenges.7 From the late 1920s to the 1940s, women were admitted to universities in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. However, educational opportunities were extremely limited for everyone. Education was strictly class specific and “was a vehicle for introducing few elites into the ranks of the civil service, an area beyond the sphere of women at the time.”8 It was only after the achievement of national independence that education was made free of charge and became expanded and broadly recognized as a vehicle for the advancement of the individual and society.
The plight of Women in Lebanon is part of a bigger social and political problem prevailing in many countries of the Arab world, which share common characteristics of underdeveloped societies - politically, economically, socially and culturally. The existing structures of these countries contribute to the subordinate position of women. The prevailing ideological structure, which finds expression through specific patterns of behaviour and practices, is based on ancestral traditions and filled with superstitions. It derives its strength from religious practices and laws. Religion and its institutions define the citizen, as a legal subject, and directly affect the gendering of citizenship. As Professor Suad Joseph argues, “the sacred authority of religion has underwritten the gendering of citizenship also by its subsidization of patriarchy.”9
The socio-economic structure, on the other hand, is backward and it has prevented women from potentially participating in the production of goods. The economies and labour markets of many of the large urban cities of the Arab World have been unable to absorb the growing labour force, leading to unemployment. Female unemployment rates in urban areas are considerably higher than male rates. In times of crises, women are denied entry into stable and high-paying jobs and are encouraged to take up insecure and low-paying jobs in the informal sector. They are not treated on an equal basis with men in the public sphere of work. Poor women, in particular, are vulnerable to poverty, especially in times of economic crises. As Professor Valentine M. Moghadam maintains:
Because of gender differences in literacy, educational attainment, employment, and income, women are especially vulnerable to poverty during periods of economic difficulty or in the event of divorce, abandonment, or widowhood. Such vulnerability may be exacerbated by the cultural norm of the male breadwinner and female homemaker ideal, the lack of government programs to involve low-income women in the labor force, and Muslim family laws that discriminate against women with regard to inheritance and encourage female dependence on male “guardians” in the family.10
Accordingly, women are extremely affected, vulnerable, unprotected and denied their basic rights. They are considered, as one author states, “weak, incapable creatures, mere shadows of their men, their main duties being toward their husbands and toward the preservation of the species”.11
The purpose of this study is twofold: first, to highlight the low status of women in the Arab world, in general, and in geographical Syria in particular. Status, in this context, refers to women’s ranking in the existing social structure in comparison to men. For this purpose, it will investigate the various factors responsible for the inferior conditions of women in the Arab world and discuss some manifestations of domination over women. The second objective of this study is to highlight the participation of women in the national struggle launched by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Syria.
Historical and cultural factors
In many countries of the Middle East, regardless of their historical evolution, social composition and economic structures, women do not enjoy the same rights as do men although the constitutions in these countries guarantee the equality of all citizens and stipulate that there shall be no discriminations among citizens on the basis of sex. Middle Eastern states often declare their commitment to the principle of equality between men and women, which is inscribed in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This principle of equality, however, is not respected in many countries of the Middle East. Women’s human rights are systematically denied by each of these countries despite the diversity of the political systems that exist there. In her assessment of women’s position in Lebanon, Professor Suad Joseph observed that:
Middle Eastern societies have adopted most of the principles of the Western nation-state in their constitutions, and the ideas have continued to influence political actors, ideologies, and practices in the region. Middle Eastern states and political actors, however, have greatly departed from the model, particularly in arenas affecting women.12
The law in countries of the Middle East discriminates against women and denies them equal rights with men with respect to citizenship, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance and with respect to education and participation in social, economic and political life. Women are recognized as citizens in name but seldom in fact. Women in almost all Arab countries are still not allowed to transfer their nationality to their children. In spite of their right of inheritance, as stipulated by the Shari’a that women shall inherit half of what a man inherits, custom in the Arab world, particularly in rural areas, has removed this right altogether. In reality, woman resigns her right to inherit land to one of her male relations, whether she wants to or not. In the panel code, women are discriminated against and receive double the penalty for the same crime of ‘honour’. As far as the penalty is concerned, the humanity of women is not taken into consideration. The priority is to avoid scandal. The lives and experiences of Jordanian women provide a good example of the unjust differentiation between the sexes. Women in Jordan are deprived by discriminatory laws of being equal partners within the family unit. Although the Jordanian Constitution guarantees equality to all Jordanians before the law with no discrimination among them in rights and responsibilities, and although the state grants women rights as citizens, these rights, however, are “diminished” and can only be exercised through mediators: the males in the family (i.e., husband, brother, father), who have control over their actions and conduct. The imposition of an intermediation between women and the state is necessitated by the assumption that women are economically dependent on men and they need protection, and that they are incapable of making free choices, thus, they are not to be trusted. As Abla Amawi puts it:
The law assumes that a woman is incapable of making decisions or being trusted. As a result, her husband is the direct link with the state not only on her behalf but also on behalf of the children. As a “full” citizen, only through him can they acquire their names, nationality, passports, bank accounts, and place of residence; be registered in the family registry; acquire health insurance, social benefits, and marriage of the girls within the family; and, by extrapolation, become citizens themselves. These combined inequalities only work to subordinate the status of women within the family and society. Within the family a woman’s role is enforced as the caregiver who cannot equally manage the family’s affairs.13
Before 2005, women in Kuwait were not allowed to vote. The electoral law restricted the right to vote and run for office to Kuwaiti men who were more than twenty-one years of age. Women’s education was not considered by the male community to be as important as that of boys. Men “had little interest in giving women more than a basic religious education”.14 The first primary state school for girls in Kuwait was set up in 1937. Secondary-level classes were introduced at two primary schools for girls in 1952. This was not enough for many young women who wanted a separate secondary college and wished to pursue higher education. The present status of Kuwaiti women lags behind that of Kuwaiti men. As far as the nationality law is concerned, Kuwaiti women who are married to foreign husbands, can neither confer their nationality on their legitimate children nor transfer their nationality to their husbands although Kuwaiti men can do this for their foreign wives and the children of such marriages.15 The children and non-Kuwaiti husbands of Kuwaiti women are recognized and treated as expatriates: they have no right to remain in the country unless they receive residence permits from the state. These children are not allowed admission to government schools. Basically, it is assumed that a Kuwaiti woman married to non-Kuwaiti man ceased to be a Kuwaiti. Kuwaiti women, moreover, “are forbidden by law to marry non-Muslims, a prohibition not enjoined on men.”16 Kuwaiti women have been unsuccessful in their individual and collective attempts to secure rights for their foreign spouses and children. Both the government and the all-male National assembly remained unyielding to their demands and unwilling to amend the existing social laws that marginalize women and deprive them of their citizenship rights.
It is the duty of men to protect and support their wives (and children) and to ensure their sexuality is under control. As protectors and keepers of women, husbands or fathers “can forbid their wives or daughters to work outside the home, and there is absolutely nothing that Kuwaiti women can do under these circumstances to exercise their constitutional right to employment.”17 In return for their right to maintenance (nafaqa), Kuwaiti women must obey their husbands and rear their children as stipulated by the personal status law, which is based on the Maliki interpretation of Islam.18 Women, accordingly, are not seen as individuals in their own right but as family members whose economic existence is entirely dependent on the male head of the family and whose rights and duties are defined in relation to their kinsmen. Women need permission from their husbands or parents to travel outside the country or to visit friends at night. “Unmarried women, regardless of their age, are expected to live with their families.”19 Similarly, those women who live without the protection of men, fully in charge of their own lives, are likely to damage their reputation and loose society’s respect. As Haya Al-Mughni and Mary Ann Tétreault note:
In fact, nothing can be more damaging to a woman’s reputation than leading her own life and taking control over her body and mind as a free individual disconnected from family obligations. Indeed, the term free carries negative connotations. It is associated with immoral, loose behaviour. A free woman is referred to as wasika, which means dirty, unclean. A free woman loses her self-respect and also finds herself socially marginalized with neither men nor women wishing to associate with her.20
The family is recognized by the Kuwaiti constitution as the basic unit of society, and its members must live together under the protection of the family’s patriarch. The state, it is argued, “supports the subjugation of women to patriarchal control and insists on women’s identity as family members to maintain a balance between modernity and tradition.”21 The state provides welfare assistance to low- and middle- income families headed by men. Welfare programs include public housing, rent subsidies, low-interest loans to encourage men to build their own homes and subsidies for water and electricity. Such programs are conditional, if applied for by women. Haya Al-Mughni and Mary Ann Tétreault maintain that “as compared to their male counterparts, Kuwaiti women who receive welfare assistance must be unemployed and demonstrate an absence of male support. Working women and those with husbands and fathers judged able to support them are not eligible to receive welfare assistance.”22 In the wage sector, Kuwaiti women receive lower wages than the male average even when they have higher educational qualifications than men.23 Women who receive monthly welfare assistance (i.e., income support and rent subsidies) because they are recognized as heads of households are denied access to houses and required to live, on a temporary basis, in isolated blocks owned by the state and located in areas characterized by high rates of violent crimes. They will stay there until their financial situations improve or they remarry.
In Saudi Arabia, where Islam was born at the end of the sixth century AD, women are not allowed, under customary law (ˊurf), to drive cars and are completely secluded and underemployed.24 Women are not permitted to travel or check into a hotel or even undergo surgery in a hospital without a written permission from a father or husband. Segregation of women from unrelated men is considered as a supreme social value and outlawed in all public places. Public space is male space, whereas women belong to the private domain. Mona AlMunajjed described the restrictions on women in public spaces:
Almost all public places have areas that are restricted to women. Restaurants have special family dining rooms for women, and hospitals have separate waiting rooms for women. There are shopping centres exclusively for women, and certain boutiques in Jeddah have a closed door with ‘For Ladies Only’ written on it. Buses are divided into two sections to create a separate seating area for women. Banks have women-only branches. The zoo in Riyadh sets aside three days for women and three days for men.25
It is worth noting in this context, that Saudi Arabia, which is recognized as highly patriarchal society and as a monarchy headed by the Al-Saud royal family, has no constitution in the standard meaning of the term. Its fundamental law is drawn from the Islamic shari’a, as interpreted by the religious conservative movement: Wahhabism.26 Its political structure is a unique blend of tribal custom and religious law. Even the official education policy of the kingdom places Islam at the center of the curriculum and ensures that the Wahhabi worldview is explicitly propagated to students through the schools’ mandatory religious studies program. Any mixes of the sexes, the Saudis believe, “is morally wrong and not in accordance with the teachings of the Quran”.27 Thus, all educational facilities are strictly segregated. Girls and boys attend separate schools from the age of six and therefore duplicate schools are needed in all towns. Strict segregation even exists at universities and girls watch lectures on closed circuit television and interact with their [male] professors through telephones installed in their classrooms; girls can see the lecturer, but he cannot see them. They utilize the library once a week when male students are barred. Indeed segregation, as Mona AlMunajjed contends, “is a deeply ingrained social custom in the country and the principle of coeducation is widely rejected.”28 Women have no right, according to official and traditional standards, to mix or socialise with unrelated men. A young PhD sociologist states:
Segregation is not only in schools or work, but in everything else: weddings are segregated, hospitals are segregated (in certain areas), restaurants are segregated... This is why the idea of mixing is very hard to accept, and it will require generations to change the traditional mentality.29
It is unacceptable for Saudi women and prohibited under any circumstance to work with men in the same location. In fact, the state prevents them “from working in all spheres except teaching in female schools and nursing.”30 Apart from teaching and hospitals, their employment options are limited to women-only service businesses and to professions or businesses in which they can work at home.31 Furthermore, they can work within commuting distance of a job as they are not allowed to ride in a car alone with a hired driver, unless a mahram accompanies the employee.32 Despite having the same level of education and qualifications, those Saudi Arabian women who work earn less than men in similar jobs. Their marriages are arranged by parents. Very rarely, a female national is allowed to marry a non-Saudi Arabian male, “but she must first receive both the permission of her male kin and the state.”33 Soraya Altorki sheds some light on the disadvantaging of Saudi Arabian women:
Saudi Arabian women are disadvantaged by many legal and customary restrictions. Their testimony is worth half that of men in courts of law, and they inherit much less than do males. It is easier for men to divorce them; women must endure a lengthy, complicated process to initiate divorce, losing custody of their children to their former husbands at the ages of five (boys) and seven (girls). They may not travel without their husband’s permission, and then they must be accompanied by a male relative whom they may not legally marry. They are subject to physical abuse by men and have no recourse to the government, which declares that such matters are an internal family affair.34
Generally speaking, the violations of Saudi Arabian women’s rights are worse there than in other Arab countries. According to one expert who, in 1995, participated in a roundtable on “Arab Women and the Future of the Middle East”, “the treatment of women there constituted gender apartheid just as the treatment of black people in South Africa constituted racial apartheid”.35 A good example of such treatment can be drawn from the Mecca girls’ school fire that occurred on March 11, 2002. Fourteen schoolgirls were killed when they were trying to escape the burning building which was overcrowded and had inadequate exits and safety equipment. The religious police (the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice known as the mutaween) prevented the girls from escaping and forced them back into the building because they were not properly covered (i.e., not wearing their correct Islamic abayas).
The condition of women in the Arab world is inferior compared to the status of women in other regional group in the world. Discriminatory laws and practices against women exist in family law, in penal law, in citizenship law and in every domain violating their rights, which are part of universal and mandatory human rights. Sadly, women in many countries of the Arab world “do not have legal recourse in cases of domestic violence”36 and may still require a male's permission to marry, divorce, or work. Some women to this day, Halim Barakat asserts, “suffer forced marriage, honor crimes, clitoridectomy, and other forms of abuse.”37 Moreover, women face systematic discrimination in laws and social customs and suffer from a lack of information and awareness about their legal rights as citizens or their ability to access services and policies that they could use to empower themselves. The gap between educated and uneducated women is huge. One of two women in the Arab world, it has been asserted, is illiterate.38 Women’s illiteracy affects not only adult women, but young girls as well. Girls in poorer areas of the Arab world have been denied education owing to many factors which include lack of schools or transportation, family controls over daughters, and limiting females’ appearances in public owing to the honour perception. However, there are well-educated women in many domains. In fact, women in many countries of the Arab world are fairly well educated compared to women in other parts of the world. Over the past 15 years, women in countries of the Arab world have made gains in access to education, literacy and university enrolment. Yet “their participation in the workforce and in the political process is low based on any standards”.39 In fact, it has been asserted that their participation in the political life is the lowest in the world.40
There were many factors inherent in societies of the Arab world which affected gender inequality, relations and roles and contributed to the dark cavity of slavery in which women plunged. Patriarchy, religion, tradition and tribalism were among these factors. The next sections examine patriarchy and religion as factors responsible for the subordination status of women.