Introduction to Women and Gender Roles in the Middle East

Many people hold a rather bleak view of girls’ and women’s lives in the Middle East and Muslim world; constrictive stereotypes and judgments about social practices create a one dimensional depiction of women that doesn’t reflect their true depth and variety. Some common refrains might refer to the freedom, or lack thereof, of dress; to the burdensome female role of wife and mother in the household; or even to the right to drive. However, like any place in the world, there is a spectrum of varied lived experiences, due to such factors as class, social customs, geographical location, family traditions, exposure to other cultures through trade, and so on.

When covering a charged subject like gender in the Middle East, it is important to consider context: the progression of rights over time, the value of the family network, the variation in family or personal status laws across states, or the role of Sharia (Islamic law) or indigenous religious practices in shaping cultural norms, for example. Rather than viewing gender in isolation, it can be helpful to compare and contrast a Middle Eastern country’s gender practices with those of your own students’ cultures. How long did it take to achieve women’s suffrage after independence in Oman, for example, as compared to the United States? What are the priorities of Saudi women besides driving? How do Muslim girls and women feel about covering their hair? With significant attention paid to the plight of girls and women, what are we missing by not looking more deeply at the lives of boys and men?

Here are some basic materials to begin unraveling the misconceptions in order to gain a more balanced understanding of social issues based on primary resources, regional examples, and different types of literature.


PBS Global Connections Middle East Section on the Role of Women

Though its material is dated, this website is rich with information related to women’s participation in civil society, government, and religion, not only as participants, but as leaders. There are lesson plans titled, “Who Wears a Veil?”, “Muslim Women Through Time”, and “How Many Wives?”, all of which counter the notion that women in the Middle East and Islamic world are weak and submissive. In fact, women’s rights are encoded in the Quran and other formal religious texts as demonstrated in this selection from the Global Connections website.

More Rights Than One Might Think

Some Americans believe that Muslim women are oppressed by their religion, forced to cover themselves completely, and denied education and other basic rights. It is true that Muslim women, like women all over the world, have struggled against inequality and restrictive practices in education, work force participation, and family roles. Many of these oppressive practices, however, do not come from Islam itself, but are part of local cultural traditions. (To think about the difference between religion and culture, ask yourself if the high rate of domestic violence in the United States is related to Christianity, the predominant religion.)

In fact, Islam gives women a number of rights, some of which were not enjoyed by Western women until the 19th century. For example, until 1882, the property of women in England was given to their husbands when they married, but Muslim women always retained their own assets. Muslim women could specify conditions in their marriage contracts, such as the right to divorce should their husband take another wife. Also, Muslim women in many countries keep their own last name after marriage.

The Quran explicitly states that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. Furthermore, the Quran:

forbids female infanticide (practiced in pre-Islamic Arabia and other parts of the world)

instructs Muslims to educate daughters as well as sons

insists that women have the right to refuse a prospective husband

gives women rights if they are divorced by their husband

gives women the right to divorce in certain cases

gives women the right to own and inherit property (though in Sunni Islam they get only half of what men inherit. Men are expected to care for their mothers and any unmarried female relatives, and would, it is reasoned, need greater resources for this purpose.)

Primary Source has a resource section on Women’s Voices in the Middle East which looks at three women who have challenged traditional gender norms in the region. The author of this section, Ms. Jennifer Hanson, writes that through the stories of a Turkish author, a Yemeni political activist, and an Iranian musician, “We see that instead of silently observing the world around them, these women use music, literature, and the city square to discuss politics and affect social change both locally and internationally.”

Also available on Primary Source is a piece outlining the evolution of gender roles across both time and religious shifts.  “The Diverse Roles and Aspirations of Middle Eastern Women,” written by Barbara Petzen, a major contributor to global education.

Special Spotlight on Iranian Women

The mention of present-day Iran elicits sharp rebukes in response to the government’s meddling in neighbors’ political affairs or its questionable nuclear aspirations. Iran is seemingly at odds with a majority of the world. In a country governed by a strict, theocratic constitution, though, women have been at the fore in confronting the heavy restrictions imposed after the 1979 revolution. We will mention some of the more prominent examples of Iranian women who are making significant strides by simply pursuing their passions. These acts are not ostentatious or akin to women’s rights and suffrage movements throughout history across the globe, but are representative of grassroots changes that are having an impact on society as a whole in Iran.

These examples include the aforementioned musician, the significance of feminist Iranian cinema, and an inadvertent representative of a nationwide protest movement.  Salome is recognized as the first female hip-hop artist in Iran. In a genre dominated by men irrespective of national borders, and known for its blatantly misogynistic messages, Salome has naturally turned a few heads. She considers herself apolitical but addresses personal, political, and social subjects in her music and poetry. In response to an interview question about challenges she’s faced as a woman in the music business, she responded that:

I wouldn’t say I faced many chal­lenges just because I was a female. I might be the first female rap­per to ever step in a stu­dio in Iran, yes, but from people around me I mostly got cour­age after they got over the sur­prise. The other chal­lenges that you might guess was there for my male coun­ter­parts, too. Of course you get a cer­tain amount of sex­ist com­ments from lack of com­mon sense or edu­ca­tion, but that is a global prob­lem. For­tu­nately over the years I man­aged to build a small but under­stand­ing audi­ence who are far from that kind of attitude.


Having since studied visual and studio arts outside of Iran, Salome continues to pursue her calling and maintains a website featuring her artistic achievements.  Aljazeera profiled her and other groundbreaking performers in a piece that contains samples of their works.

Also, this article from The Guardian addresses how public female performers have become a point of contention for the hardliner clerics charged with enforcing religious prohibitions on perceived, morally dubious acts. Creative measures have been devised to circumvent these rules but significant amounts of time and energy are spent trying to obtain permits to perform from the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance.

Iranian cinema is renowned for its ability to make public, delicate taboo issues such as identity, relationships, divorce, infertility, drug use, and domestic abuse that are generally understood to be private, family issues. Filmmakers depict the daily struggles women endure as a result of a patriarchal, conservative and traditional society. Women’s lives are constrained, Iranian films tell us, but the female protagonist faces her challenges with a quiet tenacity, and a dignified and stalwart resignation to the inevitable. Viewers’ feel compassion for the female characters as the filmmakers present gender inequality and unfairness overtly. The taboo topics explored in films vocalize the social injustices experienced in everyday life in Iran. “The Feminist Portrayal of Woman in Iranian Cinema, The Works of Bahram Beyzai and Tahmine Milani” takes a closer look at the phenomenon of film’s use as a tool for self-reflection and acknowledgement of Iran’s social forces at work.

Neda Agha-Soltan became recognized internationally as a symbol of the 2009 presidential election protests in Tehran when she was unwittingly killed by government authorities. Known as the Green Movement, these gatherings brought together masses lobbying for an end to government corruption and for peace, secularism, democracy, and an overall better quality of life for the Iranian people. Neda was not a political activist, but was propelled into the spotlight posthumously with a narrative that claimed her as the symbolic martyr of the blighted Islamic Republic. A student of philosophy taking underground singing lessons, Neda joined the protests not out of curiosity but because the universal demands for freedom moved her to do so. Her sacrifice for the defense of her country gave the protests a personal story that drew the attention of viewers worldwide. Read more here.

There are stories of woman representing variety of experiences throughout the Middle East. The backdrop of Iran’s post-Revolution climate makes the examples shared above especially compelling but they are by no means exceptional. Actively participating in civil society and the public sphere; challenging traditional gender portrayals; airing the inequities of the private realm in public media; and transgressing boundaries is happening across the region. Hopefully, these examples will encourage you to explore others, from Morocco to Yemen, Turkey to Saudi Arabia, and everywhere in between.


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