Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Assertive Women of the Middle East

Assertive women of the Middle East

New Indian Express (Chennai) 12 Feb 2009 03:01:00 AM IST

“REAL change within Hamas will happen only when a woman heads the militant Islamic group,” observed a young Japanese diplomat in Tokyo. In her assessment this is essential if the Palestinian leadership were to make a sober assessment of the Gaza crisis. If happens, this would be unprecedented and revolutionary, not just for the Palestinians but also for other Islamic movements in the region.

Women in the Islamic countries have generally opted to stay on the margins of politics. Besides supporting their fathers, husbands and sons in their nationalist causes, they avoided direct participation, especially from the leadership contests. The traditional conservative nature of the Islamic society and family obligations precluded their active role in the political arena.

Women however are not new to political struggles in the Middle East.

Many Palestinian women have taken up arms against Israel. During the heydays of the Fidayeen, Palestinian women were in the forefront to highlight their plight to the international community.

In August 1969, for example, Leila Khalid became the first woman hijacker when she and her colleagues commandeered a TWA plane bound for Athens from Rome. When the peacemaking became the buzzword following the Oslo process, Hanan Ashrawi became the most familiar Palestinian face for the western audience.

The onset of Hamas-led militant attacks against Israel also attracted a few women to take the path of suicide bombing. In January 2004 Reem Salah Riashi became the first woman Hamas member to carry out a suicide attack when she blew herself up at the Erez checkpoint on the Israel-Gaza border.

Wider support for such operations influenced some women of the mainstream Fatah to carry out similar operations against Israel.

Such trends can also be found in Iraq where a significant number of suicide attacks against the American forces and civilian populations were carried out by women. In November 2005 an Iraqi woman joined her husband in carrying out a deadly attack at the Radisson Hotel in Amman. While 57 persons were killed in the attack, the malfunctioning of her weapons prevented Sajida from carrying out the operation and she was arrested on the spot along with her explosive vest.

At the same time, one could also notice a different trend in the Islamic world. Women are increasingly becoming more assertive and less apolitical.

Closer home, for over two-decades the political landscape of Bangladesh has been shaped by the intense rivalry and contest between two women — Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia. In similar vein Benazir Bhutto dominated the politics of Pakistan until her assassination in December 2007. Many in the West viewed the junior Bhutto as the liberal face of Islam and a possible model for other Islamic societies. Like their male counter-parts in South Asia, their political prominence and progress are closely linked to dynastic politics but their political domination has been palpable.

One could notice similar trends in the Islamic countries of the Middle East. In June 1993 Turkey elected Tansu Ciller as its first woman prime minister.
Though she was forced out of power, her election marked a distinct paradigm shift in the region. If other countries did not follow the Turks, it was because democracy is not a popular political model in the Middle East.

However, there are some noticeable shifts. Queen Noor of Jordan occupied a prominent role during the later years of King Hussein’s reign. This trend is continuing. Queen Rania, the wife of King Abdullah-II, garners wider public space within Jordan and has been making a number of diplomatic visits abroad. This holds true for Asma, the British-born wife of Syrian President Basher al-Assad who had moved away from the invisible role traditionally played by the spouses of Arab leaders.

The Egyptian first lady is not far behind either. Though a generation older than her counterparts, Suzanne Mubarak has a visible and active public life. Many see her as the most powerful person after the President.

Women are making progress on the diplomatic front as well. In May last year, the ruler of Bahrain appointed Houda Nonoo as his ambassador to Washington. Besides being a woman, she is also a Jewish and her appointment was warmly received in the West.

While nominating a woman to the most important diplomat position in the country raised many eyebrows in the region, she being Jewish also signalled a radical shift in the region’s attitude towards its minority population.

Seasoned observers in the region feel that even in conservative monarchies, women are no longer mute spectators.

The women in many Arab royal families are increasingly emerging as important power centres. They are expected to play a pivotal role in future succession battles. Mawzah, the spouse of the Qatari emir, is seen as the most powerful person after the emir. The public profile of the Queen Lalla Salamah of Morocco is on the rise. Similarly the daughters of the rulers of Qatar and Morocco are even seen by some as possible successors. Republican regimes in the Middle East are equally moving forward. Aicha, the daughter of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi could be a possible contender for power.

It is safe to assume that powerful women play a critical role even in the highly conservative House of al-Saud.

Thus, monarchical and republican societies have opened up the space at the top for women. Their role is increasingly visible and in some cases would be crucial for future political transition. Those contending for power would no longer be able to ignore powerful women within the palace. The Arab princess’ would decide many succession battles.

While women have carried out a number of militant activities, their involvement in the running of groups is conspicuous by their absence. Prominent movements in Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah continue to be dominated by men. Even though women have taken part in various militant activities and terrorism, the top leadership continues to be a men-only club.

My Japanese interlocutor hopes that a radical change at the top in favour or woman is critical for meaningful progress.

When women are increasingly breaking the glass ceiling in other parts of Middle East, can the militant groups remain indifferent? So far there is none on the horizon who can take the mantel of the Hamas leadership. Who knows what’s in store for tomorrow.

(Prof P R Kumaraswamy teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

For the web version please click here

No comments: