The freedom of women and how we achieved it: A short comparison of Europe and the Middle East

Women protesting outside Poland’s parliament. (Photo: Grzegorz Żukowski)

Albeit regionally distinct and different, women all around the world have been having disputes in the course of history as to keeping rights and disrupting politically and culturally coined stereotypes in regards to themselves. Let’s have a closer look at the history to better understand the social discrepancies nowadays and the notion of freedom of women in Europe and the Middle East. 

In Europe, political activism, as well as movements, had been founded to fight for women`s freedom, and some of them have been successful into shedding light into the lawful- and other changes made to their stature. Now, women are treated with much more level-headedness and respect than before. Exiting Europe`s grounds and looking into the Middle East, one has to pose a question, and namely why are some women “forced” into wearing some clothing articles they may or may not agree with, and why must they make a request to their guardians in terms of travelling internationally, getting married and getting a job. Their situation nowadays is similar to ours and here is why:

The term feminism itself is coined through the Woman question in the Middle Ages, whereby women that were: “the daughters of educated men” (Virginia Woolf, 1938) recognized and fought against male hegemony through their wits, smarts and education.  The ones that saw through the informational “flow” differences such as certain intelligence being shared with men only, even though women are also capable of understanding it, fought to pinpoint the fact that the femmes are not born to be weaker. Also, they claimed that differences were historically and culturally dependent, rather than gender-wise. Henceforth the distinction between gender and sex was made public (Judith Butler 1990).

Kathy Switzer becomes the first woman to run in the 1967 Boston Marathon. The officials did not realise that a woman was running for 2 miles at which point Jock Semple tried to push her off the race and tried to rip off her numbers shouting ‘Get out of my race’.

Women only began to have a collective voice during the French Revolution in 1789, when 7,000 actively participated and forced the royal court back to Versailles, among others.  They were demanding access to education and discarding of discriminatory laws, as well as the right to vote. Later on, by Napoleonic law (1804), women did not even receive the right to consent to marriage, which ultimately placed them at the social and legal status of minors.

Additionally, another movement arose around the same time in the UK, where Wollstonecraft, a female activist, was constructing her ideals around the imbalances and reception between the different sexes that were based off of socialization and inability to be properly educated.

On the other hand, in Norway women were permitted to run their own business and become the heads of corporations in 1864. Two years later, the Professional freedom law was introduced, openly accepting women as laborers and workers. In England, some reforms were made possible with the help of the property act of 1882.

Norway and Finland were ultimately the first ones to recognize equality as a civil right in 1830, ultimately allowing women access to all public and political services, that had already been available to men. Women in France were allowed to vote in the 1880`s. However, the majority of the European countries accepted equality much after the start of the 20th century. A good example of that would be Switzerland, where equality rights were changed by the constitution of 1848. However, it did not necessarily involve women nor their legal inferiority status. It was not until after 1971 that females received the right to vote on a federal level.

Tunisia’s parliament approved legislation that protects women from all forms of violence.

On the other hand, the Middle East`s rights system is always wrongly labeled due to a few main points – male guardianship, the right to vote, the dress code and multiple marriage issues, also women are not allowed to dress in an immodest way or have multiple husbands, alas no universal suffrage exists.  Nonetheless, looking back into Europe`s Middle Ages through till the 1900`s the political and social reasoning and fights for the liberation of women, one can see similarities in the patterns of interest – education, emancipation and the right to be independent. In addition, the main current activist for freedom of women – Saudi Arabia, was founded in 1932 and allowed women to vote in 2015. In hindsight, the majority of the European countries such as France (rights acknowledged 1945), Switzerland (1971), Italy (1944), and Finland (1917) with much richer history and political development that were years ahead of the Middle Eastern country, were relatively behind some 100 years on acknowledging voting women, as previously hinted.

On the other side of the spectrum, in Middle Eastern countries, such as Tunisia, women were able to vote in 1957 and were able to seek office in 1959, Afghanistan adopted this in 1919, Egypt did in 1956 and Libya in 1964. Tunis, in particular, has progressed majorly in that sense and allowed up to 47% of women to make up its parliament members. How come is it so, that countries that were founded a few decades ago are expected to have perceived European customs and political rights completely? And why are we not acknowledging the big steps taken towards women`s equality in the Middle East nowadays but only see them for how behind they are on this matter? Isn`t it, after all, so that those countries did not take some 100 years to legalize them?

Amongst the most criticized of them all is Saudi Arabia due to very western-based banal reasons. What the world tends to disregard is the societal shift that happened only over the course of the last year. In an interview from February 2018, the Crown Prince Bin Salman mentioned that Saudi women are not obligated to wear the abaya in public, since: “The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men.”

Police officer giving roses to new drivers after Saudi Arabia lifts the ban on women driving.

After this speech, women were incorporated in either political or social events, the most recent of which was the implementation of them as drivers in the Formula E that was held in Saudi Arabia, them being able to drive taxis, as well as their appointment in the judicial system. Interestingly, those and other remarkable political occurrences were marked to occur after the Crown Prince`s statement. This then poses the question of whether or not Saudi Arabia used this medial service, in order to start abolishing policies around women and emancipating them to prepare for a future legal change in the country`s laws, alongside the 2030 Vision.

If Saudi Arabia managed to achieve so much in so little time, then maybe it is high time we started referring to the Middle East and looking at its progression in that sense, rather than the lack thereof. Moreover, it is imperative to halt the comparisons with the rest of the European/American/Asian countries – there is a lot we could wait upon, but instead of talking the talk, we should start walking the walk into a direction of embracing the positive rather than the negative aspects of the progression.