Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /afs/ir.stanford.edu/group/womenscourage/cgi-bin/blogs/wpmu-settings.php on line 45
middle east » Women's Courage

Posts Tagged ‘middle east’

The “Women-Only” Approach Versus the “Family Empowerment Approach”: Egypt as a Case-Study

March 7th, 2011

The access to basic financial services that Islamic Microfinance offers empowers Muslim women in giving them a new dimension in life and feeling of self-worth. However, while this ability of Microfinance to provide rural women with micro-loans in gender-segregated societies is laudable, working with Muslim women in particular raises the issue of interfering with social, cultural and religious codes. The Qur’an encourages men and women to play their respective roles in society, by ensuring the economic and social wellbeing of the family: “Men shall have a share of that which they have earned, and women a share of which they have earned” (Qur’an, VI, 32).

Hence, the “women-only” approach typical of conventional microfinance is not always followed by Islamic Microfinance Institutions (IMFIs) that try to adhere to Islamic principles and values while providing customers with loans. IMFIs overcome this problem by shifting their focus from “women empowerment” to “family empowerment”, which is also promoted by the Qur’an. While this kind of an approach might be met by criticism, it must be understood that it is a very culture-specific approach that mostly caters to male-dominated societies.

The “women-only” approach does weaken the institution of the family by sending both the male and the female out to work, giving them both the feeling of being the breadwinner for their family. But besides this, this approach is also prone to many risks posed by traditional male-dominated societies. In these societies, the funds provided to women for investment in their enterprises are often usurped by the male members of the family, while the women consequently end up carrying the burden of repayment and of their business independently.

In a Muslim country like Egypt, which was the first MENA country to sign the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Microfinance has had a great impact on women’s empowerment in the country. In 2008, a national survey carried out by Planet Finance (NGO) evaluated the impact of microcredit as well as the perception of this impact: “During the focus group discussions, women unanimously stated that the loan had had a positive effect in terms of their image in their communities; they are also more self-confident and their children appreciate what they do. Their projects have allowed them to have a better life in general (“National Impact Survey” 86)”. Despite being a male-dominated Muslim society, Islamic Microfinance accentuates women empowerment.

47 percent of Egypt’s microentrepreneurs are women; 88 percent of these women operate home-based businesses and only 28 percent operate non home-based businesses. Despite these circumstances wherein women are allowed to realize their entrepreneurial skills and abilities out of their home, 45 percent of women have noticed a positive change in their life, in terms of education and economic possibilities, whereas 86 percent of women have experienced a positive impact in terms of personal autonomy (V. COSTA – H. MAKHLOUF – P. MAZAUD).


Costa, Valentina. Makhlouf, Hala. Mazaud, Perrine. “Women’s Empowerment through Islamic Microfinance in Egypt”. MESCI 2009-2010.

Women in Revolution

February 24th, 2011

After reading one of my colleague’s posts about women in the Iranian revolution, I could not help but wonder how various political upheavals have benefitted or hurt women’s rights. Revolutions come at times of great political unrest, where the current regime has become so intolerable that people must forcibly remove it and replace it with something new. What sparks a revolution is an investigation for another time but the fundamental qualities are very much the same. Charismatic leaders tap into the populace’s feelings of oppression and pain under governments that impose upon their people for too long or prevent opportunities for equal political expression. After a while, there is usually a spark that ignites people’s passion and the revolution cascades from there. This is no more visible now than across the Middle East where a YouTube video of a man setting himself on fire sparked the political conflagration we can see today. Yet revolutions, especially violent ones, are chaotic and hard to control. Their outcomes are highly uncertain and promises leaders make to increase participation can be revoked once the new regime is in place. It is irrefutable that women play important roles in these types of movements but their interests are not always represented once the feverishness has subsided. For the rest of this piece I will examine the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Cultural Revolution in China, comparing their outcomes for women’s rights and attempt to divine how these lessons might relate the current revolutionary action in the Middle East.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran was heavily supported by women. While under the Shah’s regime, women had several restrictions on their personal agency, like having to ask a husband’s permission before leaving the house. They were inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary message and were active participants in the overthrow, even receiving praise from the cleric for their efforts.[1] However, this period of good will quickly ended and the new government, from Khomeini’s direction, rolled back women’s personal rights even further. Ironically the political rights were not restricted in the same way. Now Iranian women have fewer rights than they did under the Shah.

During the Cultural Revolution, which was disruptive both violently and socially, Chinese women made significant gains. In fact, Mao once famously said, “Women hold up half the sky,” and he made them valuable and important members of the revolutionary movement.[2] Forced marriage and foot binding were made illegal, and women were allowed to enter the labor force in a formal way. Women even made gains in reproductive rights through governmental birth control programs that encouraged delaying marriage and pregnancy and gave much of the population access to free or low cost contraceptives. While China still has a work to do on improving women’s rights, it seems this revolution brought about change for the good.

Recognizing that these examples are anecdotal rather than empirical, we can still draw the conclusion that revolutions, even when heavily supported by women, can produce different results.  Turning to the Middle East, many experts are pointing to the promotion of women’s rights as a causal factor in the new push for political reform. The Tunisian leader, Ben Ali, cited his good work in this area as proof of his good governance. Realistically, this strategy may have induced the societal awareness that was necessary to proliferate a revolution. Tunisian women have the highest rate of literacy in North Africa and have risen in social status significantly. As in Iran before, even the Islamists are speaking out for women.[3] Whether this will later be rhetoric used to gain support in the short-term is unclear. In Egypt, women are beginning to break away from the Muslim Brotherhood, which until the overthrow of Mubarak was the only political alternative to the dominant political party. Even still, the Brotherhood is claiming a commitment to promoting women’s rights.[4] Without a doubt, in times of revolution women are clearly courted for their support. Leaders recognize in that time their value, but depending on the eventual ideology that dominates the new political system, this agenda could easily fall away or be revoked entirely. My hope is that these women will learn from the Iranian example to be judicious and careful to guard against those looking to exploit their support for political expediency.

[1] Marshall, Tayana. “Iranian Revolution Turned Against Women Who Supported It.” The Peak. Vol 90: 5. June 5, 1995. www.peak.sfu.ca

[2] Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future. MLM Revolutionary Study Group. March 2007. http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/049_049_CRpaper-Final.pdf

[3] Bennhold, Katrin. “Women’s Rights a Strong Point in Tunisia.” The New York Times. www.nytimes.com. Feb. 22, 2011.

[4] Londono, Ernesto and Leila Fadel. “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faces prospect of democracy amid internal discord.” The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com Feb. 21, 2011.

Counterterrorism through female reproductive and education empowerment

February 3rd, 2011

Throughout the Middle East, there is a demographic phenomenon that has been linked to an increased likelihood for terrorist activities, and it is commonly known as the “youth bulge.” A “youth bulge” is usually defined as a “high proportion of 15-to-29 year olds relative to the adult population.”[1] When a country has this overpopulation of young people, it has a statistically higher chance for civil conflict, terrorism, and widespread violence throughout society. The causes of this violence are attributed to the difficulty of the economic system to provide meaningful economic opportunity to occupy the population. The youth become disaffected and resentful of the population with means, especially when the educated population cannot find gainful employment. Currently, there are 67 countries with these “youth bulges” and 60 of them are experiencing a civil war or mass killing.[2] Because of its enormous young population and propensity for this sort of behavior, the Middle East is often identified as a classic example of this problem.

This problem is exacerbated for women when the gender ratio is decidedly unbalanced. It becomes even more difficult for women to find political and economic opportunity when men vastly outnumber them in vying for these positions, especially in societies that have distinctly patriarchal tendencies, such as the Middle East. In fact, the Middle East has 8 out of the top 10 most gender-unbalanced countries in the world.[3] Additionally, the Middle East has one of the most numerous youth populations in the world, where between 50-60% of the population in the region is under 24.[4] Therefore, with a young, mostly male population, the region has set the demographic conditions that combined with lack of economic opportunity and repressive politics often lead to terrorism and other forms of violence.

There are several ways that impacting women’s rights can have a positive effect on these statistics. First, there needs to be increased access to contraceptive and abortion options for women. Nine countries in the region have an average of 3-5 births per woman and another nine have an average of over 5 births per woman.[5] This high fertility rate fuels the youth bulge and worsens the chance that those children will have an economic system that can incorporate them effectively. With greater access to family planning methods, women in the Middle East can begin to focus on an appropriate family size and pinch off the bulge before it gets worse. This process is known as demographic transition, where society shifts from a population “typified by short lives and large families to one with long lives and small families.” Another method for countering the bulge is through improved access to female education. It has been shown elsewhere that women’s access to higher levels of education will delay the time a woman gives birth to her first child and increase the chances she has a smaller family. Both of these methods would serve to decrease the youth bulge and begin the process of demographic transition.

With terrorism arguably the number one security threat facing most Western societies, it is time that policy makers begin to address the fundamental causes of the problem. Military intervention has its purpose, but it often does not fix the underlying problems in a society that produces terrorism. By looking to alternative means, to be used in conjunction with military options, policy makers can not only increase the security of the international system but improve the lives of a significant population that resides within it.

[1] Cincotta, Richard. “State of the World 2005 Global Security Brief #2: Youth Bulge, Underemployment Raise Risks of Civil Conflict.” www.worldwatch.org. March 1, 2005.

[2] “Are Youth Bulges the Root Cause of Terrorism?” lawandotherthings.blogspot.com. Jan. 27, 2008.

[3] Archbold, Peter. “The imbalance of the male to female ratio.” www.socyberty.com. Oct. 19, 2006.

[4] Fuller, Graham E. The Youth Factor: The New Demographics of the Middle East and the Implications for U.S. Policy. www.brookings.edu. Jan. 18, 2003. pp 3.

[5] Fuller pp 7-8

Promoting Female Leadership in the Middle East

January 27th, 2011

With this entry, I want to focus on the progress being made by women in one of the most difficult regions of the world, the Middle East. While overall female political participation is assuredly low, in the Middle East women hold only 9% of government positions.[1] This abysmal statistic can be explained through a variety of cultural, legal, and other factors. Women generally have less freedom and self-determination in Middle Eastern countries, which is acutely manifest in the low levels of female education across the region. Additionally, there are heavy restrictions on a women’s behavior outside the home, limiting their avenues for political participation and advocacy. Despite these problems, there are a number of groups and organizations that are working to improve women’s access to the political system.

In Yemen, a war-torn and semi-failed state, the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendums has publically called for more women to join the political process. It set out a goal for 15% of the MPs after the next election to be female.[2] Beyond outlining desired public policy, the SCER operates initiatives at the grassroots level. It has reached out to various schools to offer education opportunities to girls about their political rights and options for leadership. This organization believes that by training the next generation of female leaders, political participation and representation will steadily increase over the next decade.

Syria has also offered women greater political access, despite its heavily fundamentalist politics. Currently, 31 out of 250 parliamentarians are women, and many of them were elected in the last few years thanks to a program funded by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). UNIFEM began operating in 9 Arab states in 2005, offering classes and seminars to increase the number of female candidates for parliament.[3] It has focused on the necessary skills that women would not learn otherwise such as public speaking and communication, lobbying and advocacy work, and tutorials on campaigns and elections. These vital skills are the backbone for any successful political candidate and help women develop the political confidence they need to win elections. This program has already proven effective and should continue to promote female political leaders.

In highly restrictive countries such as Jordan, where women are not even allowed to drive cars, international organizations have stepped in to solve the political training dilemma. Groups such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute sponsor women to come to the U.S. for training in through various political fellowships. The NDI actually spends almost 75% of its budget specifically on promoting female political leaders abroad. Additionally, the IRI initiated the Women’s Democracy Network in 2006, an informal group that connects female leaders in developing democracies to each other and mentor organizations in the West.[4] Throughout the Middle East, international organizations are attempting to promote greater equality in political access and leadership. While the statistics indicate that there are significant improvements to be made, many of the groups are making progress. Long-term success will depend on the women benefiting from these programs continuing to press for equality in politics and advancing women’s rights issues across all sectors. These women are the groundbreaking force with the ability to change the political and cultural systems in the Middle East for the better.

[1] El-Jazairi, Lara. “UNIFEM Supports Women’s Political Empowerment.” United Nations Development Programme. www.undp.org.sy. Nov. 3, 2008.

[2] Oudah, Abdul-Aziz. “SCER expands female political empowerment.” www.yobserver.com. Feb. 24, 2009.

[3] El-Jazairi, Lara. ibid.

[4] Cincotta, Howard. “U.S., Mideast Organizations Promote Women’s Political Engagement.” America.gov. May 28, 2010.