Women in the Middle East

The twin cases of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and Rashanah Chowdury have been occupying my mind for the last few days; one condemned to death for supposedly committing adultery, the other radicalised to the extent of attempting to murder an MP.
I lived in the middle east during the nineteen seventies - working for some of the time in English broadcasting - programmes for the Qatar Broadcasting Corporation as well as freelance pieces for the BBC UK and world service. I worked alongside educated, relatively liberated Palestinian and Kuwaiti women.
In the middle east as a whole I witnessed a horrific lack of human rights - particularly for women. I sat next to heavily pregnant 11 year old girls in the maternity clinic - and was once invited to attend the wedding of one of the Sheikh’s 10 year old daughters. I talked to women doctors working in the hospitals about the terrible consequences of female circumcision - still widely practised. Over the border in Saudi Arabia women a number of women were executed for infidelity either by stoning or beheading.

For myself I was generally treated with courtesy and friendliness, but towards the end of my stay became aware of a shift in attitude and an increasing radicalisation. One day, driving into town with my two young children in the back of the vehicle I was chased by a group of youths in a car who were obviously offended by the sight of a woman at the wheel . They repeatedly rammed me from behind in an attempt to drive me off the road and eventually succeeded. As they approached the car - one with a rock in his hand, presumably to smash the windscreen - I was rescued by a Qatari lorry driver who stopped beside the car. The attack left me shaken and wary.

I visited Iran during my time in the Middle East and was blown over by the beauty of the country, their long history of culture and the friendliness of the people. I was equally appalled by the extremes of poverty and wealth that confronted me. At one end of the scale were people so poor they could barely exist, and at the other people so rich they could afford to shop in Paris, take winter holidays in Val D’Aosta and Florida.
From what I could see there was no middle class as we would recognise it in Europe and no social or educational system for people in the lower classes to rise up the scale and better themselves.
The educated women I met were feisty, articulate and ambitious and occupied prominent positions. Women in the poorer classes walked behind their husbands and remained silent. They barely owned a couple of lengths of cloth to cover themselves with, a few cooking pots and bedding.

In Tehran I visited the display of crown jewels under the National Bank. There in glass cases was an obscene Aladdin’s cave of wealth - dozens of trays of loose diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, as well as heaps of uncut stones more than a foot high.  Jewel encrusted furniture. In other cases crowns and coronets set with gems the size of hens’ eggs, bejewelled and ermined court costumes, cloaks and trains - all of which made our own crown jewels look like something from Woolworths. It reminded me of Russian Tsarist excesses.  Outside people begged in the street and students demonstrated. It was obvious that the Shah’s regime couldn’t last much longer - a few months after my visit he left.

The medieval attitudes to women (which are comparable to our own in the middle ages) can’t entirely be separated from middle eastern politics generally. While Europe and the West are seen as The Enemy, western attitudes to women and western values are never going to be adopted. And there can be no resolution or modernisation in the Middle East until the Palestinian question is resolved. It is the catalyst for radicalisation and recruitment among young men in the middle east and, evidently, young women too.

But despite the restrictions, women feminists are making their voices heard. Iran has a growing number of female film directors. One in particular, Samira Makhmalbaf, has made some fascinating films - ‘Blackboards’ is about the trials of two itinerant teachers who travel the tribal areas with blackboards on their backs to give remote villages some experience of education. In ‘At Five in the Afternoon’ she follows the experience of two young women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan. And there are several more women film makers managing to find a way through the restrictions in order to show us their view of the society they live in.  If they come your way (they're on DVD with Artificial Eye films) please watch.


  1. I despair when I think of how many ways we are unjust to other people.
    Somehow misogyny always seems the worst, probably because it is a bigotry that disadvantages the greatest number of people.
    I am so relieved that my daughters live in a society that allows them so much more freedom to chose their own lives.

  2. The measured way in which you discuss these issues gives your views so much power. It is hard to think through these issues where there are no absoulutely right positions, except, in 2010, in the case of woman and girls' rights and personal dignity. One has to be unequivocal and say this is wrong. It was wrong and without virtue when it existed here in the Middle Ages; it is wrong now in the twenty first century in the world setting. Relativism is the last retreat of moral cowards.

  3. Thanks Al and WEndy - I'm glad too that - whatever the disadvantages of our own society - I was able to bring my children up (mostly) here. Living in other countries is a sobering experience, but it gives you a less rosy-eyed view of your own culture. What's happening in the middle east is partly down to Our interference during the Colonial phase of our history. Is there such a thing as cultural, collective, guilt?

  4. I feel so disgusted by my people, parents, and everything around me as a girl (20 y.o) I've realized that the world is so much bigger then were we are in the middle east
    to be honest sometimes I think of killing myself as it would the easiest way to get out of this kind of life...my mind is so much bigger then to live in this cave
    I want to be free :(


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