Part I -- Taking Progress For Granted
People often take things for granted. Take the concept of progress. My students all assume that progress is continuous. In fact, they think that it is inevitable. Mostly they conceive of progress in terms of technology: smart phones and computers of every sort. However, there is also a sense that there is a steady and inevitable movement toward the realization of social ideals. Whether they are conservatives, liberals or libertarians, they all assume that the kind of world they want to live in is the kind of world that will evolve.
That is also true for the feminists in my classes. They know that they have to fight for gender equality and they are willing to do so. Yet they also assume the betterment of women's conditions will be continuous and that victory for their cause is inevitable. In terms of their own local communities, they are sure that conditions for women today are better than they were in their grandmothers' day, and that conditions will be better still for their own granddaughters. They can't imagine things going backward.
They may be in for a shock. It is reasonable to conclude that conditions for women, not only in places far away, but right here at home are deteriorating. That they will continue to do so is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible. Let's take a look at the trends. We will start with the ones manifesting themselves abroad and end with the ones here in the U.S.
Part II -- Women's Progress in the Middle East?
Most of my feminist students see the Middle East as a central battleground for women's rights. Of course, they define those rights in terms of Western secular culture and ideals and have a hard time suspending that point of view long enough to consider women's rights from the standpoint of Muslim cultural ideals. Nonetheless, trends in the Middle East do not bode well for women's status even in terms of Islamic precepts.
1. For instance, last week authorities in Saudi Arabia refused entry to over 1,000 Nigerian Muslim women who had arrived for the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. The Saudi Ministry of Pilgrimage claimed the women were not accompanied by "male guardians" as required by Saudi law. Actually, the women were accompanied by "male escorts" but the Saudis had segregated the Nigerians, male from female, and then claimed the women were unescorted. When their mistake was pointed out to the Saudi officials they refused to listen. I seriously doubt that Prophet Mohammad would have reacted this way.
Perhaps an American feminist would just dismiss this as Saudi backwardness. After all we are talking about a country that refuses to allow its women to drive cars, which is a ban that cannot easily be drawn from the Quran or Hadith. Perhaps feminists feel that, over time, outside pressure will bring the Saudis around to conform to Western standards of gender relations. Yet it is quite possible that influence could flow the other way.
For instance, in early October it was reported that IKEA, the Swedish furniture company with worldwide sales, purged the company's Saudi catalogue of pictures of females. They just airbrushed them out. The Swedes generally pride themselves on their equitable gender relations, but obviously some of their business executives are quite willing to accommodate Saudi standards when money is to be made. And, we all know that money, rather than feminist ideals, makes the world go round.
2. Then there is Iran. An American feminist would again dismiss Iran as a backward place when it comes to women's rights. But, despite the chadors (under which one can often find designer clothes), this is a Western propaganda image that does not tell an accurate story. Upon the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, most women's rights were expanded. They had open access to the job market and earned the same wages as men for the job they held. They also had open access to the country's universities including those courses of study usually considered male preserves. Today, women make up more than 60% of those enrolled in institutions of higher learning, and women engineers, scientists, doctors, architects and the like are common. That is progress by any standard, east or west.
Yet, progress is not necessarily continuous. In September 2012, it was reported that 36 Iranian universities have prohibited women from registering for courses in a range of subjects from chemistry and mathematics to education and business. Apparently, this was a measure demanded by powerful conservative factions who feel that women have become too "active in society" and should "return to the home." It remains to be seen if this change is long-term.
3. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are countries with Islamic governments, but within the Middle East the challenge to gender equality is not just a product of a conservative Muslim outlook. Thus we can move on to Israel.
According to a recently released report of the Israel Women's Network, women have made little or no progress over the last decade. "Discrimination against women in this country is spread across all sectors of society and culture." Twenty percent of Israeli women live in poverty (it is even worse for children and the elderly). This is so even though Israeli women tend to be better educated than men.
In the last few years the Israeli problem of gender discrimination has been illustrated by the "back of the bus" scandal occurring in Israeli cities. Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel often impose gender segregation and, as those communities expand out from their traditional urban enclaves, they insist that secular Israelis conform to their standards rather than the other way around. Thus, buses running routes that go through both Orthodox and secular communities often try to get women to restrict themselves to the back of the vehicle.
Here is how Mickey Gitzen, the Director of Be Free Israel, an NGO promoting religious pluralism, explains the situation, "It's a slippery slope. What starts with women boarding the bus in the back because of modesty...can turn Israeli society into a segregated society in which women don't have a place in public life." How very Saudi of the Israeli Orthodox!