Apr 8, 2021 in Sociology

State Feminism in the Middle East


State feminism raises much international interest, especially in the framework of religious norms of the Middle East. The development of social and political values, as well as the shift of focuses in the countries with previously strict rules of behavior, results in the emergence of state feminism and empowerment of female political force. They intended to increase the female significance and encourage them to overcome the challenges of the paternalistic regime and political institutions. The long history of women’s fight for their human rights and the legacy of political movements led to considerable political and socioeconomic feminist achievements in the modern Middle East countries.

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State Feminism

Cultural and political differences determine the condition and character of feminism in the Middle East, which is not a homogenous region with its peculiar vision of a woman. “State feminism” is the term indicating female political and socioeconomic rights accepted by the governing authorities. It is the form of modern liberal opinion on female activity regarding a political system. Political representation of women in politics approved by governing leadership of a country usually represents a special program. Instead of political participation in governmental work, state feminism controls different formal political movements and campaigns for equal rights on education, workers compensation, personal dignity, social and political security, and sexual autonomy. Nowadays, state feminism has developed into a massive and widespread tool used by decisive women to gain political influence in different regions including the Middle East.

State Feminists Legacy

In Islamic countries, feminism is interpreted ambiguously, and its legitimacy is still under question. The initiative and the participation of women in the movement for equal rights contradict the paternalistic regime and political hegemony. Controversies regarding the role of gender in the political elite of Arab and Islamic countries rose to the extent of a conflict between the authorities and the public. The legacy enabled the recognition of movements as a legal form of representation. However, the Middle East still does not completely provide important changes in women’s roles.

The legacy of state feminism in the different countries of the Middle East is the wide demonstration of defending the interests of women, the right to get an education in other countries, and the status of liberal females. Developments in the various areas allowed to reconsider Islamist countries culturally and pay more attention to the status of women in the society. Najmabadi (2000) addresses the legal and social changes initiated by women during the decades of continuous protests and demonstrations. Due to the hard fight of the activists, much of the discriminatory legislation currently permits women to be involved in the functioning of political institutions of the Islamic Republic and interprets Quran’s position on women less strictly. The tendencies had their exclusions when some secular feminists preferred to keep silent if they were not exiled or repressed (Najmabadi 2000). However, the changes in feminism development may let women go beyond the issues of ordinary civil rights and even get political force in the Muslim society.

Another achievement is that women’s protests encouraged like-minded ladies to fight through the wide representation in media and culture. Worthy achievements of female movements also include their mobility, right to openly express public opinion, and open public protests. The development of legal equality and citizenship of women in a range of Islamic countries distinguished the efficiency of female movements (Sholkany 2012). These movements were inspired and followed by common female actions taken in other countries and regions where hard pressure of men and social principles or segregation forced women to come out into the streets of large cities. Their speeches and actions demonstrated the idea of personal freedom and development as an individual due to information dissemination via the Internet or social media spread.

The governments in the Middle East remain religion-based and penetrated by a narrow focus on feminist movements and equal social rights, explaining this attitude by the ideological sustainability and prestige of the existing autocratic regime. In addition, feminism movements are not envisaged by law or at the level of special development programs as the authorities suppose that women do not have a need to oppose state regulation or contradict political priorities. However, the previous century brought women the right to vote which belongs to the practice of accepting and rejecting Islam (Afkhami & Friedl 1997). Moreover, many Islamic countries now have women in their parliaments. An essential aid to political and social movements of women is provided by the diaspora of Islamic immigrants living in the Western countries with an active position regarding their society (Al-Ali 2007). It especially concerns the relatives living outside and inside any of Arab countries and being challenged with nonconformity in rights provision (Joseph 1999). Therefore, the legacy of prior feminism appears as the background for current changes in the vision of modern Arab and Muslim women.

Outside Influence on Right to Fight

Western movement and the legacy of state feminism only spurred the desire of women in the Middle East to struggle for their rights. Thus, the Egyptian revolution of women that began in the Egyptian Chamber in 1951 and united many people having a desire to fight for women's equality was a continuation of the Western feminist movement, liberal origins of which were due to the reformist movement in the XIX century. Their achievements are raising awareness of their own role in society, finding like-minded people, promoting their candidates to political parties, and passing laws aimed at improving the situation of women. Cultural restrictions that have become a barrier for women could be overcome by world pressure (Abu‐Lughod 2002). Similarly, Iranian policy changed giving room to a more democratic approach to women. Trends that have become common in Western feminism gave rise to their inheritance in the vast Iranian culture, which was always perceived as opposing to Western modernity (Afary 2009). The shift to unveiling bodies, romantic love, redefined purity, female sexuality, and marriage reforms become evident accomplishments of feminism.

First Feminist Movements

Confrontation of Islam and feminism was recognized in the first feminist movements added to political movements. For example, the constitutional revolution, which took place in 1906-1911, addressed the rising role of nationalism and colonization in the Western lands. However, this movement emphasized the necessity for a new path for Iranian women, who recognized it as an opportunity to achieve democracy and emancipation for themselves (Sholkany 2012). They linked women’s rights and national independence. The emergence of educational perspectives and employment were the results of political movements (Bahramitash & Hadi 2009). Similarly, the streets of Jerusalem were occupied by women who removed veils for protest against colonization. During the confrontation of Palestine and Israel, feminist movements played a significant role and enabled the recruitment of many women, which led to the establishment of a new national regime and social institutions in these countries.

In Modern Political Realm

There is no complete equality in the Middle East countries. However, the status of a woman varies throughout the region. For instance, females have social rights in UAE but are still oppressed in Saudi Arabia. Foreign observers assert that high positions in the political institutes are denied to women according to strict Arabic laws. Political representation of women in the parliaments in the Middle East does not reach the level of other countries. The Middle East still deprives women of legal freedom. They continue to be the subject of guardianship practice implying the treatment of women as inferior, who cannot travel or move without lawful notarized permission of their men. Nevertheless, despite an extremely slow process of social transformations occurring in the strongly religious countries, feminism's legacy enabled these women to be heard in political parties and social institutions. The female movements are active there due to the provided freedom in politics, education, and social life. The legacy of state feminism in these countries empowered women to occupy top political positions, organize free movements as well as endowed them with the right to protest against the existing political forces and ensure equal rights in each area (Booth 2003). Modern feminist movements, which occur in the wake of the heritage, is made the authorities tolerant to the fact that women have the power to influence the decision of pressing questions.


State feminism is supported by public institutions raising important social and political issues on women’s part. Democratization and liberalism in the attitude towards females have been increasing in spite of the strict paternalistic interpretations of cultural and religious norms. The freedom granted to women in most Middle Eastern countries is a legacy of the active position of the feminist movements. Today’s political position of females in parliaments and education as well as the power obtained through the voting rights belong to the achievements that have become real due to the external influence of the international feminist movements and internal stimuli.

Reference List

Abu‐Lughod, L 2002, ‘Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others’, American Anthropologist, vol. 104, no. 3, pp. 783-790.

Afary, J 2009, Sexual politics in modern Iran, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Afkhami, M & Friedl E, 1997, Muslim women and the politics of participation: implementing the Bijing platform, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.

Al-Ali, N 2007, Iraqi women: untold stories from 1948 to the present, Zed Books, London.

Bahramitash, R & Hadi, SE 2009, ‘Nimble fingers no longer! Women’s employment in Iran’, in A Gheissari (ed), A contemporary Iran: economy, society, politics, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 77-122. 

Booth, M 2003, ‘New directions in Middle East women's and gender history, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, vol. 4, no.1.

Joseph, S 1999, Intimate selving in Arab families: gender, self, and identity, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.

Najmabadi, A 2000, ‘(Un)veiling feminism’, Social Text, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 29-45.

Sholkany, H 2012, ‘Women are also part of this revolution’, in B Korany & R El-Mahdi (eds), Arab Spring in Egypt: revolution and beyond, Cairo Press, Cairo.

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