Politics April 29, 2017
Feminism in the Middle East has generated a great deal of buzz in recent years.
We spoke to Ibrahim AlHusseini, entrepreneur, documentary producer, philanthropist and male feminist, about why feminism is needed in the Middle East and how it could serve to prevent larger conflicts.
AlHusseini was born in Jordan and grew up in Saudi Arabia. He is founder of the FullCycle Energy, an investment fund dedicated to finding clean energy innovations. His work primarily focuses on renewable energy but he also produced a documentary on the Egyptian revolution, and is on the board of The Global Partnership for Women and Girls.
ENTITY: How has your background shaped your current interests?
IBRAHIM ALHUSSEINI: Working to further the interests of women and girls became important to me as a result of growing up in an emotionally healthy household, which I consider the biggest privilege I have received. My brothers and I were brought up to have profound respect and love for our mother, just as our father did. We were taught to have that same respect for our aunts, female cousins, teachers, and women we met on the street. But I knew that in the eyes of the law and most of society, women were not considered equals.
I had brilliant female classmates who wanted to become doctors and lawyers, but had to give up those dreams because of parents who expected them to get married young and have children. I knew women who were victims of domestic violence but didn’t report it to the police or even think of filing for divorce because they didn’t want to lose custody of their children.
When I came to the US and saw how much more empowered women were, I made the connection between women’s rights and the overall well-being and advancement of society. It was clear to me that so many of the problems we have in the Middle East are a direct result of the way women and girls are systematically oppressed. I wanted to do something to change that.
EN: What is the connection between renewable energy, democracy in the Middle East and feminism?
IA: It is impossible to have a thriving economy when half of the population is unable to achieve its full potential and contribute to the workforce. Women represent an enormous untapped resource. So when people took to the streets [during Arab Springs] to demand jobs, the rule of law, and an end to the state repression, nepotism, and corruption that has weakened their economies, women were on the front lines. Even though most of the images in Western media featured men, large numbers of women marched and even led protests.
Tawakkol Karman won a Nobel Peace Prize for her activism in Yemen, women in Tunisia fought for and won a seat at the table to draft a new constitution, Egyptian women were arrested and tortured for their role in the revolution, and women fought and died in the revolutions in Bahrain and Syria as well. In addition to the economic challenges women face, a host of brutal practices affect women’s daily lives, from domestic violence to genital mutilation. Women understood that the larger fight for democracy was inextricably linked to their fight for equal rights. There is no such thing as democracy when freedom is not guaranteed for everyone.
There is no such thing as democracy when freedom is not guaranteed for everyone.
Renewable energy can contribute to democracy because it allows for economic growth, opportunity, and will contribute to countries overall wealth which will in turn allow countries to better invest in their citizens.
According to the World Economic Forum, the Middle East and North Africa will need to create at least 25 million new jobs over the next decade to keep pace with population growth. Renewable energy can play a significant role in job creation within the energy sector, while providing an affordable source of power for small businesses which are key drivers for economic growth.
Morocco is taking the lead in investing in sustainable energy. Its Noor 1 solar power complex will be the largest in the world (once it reaches full capacity), power one million homes, and potentially allow the country to export energy to Europe. In a nation where 97 percent of energy is currently imported, the complex will enable the government to invest more money in education, infrastructure and other projects that support the well-being of its citizens and help to ensure continued political stability.
EN: How could renewable energy work towards improving human rights?
IA: Increasing the use of renewable energy can have a profound impact on economic development and lead to improved health and education – basic elements for improving human rights.
Let’s start with health, the foundation for quality of life. In the West, we understand that the use of fossil fuels leads to polluting our air, water, and soil, and we have the benefit of government regulation to help mitigate pollution and its effects. We are also educated to understand the importance of protecting the environment, how to protect our health, and how to successfully pressure our government to work for our interests.
In the developing world this is rarely the case. A lack of environmental regulation and enforcement has led to situations like industrial waste water being released back into rivers untreated, crude oil leaking from poorly maintained pipelines and polluting the land, and air pollution so extreme that lung cancer rates have skyrocketed.
In countries with energy poverty (where most of the population lacks access to electricity, about two billion people worldwide), women deal with high levels of indoor pollution from using cooking stoves that burn kerosene, coal and wood; the WHO estimates that women who cook with kerosene have the same lung capacity as a two pack a day cigarette smoker. There are 400,000 medical clinics in Africa that don’t have access to power at all; you can imagine what that means in terms of their ability to treat some of the most basic illnesses.
The extraction of fossil fuel, as well as the operation of traditional power plants, requires the use of large amounts of water, which pollute already dwindling resources and compete with agriculture and drinking water needs. The use of renewable technology provides a virtually pollution-free solution to energy needs and can easily be deployed in remote areas that are cut off from the electrical grid.
EN: What are specific challenges faced by Muslim women?
IA: It’s important to remember that there are many religions in the Middle East, and that women face many of the same challenges regardless of their faith. The misogynistic attitudes and traditions that oppress women are pervasive throughout the region, and women are generally not afforded the same protections under the law as men.
Sexual harassment, domestic violence and rape are rarely punished anywhere in the Middle East; indeed these crimes are greatly underreported due to the blame and shame heaped on victims.
Women do not have an equal ability to sue for a divorce or testify in court against men, they do not have the same inheritance rights, and reproductive rights are very limited. While all women are treated as second class citizens, non-Muslim women can be treated even more harshly. In particularly conservative countries, Christian women have been subjected to kidnap, rape, and acid attacks for not wearing the veil and forced to convert to Islam.
The Koran demands “equality of the sexes,” but provides a religious framework that separates men and women. Many of the restrictions placed on Muslim women in the Middle East are cultural rather than strictly religious, however, and customs vary from country to country depending on how strictly Sharia law is applied, levels of poverty, and education. In Saudi Arabia, where state law is based entirely on Sharia law, women cannot travel or be admitted to a hospital without being accompanied by a male guardian.
In Yemen, child marriage is still a common practice which stems primarily from poverty and a lack of education – many fathers marry off their young daughters simply because they need the dowry money. In Egypt, men are allowed to beat their wives as long as they have “good intentions” and do not bruise their faces. If you look at a relatively liberal country like Lebanon, women enjoy a much greater level of freedom, but are still not treated equally when it comes to the right to divorce, alimony or child custody after divorce because these are determined by religion – and the 15 recognized religions all have different laws regarding these issues.
EN: There’s a stereotype about Middle Eastern women being less empowered than women in the West. Is there validity in it? In what ways is it true or not true?
IA: People in the West have a stereotype that all Middle Eastern women are submissive, abused, and oppressed by religion, their husbands and their fathers. When you think about it, most images of the Middle East focus on extremes – we see plenty of stories about billionaire playboys in Dubai, radical Islam and terrorism in Iraq, women being stoned to death in Sudan, and political chaos in Egypt. Obviously the real Middle East is much more complex and nuanced, and so are the experiences of Middle Eastern women.
They have to contend with what feminist Mona Eltahawy calls the ‘trifecta of the state, the street, and the home’; forces that work together to keep them oppressed. But Middle Eastern women are incredibly resilient, and they find ways to empower themselves in many different ways. Conservative Muslim men cite Islamic law as a way to assert their authority over women. But there are women who are using text from the Koran to defend their rights and combat oppression; some have even succeeded in getting clerics to join them in this struggle.
In Saudi Arabia, where educated women need permission from a male guardian for the most basic aspects of life, empowerment can be found in something as simple as posting a photo online of themselves driving a car – which more and more women are doing at the risk of being arrested. In Pakistan women can drive, but Malala Yousefzai was shot in the head for trying to get an education – and she continues to fight for girls’ education.
When word got out that sexual assaults were happening during the Egyptian revolution, women organized and took to the streets, knives in hand, to protect themselves as they demanded that the government take action. In Syria, female Kurdish soldiers fight alongside men in combat. It may take longer than it did in the West, but women in the Middle East will eventually get the rights, respect and treatment they deserve.
EN: One of the groups you’re on the board of asks whether or not empowering women can defeat ISIS. What are your beliefs on this claim?
IA: While there are no simple solutions for defeating ISIS, I think that empowering women can certainly play an important role in changing the type of environment where violent extremism tends to thrive. One of the main drivers of this extremism is poverty; it has been proven that one of the best ways to end poverty is to educate and empower women, because women have primary responsibility for the well-being of their children and are the nucleus of families. Empowered women also raise emotionally healthy children and instill positive values in them, so they are less likely to be drawn to the lure of ISIS.
Women’s empowerment is also a critical force for sustainable peace. Countries with more gender equality are less vulnerable to violent extremism. It’s important that we find ways to promote women’s participation, leadership and empowerment across society, including in government, the security sector and in civil society institutions.
EN: Why is feminism important to men, specifically Middle Eastern men?
IA: One of the reasons why backward attitudes toward women have been so deeply ingrained in the minds of Middle Eastern men is because of a lack of education and exposure to the rest of the world. Many women have also internalized their poor treatment to the point of accepting it as a fact of life. But that is changing, and rapidly. More and more men and women are traveling, studying, living and working abroad, and coming back more open minded. People are extremely active on social media, they know that the world is shrinking, and they are slowly but surely coming to understand that women have a role to play.
I think Middle Eastern men also want to break free of the stereotype that they are violent and oppressive of women. They are aware that they have an important role to play in supporting women’s fight for equal rights and in changing culture and mindsets. More and more men are working alongside women in NGOs, protecting them during street protests, and most importantly changing their own behavior toward women and teaching their friends, colleagues and sons to do the same.
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