When we are young we see change as a sweeping phenomenon; a roaring avalanche of paradigm shifts and situational changes that overwhelm the status quo into relinquishing its unjust usurpation of power. Yet such ideas do not rest far from the line demarcating dreams and reality. As we grow into our understanding of power dynamics, we realize that there are times when the stability of the status quo allows for more advancement in gender equality than the rush of chaotic change. It can be argued that the Arab world is unfortunately an example of such a phenomenon at this stage of its spring of revolutions. Though gender equity in the Arab world saw significant advancement in the last 30 years, commentators worry about the effect the Arab Spring may have on that.
Part of that trend of advancement in gender equity has resulted in 2/3 of countries in the Arab world having more women than men enrolled in universities. This is a direct result of the leadership of leaders such as Shaikha Mozah bint Nasser, Founder and President of Qatar Foundation, who among other distinctions is likely the global social entrepreneur with the largest and most diverse portfolio of initiatives. The plethora of smart, philanthropic and entrepreneurial endeavors under way in the Arab world give much reason for positive hope in the future.
A discussion of gender inequality in education in the current environment of the Arab world, however, is incomplete without a concurrent consideration of employment and economic opportunity. A closer analysis of the reasons behind the Arab revolutions, the current educational gender gaps, and the early economic policies of various revolutionary governments show that the Arab Spring may not bring the justice Arab women have been looking for. In fact, one could argue that in the countries where there were no revolutions there was more advancement for the situation of women than in those nations that witnessed revolutions. Surely this would be an unfair statement without the proper context, but when approaching the discussion of opportunity gaps in the Arab world, the spring of change is not necessarily a contributor to gender equality.
Demanding Dignity for Women
Before diving into an assessment of the situation of women and girls within the context of the Arab spring, it is important to articulate a foundational point: there is great injustice towards women in most parts of the world. This injustice manifests itself in innumerably different ways, but permeates the reality in which girls and women live, as well as the avenues they are offered in their effort to stay alive and improve their wellbeing. Articulating this foundational point is important for two reasons. Firstly, there is no magic cultural wand that exists anywhere in the world that brings equality and dignity to women and girls. Only comprehensive, scalable, and sustainable programming that incorporates elements of global differentiation more organic than simply “localizing” content will overcome this global phenomenon. Second, much of what ails women and girls also ails the rest of society in less measurable and obvious ways, be it in the realms of economics, education, health, or any other area of life. Women and girls are many-times a litmus for what is happening in other pockets of society and communal life. If they are oppressed and disadvantaged it is likely that other groups such as young men and boys are similarly situated. Projects such as the Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect work globally to spread an understanding of the exponential growth in development seen when programs are focused specifically on the advancement of girls.
While making up 2/3 of the world’s illiterate people and 60% of the world’s chronically hungry, the confluence of indicators that set women back in the race for equality are plenty. When you add to them war, revolution, and instability, the difficulties only increase. With the arrival of the 1 millionth Syrian refugee to a UNHCR camp, and approximately 2 million internally displaced from the current conflict, challenges to the survival of women and children become more than even humanitarian agencies and NGOs can manage. While gender-mainstreaming programs exist, with armies of civil servants working to integrate the vulnerable and bridge the inequalities that exist for women and children, the need is far out pacing the available global support. While the past 50 years of global engagement have seen significant achievement in the realm of equality for women and girls, there is still a great journey left until the full dignity of women and the full potential of girls are realized in many parts of the world.