Dr. Shafeeq N. Ghabra, Director of the Kuwait Information Office in the U.S., explained the role of women in the Arab world and stressed the ongoing change in women’s rights and education last night.
To a crowd of 40 people in a speech titled, “Women and Democracy in Islam,” in Rockefeller Center, Ghabra said, “Change is the engine by which the Islamic world is influenced and affected by these days.”
Trying to remove misconceptions about Muslim women’s rights, Ghabra said Islam seeks betterment for both men and women and practices no discrimination. He gave the example of the last Muslim prophet, Mohammed’s wife — who was a highly independent woman and a leading merchant in society.
According to Ghabra, Muslim women have played a role in society in the past and do enjoy some power and basic rights. Although “they still have a long way to go,” Ghabra used history to show that women’s role is constantly changing.
Ghabra said the women’s education movement began earlier this century in the Arab world and was opposed by many at the time. While there were only two schools for Kuwaiti women in the 1930s, 70 percent of all Kuwait University students are women today, Ghabra said.
“Change is difficult … and easily resisted,” Ghabra said. “[But] once you start, people see the results.”
He referred to the secular movement of the 1960s as one that impacted the lives of Muslim women in the Arab states. In this period, women took off their “Hijab” — a veil Muslim women wear to cover their face — and burned their traditional clothes, Ghabra said.
According to Ghabra, the 1970s and ’80s saw the birth of Islamic fundamentalism — another movement that brought women to the forefront of the political process.
He explained that Islamic fundamentalism was a backlash against the liberalism of the 1960s, adding that women started to wear the “Hijab” again.
Irrespective of whether one agrees with the principles of the conservative movement, it helped mobilize women, especially those from peasant societies, into the political arena, Ghabra said.
He also said women have played a substantive role in war such as in the Iraqi attack of Kuwait and the Algerian Civil War. Giving the example of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991, Ghabra said women were able to hide weapons and transmit information because of the respect they enjoy in society.
According to Ghabra, the Arab world is facing both internal and external pressures that will have an effect on women’s rights and democracy in the future. He said that 70 percent of Arab population is under the age of 25 and these young people will need infrastructure, employment, higher education and health care.
He said externally, the Arab nations are facing pressures by the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund to practice accountability and transparency
“The Internet by itself is [also] a force of change,” Ghabra said, adding that both these internal and external forces will have an impact on Arab society in the future.