Arab Women: Duality of Deprivation in Decision-Making Under Patriarchal Authority
Throughout history, men have possessed the right to make decisions in all public and private aspects of life. Women’s participation in the decisionmaking process has been limited, within the context of a patriarchal system that imposes itself at all levels. In the Arab world, traditional patriarchy is built upon a hierarchy of roles and authorities and is represented in the power of the old over the young, men over women, the rich over the poor, and the majority over minorities.
Since the outcome of societal decisions, at all levels, reflects the existing power distribution, policy decisions cannot be neutral. Contrary to current notions of policies being “gender-blind,” it is clear that these policies, actually, discriminate against women. They work directly and indirectly to maintain the status quo of unbalanced relations within the objective reality, as reflected in economic, political, and social indicators.
These policies are woven into the dominant culture. As they reinforce existing social roles within the culture, these policies operate under the pretext of being the means for maintaining the balance, survival, and continuity of society. Hence, discrimination, particularly regarding decisionmaking, becomes an essential part of an integrated culture that must protect itself by keeping women in their “natural place” within the social reality. Within this mix, where the patriarchal intersects with the economic, the institutional and the cultural, “social religiosity” plays a decisive role in rationalizing and normalizing the process of discrimination against women, and in providing cognitive and mental justifications for the discriminatory reality.
Under this system, men gain free reign in making decisions. They do that, at all levels, by virtue of what society knows to be right, religious and lawful, and in protection by the existing social organization. Meanwhile, men use various means for co-opting women at times or subjugating them by direct and societal force at other times.
Moreover, the socially-rooted conceptualizations of differences in women’s and men’s sexualities and their biological nature are so frequently evoked to the extent that they become part and parcel of the individual and collective consciousness. In this regard, the “natural role” of women is one of the most deeply rooted interventions at the conscious and unconscious levels. Consequently, women’s fulfillment of their “natural role” associated with the reproductive process becomes compulsory and coercive. In the end, this leads to women’s lives becoming regulated through the sharia, constitutions, laws, and predominant social norms, in ways that far exceed what applies to men.
This gives men the power and legitimacy to control women (as well as their bodies and minds) in all aspects of life. This also works on normalizing discrimination, especially within the realm of family law. By extension, this equally works on normalizing decisions related to political, economic, and social policies.
Moreover, the dominant system also provides a “blank check” for men in terms of personal liberties. At the same time, the system provides tools for controlling women and keeping them in their “natural place.” The dominant system sustains that by curbing women’s impulses, instincts, and sexual desires and by transferring these sexual aspects of women to the favor of men—at home and in the privacy of sex. These are assumptions which are predominant indeed in mainstream culture—a culture that calls on the community to do everything possible to rid women of “the devil therein.” Consequently, these assumptions are the hidden forces behind calls for forsaking women’s rights and behind allowing men to make decisions on women’s behalf—always framed in the interest of maintaining the status quo and “collective good of society.”
Although these dynamics are not always played at a direct and conscious level, nonetheless they are rooted in the culture and are instilled in the consciousness of community members. They become an outcome of mainstream cultural understanding of class, gender and educational relations.
Moreover, in light of the absolute and relative absence of women’s participation in decision-making positions, it is a consequence that institutions and organizations do not take women’s lives and needs into account. As such, women are unable to hold decision-makers accountable. These institutions, thus, continue to produce policies against the rights of women, leading to an increase in the gap between women and men.
Within the aforementioned contextualized realities, the greatest challenge is to define a conceptual framework and reach an analysis that clarifies the depth of the problem beyond the dominant language and concepts in the literature of the international organizations with regard to gender, albeit without ignoring this literature. This analysis should address the nature of the vicious circle of dual deprivation surrounding women’s limited participation in decision-making on the one hand and their overall limited access to decision-makers (who are usually men) on the other hand—an access that would have enabled women to hold institutions accountable to their needs and demands. This “dual deprivation” not only separates women from the decision-making process, even on issues directly impacting their lives, but also deprives them of the ability to act as agents of social change, in light of their absence from decision-making positions.
Accordingly, the deprivation of decision-making must be extended to a set of binaries, which are in fact binaries with an extended space in between. Within this space interactions are possible and therefore these binaries have not reached polarization. This interactive process, whose outcome does not always equal to a zero-sum game, does not always have women come as losers. The processes, as well as the outcome, reflect a negotiated, competitive relation within a space that is limited by contextual imperatives. The deprivation duality is also related to competing and interactive dualities: public-private spheres, objective-subjective realities, nature-nurture debate, views of men sexuality-women sexuality, and gender-class analyses. These dualities and their interactions may contribute to reaching an in-depth analysis of the status of women and men with regard to decision- making in Arab societies.