Discussions on issues facing women in the Arab world tend to be monochromatic, often completely overlooking the diversity in the lifestyles and conditions of women in that part of the world. The media, intellectuals and feminists - no doubt, with the best intention - have bought into stereotypical depictions of Arab women.
Readers and viewers are told that Arab women are weak, passive and always veiled. Most Westerners are unaware that women enjoy political and social rights in many Arab countries (especially, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan and Syria). Undoubtedly, many Arab countries are a long way from achieving gender equality. But is this not a global phenomenon, not confined to the Arab world alone? The Arab world itself is comprised of several nations (22 countries in all), with the status of women varying widely in all of them. The media, however, projects one norm - the most sexist and oppressive - onto the Arab world as a whole.
There are no easy stereotypes that fit all these nations. In Tunisia, for example, wearing the veil is forbidden. However, women are yet to reach any kind of equity in the political or professional streams. The Tunisian President, Ben Ali, says that he wants to bring about a 30 per cent participation of women in public institutions by 2009.
On many counts, Arab nations lag behind many other countries on gender issues.
For example, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the international organization of Parliaments of sovereign States, has said that Arab nations trail behind other nations in the representation of women in Parliament. October 2005 figures put Arab nations at 7.7 per cent, the lowest figures by far. (The Pacific region places just above them at 13.9 per cent.)
Most Arab countries comprise a Muslim-majority population. (It is important to note here that Arab does not equal Muslim, because an ethnic group does not equal a religion.) The Arab world is excessively hostage to clerics, who do not allow the codification of civil personal status laws. They interpret Islam to sanction and perpetuate many sexist practices and views, including polygamy, the requirement of wifely obedience and unequal inheritance for women.
What commentators miss here is that all of these practices have at one point or another been part of Christian and Jewish civilizations as well. In fact, culture is a wider concept than religion - it incorporates not just religion, but several other factors as well.
While the interpretation of Islam is in good part responsible for the inferior status of women, it is not solely to blame for the situation in the Arab world. We could consider the ritual of female genital mutilation as an example. This is a practice that has oppressed women in several cultures at different times in history. While the practice is largely unknown in most Muslim countries, it is still practiced in rural areas of both Muslim and non-Muslim parts of Africa. This is an example of a practice that has no roots in religion, but is nevertheless part of a culture. While many inequities women face in the health, work and education sectors are shared across the Arab world - indeed, worldwide - certain discriminations are nation-specific.
Hoda Elsadaa, a women's rights activist, who teaches English literature at Egypt's Cairo University, explains that while women hold prominent positions in the government or the academia in many Arab countries, the discrimination against them takes a more covert, culturally-cloaked form. She cites the example of the Egyptian minister of finance, who until 2001 was not able to travel without her husband's permission.
Elsadaa also resents the fact that the western media does not even acknowledge the presence of women's activism in the Arab world. When Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi's 1977 Arabic classic 'The Hidden Face of Eve' was published in English in 1980, it created quite a sensation. Since then, many of her works have been published in English translations, making her the most visible of Arab women writers. El Saadwi's success created a new market for Arab women's creative products.
Fatema Mernissi is another famous Arab intellectual in the West. Born in 1940, she studied political sciences in Morocco, France and the US. She published many books on the position of women in the rapidly-changing Muslim communities in Morocco. The West, though, is most fascinated with the fact that she was raised in a harem - a fact that allows her to describe this institution from the inside. Since the 1970s, she has been writing expressively about the emancipation of women, and her works are widely read in both the West and in Islamic countries.
There is also little discussion of the fact that while the oppression of women in Arab countries is due to a range of cultural factors, the West has exacerbated these oppressions. The writer Leila Ahmed believes that the West's "colonial feminism" is one such factor. In her study of women and gender in the Islamic world, she explains this as a tendency among colonial officers to champion Muslim women's rights, while at the same time opposing women's rights in their own countries. The status of women in the Arab countries is thus a convenient tool to denigrate Islam and the Arab culture.
Finally, the situation of women in the Arab world is inextricably intermeshed with US policies in the Arab world, the economic exploitation, the US sanctions, western colonialism, discrimination by the media, the dynamics of US-Israel relations, and many other local and global affairs that impact women's lives directly.