The establishment of frameworks for empowering women in misogynistic cultures is long overdue. Amanda Geddes met with Professor Tracey McDonald, who has been working with the United Nations to change the plight of ageing women in Arabic countries.
In my capacity as Professor of Ageing, the United Nations Special Adviser on Gender Issues invited me to Tunisia for a working group, Promoting the Empowerment of Women in Arab Countries. Our focus was on the plight of women ageing in misogynistic cultures, and how women in many cultures – especially where they are devalued by their societies – accumulate social, financial and health disadvantage over their lifetime.
Since 2007 I have been involved with UN World Expert Group Meetings on the Madrid Plan of Action on Ageing; promoting social integration; and building international awareness of the need for a convention on the rights of older people. My background and experience in public policy and advising on the building of national capacity for social change was thought to be a valuable addition to the international group that met in Tunis.
My strong human rights background leads me to believe that if national social policy frameworks are constructed to embody equity and fairness, people have opportunities to empower themselves and contribute to national development and productivity.
While the discussions focused on cultural impediments for women in Arabic countries, it is inescapable that many are also identified as Muslims. In Australia, if we were to rely on media reports for our information, it would be easy to conclude that all Muslim women are oppressed and in need of rescuing. It is hard to understand how these stereotypical images can persist when the reality is that many highly educated, dynamic and politically savvy women are Muslims, and Muslim women in countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey have held high office. It is disappointing that an impression persists among some Western observers that all Muslim women are constrained by men in the name of Islam.
This is not the case. It was made clear through the discussions and debates in Tunisia that the low percentage of Muslim women who are living in disadvantaged circumstances are held back by culture and perspective, not by Islam. Islamic principles endorse gender equity, respectful relationships by all, and many aspects are more empowering for women than are found in Western cultures.
It was clear from the Tunis group that there is a need to separate out culture and tradition from religion in the modern world and that for many Arabic cultures, restrictions on female participation in society are undermining national development. Education is a key aspect, as well as empowerment to overcome the reliance by many impoverished men and women on the word of religious teachers who themselves may not have kept abreast of Islamic writings and interpretations that better reflect the modern world.
The Tunisia group recommended a range of policy directions and strategies to address the problems faced by Arabic women. Activists in Arab countries will now work to get these recommendations accepted by their governments, and then implement them in ways that redress the inequities of cultural and gender domination. Much of this work needs to come from the women inside the country and the men who support women's empowerment.
An issue I raised at the conference was the impact on national development by not fully utilising women in the workforce, which would considerably improve both family and national productivity and wellbeing. It was clear that women are being held back by culture and tradition rather than by men for their own reasons. The fact is that the men are just as trapped by traditional expectations as are the women.
A core element of the situation that applies to people in all cultures is that we need to think about how we define ourselves as men and women in society. If men define themselves only by their masculinity and virility then problems are inevitable. If women define themselves in terms of being impulsive and submissive then we should not be surprised when it leads to disadvantage and relationship problems. An exercise for all cultures and countries would be for us all to think about gender and role definitions that promote productive adult life within a society for all ages and peoples.
Women everywhere need to be able to exercise their full civic and human rights if they are to fulfil basic survival and social needs, achieve economic independence and be free from family violence and neglect. Without access to education and healthcare, women in some Arabic countries will struggle to engage their societies in the public arena.