Maha Saleh: “The desire of Arab women to be active in important settings is clear”

Maha Saleh, the President of the Jordanian Arab Women Leaders Union, operating under the umbrella of the League of Arab States, and Editor of the Ain Al-Dyar newspaper, recently gave an interview regarding the issue of the representation of Arab women in the Middle East and North Africa region. The interview also touches on related issues such as the role, place, and image of women in the Arab world.

17 mins read

Abdennour Toumi: The problem of women in the Arab world is recognized as one of the most complex social problems. Are you satisfied with the success of Arab and Eastern women today, especially in society?

Maha Saleh: First of all, I would like to state that this issue is sensitive and complex. As you said, I cannot say that I fully agree with the activities on political, economic, and social factors and the initiatives taken within the health, education, and law that result from them. Considering the situation of Arab women in their political life, it is not possible to say that the participation of Arab women in decision-making positions is still acceptable. It is really sad that an Arab woman, especially one with a high level of knowledge, cannot take part in political life after seeing that she has reached a worthy level, occupying sensitive and important positions in the Western world. If we give an example of this, it is possible to mention some women of Arab descent who have held important positions in NASA and in other important positions in the world as a whole, like in the administration of US President Joe Biden, and examples of this are quite plenty. Speaking for the Arab world, the lack of confidence in women’s ability to make changes and make important decisions at the state level is unfortunately still the biggest problem. However, let me underline the very important step taken by Tunisian President Kais Saied by electing a woman to serve as prime minister. Tunisia has become one of the leading countries that attaches importance to the work system and trust that women deserve. I sincerely hope that such examples will multiply in the Arab world.

When we look at it in the economic sense, we see that this is always a key element for the welfare of society. However, the emergence of COVID-19, as well as the rise of poverty and similar negatives, caused young people to lose their enthusiasm for working and negatively affected the roles of young women.

Furthermore, when we look at it from a social point of view, it is possible to see that the situation works quite differently. The problem of the number of followers in the advertising field of social media, unfortunately, has made many women a cheap commodity. Social media practices, which are not suitable for many Arab traditions and clash with the values with which we were raised, have unfortunately led to the disintegration of our cultural values as well as the family. However, let me tell you that social media has brought some women to the forefront who can’t afford to pay the rent of a restaurant or a clothing store to work from their homes. As a result, it is obvious that Arab women want to reach high places. But, if you ask me, much is still needed to build mutual trust with the pillars of the state.

Abdennour Toumi: In Eastern society, we hear a lot about the freedom and equality of men and women. What is your view on women’s liberation in the North Africa and Middle East region as an influential factor in regional change?

Maha Saleh: If you were to ask whether the issue of freedom and equality between men and women in North African and Middle Eastern societies is an influential factor in the course of change in the region, my answer will not satisfy most Arab women. I would like to make this clear because this subject causes me to be hypersensitive to the wrong and resounding slogans that Arab women generally use. The issue of gender equality has now become a flexible slogan that contains many contradictions and complexities but also carries a long explanation. But I will suffice with short answers. I would like to start with the question of what the concept of gender equality is. Can a woman do what a man does in every field in light of being a mother or a wife, and what falls on her shoulders?  Can we make a man equal to a woman in this context? Of course, not. I’m not calling for equality, but I want women’s talents to be respected in all areas and given the opportunity to be proven first to benefit themselves and then society. I call for the creation of a healthy environment where women can reflect on their potential energy. I call on women to be provided with a suitable environment where they can provide their knowledge and experience so that future generations can benefit from a woman’s achievements. I call for women to hide their achievements in order to create in themselves the self-confidence, will, and determination that will enable them to remain invincible.

Abdennour Toumi: There is a stereotypical behavior prevalent in Eastern society that the idea of the subject of women is ambiguous. What do you think is the reason for this idea that still dominates Eastern society?

Maha Saleh: I can say that women are really mysterious ‘beings’ that are not easily understood. First, let me tell you that women are “easy to avoid” for a variety of factors that largely control their overall volatile mood, therefore being the physiological and psychological factors that lead to a woman losing confidence. Therefore, it is desirable for a woman to have a serious vision so that she disciplines herself, subordinates herself to good deeds, is not subject to her whims, and does not falter. Another important factor is the education, upbringing, and environment of women’s nameplates, which play an important role in the path women will take, whether it is forested or barren. Due to the importance of their upbringing and self-improvement, some parents’ ignorance or neglect of their daughter’s education will inevitably either lead to loss, corruption, or delinquency, or it will lead to creativity and success. If you ask me, the only thing that decides whether a woman wants to change the factors that cause her uncertainty is her clarity or uncertainty.

Abdennour Toumi: Eastern and Arab women, especially today, have attained high positions in central government institutions, including the administrative and even the military sector. However, ordinary women in society continue to suffer from a culture of street aggression, being abused and deprived of their legitimate rights in some eastern societies. How would you react to this?

Maha Saleh: Although women hold jobs in important positions, they continue to suffer from a culture of street aggression, including harassment and disenfranchisement of women in some eastern societies. I have stated in my previous speech how satisfied I am with what Arab women have achieved in the Arab world, or to what extent I am convinced. However, unlike my previous answer, I would like to make a few additions here. If we do not train a man from a young age to protect women’s dignity and protect their rights, he will never respect women’s presence in the workplace. If we do not pass laws to deter the abnormal behavior of men, the idea of ​​cheating on women in society will remain wide open. If a man does not get the punishment he deserves when he commits a crime against a woman, women will never prevail. Therefore, the presence of many similar factors in society, such as different shades of black, will be among the reasons that prevent Arab women from reaching vital and important positions in the state.

Abdennour Toumi: As the head of the Arab Women Leaders Union, do you have a general policy of providing protection and sensitivity to the phenomenon of violence against women in Arab societies within the union?

Maha Saleh: We, the Arab Women Leaders Union, are always trying to keep the door of inquiry and free consultation open so that women can dare to ask for their rights and what they want through various tools and methods in order to reduce this phenomenon through awareness campaigns, advice and guidance, and by activating the legal committee in the Jordan branch. Empowering women is the key to reducing violence against women. A strong woman in her environment, society, and country is like an oak tree whose origin is the earth and whose branch is the sky. So, what we are working on will be to empower and educate women and give them the opportunity to build their wealth and power and be active and productive, not just consumers. In my view, this would be the most appropriate solution to eliminate all forms of violence in the entire Arab World.

Abdennour Toumi: The Arab region has been experiencing developments at the political and social levels and has been subject to qualitative transformations within society since the waves of the Arab revolutions that emerged in 2011. How did the determinants of these revolutions and the peaceful transfer of power in some Arab countries affect Arab women as an actor in the equation of change?

Maha Saleh: The Arab revolutions, or the so-called Arab Spring, created a new ideology that did not exist before, according to the requirements of the scene. The spark of these revolutions came after the demands of all Arab peoples for a decent life, justice, and peace. But due to some hidden agendas of some Arab regimes with Western dependence, these revolutions, unfortunately, turned into personal showdowns, causing lies to rise from behind the tank to crush the truth, and then the demands for freedom and rights to bloom before they could even be picked up. Attitudes and values have changed, and, in turn, the claims have decreased. What we witnessed was a wave flowing according to the strongest, not the fairest. I do not want to sound pessimistic, but the landscape is bleak and it will not change until our insides change and we set our priorities.

Abdennour Toumi: What is the role and responsibility of women in the success of the path of change and development in Arab society?

Maha Saleh: I would like to state clearly that the role of women in the success of the path of change and development in Arab societies is high. I am working hard and dedicating all my energy to development. It is impossible to clap with one hand, so our role has now become even greater so that the spark of work and success is not extinguished in the light of great disappointments and difficulties. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Patience and professional work are always required in order not to go back after the steps taken. Remember that from the womb of hard work, hope is created.

Abdennour Toumi: There is an ideological issue that continues to be a point of contention among Arab feminist elites, for example, between veiled and non-veiled women. Does this mean that the issue of feminism in the Arab world is the work of the “liberal/secular” woman without the veil?

Maha Saleh: Liberalism as a term means freedom and equality. The woman wears the veil on her head, not on her mind. But some hardline freedom advocates view women’s veiling as a threat and a sign of backwardness. While some liberals pride themselves on their freedom, they inevitably create cages for those who are different from them. While some secularists demand the separation of religion from life, we see that they do not sit with those who discuss life issues with them.  Standards, I believe, began to take shape based on whims rather than beliefs and principles. Important tasks are given according to the woman’s ability to work and give, not according to the clothes she wears. I would like to dedicate this example to the respect for freedoms in the US and Arab-American Congresswoman İlhan Omar. The veil she wore never prevented her from sitting in that chair. I would like to say to the narrow-minded people; stay where you are, you will get nowhere unless you respect the choices of others.

Abdennour Toumi: Would you like to have a final word on the activities and aspirations of the Arab Women Leaders Union in Arab societies?

Maha Saleh: I started working in the field of education, such as educating children with hearing-visual disabilities and special needs, and especially because of the importance of education in the rise of nations in less fortunate groups. I am currently in the process of making a cooperation protocol with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). Thus, I can expand my geographical area to include other camps in Jordan along with other camps in future refugee-hosting countries such as Lebanon and Egypt. I am working hard to add value in a society full of contradictions, obstacles, complexities, and difficulties. The meaning of being an influencer, an actor, and seeking positive change that will lead to creativity is also revealed here.

Abdennour Toumi

Abdennour Toumi is a journalist and a North African Studies specialist who received his PhD in Political Science from Toulouse University in France. His articles have been published by many outlets, and he has featured in reputable media channels including Daily Sabah, TRT World and BBC Turkish. He worked as a lecturer in the Department of Middle East and North African Studies at the Portland Community College, and was a member of the Portland State University Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His focus is on issues such as the socio-political mutations of North Africa; the role of Turkey in this region; the problem of immigrants, and the interactions of the North African diaspora in France.

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