It is not exactly breaking news that women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are faced with enormous boulders on the pathway to prosperity. Women's rights are consistently trampled upon and basic rights are often denied. From Tunis to Cairo to Tehran, women are no strangers to sexism. Even after the wave of uprisings known as the Arab Spring, which led to the toppling of some of the most oppressive regimes on the planet, the treatment of women has remained dismal. Yet despite tense and hostile conditions, women are far from complacent. Acts of resistance against society and tyrannical governments are rampant and challenge preconceived notions of submissive women in the Arab and Muslim world.
These are five important, yet little-known facts about these women.
When the Iranian people cast their ballots in 2009, they came out in high numbers: Over 80% of the electorate showed up. They were shocked, then, to learn that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed a landslide victory in the decisive election with over 63% of the vote. Ahmadinejad's major opponent, Mir-Hossain Mousavi, a reformist with a large youth support, claimed that the election was rigged and that he was the victor. This led to major protests in the streets of Tehran and across the country. The intensity of the protests led to major crackdowns and arrests by the government of the mostly youth-led revolution. Standing strong alongside men were young women, fighting for their rights. While the revolution was unsuccessful in ousting the regime, the people's acts of resistance sent shock waves throughout the world.
A young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, became the emblem of the Green Revolution after a camera phone video of her murder by pro-government forces went viral. Agha-Soltan was a bystander on her way home when she was killed by a sniper.
That's right. In most Middle Eastern countries, women outnumber men in educational pursuits. Particularly, women in the region are entering STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields at a disproportionate rate to their male counterparts. In fact, more women are graduating in the sciences in the Middle East than in Western Europe.
This is a big step in the right direction toward achieving the United Nations' ambitious goal of ending the gender gap in education globally by 2015.
Before the 2009 municipal elections in Morocco, women constituted 0.5% of total representation in politics. Thanks to an initiative by the National Democratic Institute and the National Republican Institute, 4,000 women candidates were trained in the skills necessary to run for office. This led total representation to jump from .5% to 12% in the North African country. Morocco is not the only MENA nation to boast women in political positions, either. Kuwait currently has four women serving in its parliament.
Despite the vast amount of educated Middle Eastern women, their assimilation into the workforce has been stagnant. But that is changing too. While women's participation in the workforce is growing at a slower rate than most of the world at 26%, a study by a Middle Eastern employment agency states that 68% of working women believe that they are being treated as equals among their male counterparts in their respective careers.
Women risked their lives in pursuit of overthrowing tyrannical dictators just as much as men did. In the end, female participation in these uprisings played an integral role in their success. Seema Jalan of Women Thrive Worldwide says this about women's roles in the Arab Spring:
"During the Arab spring, women’s contributions were just as meaningful as that of men, even if they played different roles. Both women and men — and especially the youth — played a vital role in the street protests, blogging, organizing online and in advocating for meaningful government reform. Although the situation is different for each country, women continue to play unique and critical roles moving forward."
While women helped oust such rulers as Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya, there is increasing scrutiny on women's treatment post-revolution.