Air Date: May 7, 1996 Program 9619


Members of the Arab Women's Federation from Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt
Olga Bidinskaya, Russian journalist


JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the people who shape events.

HAIFA AL BASHIR: The wrong is not of Islam; the wrong is the interpretation and the limited minds of some of those who try to attribute to Islam things that Islam has not in its constitution, its verses.

MARTIN: In this addition of Common Ground a progress report on women's rights in Arab countries. The Western stereotype is that Arab women are held back by tradition and Islam, but the stereotype is not always true.

BOSHAN ZARDAN: It's a pity to see that many of the Western women don't know much about us.

MARTIN: And then later, Russian women often lead the uphill struggle for their family's survival.

OLGA BIDINSKAYA: I don't know myself how we're surviving. People are finding their ways.

MARTIN: Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation, I'm Jeff Martin. Arab women, the popular image is of women with virtually no rights, held back by male-dominated traditional cultures, and by an inferior status laid on them by Islam (the predominant Arab religion). In parts of the Middle East the popular image is quite true, but it is certainly not uniform. In some places Arab women have made surprising progress. Kaleel Sakakeeny reports.

KALEEL SAKAKEENY: In this typical Arab love song, the man extols the beauty of his beloved. While there may be nothing false about his description, it is incomplete. The women of the Arab world want to be seen in other ways as well. While there are as many differences among them as there are Arab states, they are united by the common desire for more freedom and equality. The main organization is the Arab Women's Federation with branches in most of the Arab countries. Fierial Mahani is president of the Syrian Women's Federation, headquartered in Damascus. She's also a member of parliament. She credits the many achievements of Syrian women to the strong support of Syria's president, Hafaz Asad.

FIERIAL MAHANI: President Asad affirmed in his many speeches that women have a great role to play, if we want our country to prosper and develop. The woman must play out her role hand in hand with the man. Unless she does this, our society will suffer.

SAKAKEENY: President Asad's words resulted in action. Lebanese-born Nidal Ashqar, one of the Arab world's best known actresses, makes these observations.

NIDAL ASHQAR: There's no doubt about it, Syrian women are more open and more liberal than many other Arab women.

SAKAKEENY: The facts support her. Firms of five or more mothers with babies have a nursery. Nursing mothers get two and a half months of maternity leave with full pay. The Syrian law does give the women the right to keep her family name after marriage and dispose of her property as she sees fit. Fierial Mahani.

MAHANI: In Syria, women have entered parliament in great numbers, approximately 10 percent. In Kuwait, this has not yet happened. Syrian women have become directors of major facilities and municipalities. While in the gulf states, women have not yet entered this field. But I must admit that the Egyptian woman is awakened and advanced. She has have entered all fields.

SAKAKEENY: Dr. Nawald Esadalli is Egypt's former director of public health. Her books, especially The Hidden Face of Eve, have helped her achieve international status. She does not confine the issue of women's rights to specific countries.

DR. NAWALD ESADALLI: The problem of women is not related to a certain region, certain religion, or certain race; it's related to patriarch and class which exists all over.

SAKAKEENY: According to a 1975 study, South Yemen topped the list of Arab countries where women have made the greatest gains—such as the abolition of polygamy, minimum age for marriage, and divorce rights.

ESADALLI: When you have a political system that's more socialistic or trying to abolish the class differences, automatically with it there is a sort of improving women's status.

SAKAKEENY: So Esadalli and others believe that today Tunisia may be the most progressive country in the Arab world.

ESADALLI: In Tunisia, it happened the same in Tunis Barkaba(sp?) also. He changed the marriage and divorce laws, abolished polygamy, and he gave the right of women to divorce their husbands.

SAKAKEENY: Islam and women is the recurring theme in the way the world perceives Arab women and in terms of their own struggles for self-realization.

AL BASHIR: When Islam came 14 centuries ago, the women use to have the rights that we are asking for nowadays. Because he gave her the right to learn and to participate in every sector of life.

SAKAKEENY: Haifa Al Bashir is the president of the Jordian Federation of Women. For her, the problems attributed to Islam do not really belong to it.

AL BASHIR: The wrong is not of Islam, the wrong is the interpretation of the limited minds of some of those who try to attribute to Islam things that Islam has not in its constitution, its verses.

SAKAKEENY: Buthan Jardani directs a support organization for women. As she sees it, it was Imperialism, not Islam, that retarded the progress of women and men.

ZARDAN: As Muslims and as Arabs, we pass through very weak periods. We imported many of the traditions that are outside of Islam. Under Imperialism, men became very weak and uneducated; and women, of course, worse.

SAKAKEENY: She is concerned with the West's misperception of Arab women.

ZARDAN: It's a pity to see that many of the Western women don't know much about us. They have the idea that we travel with camels. They don't have the real idea about us.

SAKAKEENY: Although Nidal Ashqar can play Shakespeare and Brecht, the London-trained actress uses her talents to address the needs of Arab women, which she sees as still very basic.

ASHQAR: We need first to say what we want, to go to the school like men, to marry the man we want, to be masters of our bodies and minds. That's not the case all over the Arab world, unfortunately.

SAKAKEENY: President of a major medical import company in Amman, Sabiha Maani, recalls Jordanian society as it was when she first came to the country.

SABIHA MAANI: In Jordan cinemas were segregated. You had segregated compartments for ladies and for men. You hardly saw ladies unveiled walking on the streets. Very few were unveiled. Those who were unveiled were known by name and by family, and so on. When you look at it now, 38 years after this date, you don't see hardly any veils on the road.

SAKAKEENY: The changes were more than cosmetic ones.

MAANI: Ladies make 100 percent with men.

SAKAKEENY: Has she experienced any harassment as a female boss?

MAANI: Certain sectors try to minimize part of the value or the qualities of an executive lady. But they do the same with men, whenever there is viciousness and trying to minimize the faults of one person. It is there whether it's a man or a lady.

SAKAKEENY: While women in America work to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the Jordian constitution provides women with equal rights under the law.

MAANI: The constitution for Jordan, when the kingdom was established and which was put in 1952, did not differentiate at all between men and women.

SAKAKEENY: Inam Mufti was the country's first woman cabinet member and the general director of the Nor a Hussein(sp?) Foundation. As progressive as Jordian law is, there are still problems with its implementations.

MAANI: There are certain laws that need to be looked into if a woman is divorced. What are her rights? What does she get? [Does she get] custody of her children?

SAKAKEENY: A recent Newsweek article of education on the West Bank observed the startling number of university students [of which] 35 percent were women. The use of the word "startling" highlights the problem of perception regarding Arab women. Inam Mufti.

INAM MUFTI: The number of women students in the universities within Jordan is higher of that than boys. Girls are doing very well. According to the criteria for selection, 65 percent of yearly intake would be from girls.

SAKAKEENY: What are the Arab women studying?

MUFTI: Women are going more and more into the nontraditional occupations and specializations—into medicine, engineering, sciences. As a matter of fact in Jordan University two years ago, in architecture there was a class of 42 students—40 girls and two boys.

SAKAKEENY: Unfortunately, politics often creates nontraditional roles for women. Nidal Ashqar.

ASHQAR: When you go to the south of Lebanon, you see all these warriors, all these women that are doing the guerilla [warfare]. You don't find these women anywhere else in the world. Each woman is doing the job of ten men.

SAKAKEENY: The problems that Arab women face are intensified for Palestine women of Gaza and the West Bank.

ASHQAR: What distinguishes the situation of Palestinian women is that every day she is facing occupation, which is a new national oppression.

SAKAKEENY: Maha Nassir of the Palestine Women's Union cites some of the progress of Palestinian women.

MAHA NASSIR: I can talk about women who share in the national life—like women prisoners, women dealing with politics, and women leaders. I can talk about women who are now more free to choose their partners. And working as engineers, [more free] to choose to study as engineers and doctors.

SAKAKEENY: She makes clear who is responsible for those achievements.

MAHA NASSIR: I think they are the result of the struggle of our people all through the years of occupation.

SAKAKEENY: Fatima Mohammad grew up in Casablanca far from the occupied territories.

FATIMA MOHAMMAD: In Morocco with the effect of other cultures, it was like friction or contact with the Western world. So the Arabic women preserved the identity of Arabic and Moslem, but in a certain way they had to go out. They had to work.

SAKAKEENY: The European cultures mitigated the more conservative tendencies of the Arab Middle East, and Moroccan women took advantage of that fact.

MOHAMMAD: They don't want religion to force them to stay home, to force them to wear the veil, or to force them not to talk to men and not to express their feelings toward feminist issues.

SAKAKEENY: Sergeo Kadari acknowledges the many changes that have occurred in Baghdad, Iraq, since she was a child there.

SERGEO KADARI: When I went back to teach in Baghdad, I saw that the girls are more free now to do what they want to do. The control of the parents are becoming lesser and lesser.

SAKAKEENY: While she is ambivalent about the changes...

KADARI: I really don't know if that is for the better or for the worse.

SAKAKEENY: On balance, she seems to applaud them.

KADARI: The good thing about Iraq is that the goals are very much equal to like their fellow man—accepted to colleges on the same basis. A few scored the highest grade. You [can] go to any college you like. She can be an engineer, doctor, artist or anything she wants to be.

SAKAKEENY: Kadari and many of the Arab women often emphasize cooperation, not competition, with men.

KADARI: I don't see why a woman has to compete with a man when she has her full identity. My husband and I are both working like the two together, like a wagon with two wheels.

SAKAKEENY: Finally, when asked what tradition she thought that Arab women would most want to hold on to and never change, Fierial Mahani answered this way.

MAHANI: The thing I would most want to keep is the unity and integrity of the family as the basis for life.

SAKAKEENY: This is Kaleel Sakakeeny.

MARTIN: When Common Ground continues, Russian citizens have more political freedom then they did during the days of Communist rule. But for many there is a struggle just to survive economically.

BIDINSKAYA: Yes, I have to say the sad fact that the life expectancy has decreased to 64 years for men and 73 years for women. The reasons for that are obvious. These are political, social, and economic issues. The situation in general is decreasing, and people have to fight the law for their survival.

MARTIN: Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.


MARTIN: Russia's road to a democratic free market society has been difficult, particularly for women. The traditional bulwark of the Russian family. In this next report, Mary Gray Davidson talks with a Russian journalist who hosts a popular women's health show for Moscow television.

DAVIDSON: Olga Bidinskaya has been chronicling the lives of women in Russia during her 25 years as a journalist. I asked her if she thinks women are better off since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She said her personal opinion is that women are better off today, because they have more freedom. Not everyone would agree with that assessment. A recent survey divided Russian women into three categories to find out who's coping the best.

BIDINSKAYA: The ones that were the best to adjust to the new situation were those responsible were not ambitious, they were oriented in their families and their children...who took the responsibility for the survival of their family. They would take on any job in order to support their family, support their husbands and children, and to get food into the house. Even in cases when the husband lost the job and had to learn some new profession, they would support their husband. This family survived, and they are improving currently.

The second category of women is those who are educated; and they used to work in the state offices, state institutes, research institutes. Unfortunately, there are too many of them. Those women were looking into their profession, to their ambitions. They were not interested in their families a lot. Their job was like a refuge for them. They could work there for eight hours and escape from the family matters. Those women were the first to lose their jobs in Russia. They were facing a dilemma of further professional development or getting back to the family. They had to give support to their husbands and to acknowledge his leadership, which was very difficult for them or be retrained, find a new job, and get a new profession. Unfortunately, those women didn't manage to cope with the situation. They couldn't get adjusted to being in the family. Therefore, those families broke. In a year those women had to go to the markets and become small retailers.

DAVIDSON: Has there been a high rate of divorce overall?

BIDINSKAYA: [I] cannot say the exact numbers of the divorce rate. However, [I] think that the rate of divorce is approximately three percent less in big cities since the 90s. The first economic shock is over. People understand now that they can only survive if they are together, and their family is a basis for this.

The third category of women has been very successful. These are the women who were professionally oriented, and they were looking for prestige. They became business women very fast. They took their responsibilities of their families—took care of their families and their husbands. They are successful. These are super responsible women. They are working 14 to 16 hours a day. This is not realistic for a human being. They are the leaders. They wouldn't share their responsibilities with their husbands. They wouldn't go a step back. They took all the responsibilities; and, therefore, they closed the door to get any freedom they could. We can say that these are women who got adjusted best of all. On the other hand, these are women who constantly live in this stressful situation.

DAVIDSON: It sounds like they've paid a price, a high price.

BIDINSKAYA: Yes, too high a price. A different situation is with the women who live in villages and small cities all around Russia. Unfortunately, we are talking about changes in big cities. There is not a lot that happened in the small cities. Unfortunately, the most changes are economical ones, not the ones in the thinking. One system was destroyed and another system still doesn't exist. Wages are not paid to doctors or teachers for months.

DAVIDSON: Even you? Have you been paid?

BIDINSKAYA: Yes, I have not been paid.

DAVIDSON: Since when?

BIDINSKAYA: The end of October was my last wage. [I put myself in] a different group, because [I have] a chance to earn money because of my profession.

DAVIDSON: In other ways than from her employer.

BIDINSKAYA: Yes. I can write in the newspapers and the magazines. I can find a lot of different sources of income. My money depends on the level of my competence in my professionalism.

DAVIDSON: How do other people survive? Because we don't get regular reports about how pitiful the pensions are that they are not enough to even pay for food. How do people survive? How do you get food? In addition to that, you need to pay for your housing and clothing. What do people do? Is it the family that provides this?

BIDINSKAYA: Yes, this is true. I don't know myself how we are surviving. People are finding their ways. Old people, for example, retired people, go to the streets to sell different stuff like cigarettes. For example, I don't have to buy cigarettes from these old people, I can buy them anywhere else in the store, in the supermarkets. But I will anyway, in order to help them. The rural population is changing too. They've started doing farming, which didn't happen before. The notorious Russian dacha has become the source of getting food.

DAVIDSON: So they're actually having large gardens to grow their own food.

BIDINSKAYA: Yes. They are planting a lot of stuff there and...

DAVIDSON: I was going to tell you, since we were talking about rural people, that my mother (who grew up through the Depression in the United States) use to say the way she and her family survived was because they lived on a farm. They were able to grow vegetables and food. They were much better off than the people in the cities. That sounds like that's what people are turning to now in Russia.

BIDINSKAYA: I wouldn't say that all Russian old people have farms to go to to plant stuff there. But there is a big tendency, right now, that the state is distributing land or earth to people—giving them small pieces of land in order to be able to plant. As soon as the snow melts, all of Moscow will put on backpacks or sacks and go to their dachas.

DAVIDSON: In such uncertain economic times, do people have babies? What has happened to the birth rate in Russia?

BIDINSKAYA: The birth rate is lower than the death rate. But people want to have children. Since 1994, there is a tendency of increasing birth rate in big cities, finally. But a child is called a very expensive pleasure. The assistance provided by the state is not enough at all.

DAVIDSON: I know in the past, under the Soviet system, contraceptives often weren't available and women would resort to abortions. Are contraceptives any more available for women who don't want to have children or are they still relying on abortions?

BIDINSKAYA: Currently, there is a whole variety of contraceptives on the Russian market, and they are not as expensive as they were probably a year ago. However, Russian women still don't buy a lot, because the educational level is not high enough about contraceptives. They still use abortion as their preventive means. The total number of abortions in Russia has been four million a year. The state never advertised abortions, but it wasn't offering anything else. Therefore, it was a legal means of contraception in Russia. Currently, we have everything. The only thing left is to change our attitude.

DAVIDSON: You've referred a couple of times now to the psychological mindset in Russia. I'm curious to know more about that. You say there was an old mindset and now there needs to be a change. What was the old mindset—not just about contraceptives but earlier you had referred to people's attitudes—and what kind of change in thinking do you think needs to take place for people to do well in the new Russia?

BIDINSKAYA: I wouldn't say that we were unconscious before, but I wouldn't say that our consciousness developed a lot. We stopped being children in the sense that we started being responsible for ourselves, finally.

DAVIDSON: ...and not being taken care of by the state and told how to think.

BIDINSKAYA: Yes. This turned out to be very difficult. This process is going on; and it should be going on, because it's impossible to change the lifestyle, the reach from one formation to another during one day. But Russian people are very curious. They want to know what is going to be next. Therefore, I think we will survive, and we will change.

DAVIDSON: I've read that, because of the difficulties in Russia, the life expectancy is decreasing. What is the current life expectancy for women and men in Russia? And what are some of the causes for this?

BIDINSKAYA: Yes. I have to state the sad fact that the life expectancy has decreased to 64 years for men and 73 years for women. The reasons for that are obvious—there are political, social, and economic issues. The situation in general is decreasing, and people have to fight a lot for their survival. Therefore, they have a lot of stress, which is not adding to life expectancy of course. Also, the situation with the health system is deteriorating greatly. That's what we're facing. That's what we have to change.

DAVIDSON: Do you see women in particular using politics as a way of improving their lives? Are people in general becoming politicized in Russia?

BIDINSKAYA: In this respect, I have to speak about different ages—young people, young women as well as young men are not interested in politics, because they say that politics are stupid and there is no sense in doing that. Therefore, they are doing their own business. The older women, as well as older men, are realizing what is happening, and they are politically active. In general, women and men are not participating in politics a lot.

DAVIDSON: One final question. I know Russians are famous for their sayings and aphorisms. Do you have a saying for this period in Russia or a name for this time between the old Soviet era and whatever is to come?

BIDINSKAYA: Let's live, and we'll see.

DAVIDSON: Let's live, and we'll see?


DAVIDSON: We'll see what happens. Olga Bidinskaya, thank you very much.

BIDINSKAYA: Thank you.

DAVIDSON: That's Moscow's television journalist Olga Bidinskaya. Her interpreter is Maria Chougrova. For Common Ground, I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

MARTIN: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. Transcripts are free, cassettes cost $5.00. To order or to share your comments, write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore St., Muscatine, Iowa, 52761. Ask for program number 9619. To order by credit card, call us at 319-264-1500. For Common Ground, I'm Jeff Martin.

B.J. Leiderman created out theme music. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.


Copyright © 1996, The Stanley Foundation