By: Rhonda Nemri
When it comes to education, some of us are sure with what we want to do after receiving a college degree; others are left wondering what the future holds. Even though most of our destiny is not fully understood, we still have some sort of direction of where we would like to be. However, some women are put in a place where education comes easy to them, but the aftermath of receiving the degree becomes a complicating matter. In many parts of the world, many people lack educational backgrounds due to societal roles, or not having the ability to afford such opportunities.
Women who hold some type of familial values tend to cater to the needs of their conditioned beliefs, and expected destiny. The women I speak of are Middle Eastern women, who tend to include themselves in educational experiences, yet find it hard to include themselves in a career path based off of many cultural norms that do not allow them to explore, and work in such industries such as math, science, medical, communication, and other fields. While being an educator and a Middle Eastern woman, I too found it hard to choose a career path, based off of family, and cultural expectations for me. I will discuss (1) The issues Middle Eastern women experience when it comes to education, and career paths, (2) my experiences highlighted through my lens as a Middle Eastern woman, (3) strategies for women to take part in education, and careers, and finally (4) offer some conclusions about this topic.
The Issues Middle Eastern Women Experience with Education and Career Paths
The question that I tend to ask myself is why are there many Middle Eastern women in the classrooms at universities, yet not many in the field they choose to study? There are many reasoning’s behind why a person chooses certain things for their lives. However, the main answer I can accumulate for this specific question is the cultural influence, and strict traditions the Middle Eastern culture tends to have on women versus men. The idea of women in this culture comes down to specific roles that she must acquire throughout her life. The main ones are marriage, children, and house duties. Her duties as a young lady are to learn these basic norms, and use it as a reminder of how to be successful as a woman. Even though there are many women who choose to have careers over this type of lifestyle, they are still eventually expected to fulfill these main roles as a woman in their life.
Women’s status in the Middle East has been one of those controversial matters that one cannot seem to understand what is essential to fix. In the Middle East there are different laws that are posed that show more leniency for men to do whatever they want. Nevertheless, for women this does not come easy for them, because she is to maintain a flawless image. Very few Middle Eastern Women get jobs once they receive their cap and gown. “In Lebanon 54 percent of university students are women, but only 26 percent of the labor force and 8 percent of legislators, senior officials, and managers are female” (Baker, 2012). “Sixty-three percent of Qatar’s university population is comprised of women, but ladies make up just 12 percent of the labor force and only 17 percent of legislators, senior officials and managers” (Baker, 2012). “But in Jordan, enrolment is excellent at 86 percent – however, girls drop out in secondary school because of early marriage” (Faisal, 2003).
Women in the United States who come from different countries become International Students, and have similar ways from the Middle East. Most of them come to the United States to receive a different atmosphere of education, however these women move back to their country, and get married once receiving their degree. Some women are already married, and attend a university with their spouse, and are expected to have a similar major as their spouse; taking similar classes together. Once their degree is received she is more socialized in the home, than in a career path.
As the influence of culture begins to rein on options, women in different parts of the Middle East have been given privileges to work in specific fields, or take part in political action. “Egypt has recently granted women the right to divorce their husband, in Tunisia abortion is legal, and polygamy is prohibited” (bakerl, 2012). “Women have served as ministers in the Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Iraqi, and Tunisian governments and as Vice President in Iran” (Baker, 2012). With all of these different opportunities given to women in the Middle East, there are still conservative, and extremist interpretations of religious laws, that have kept women from even stepping foot into the workforce (AbuKhalil, 2005). These laws and prohibitions on women, have led women to believe there is no purpose for her to fight for her right to achieve such goals and aspirations, because religious laws, and governmental laws perpetuates the stereotypical notion that women stay home, and men are the breadwinners of the family. “While women do have a luxury of attending college, men who are traditionally expected to be family breadwinners can’t afford to devote time to their studies” (Jezebel, 2012).
The problem arising in these situations, are that women are negating their true identities, and becoming the stereotypical weak-minded individual that is expected from them. They fear exploring their own lives and finding different paths that will benefit their social skills, and opportunities to be in the workforce. Philip Rushworth (2013) states:
Feminist activism in the Middle East is prey to two shared ideological discourses. On the one hand, scholars in the West have in the past denied the possibility of an indigenous feminism in the Middle East. At the same time, conservatives and others in the Middle East argue that feminism is anathema to the region, considering it an importation of Western and colonial ideas. These two discourses feed on another, denying women in the Middle East their agency while simultaneously asserting that feminism belongs solely to the West. (p. 8)
According to the Population Reference Bureau (2000) 42 percent of women in the Middle East and North Africa are illiterate, compared to 22 percent of men who are illiterate. About 73 percent of men enter the labor force, and 20 percent of women who are in the labor force (Population Reference Bureau, 2000). As we can see there are women who are educated, but the idea of working is a problem for women. There is gender discrimination that comes into place against women. Family laws, or civil codes usually requires women to get “permission from their male relatives, usually a husband or father, before seeking employment, requesting loans, starting a business, or traveling” (Population Reference Bureau, 2000).
“Even in the 1990s there was a big gender gap in education. However there’s a paradox that we have a lot of women getting higher education and they are still too absent from the workforce and politics” (as stated in Davies, 2012). So why do women go to school, and do not work afterwards? As education is an important factor for growth, it has becomes a reason for socialization, and friendships to be made. They meet their girlfriends there, or future husband. It allows them to explore opportunities, but at a minimum.
In Iraq, women have been forced to leave their jobs, and dismiss ever being involved in academics, or careers. “Women have also been prohibited by Shia militias from teaching other women. The threat has become real after two teachers – one in the mostly Shia Sadr City district and one in Kadhmiyah neighborhood – were killed after giving lessons to illiterate women near their homes” (Humanitarian News and Analysis, 2007). Khalid Hassan (2007), a Mahdi Army officer in Muthana Governorate quoted, “girls and women don’t need to read. They should be good mothers and housewives. The schools are just imbuing them with new and modern ideas that are inconsistent with Muslim women’s duties”. There are pressures that Jordanian women go through that keep them in a small social environment. “While growing number of Jordanian families—even low income ones—are buying cars, usually it’s the husbands who takes the car to work, leaving women stranded at home. When a woman dares to take a bus, she faces sexual harassment…which then restricts her movement” (Guarnieri, 2013, p. 3). So the thought of being educated, or career oriented for these women begin to be questioned, and becomes impossible in their mind. “Family matters in countries as diverse as Iran, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia are governed by religion-based personal status codes. Many of these laws treat women essentially as legal minors under the eternal guardianship of their male family members” (ListVerse, 2008). Family and citizenship laws throughout the region demote women to an inferior rank paralleled to their male counterparts. This is something that is apparent overseas, and currently in the U.S. Middle Eastern families. “This legal discrimination undermines women’s full personhood and equal participation in society and puts women at an increased risk for violence” (ListVerse, 2008).
Middle Eastern women create these boundaries for themselves as well. They do not engage in dialogue with other cultures, do not speak up in the classrooms, and are not aggressive in social situations with their peers, or professors when it comes to academic and career opportunities. These reasoning’s are quite understandable, given the idea that they have been conditioned to feel, and act this way. Then there are young women, who are born and raised in the United States, which really are different than women from the country side. Women in the U.S. are free to choose what they want; however, there are still restrictions and expectations from them.
A lot more young Arab women are expected to be in various fields which predominately deal with the medical field, or mathematics fields. It is hardly perceived that young Middle Eastern women engage themselves in a college career dealing with communication or creative arts. Perhaps the reasoning behind this is the idea that women are taught to not be very expressive, or speak up. This brings me to discuss my own experiences in the classroom, and as an educator in the communication field.
Experiences Highlighted as a Student and Educator in the Communication Field.
Being in a field that allows one to explore new ideas and enhance my social skills, has been one of the most pleasant experiences. However, before becoming an educator, I had my previous perceptions of how to act in the classroom as a young Middle Eastern woman. A few years ago in 2004, when I first entered a college classroom, I still had my notions that I should not really speak up during class discussions, or be the social type. This is mainly due to the way I was brought up, and how a young lady should carry herself in public. I definitely had to hold my comments, and bite my tongue, because I was trying to avoid saying something inappropriate. This method of social skills still stood with me through most of my college experience.
Firstly, being in the communication field was questioned by others. They had no idea what field that was, and they didn’t know what kind of job I would be working in. Most of the time fields such as biology, math, or medical fields were accepted among Arabs. I chose a different route, and engaged more and more in the communication field. I was able to understand how much more interaction I needed to have, in order to succeed. What the communication field did for me is something I probably wouldn’t have learned in any other field. It taught me to speak up, and to rationalize my thoughts, and voice my opinions the way I wanted. This is something that many young women like me do not experience, because they are afraid of reaching out, and learning something such as communication studies. It isn’t that they can’t do it; it is because they are afraid to do it.
Speaking in front of large crowds, or even small crowds becomes a hassle, because women like me should be more reserved in my language choices, and seem more passive aggressive in situations. I have learned to still be reserved in certain situations, and I have not let loose completely. However, indulging into rhetorical theories, and interpersonal theories, has taught me how to be ambitious, and speak up in times I wouldn’t have spoken up.
Being an educator in this field is a bit different than being a student. I am a different person when I stand in front of the classroom, compared to family, and certain friends. I feel this sense of empowerment, and allowing my students to see who I have longed to be. However, I have experienced some Middle Eastern women in the classroom, who are very compassionate, and reserved. It has been apparent to me that these Middle Eastern women come from the Middle East, and are extremely timid in the classroom, but have very good writing skills. Their ability to express themselves is more on paper, rather than in person. They are reserved because of cultural reasoning’s, which really limits their interaction with people they do not know, or male counterparts.
Taking an introductory level speech course, and being new to the United States is a challenging experience for many international students. However, when women are in these groups, they are usually distant, and when they speak it is hard to hear them because they are afraid of saying something wrong. This method of communication that these women use remove them from decision making methods during group projects, deny authoritative roles, or do not give any input or suggestions to others. This will then affect their behavior in the work industry, if they do not allow themselves to integrate in a working environment. I have never dealt with an Arab woman who wasn’t international, however, I am sure that more (not all) do not like to be engaged in more communication, and creative arts sects. The Arab men that I have dealt with are opposite, and become more dominant with education, and sharing comments. However, this isn’t always the case given the fact that having English as a second language is a barrier for some. But there is definitely a difference between the way men socialize, and the way women socialize.
Experiencing the communication and creative arts department more in-depth has helped in many aspects. It has helped me tremendously when interviewing others, job interviews, professional portfolios that highlight my work experience such as, teaching, public relations, writing and editing, and public speaking. Being an Arab woman, has been a struggle to try to be all this because there are set traditions I must fulfill such as marriage, and family. However, I have been able to move past that to make me a better person. So since I have done this, and have gained success, I will now offer some strategies and solutions to how women like me, whether from the Middle East or from the United States.
Strategies to Help Middle Eastern Women Progress in Education and Career
The point of these strategies is not for women to rebel their culture, but to slowly integrate themselves in courses that will allow them to have a different perspective on education and careers. There are many Middle Eastern feminist groups that fight for these women’s rights; however the conspiracy of silence has left women in a position to not speak up when they see something wrong. Middle East versus the U.S. should be given different strategies, because the Middle East population has stricter policies, and prohibit women from engaging in social settings, even if it is education. The improvement of certain areas in the Middle East that deal with women and education has changed. But there are still women who are left alone, and not given any attention. Women first need to accept the fact that they are useful in academia, and labor force.
If women continue to believe they are useless in these types of situations, then they will have their mind set on the stereotypical ways women should be treated. Middle Eastern women’s liberation is quite harder than most liberation movements, because the government holds these strict laws and codes that prohibit women from working, and being more socialized in the labor force. This should not just be a Middle East problem. Feminist Movements and Human Rights Organizations need to consider this specific issue as a human issue, rather than a cultural issue. As an Arab American feminist I find it difficult to reach out to certain Arab women, who deny or resist taking action to become educated because they are afraid of the consequences of speaking up. From a financial standpoint, women who are educated and work, allow for a second income in the household, which could be a benefit for them.
Women who reside in the United States find it a bit easier to take on different roles, and become independent. However, their voice is not fully heard. These young Arab women need to include themselves in more communication, and creative arts. This will enhance their social skills, become more determined to be successful, engage in public speaking with confidence, and articulate better in more oral and written situations. This is not to say they are not intelligent, it is to allow them to be more open-minded about making a difference in their lives, and to help other Arab women, who find it a struggle to be educated.
I am beginning to notice a lot of women who participate in social movements, such as protesting for their right to achieve and be successful, similarly to a man. These ways will help women become more liberated. The following strategies listed are suggestions women can take, in order to find better ways to be successful, rather than see success as just marriage and family.
1. Women need to start a dialogue with other women in their position, to begin to feel more comfortable stating their issues, so that they can hear it at loud, instead of holding it in. They need to come to terms with their issues such as gender inequalities, and not deny that there is a problem.
2. Arab families need to be exposed to more educational and career opportunities for women. They need to understand that these opportunities create a quality of life for women, and not the exaggerated assumption, that they will be more Westernized, and lose their values in the process of educating themselves.
3. Women need to get more involved in politics, whether local or national. The more they understand what is happening in their country and other countries, the more they will communicate to others about the issues happening. This opens a lot of doors for them to be educated in various issues that matter to them.
4. If women are in educational settings, they need to take more communication, history, and cultural courses that help them become more diverse in their thinking skills. They shouldn’t drop their field of choice, but to explore different departments, and have a broad perception of different studies.
5. If women are in educational settings, they need to join or attend university meetings for various organizations. This could be their student government organization, women organizations, religious organizations, or department organizations. This will help them network better with people similar to them, and allows them to have a broader perspective on communication. Along with university meetings, they can attend community meetings about the economic and political standings of their community. They can be more active, and approach situations differently.
6. Young Arab women, who do engage themselves in the communication and creative arts programs at their universities, need to pave the way, and inform women in their family, friends, and other peers about the benefits of these programs to their lives. We need to be able to make an awareness of the different opportunities for success, rather than hold it in to ourselves.
7. Married individuals who are having trouble accepting new traditions need to begin to dialogue about different needs, and wants. If couples are able to discuss future plans dealing with education, and careers, this will open the door for them to understand what needs to be done. Women need to talk to their husbands about their future in education, and have a set plan about what they want to gain from being educated. If women continue to see themselves as weak, and uneducated, then they will not have any confidence in speaking up.
8. Women should remove themselves from any situation that brings their value down. They need to surround themselves around positive people, who do not consistently tell them how to act and who to be. The more they are around successful women, the more they will want to strive to be successful.
9. If women find it hard to find ways to do all of these, perhaps using technology such as computers, smartphones, or local newspapers to find out more about current issues. If having technology is accessible, then they can allow themselves to read, and write more frequently. This will also help them become more open-minded to being successful the right way.
10. If women are having trouble finding ways to explore, then Feminist movements, and educators from all over the world need to see this as a problem that needs to be taken care of step by step. Using educational tools and techniques can help these women better themselves. Women like me should teach them, and get more involved, by exposing them to a better lifestyle, rather than see themselves as invaluable.
11. Middle Eastern men need to understand the value of women in this culture. There also needs to be educational tools to help men accept the idea of women becoming educated, and working in a field of their choice. Men need to learn to dismiss the idea, that women are inferior to them. Even though not all men behave this way, they can be the ones who support women rights movements, and create a positive outcome for women in education, and the labor force. They too, are part of the issue, and can be part of the solution as well.
This discussion on the issues of women who are from the Middle East, or are Middle Eastern is an issue that needs to be solved. There are many different social movements who bring up the question of women who are not educated. Even though many countries, including the United States deal with gender discrimination within universities, and workplace, there are women who are not given the same opportunity at all to even become educated or work. This does not mean their issues are more prominent, but it does mean that we cannot ignore the rights of these human beings, who deserve a chance at success. There is also the issue that people think because it is “cultural” norms, that we as Americans do not have the right to help alter the perceptions of these individuals, because it is none of our business. However, these should be natural human rights that women should attain. Let us not look at this issue, and count it off as an irrelevance to us. There are many global issues that arise in many different parts of the world; however, I find education to be something very valuable, that it would be a shame to dismiss it as important.
I have met many women in my life, who tell me they can’t because they have kids, or they can’t because they have marriage duties, or they can’t because their father does not accept it. I have come across many instances in my life where I was told I could not do something because I am a woman. As a Master’s degree recipient from the communication and creative department, I realized that it is definitely not impossible to achieve, because I have built a plan for myself, and did not allow others to intrude on my educational background, and work experience. It was hard for me at first to accept diversity, because I always assumed my culture is the only thing I can go by. Meeting people and networking with others who are different than me, has taught me a great value. It has also allowed me to articulate, and write well about subjects that I am interested in. It allowed me to be a more socialized person in different settings.
Being an Arab feminist is also not an easy thing for people to see. Conversely, because of education, and working with others, it has allowed me to verify myself as a feminist with no doubts. Being a feminist, has also allowed me to venture out, and find ways to give the voiceless a voice. I am glad to say that my academic ventures and career choices have influences my younger sisters, and various female cousins to want to be successful in either academia, or career wise. I hope to make a difference in something so dear to me, by allowing myself to engage with other women, and become an advocate for their well-being. This is something I have been working on, and doing for the past year, and will continue.
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