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Is Patriarchy on its way out of North Africa? – Professor Hussein Solomon

February 3, 2020


Is Patriarchy on its way out of North Africa?

by Hussein Solomon

Volume 8 (2020), Number 3 (February 2020)

It is easy sometimes to lose hope when discussing gender in the context of North Africa. The most recent Arab Barometer, for instance, found that almost a third (32 percent) of Egyptians approve of the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. Other surveys are equally pessimistic pointing to the fact that four-fifths of Algerians and Egyptians believe than men are better political leaders than women. Women’s participation in the labour force, meanwhile, is approximately a third of that of men and women’s. All this points to the entrenchment of patriarchal norms throughout North African societies.

But there is reason to hope that a new post-patriarchal order is taking shape in North Africa – not least because of women’s activism. There is reason to believe that women’s experiences in mobilizing against authoritarian regimes in the region have resulted in a new consciousness on their part where they see the connection between their own oppression and the need for emancipation of the broader society. When women took to the streets against Al-Bashir in Sudan it was their awareness of how fuel shortages and inflation brought on by corrupt and inefficient governance were increasing household food insecurity. Following the July 2019 agreement between the military junta and the alliance of opposition parties, there was an effort to force women back into the home to play their “traditional” roles. However, women have remained politically engaged and mobilized – decrying everything from the persistence of sexual harassment to demanding for the prosecutions of those involved in wrong-doing from the Bashir era.

Meanwhile, in Algiers, women have been at the forefront of the protest movement against the establishment or what Algerians term a “Le Pouvoir” – the cabal of generals, businessmen and politicians of the ruling party which govern this North African country. For 19-year old Miriam Saoud, it was to see the back of this political elite which has impoverished ordinary Algerians through their corrupt practices. For 22-year old political science student Amina Djouadi, it was about real political representation for male and female citizens. Whilst the presence of this younger generation of women makes sense given the fact that half of Algeria’s population is below thirty years of age, and these bear the brunt of unemployment, older women have also been on the Algerian streets. Elderly women like NissaImad was also on the streets protesting. All five of her children are unemployed. Explaining her presence against the barricades she defiantly states, “I am here for the young, for our kids. There’s nothing for the young generations. No jobs and no houses. They can’t get married. We want this whole system to go”. It is clear from the narratives of these women that they see the connection between their daily lived experiences of disempowerment and marginalization and the broader structural causes and are therefore actively seeking the ending of this patriarchal and oppressive political and economic order.

North Africa is engulfed in tectonic economic, political and socio-cultural changes wrought by processes of globalization, technological innovation and urbanization. These have fundamentally transformed the region towards greater levels of education and labour market participation of women. In the process, it is contributing to less Muslim support for patriarchal values.  As people acquire more education, they grow more tolerant and egalitarian in their values. This serves to undermine patriarchal values. Younger people in the MENA region are more educated than their parents’ generation and demonstrate less patriarchal values according to various surveys undertaken.  Research undertaken by Alexander and Welzel demonstrates that the more political open societies become, the less patriarchal they are. Similarly economic changes in these societies has seen more women entering the work force. Not only are these women financially independent but they choose to either marry later in life or choose non-traditional forms of cohabitation. These developments also serve to undermine fundamentalist patriarchal norms.

Changing attitudes are increasingly reflected in government policies. Morocco’s Mudawannah (family code) makes men and women equally responsible for the well-being of their family. In Tunisia, meanwhile, President Beji Said Essebi established a Commission for Individual Freedoms and Equality in 2018. Following recommendations from this commission, a raft of gender friendly legislation was enacted. These included equal inheritance between the sexes, overturning the ban which prevented women from marrying outside of their faith and criminalizing violence against women.

On the political front, too, there has been progress.The inclusion of women in political processes and their representation in the region’s parliaments is imperative not only for the cause of women’s emancipation but in an effort to deepen the democratic experience in countries. Despite women constituting only 17 percent of Moroccan parliamentarians, they asked 58 percent of the questions. In the process, refuting notions of women being docile, largely passive and giving way to their male peers. It is important to note that female members of parliament in Morocco did not only confine themselves to focusing on issues of women’s and children’s right but also on issues of economics and education[1]. This suggests that these women see the connection between their lived experiences and broader structural conditions which lead to their marginalization. Given women’s increased visibility in the political sphere from the Arab Spring to the current wave of protests wracking the region, the possibility that female political representation will increase in the region is highly likely.

Despite challenges in the short to medium term, patriarchy is on its way out for North Africa.




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