The women situation in Muslim countries

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Within the subject “International Questions” there are a lot of different things you could choose to work with, but I wanted to do something that was topical and interesting. The title became therefore “The women situation in Muslim countries”. I chose to compare a country that I considered as a good country with a country that I considered as a bad country in this question. The countries are Turkey respectively Saudi Arabia. The questions I have worked with are:
● Why is it better/worse in the other country?
- What role does wealth play?
- What role does Islam play?
- What role do tradition and history play?
● Which are the differences between the countries?
● Which are the similarities between the countries?
● What can the countries do to become better?

The essay is divided in three parts, one about Saudi Arabia, one about Turkey and one about Islam. The sources I have used are mostly from the internet, but in the part about Saudi Arabia there is an interview with ***** *****, who has lived there. In the part about Islam have I only been able to use one source, a book. It is written by a non-practising Muslim, who is an immigrant in Denmark, but I would consider the book as neutral, it feels like the author just want to explain what Islam really is. The quotations from Mohammed in this part are taken from the book, and they are freely translated by me.
I have been trying to be neutral in my work, but both I and the sources I have used are, of course, influenced by the world we live in, where the Western world wants that all Muslim countries will be more secularised.

Saudi Arabia

Key Facts
Official name: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Continent: Asia
Capital city: Riyadh (2 800 000 inhabitants, estimated in 2000)
Population: 21 700 000 (estimated in 2002)
Constitution: Monarchy
Area: 2 240 000 km²
(Sources: Landguiden and World Factbook)

Islam is the only religion
In Saudi Arabia, both the public and private life are ruled by Islam. Islam is the only religion Saudis are allowed to practice. Foreigners with other religions can only practice them in private. The dominating branch of Islam is Sunni, which about 85% belong to. In Saudi Arabia there is a special kind of Sunni, which is called Wahhabism. It is an orthodox and puritanical way of Sunni, and it demands total loyalty towards the Koran and Mohammed and what he said.

The religious police controls
The laws of the country are built on Sharia, the holy laws of Islam. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Mutawwa), otherwise called the religious police, control that women dress right, that men and women are separated in public places and that prayers are held at the right time.
Most of the Saudi Arabic women dress in a so called Ghodwa. It consists of an Abaya, which covers the whole body, a veil or head scarf that covers the hair and a Litham which only shows a little chink of their eyes. They also wear a veil over their faces, which makes it almost impossible to see who is inside. There are outspoken women that just wear a veil or head scarf which covers the hair and the neck, but they run the risk of being persecuted or slandered, both by people they do not know, and by their families.

The school system
In 1962 the first school for girls opened. 35 years later (in 1997) about 47% of the Saudi Arabic girls study. Girls and boys are separated in school, and do not go in the same classes. Year 2002 the system for girl schools was changed. Instead of being religiously controlled, it became controlled by the ministry for education. Before, the students’ education was dominated by Islam studies, nowadays, more place is given to “ordinary” subjects, but the students still have to study Islam a little.
The education is divided in two six year levels, which both are divided into two three year levels. None of them are compulsory, but all levels are free, although the quality of the education has been criticised. There are higher educations, such as universities, where six of the country’s eight universities are open for women, but women are not allowed to study everything, for example journalism, jurisprudence or IT are areas, which are forbidden for women. Only 30% of the students in the universities are women.

The labour market
Before the oil was discovered in the 30s, Saudi Arabia was one of the poorest countries in the world. After the discovery, Saudi Arabia became rich, in a very short time, without having to do very much. The country has been able to modernise itself and it has become a welfare state. The people are quite used to living well, without working, so most of the people working in the country are foreigners. In 1999, only 44% of the manpower were Saudis. The goal is that more people will get a vocational education, so circa 53% of the manpower are Saudis by year 2005. Only 17% of the manpower are women.
All of the working places are segregated and have different departments for men and women. The only place where women and men can work side by side is in the hospitals. They may also treat patients by the opposite sex.

Real life in Saudi Arabia
***** ***** is a Swedish girl who lived in Saudi Arabia for five years, between 1998 to 2003, in the capital city Riyadh. She and her brothers studied at the American school and they lived in an area where almost only other foreigners lived. She told me a little about living in Saudi Arabia, as a European, non-Muslim girl.
Both she and her mother had to wear the Abaya, and her mother had to have a veil or head scarf, which covered her hair. The Saudi Arabic women could wear trademark clothes under their Abayas, if they were rich. *****’s brothers could wear what they wanted, but in school they had a “dresscode” after year five.
The Saudi Arabic women were usually allowed to go out if they had some friends as company, but some women were not allowed to go out at all. ***** herself said that she would absolutely not go out alone, except from the area she lived in.
Men and women were never allowed to see each other in public places, so there were no cinemas and no theatres. ***** was not sure if the Saudi Arabic women were allowed to perform any sports, but she and her mother could go to a gym, where all women were welcome, but it was very secret, so instead of gym it was called medical centre. At ***** ’s school the students could play football or basketball or do athletics, after the school day was over.
She told me that women were not allowed to drive cars and in the restaurants there were two different areas, which were separated, one for men and one for families. The “priests” (Ulamas) were very powerful and people were very religious.

It is important to remember that ***** and her family lived in Riyadh, where life could be more religiously ruled, than for example in the coast cities, where people are more used to culture mixes. There are also provinces in Saudi Arabia where the majority of the people belong to other branches of Islam than the strict Wahhabism.


Key Facts
Official name: Republic of Turkey
Continent: Europe (Although the biggest part is situated in Asia)
Capital City: Ankara (4 007 860 inhabitants, estimated in 2000)
Population: 68 600 000 (estimated in 2002)
Constitution: Republic
Area: 779 452 km²
(Sources: Landguiden and World Factbook)

Islam is the dominating religion
In Turkey about 97% of the population are Muslims and most of them belong to the Sunni branch. There is a direction called Alevi, which approximately eleven to twenty per cent of the Kurds and Turks professes to. They worship Muhammad’s relative Ali, just as the Shiites, but they don’t want to be called Shiites. The Alevis are actually a mixture of different religions that exist in Asia and they do not celebrate all the ceremonies that Muslims celebrate. The Alevis are fairly equal spread over the country.

Too much religion is not allowed
In the 1920’s were the country ruled by Kemal Atatürk. He wanted to oppose to the Ottoman Empire, which had been religiously ruled, so he forbade women to wear veils or head scarves and all the religious schools were closed. The country was no longer ruled by Sharia; instead it was ruled by laws like the Western world had. The religious leaders (both Muslim and Non-Muslim) were forbidden to wear their uniforms in public.
In a military coup in 1980 Turkey became less strict, mainly because the army wanted to weaken the Left wing. Religious schools opened again and mosques were built. Women started to wear veils and head scarves again, which chocked many people. Many of those, who started to wear veils or head scarves then, were poor students who wanted to protest against the rich people who were in power. Today it is still forbidden for women to wear veils or head scarves at work, even though 64% of the women state that they wear veils and 74% of the entire population consider that women should be allowed to wear veils or head scarves at work (estimated in 2003 respectively in 2000).
Parties that threaten the secularisation are forbidden, but Islam friendly parties exist still, and have existed since the 1950’s. Militant Islamic groups are, however, forbidden.

High illiteracy and low quality on the education
When you are six years old in Turkey, you have to start the eight year compulsory, free school. Then follows a voluntary upper secondary school, which consists of three or four year’s education. Although education is compulsory, there are many children that do not go to school, especially in the eastern parts, where it was estimated in the 90’s that only 50% of the children started school.
Because of this, the illiteracy is high, 93% of the men can write and read, but only 76% of the women are able to write and read. The government do not invest so much money in the school and the education holds low quality and it is not unusual that parents bribe the teachers.

Discrimination despite law
The 18th of May 2002 the Authority for religious matters declared men and women as equals. Despite this, some women is still discriminated, for example in families where the men have all the power over the women. In some conservative families women are bound to marry someone against their will or wear a veil or a head scarf. This is more common in the south-eastern part and in the countryside, where life can be more conservative than in the western parts and the big cities. In southeast many of the women are illiterates, as few as 39% know how to read and write.

Economical crises and unemployment
In Turkey there is a big shortage of jobs and there are big differences between rich and poor. Official figures show that about 11% were unemployed year 2002, but unofficial figures say that it was approximately 30% which were unemployed then. The 21st century began with economical crises and the Lira (the currency) fell to bottom levels, which forced the government to take loans from different international currency organizations.
It is believed that there are about five million unregistered workers in the country and about ten per cent of the 6 to 17 year olds perform some kind of work. One third of the Turkish women work, but only one per cent is in high positions, where they have the possibility to take big decisions. Most of the women work within the medical service, the school or the textile industry.


Muslim women’s lives can be very different, depending on for example which branch of Islam they belong to. One thing which is common for many of the Muslim women is that their honour only depends on their sexuality. As early as when the girls are about ten years old they learn to protect their virginity, dress respectable and run the household. It is no longer decent to play in the street or say hello or smile to a man.

A woman are not bound to wear a veil, according to the Koran, considers the author Naser Khader. The Koran only says that women should dress respectable. He means that veil-wearing is a pre-Islamic custom that originates from Mesopotamia and Assyria, which later became a status symbol for the Byzantine Christian women. The persons who interpreted the Koran for hundreds of years ago and were of Byzantine family regarded that women had to wear a veil. Some other interpreters claimed that the women had to cover themselves totally.
During the beginning of the 20th century, more and more women started to take off their veils. Some of the women did that because they wanted to protest against the badly functioning Ottoman Empire. But after some time, people started to wear veils again, this time to protest against the colonial powers in the Western world, which had colonies in Muslim countries, and against the Muslim countries that were poor.
Today there are many different reasons to wear a veil. Some women wear it because they think that the religion demands it, other use it as a political symbol, to protest against things, when it is bad times. Another reason is that they got more freedom of movement, and people do not slander them. Other women are simply forced to wear it.

Marrying and divorcing
According to the Koran, marriage is not obligatory, but in reality it almost is. In most Muslim families, it is the family that choose the future wife or husband for their children, but they can never force their children to marry someone they do not want to marry. Sometimes, when the family has found someone they think is suitable, may the girl and boy meet and see if they like each other before the families decides anything, but for example in Saudi Arabia the couple meet first on the wedding night.
If it is necessary, says the Koran that it is okay to divorce, but the best is always reconciliation. There are different kinds of divorces, the one which is approved by the entire Muslim world, is called talaq. The man says that he wants to divorce, and he does not need a reason for it and the woman gets the “second dowry”. The woman can not ask for this form of divorce, but a woman can buy herself free and in that case give up the dowry. A third possibility is that a judge divorce the woman and the man, and the woman get her dowry.
A divorced woman move, most of the times, home to her biological family. Hopefully, they are willing to accept her, but if she for example had been unfaithful, it is very likely that she will be rejected by her family and she has to earn her living by prostitution and alms. If her family is poor, even if they accept her, prostitution is her only way to earn her living.
Whether Islam advocates or opposes to abortions and contraceptives is difficult to say. Those who advocates abortion says that Mohammed said “The biggest catastrophe is many children and insignificant maintenance”, while those who oppose to abortion say that Mohammed said: “Do not slay your children in fear of poverty”.


Which are the differences and similarities between the countries?
The only similarity I have found between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is the religion. Both countries belong to Islam and most of the people to the Sunni branch. The differences are many, in Saudi Arabia you have to be a Muslim and they have a religious police which controls almost everything, in Turkey you can have which religion you want to, but the government wants to secularise so much so religious symbols are not allowed to have when you work, for example to wear a veil. In Saudi Arabia, on the3 other hand, women are forced to wear clothes which cover themselves totally. In Saudi Arabia they study Islam a lot, but in Turkey they don’t study Islam so much and Islam schools have been forbidden. I think that the women situation is more worse in Saudi Arabia than in Turkey, it feels like the entire view of women in Saudi Arabia is that they should be hidden. In Turkey they have more freedom (at least in the bigger cities) and live almost like we do here in the rest of the Western world.

Why is it better/worse in the other country and do wealth, Islam and history play any role?
My opinion is that the women situation is better in Turkey because; the education is compulsory and free, both women and men are allowed to work and the state is not ruled by any religion.
Why Saudi Arabia on the other hand, is not so good on treating men and women equally, is due to that the state is ruled by religion, that men are allowed to do a lot more things than women and that all of the Saudis must be Muslims.
The conclusion I have drawn is that wealth matters. Both the state’s wealth and the personal wealth. The state’s wealth has to be good, so the state can invest in for example education, so the education can hold high quality and be open and free for everyone. The personal wealth has to be good, because if it isn’t, children in big and poor families have to work to earn the family’s living. This means in most cases no time for school. In families where not everybody has to work, it is the boys that are given the opportunity to go to school. One reason is that some families think that it is unnecessary for girls to go to school. Another reason is that it is more profitable to have boys in school, because it is easier for them to get a well-paid job after finishing school than it is for girls, even though the girl may have the same education to stand on. But why is education so important? Because, without education, one has little possibilities to change one’s life. With no education you cannot analyse your life in the way you could have done with an education, you believe what people tell you because it is the only source of information you got and you don’t create the same understandings for other cultures, people and religions as people with education do. Those people with no education are stuck in the same way of thinking as their friends and ancestors. For women, this means that they can’t change their lives so easy because they don’t really have anything else to compare with, and their lives don’t develop, so they have the same traditional roles as their mothers had.
I don’t think that Islam matters so much, because a woman who lives in Saudi Arabia can have a totally different life compared to a woman in Turkey, although they belong to the same branch of Islam, the Sunni branch. In Saudi Arabia they say that women have to cover themselves, because the Koran demands it, but the Koran only says that women should dress respectable. The oppression of women is more due to tradition and history than Islam.
As you have read, life is less conservative in cities by the coast, and cities which are big. Here, people are used to people from different countries, different cultures and the education level is higher.

What can the countries do to become better?
I think that Turkey should invest more money in school so the quality can be better and arrange so that all children can go to school. Today only one third of the women work so first of all they have to create more work opportunities and then employ more women. One problem, which countries in the Western world also have, is that there aren’t so many women in high decisive positions so the decisions which are taken are only taken from men’s point of view, and sometimes men and women think about different things, so some questions which women think more about are never eve...

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