When women in the Middle East make the headlines, it is usually as victims. Disturbing stories of the so called 'Islamic State' (ISIS) kidnapping and raping tens of thousands of women are sadly often the ones which stick in the Western memory. But there is more to women's political lives in the region than their victimisation and oppression. We decided to look to the future, present and past in this issue, in order to present an alternative narrative which challenges these representations of women.
This issue opens with Robert Bain's work, in which we are taken back to ancient Assyria. He discusses parallels between Assyrian rule and ISIS – two cultures feasting on violence and terror, and whose treatment of women has been similarly troubling.
It is often assumed in the West that political Islam might be the biggest hindrances for women's rights in the region. However, developments in Egypt, ranked as the worst country for women's rights in the Arab world in 2013, show that women's rights have even deteriorated under the current – secular – leadership. Equally, Lebanon's multi-confessional democracy and Syria's allegedly secular authoritarianism are examples where we see that the assumption about women's rights depending on the worldview and ideology of a political system is not so straightforward.
Liberal Lebanon's parliament is, with only 3 per cent female representatives, hardly more gender-balanced than those of the more conservative Gulf States. When the Ta'if agreement for Lebanon was negotiated, its 'fathers' (!) introduced quotas for the representation of the 18 different sects in the country – but not for the slightly more than 50 per cent of the population who are women. Walid Hussein from the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections discusses the potential benefits of establishing a female quota in the electoral system.
With regard to Syria, political analyst Wael Sawah analyzes the meagre mentioning of women's rights in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's programme over the past decades. The Syrian journalist Yahya Alous takes a critical look at how the Ba'ath Party in Syria has attempted to deal with the issue of women's rights – more for the outer appearance than actually advancing women's rights.
Women's political participation and representation is the topic of further articles, including a piece by Hoda El Khatib Chalak advocating for the vital role of women in policy-making in the Middle East. The activist Leen Hashem studies the role of women in the recent anti- government protests in Lebanon from a feminist perspective. These women feature in the iconic photographs by Marwan Tahtah, Hussein Baydoun and Ibrahim Dirani across the issue.
The marginalisation of women in politics is not down to their reticence to speak out, but even for very vocal women it is not easy to be taken seriously. Syrian activist and blogger Marcell Shehwaro furiously shares her experiences on how people treat women based on clichés, and the absurdities women must contend with in order to garner respect and legitimacy in a men's world.
Taking a broader look at developments for women in the region, Palestinian sociologist Dr. Honaida Ghanim provocatively asks whether Arab feminism came to an end with the collapse of the Arab spring. The ongoing war in Syria is a source of great struggle for many thousands of women. This issue explores what it means to be on different ends of a conflict in three articles featuring Syrian women in exile, in both regime-controlled and opposition areas. Syrian activist Majd Chourbaji talks about the double burden for female Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Lubna Alkanawati, a Syrian activist who has long been living under siege, explains the special situation and needs of women in besieged areas. Alisha Molter interviews a young woman from Damascus, who speaks out about changing attitudes and life in a capital that is slowly becoming devoid of men.
Given that peace talks worldwide tend to remain in the hands of men – even though the negotiations' results affect the lives of both men and women. Thus, bringing women to the negotiating table is an absolutely necessary demand. Yet it matters how they get there; Rami Araban discusses why in his article on the 'Women Advisory Board' in Syria's Geneva talks. Finally, Lebanese illustrator Jana Traboulsi movingly depicts women in the region with her pencil and colours.
For the title, we decided to use a line from a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. In 'Poem Of The Land' he calls upon Khadija, the most famous female figure in Arab and Muslim history, 'not to close the door'. We found it inspiring to think of women's power to decide access to their lives; how much they disclose, or whether they will allow only a glimpse through the door gap.
Time to turn the page, and enjoy reading.
Bente Scheller, Dorothea Rischewski, Bettina Marx and Joachim Paul
Table of contents:
Envisioning a Better Future: The Importance of Arab Women in Pursuing Democracy 22
Hoda El Khatib Chalak
In Order to Be Taken Seriously 33
Between Trauma and Resistance: Feminist Engagement with the Arab Spring 35
Life in Exile: New Roles and New Challenges for Syrian Women 42
Alisha Molter talks to Majd Chourbaji
Besieged but Unbroken 45
An interview with Lubna Alkanawati
Drinking, Dancing and Distrust: A Woman's Life in Damascus 49