Gender Roles of North Africa and the Middle East vs. Southeast Asia
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Dec 16th, 2019

Gender Roles of North Africa and the Middle East vs. Southeast Asia

The status and gender roles of women differ throughout the regions of the world. The rights, privileges, and roles of women in different regions is important to note in the study of regional geography, because these variables are strong indicators of economic growth, dominant religions, and population growth.

Two regions that are important to study in terms of gender roles are the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

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Upon studying the gender roles and heavy examination of the cultures, the women of North Africa and the Middle East seem to have more power in the culture than the women of Southeast Asia.

It is important to begin at the base fundamentals of both cultures when addressing this topic. To do so, one must analyze the culture and the role of women at home and in the family. According to Valentine M. Moghadam, writer of Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, Muslim family laws fundamentally support a patriarchal ideology, and as a result, women remain in a supportive role in the family.

The husband is given the role of earning for the family and maintaining discipline, while the wife is given the role of “support”, in which she must emotionally stabilize the household while appropriately developing the children to be able to socialize with the system around them. While this structure is not inherently flawed, the institution of marriage is “perhaps the only societal institution that is conceptualized as ‘essential’ and ‘natural’” (Moghadam 113).

This results in women being pressured or even forced to stay in the role of “caretaker” by the culture that embodies the region. Concrete evidence of this is shown in the Global Gender Gap Report (2015). The countries that make up North Africa and the Middle East have the lowest rate of women in the labor force, despite increasing rate of education. This causes women to be funneled into public sector jobs rather than private sector, in order to keep women tied to their maternal role in the home, according to “Women, Business, and the Law”, a report by the World Bank in 2016.

While these values become problematic for women in the region, the culture around marriage in Southeast Asia is fundamentally toxic and one-sided for women. Arranged marriages were very popular in the region, and were arranged by the families of both the bride and the groom with the main goal of creating an alliance between two families. Many of these arranged marriages were executed such that the bride and groom would not even see each other before the wedding day.

This shifted the value system of marriage from love and marital-bond to socioeconomic status. In response to these actions, Southeast Asia is experiencing an epidemic of divorce, and overall decrease in marriage. While women have the freedom to leave their marriage with a bit more ease than in the Middle Eastern culture, this path does not become an easy one for single women. According Gavin Jones and Kamalini Ramdas, authors of (Un)tying the Knot: Ideal and Reality in Asian Marriage, “Indonesian society continues to believe in the sanctity of the institution of marriage as a manifestation of religious teachings.

Initially, marriage was a matter of choice (sunnah), but in its later development, it has become an obligation for women, though not for men. Women see marriage as deeply problematic as women who choose to remain single are subjected to insults and gossip…’the problem is that the idealization of marriage has stigmatized those who are unable to marry. For example, they are called spinsters, unwanted women’” (Jones, Ramdas 156).

Not only does the institution of marriage become difficult for women while they are working, but domestic violence is a massive problem in the region. This is due to both toxic cultural values and poor legal consequences for perpetrators. Physical abuse against women has reached almost 60% in this region according to Additionally, many of these countries do not even have proper legislation to criminalize marital rape in these countries.

While North Africa and the Middle East have developed systems that tend to keep women in certain roles, the law provides punishment to the perpetrators, provided the crime is reported. This is not the case for the institution of marriage in Southeast Asia. The situation is a lose-lose for women of the region, as they will be culturally chastised for remaining single, and the institution of marriage gives them a false sense of power, and the women become legally unprotected. Therefore, Women in Southeast Asia culturally have less power than the women in the Middle East and North Africa.

Politics in both regions have been heavily dominated by men. It was not until recently that women in both regions began to directly influence politics in their respected regions. In the Middle East and North Africa, women faced a large amount of discrimination and resistance trying to gain access to political leadership positions.

Most of this resistance came from Islamic parties and affiliations due to the problems stated previously. During the 1960s and 1970s, women were only hired to do menial tasks in support of these parties and movements until women were granted access to political office in 2014. This is no doubt a result of women’s involvement with religious political movement for decades.

According to the Project On Middle East Political Science, a collaboration of political scientists at the George Washington University, “…in a cross-national study have also recognized that ‘Islamic parties are more likely now to emphasize democracy and gender equality, and to deemphasize the implementation of shari’a.’” (POMEPS 17).

Since the Arab Spring of 2012, the participation of women in politics has steadily increased in countries such as Jordan, Tunisia, and Iran. On January 10, 2016, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi convened his first parliament, in which seventeen out of the four hundred and twenty seats of the single-members districts, and fifty-six provisional quota seats.

While this is not a massive number, women continue to make massive strides in the political systems of their country, to the point in which the percentage of parliamentary questions asked by females peaks at 18%, even though women have such little representations. While women in the Middle East continue to gain power in their respective countries, the women in Southeast Asia make progress, but ultimately do not have the power that they deserve.

On the surface, women are unrestricted to be appointed to office, however they do face barriers in order to get there. According Amara Raksasataya of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, some countries will have requirements for women that they do not have for men. For example, women who want the position of administrative-officer must go through the same military training that male officers in the country of Thailand do. Additionally, Raksasataya states, “Religions seem to play a great role in molding their thought and behavior.

Islam explicitly places women at men’s whim; Buddhist teaching, on the other hand, implies women’s secondary, but not subservient, role. In the Catholic Philippines, women’s place is more equal. Yet, in all countries, men, as well as many women, do not generally approve of women’s participation in public life” (Raksasataya 90).

Due to legal and cultural barriers, women must play a different role in influencing politics in the region. Women receive equal representation in public services as men. In the same study, Raksasataya states, “n. In primary and secondary education, boys and girls, in roughly equal numbers, go to school. In higher education, at the undergraduate level in the academic year 1966-1967, 43 per cent of the total students (32,691) are women.

About equal numbers of male and female students are studying in all fields except in the field of engineering. Furthermore, during the same academic year, of total full-time instructors, about 45 per cent were women. This indicates that women’s influence on Thai intellectual life is very great” (Raksasataya 89). With the education they are pursuing, women have become active in forming associations such as the “Women Graduates in Law Association” and “Business Women’s Association”.

While women continue to be active in these groups in order to influence the political state of the region, they do not have real direct influence or representation in politics or government. Therefore, the women of the Middle East and North Africa seem to have more power over politics and government in their respected countries.

With the established knowledge of gender roles of women in both regions, the women of the Middle East and North Africa have more tangible control than the women of Southeast Asia. The amount of opportunities and security in the Middle Eastern culture outweighs those for the women in Southeast Asia. The amount of direct participation is also much greater for the women of The Middle East than the women of Southeast Asia as well. Therefore, overall, women in North Africa and the Middle East have more power than the women of Southeast Asia.

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