Gema Martin Munoz in Project Syndicate:
Consider Arab women. The predominant image is of a passive, exotic, and veiled victim-woman who reacts to events instead of actively participating in them. She is an impersonal object of communal stereotypes that sustain cultural prejudices.
In fact, Arab societies are engaged in a process of immense and irreversible change in which women are playing a crucial role. During the last half-century, intense urbanization and feminization of the workforce in all Arab countries has propelled women into the public arena on a massive scale.
During this period, differences in schooling levels between boys and girls have lessened everywhere – though at different speeds. Indeed, in many Arab countries, more girls than boys are now in secondary and higher education, which shows that parents consider their daughters’ education to be just as important as that of their sons. And all surveys show that young men and women want to study and have a job before they marry. (Moreover, they increasingly want to choose their own partner.)
At the same time, demographic shifts, along with social and economic factors affecting education and work, are forcing profound change on the traditional model of the Arab family. Higher ages for marriage and declining fertility – resulting directly from widening use of artificial contraception – are reducing family size to something much closer to the “nuclear families” of the West. The Maghreb region may lead in this regard, but the phenomenon is observable throughout the Arab world, even in the most rigidly conservative states.
This new family model has gained so much force that it is imposing itself on rural society, too, where the decline of the agrarian economy is accompanied by a strong shift towards smaller families. This change is occurring at slightly different speeds across the Arab world, but often it is occurring simultaneously in town and country.
Not surprisingly, these changes have led to a redistribution of power between old and young – and between men and women.