Without Considering Its Complexity and Diversity, This Part of the World Cannot Be Understood

, by Farian Sabahi - Alumna Bocconi, ricercatrice all'Universita' dell'Insubria
The Middle East and North Africa region is very uneven in economic and social terms, and with regard to the condition of women. As in Iran and Afghanistan, neighboring countries, where the consideration for female education is poles apart. And where, moreover, the present represents a step backwards compared to the past, if you look at gender rights

Complexity and diversity are the keys to decipher the Middle East and North Africa, i.e. the area of the world that extends from Morocco to the West, to Pakistan to the East. It is a highly uneven region in economic, religious and social terms. By way of example, from a macroeconomic point of view, Qatar is among the countries with the highest GDP per capita in the world, occupying fourth position with a value of $89,417 according to the 2023 projections of the International Monetary Fund. With only $1,017 per capita, the situation in Yemen is diametrically opposite. A country which, following the Arab Spring of 2011-2012, managed to oust President Ali Abdallah Saleh, but due to the takeover of the capital Sanaa by the Houthis (Shiite Muslims belonging to the Zaydi sect), the country was subsequently bombed several times after March 2015, by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (both Sunni Muslim regimes).

Also the societies of the MENA region are far from homogeneous, especially when it comes to the condition of women. In the case of Yemen, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring several legislative proposals were put forward during the National Dialogue Conference aimed at pacifying the different factions. The aim was to outlaw the marriage of girls and guarantee housing for divorcees, but these bills were shelved due to the war unleashed by the Saudis in 2015. Still on the subject of women and diversity, the case of Iran and Afghanistan is emblematic: two neighboring countries where female education is poles apart; if the Taliban regime prevents Afghan girls from attending school, the Islamic Republic of Iran enforces compulsory primary education for every child for duration of six years. Males and females attend separate institutions until completion of first-level schooling, after which classes are of mixed gender in universities, as established by Reza Shah Pahlavi at the time of the inauguration of the University of Tehran in 1935. Today, Iranian women represent two thirds of universities' first-year students and two thirds of their graduates. Young women, like their male peers, prefer scientific degrees, aware of the fact that a STEM education gives greater ease of finding a well-paid job in either the public or private sector, at home and abroad.

These two countries - Iran and Afghanistan - are also emblematic of how the present can represent a step backwards in terms of rights compared to the past. Before the khomeinist drift taken by the 1979 revolution, Iran had in fact undertaken a path - albeit from above and limited to urban centers and the bourgeoisie - to guarantee greater rights to women. After the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Tehran on February 1, 1979, some of these rights were canceled and it was made mandatory for women to cover their hair with a veil. Mutatis mutandis, in 2006, when the Western coalition was still present in Afghanistan, the Kabul parliament boasted the highest percentage of women in the region (25.9%). But the withdrawal of US troops in August 2021, the Taliban regained power and set themselves to prevent Afghan women from studying, working and participating in political life.

In light of these brief considerations, in order to understand the Middle East a multidisciplinary methodology, which considers economics, history, politics and other disciplines, is essential. Not least it needs to consider religion, because this is an area in which, despite the presence of numerous faiths, Islam is the dominant religion and there is no separation between religious power and state power. The Muslim religion is a tradition subject to markedly different interpretations, some of which may conflict with the respect for human rights. In fact, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, being a woman means being discriminated against by the legal system and patriarchal social structures. For this reason, an effective way to help young women from these countries is to provide scholarships and a visa system that can facilitate their acquiring skills in our universities. By way of example, we can remember the great Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017) who was awarded the Fields medal for her work, the most celebrated prize of the discipline.