How Feminism Is Shaping Arab and Muslim Family Culture
Arab and Muslim single women negotiate their identities between two worlds.
Posted April 19, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- The trend toward singledom in both conservative and liberal societies happened following or in tandem with advances in gender equality.
- The proportion of singles in the Muslim and Arab worlds is on the rise.
- Arab and Muslim women are negotiating a traditional outlook of denigration and marginalization and a new identity of empowerment and ability.
Around the world, the level of gender equality and the sociocultural placement of feminism moderate relationship formation in society.1 Muslim and Arab societies are fascinating in this sense. These societies, which are still largely traditional, and relatively less affected by feminism when compared to Western liberal democracies, can provide some insight into how developments in gender equality and feminism are shaping family culture and relationship development.
On the one hand, recent data suggest that, despite increased urbanization, parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds are undergoing a process of retrograde in that the younger generation tends to be more conservative and less supportive of democracy and women’s rights than the older generation.2
Proportion of Singles Rising
But, on the other hand, the proportion of singles in the Muslim and Arab worlds is on the rise, and, especially since the Arab Spring, women have been increasingly empowered by their role in society.3,4
Similar trends have been noted in conservative societies outside of the Middle East, with feminist developments affecting the family structure and, therefore, relationship formation, notably in Islamic countries and in India,5,6 and even where the law still voraciously discriminates against women (for instance, where law prohibits women from divorcing their husbands7).
The advancement of women and gender equality in the Arab workforce has also been cited as a potential mechanism behind the reduced rates of marriage, resulting in a shift from prioritizing career over family in some cases.
Along with the developments and changes regarding women’s role in society, the discourse has developed to be more inclusive of "singleness" for women, where singlehood can now, in many respects, be considered as a new social category that was discursively constructed. The creation of a social category for Muslim and Arab single women—primarily as a response to the stigmatized identity of being a single woman—provides the opportunity to belong and identify with this group without necessarily inheriting the dysfunctions associated with being single.8,9
Negotiating Two Contrasting Worlds
In doing so, Arab and Muslim single women now negotiate their lives and identities between two contrasting worlds: the longstanding and traditional outlook of denigration and marginalization and a new identity of empowerment and ability.
This raises important questions: Are less-gender-equitable societies on the relationship trajectories comparable to those in Western societies? Are these trajectories an inevitable part of a globalized trend?
Regardless of the extent to which the answers to these questions are positive, the trend toward singledom in both conservative and liberal societies happened following or in tandem with advances in gender equality. Therefore, while Arab and Muslim single women are still affected by negative social viewpoints, new discourses enable more women to choose to be single.
Dr. Elyakim Kislev is the author of Relationships 5.0 and Happy Singlehood.
1. Rudman, L.A. and J.E. Phelan, The interpersonal power of feminism: Is feminism good for romantic relationships? Sex Roles, 2007. 57(11-12): p. 787-799.
2. Kostenko, V.V., P.A. Kuzmuchev, and E.D. Ponarin, Attitudes towards gender equality and perception of democracy in the Arab world. Democratization, 2015: p. 1-28.
3. Ali, N.M., Feminism in North Africa. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, 2016.
4. Jackson, M., A Season of Change: Egyptian Women's Organizing in the Arab Spring. Undercurrent, 2015. 11(1).
5. Alsharekh, A., Instigating social change: Translating feminism in the Arab world and India. QScience Connect, 2016: p. 2.
6. Vatuk, S., Islamic Feminism in India. Islamic Reform in South Asia, 2013: p. 346.
7. Al-Dabbagh, M., Saudi Arabian Women and Group Activism. Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, 2015. 11(2): p. 235.
8. Reynolds, J., The single woman: A discursive investigation. 2013: Routledge.
9. Reynolds, J. and M. Wetherell, The discursive climate of singleness: The consequences for women's negotiation of a single identity. Feminism & Psychology, 2003. 13(4): p. 489-510.