Women’s rights in Muslim-majority countries have been improving greatly, over the past few years, thanks to the unprecedented interest of the political leaders, either individually or collectively, in empowering women. However, there is still a gap between the brave steps taken by decision-makers and the actual reality of women living in those countries. The suffering of women in the Islamic world is not limited to gender-based discrimination, like other women worldwide. Most of the sufferings of women in Islamic countries stems from political instability and lack of security. A good example on this is Arab women’s suffering under the unbearable civil wars and terrorist organizations wreaking havoc all over the Middle East.
Amidst this gloomy reality, a glimpse of hope emerged in Cairo, on July 8th. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), held its eighth special ministerial meeting to launch the “Women Development Organization (WDO). The ministerial meeting was chaired by the Egyptian National Council for Women. The Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi took spoke at the opening session of the meeting and announced the official launching of WDO. El-Sisi stressed that Egypt will dedicate an entire independent building, in Cairo, for the headquarters of WDO. In addition, Egypt will create a think tank to be attached to the organization. President El-Sisi, also, confirmed that Egypt will pay the WDO annual contributions, on behalf of the 22 less-developed countries, who are members of the organization.
ODW’s importance stems from being the first specialized transnational organization to be founded by OIC for the specific purpose of empower women in Islamic countries. The organization’s mission to challenge religious taboos and social stereotypes that kept women suffering for decades, is not an easy task. Ironically, there are many cultural, religious and social diversity among the women living in OIC member countries. However, the only thing that connects them together is that they all suffer from discrimination because of extremists’ misinterpretations of religious texts to justify unfair social norms and traditions against women.
In the ministerial meeting, Dr. Yousef bin Ahmed bin Abdul Rahman Al-Othaimeen, Secretary-General of OIC, commented on the abuse of religion in justifying discrimination against women. “This meeting is a clear message to our citizens in the Islamic world, and to the whole world, that pure, true, moderate Islam empowers and respects women. Women are honored in the Holy Qur’an and the authentic hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad;” said Al-Othaimeen. “Should we not rely too much on the rhetoric of extremists who have irresponsible and deviant interpretations of the rituals of our holy religion. They deny women their basic rights, while Islam made women equal to men in rights and duties.”
The fact that he comes from Saudi Arabia, where he is a citizen and OIC is based, adds glamour to the impressive speech of Dr. Yousef Al-Othaimeen. Not long ago, the status of women in Saudi Arabia has witnessed a huge leap, as part of the state’s 2030 comprehensive development project. Since he came in power, the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, courageously, took upon himself the mission to destroy the outdated and barren traditions that delayed the progress of the Kingdom. That included ending the severe discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia and encouraging them to participate in public life. Before Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi women were deprived the basic right to drive a car or buy a home. Now, Saudi women are leading development side by side with men in various government and non-governmental sectors. Saudi women’s percentage in the labor market doubled from 17% to 31%, in the last two years.
We can imagine the difficulty of the mission assigned to the OIC’s Women Development Organization, especially under the many political and security challenges in member Islamic countries. Yet, the level of pollical support and popular attention given to the new organization tells that it may be the glimpse of hope that we badly need to see in
the midst of the painful and dark reality of women in the Muslim world.