Calling out for a superhero – the status of women in the Middle East

By Rolene Marks

On the International day of Violence against Women, Lay of the Land examines the treatment of women in the Middle East and the status of women in the region.

The Middle East is one of the world’s most complex and complicated regions. In this neighbourhood, the rules are different, the players more ruthless but this has a severe impact on the women of the region and in an area where peace seems to be elusive, is it time for  the women of the Middle East to turn to a familiar superhero, Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman is iconic. She is strong, empowered, forthright and more than a little bit fabulous.

She stands for justice and truth, compassion and kindness. Wonder Woman is so fabulous, even her accessories are indestructible and face it, who doesn’t love fashion that has truth wielding super powers? Clearly Wonder Woman is what is needed in a region where the status of women is appalling.

It seems quite fitting that the bodacious Gal Gadot, one of the best Israeli exports since Waze and Mobileye, fills this iconic role. Beautiful, with Amazonian proportions and a deep love of her home country, Israel, Gadot is the perfect choice. While there are some who have sour grapes (yes you, BDS!) it hasn’t stopped her meteoric rise to the top and record-breaking box office takings. Talk about girl power in a rocking outfit! But this is hugely symbolic as well. Gadot exemplifies Israeli women who are outspoken, emboldened and empowered in a neighbourhood where our sisters are increasingly silenced and sidelined.

A neighbourhood of no’s

Often relegated to second class status, our sisters in our very volatile neighbourhood do not enjoy as many rights as their Israeli sisters do. Israel’s detractors would have you believe that women in minority communities in Israel are oppressed and subject to racially discriminating laws. This is so untrue, in fact, the Israeli Justice Ministry recently swore in its first Qadi, a female sharia judge.

For most women who live in the region, the Middle East is just a neighbourhood of no’s. No rights to vote, own property or businesses, no rights to as lucrative an education as their male counterparts, no rights to the freedom of expression or sexual orientation. In Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are at an all-time low, only since June 2018 women are allowed to drive but still moslty have to go anywhere with a chaperone. In many countries women have to cover their faces as well as their bodies and the effective message is that they have been silenced. In some instances women are subject to the most inhumane torture, female genital mutilation, for fear that she may enjoy sexual pleasure or stray.

wonder woman2
Lamiya Aji Bashar, an 18-year-old Yazidi girl who escaped her ISIS enslavers, describes how she was abducted along with her sisters and brothers when the group overran her village in 2014. She says she was passed around from militant to militant, trying to escape many times. (Balint Szlanko/Associated Press)

Women have been raped or fallen in love with someone who is not their chosen match, are often blamed and subject to honour killings, a hideous phenomenon which has left many dead or severely disfigured as a result of these heinous acts of retribution that seldom, if ever goes punished. Honour killings are usually conducted by relatives and there is very little recourse, if any for the victims.

Women in Gaza are prohibited from joining their global sisters in commemorating day’s d International Woman’s Day which takes place annually on the 8th of March. Hamas do this without a giving a reason and the territory continues to become more and more “conservative” and have imposed a strict dress code on women and banned them from smoking in cafes.

While Israeli women are extremely vocal on issues like gender parity and have joined the steadily growing #MeToo movement that exposes gross examples of sexual harassment their counterparts in other regional countries dare not. What of the fate of the Yazidi women, kidnapped and used by ISIS as their sex slaves?

Christian women have been raped and sold into slavery or killed as the Islamic State continues its march of destruction through the neighbourhood.  Very little has entered the global consciousness about the situation facing Middle Eastern Christian women. There have been no marches, no protests and no vigils. The women of this region deserve the attention of the world to help put an end to the appalling violence and abuse that they have and continue to endure.


In some ultra-Orthodox sects in the Jewish community, women are also discriminated against. The horrendous trend of spitting on little girls who are not dressed “modest enough” or the relegation of women to sitting at the back of the bus has raised the ire of many women in Israel.

While we enjoy considerably more rights than our sisters in the rest of our Middle Eastern neighbourhood, like many western women we continue to fight for the improvement of the status of women in areas like salary suffrage and employment equity.  2018 has seen a rise in the statistics of violence against women but the difference is that Israel has committed NGO’s and a government that although is not perfect, is concerned and wants to tackle this issue.

The difference is that as women living in Israel we can – we have a voice the ability to use it.

wonder woman3.jpgIn fact, Israel can boast about remarkable strides in gender equality and in the fight to end violence. Veteran social welfare organization, WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organisation) has shelters for women who are victims of violence but also operate the only two hotlines for men in the hopes that we can prevent violent activity.

The pursuit of justice and equal rights for women in the Middle East requires super human effort and dedication. It requires giving the voiceless a voice, uplifting the downtrodden and advocating for the powerless. It requires ensuring that no hand or weapon is raised against a woman in violence ever again. Women in the Middle East have been wondering for a long time – who speaks on their behalf? Perhaps the time is ripe for a superhero effort. Perhaps the time is right for a Wonder Woman.

Perhaps Wonder Woman, with her dedication to the pursuit of justice and her exceptional longevity is the super hero women in the region have been waiting for. Some might say it is a Herculean task. I say it is a job perfect for Wonder Woman.