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Woman and Disability in the Middle East

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

I wrote this post in 2009-10 (originally in Spanish), and have updated it slightly to take account of new realities in the Middle East. Unfortunately, a lot of the problems I talked about over ten years ago are still relevant today.

We all know, or at least imagine, the kind of suffering that disability brings; a drama in which our health, our state of mind, and physical obstacles become the bars of our prison. Even before that, being a woman in the Middle East, disabled or not, is not an easy task. We are subjected to a family tradition that enslaves us and relegates us to the background. We live to serve men and to bear and raise their children. That is our mission in life. And if we add disability to this, our existence takes on an even more dramatic dimension.

The woman with disability undoubtedly has a double disability. On the one hand, the simple fact of being a woman; on the other, physical obstacles. It is paradoxical that I am treated like another woman from the region, but that I am denied the few rights that she has in the Middle East. How to get married, without going any further.

But let me explain all this to you in more detail. Inside the house, the word "family" for a disabled person loses all connotations of tranquillity or security. In many cases, it is precisely the opposite, because it is right here where the disaster begins. The mother, the closest person, overprotects her, to the point of eliminating her personality. The disabled woman feels weak and defenceless, and she ends up thinking that there is no other world outside her doorstep. On the other hand, the father and siblings only reinforce the idea that "it is better that she does not go out to avoid anything happening to her”. It seems as if outside the house there is nothing more than a pack of wild animals waiting for the disabled one. It is not surprising that, in the end, the disabled woman did not dare to go to school, and that, among other things, she could not even read. If it weren't for the dire poverty of most of the families in my region, you might consider bringing a teacher home. But we are talking about illiterate families for the most part: it does not occur to them that their daughter could be a worker in the future. Behind all this lies the idea that women in the Middle East are nothing more than a housekeeper. Her future is inconceivable outside of the four walls of the home, and especially of her kitchen. And when it comes to a disabled woman we are talking about a person who is considered absolutely useless.

In part, the customs of the peoples of the Middle East are responsible for the plight of women, but governments are also to blame for all this. In the case of people with disabilities, the subject is discussed and plans are made, but in many cases they are far from their needs, since, generally, they are not consulted when drafting laws. Therefore, physical barriers are seldom eliminated in schools, nor are means provided for blind or deaf students. The result of all this is that women with disabilities continue to be at a clear disadvantage compared to the rest of society. She is still seen as a woman without strength, easy prey for the wolves.

I still don't know who determines the conventions that enslave all women. For most of the people of the Middle East, the virtue that is most valued in a woman is that she is attractive, over and above her personal, intellectual, artistic, or humanitarian capacities. The pretty woman is one who can dance before her boyfriend, who likes to be looked at… that's the perfect woman. But who has decided all this?

We are victims of social prejudice. Being disabled automatically removes us from the list of "pretty" women. Suddenly, we cannot dance, or seduce, or be attractive to others. We fail to get the qualification before even finishing the exam. And it is again this woman who ends up believing this idea. Some timid attempts by some governments to change this conception of women with disabilities as "incomplete" have met with little success in the Middle East.

A few soap operas included a disabled woman among their protagonists. This created many expectations in viewers with disabilities, because it was a step forward to introduce to the public women with disabilities who fell in love and had a supposedly normal life. However, the end result was disheartening because, in all soap operas, the protagonist managed to heal from her disability before she could be happily married. And since neither I nor many others will manage to overcome this physical barrier that differentiates us from the others, we can never be a copy of these protagonists who finally managed to lead what most people consider a “normal” life. Therefore, far from improving public opinion about women with disabilities, these soap operas did them a disservice. We want to be respected as we are, blind, deaf, in a wheelchair, short, mentally disabled, and have our rights respected.

I remember that in my village, women walked to a spring to wash the dishes. Over the years, the water reached the houses, and the women washed in the garden, under the shade of a tree. Today we have dishwashers, a technological advance that has equated disabled women with those who are not. What I mean by all this is that, with technology and with a real will to adapt the physical environment, people with disabilities can accomplish all things that others can. But we return to the eternal factor: do all women have the financial means to achieve this?

The answer is easy. Let's integrate disabled women into the world of work. For this, it will be essential that governments adopt appropriate measures – something that, unfortunately, rarely happens in the Middle East. The vision of governments in this part of the world is to "care for invalids", rather than helping to train autonomous and independent people. It is therefore essential to pass laws that are enforced, regardless of whether governments change or not. In Syria, a law was approved that includes a section for people with disabilities and provides that women with disabilities are positively discriminated against compared to men, so that they can lead a perfectly normal life. But, as I have said before, this is the theory, because it is never put into practice. These laws fail mainly because when drafting them, persons with disabilities themselves are not consulted about their needs and so the results are far from what is most useful to help the group. The only exceptions in the Middle East are the most important urban centres of Turkey, but the reality of their towns is the same as that of the rest of the region.

In my case, I was the first woman with a disability to go to the University of Aleppo. The building was not ready, and to this day it is still not ready. It was very hard at first, because I felt discriminated against at times, and used many times. Fortunately, I was able to make myself respected by my colleagues. Today I am still a woman, and disabled, but a worker.

However, physical obstacles are not the greatest of our problems. In the Middle East, the family itself is responsible for murdering the woman who has had sexual relations outside of marriage. This is what is known as "honour killings." And, of course, the disabled woman is once again at a clear disadvantage compared to the others. Those who are in a wheelchair, or who are blind, or who have a mental handicap, are even easier prey for any rapist. I want to remind you that disabled women in the Middle East have no right to marry. This has been decided according to the customs of the peoples of the Middle East but is not supported by either laws or religions. Any sexual relationship outside marriage, whether consensual or not, can be punishable by death, particularly for the woman. Instead, rapists and murderers generally come out blameless.

Another chapter in our drama in the Middle East is that of war. The trail of disabled people left behind by conflicts in Palestine, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, etc., is its most immediate effect. It is precisely the latter country that has made the most progress in caring for the disabled. And the same is happening in Iraq, where the intervention of Western NGOs is making some progress. However, I suspect that none of these actions will change the reality of life for women with disabilities. Our obstacles are more mental than the mere physical barriers that we face on a daily basis. The civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen have caused death, destruction, opening wounds that only increase the number of disabled women. The economic consequences of this destruction have also hit disabled women hard with declines in the fields of education and employment.

The Arab Spring, which offered so many promises of rights and democracy throughout the region, failed and led to an increase in authoritarianism and repression. Guaranteeing the most basic rights is further away than before in almost all countries. Beyond its impact on politics, the Arab Spring brought about many social changes, although not necessarily positive ones. While in some countries women are more respected than before, in other contexts, particularly those that suffered from ISIS, women's rights have been stagnant or lagged behind. Indeed, in ISIS-controlled territories, many women were held as slaves, particularly those with a Kurdish or Yezidi background; women were completely dehumanised and their submission to men was strengthened.

The economic situation in the Middle East has barely changed and has remained stagnant since the Arab Spring. Oil-led growth has largely ceased, even in countries not affected by conflict. Job opportunities are extremely limited and unemployment rates are high, even for the most socially privileged classes. Due to biases related to both gender and disability, disabled women have the highest unemployment rates in the region.

As I said at the beginning, it is very frustrating to know the problem but not the solution. We need more examples of disabled women who have overcome these obstacles, that our voice is heard, and that it serves as a reference for all those who feel imprisoned for life. We need financial, social, and educational help. But above all, we need to believe that we can really transform our reality.

Chavia Ali

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