Patriarchy and Democracy in the Arab World

by Hanna Ali Khliefat

Continuing to explore more narrow and traditional explanations of why democratization has not penetrated the Middle East, for instance, due to the weakness and division of society, or the evidence that “richer countries are more likely to have democratic regimes”[1], seems more symptomatic rather than the root cause. Patriarchy in the Arab world is a system of the society as a whole, not just politically or as demonstrated in patterns of authoritarianism – and has powerful implications on the way in which society perceives and interprets democracy. While our shortcomings in the scholarly community has been in the unforeseen influences of external factors[2] – such as, social media and its exposure to a collective hope and aspiration for a secure and prosperous future – consideration must be made in regards to the system of patriarchy that reigns in the socio-cultural sphere of the Arab world.

The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya would have been unthinkable without female revolutionaries. These young, female revolutionaries defined the plight of the common person, man or woman, young or old. Gigi Ibrahim, from Egypt, joined protests, organized rallies, reported on-the-ground events on her blog and Twitter feed and represented youth from the streets to the negotiating table to the international press. Iman al-Obeidi, from Benghazi, Libya, spoke out about the sexual abuse she experienced from Libyan forces, despite the Gadhafi regime’s smear campaign of her and her being violently silenced in front of the press at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli. Yet, after the initial overthrow of Mubarak, Gadhafi and Ben Ali, many women feared sexual harassment and mob assaults that their female counterparts were experiencing. It is a slippery slope for Egyptian society to restrict a portion of the population, yet remain persistent in their mantra of revolution, regime change and freedom.  The loyal, collective adherence to a patrimonial system, the discrediting of the Arab women’s rights movement as a cornerstone of the revolution, the use of sexual harassment as a form of control against female revolutionaries as made evident in post-revolutionary Tahrir square, and social pressures of the female to return to her ‘dignity’ which is in the home, are all indicators that the single, most damaging, belief system to democracy – patriarchy – still haunts the very society that is desperately seeking progress and change.

As we have been reading, the Arab uprisings were fueled by many internal and external factors[3] – yet, a critical step to sustaining the spirit of the revolution will be the systematic dismantling of the coercive apparatus and the breakdown of patrimonially built power structures. For as long as patriarchal values guide and patrimonially based relationships remain the sole currency for authority and governance, attempts towards democracy or regime change[4] will not do much more than change the players, maybe the playing board – but not the game.

In Steven Fish’s analysis “Are Muslims Distinctive?” he discusses the link between “greater gender-based inequality and more authoritarian politics”, based on indicators such as female to male literacy ratios[5].  Fish concludes that, “Gender based inequality may reduce democracy’s prospects… the possibility that gender-based inequality provides some explanation for the prevalence of authoritarianism in the Muslim world… but we do not have adequate evidence to say that the causal path exists”[6]. I can’t help but to question these conclusions. Have we ever seen comprehensive, causal, empirical, scientific explanations of patriarchy, or patrimonial attributes, in Arab society? Statistics will only help us understand culture in a limited scope.

I argue that patriarchy, in particular, is difficult to measure and is beyond literacy rates and life expectancy – a woman can have access to health care, have a post-graduate degree, and still be constrained, after marriage, to the confines of domesticated responsibility.  I am interested in a deeper understanding of patriarchy in the Arab world, and “patriarchal connectivity”, where power is gendered (masculine) and aged (senior) and not sexed[7]. While patriarchy has in part created more resilient authoritarian regimes, it is patriarchal connectivity that has intersected a “psychodynamic instrument of domination…. And a structural means of producing fluid selves”[8], going beyond a technique of domination or governance tool, but rather a collective identity for Arab’s where the stasis of society resides.

Being an Arab woman, bearing witness to female relatives in the family and conducting business on behalf of a American private sector company in the Middle East, I have seen even the most Westernized Arab women complete their education, move away from their parents, travel the world – only to eventually acquiesce to a family-approved suitor, asking for her hand in marriage as she discusses her interest in staying at home and selecting colorful bath towel sets at the best prices. It is a known piece of advice from our Arab female elders, that in conversation with a potential suitor it is important to come to agreement on your role in the finances, paychecks you have earned in the course of your marriage, and how to write it in to the Muslim marriage contract. Otherwise, you risk only receiving what was stipulated for you in your marriage contract – a modest and outdated amount determined at the time of your nuptials, possibly 20 years ago. Regardless of a woman’s access to education, health care and other social services, it does not prove equality of female participation in social, religious, political or economic choice. In the analysis of the Arab world, and the Middle East as a region,

Indeed, “the presence of an exceptionally muscular coercive apparatus” [9] in the Middle East has been patrimonially, and patriarchally, organized and thus authoritarianism has been perpetually enforced through attributes of society and institutions founded and run on these very principles. In my opinion, many of the discussed behavioral patterns of Arab societies that reinforce tendencies of authoritarianism can be traced back to this one fundamental principle, one that has limited and poisoned the potential of the Arab uprisings. The lack of discussion in the scholarly community regarding the role of Arab patriarchy and patrimonial organization, its role in examining the culture and through the lens of democratization, is dissatisfying.


[1] Fish, Steven. “Are Muslims Distinctive?” Democracy in Islam.

[2] Anderson, Lisa. “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East”, Annual Review Political Science, 2006.

[3] Anderson, Lisa. “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East”, Annual Review Political Science, 2006.

[4] Bellin, Eva. “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring”, Comparative Politics, 2012.

[5] Fish, Steven. “Are Muslims Distinctive?” Democracy in Islam.

[6] Fish, Steven. “Are Muslims Distinctive?” Democracy in Islam.

[7] Joseph, Suad. “Connectivity and Patriarchy among Urban Working-Class Arab Families in Lebanon”. Ethos, Vol 21 No 4 (Dec 1993), pp 452-484.

[8] Joseph, Suad. “Connectivity and Patriarchy among Urban Working-Class Arab Families in Lebanon”. Ethos, Vol 21 No 4 (Dec 1993), pp 452-484.

[9] Bellin, Eva. “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring”, Comparative Politics, 2012.

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