In a war-torn region, Arab women carry the heaviest burden

The effects of war and societal breakdown range from major to minor infringements on women's rights

From Gaza to Sudan, thousands of women have been killed, and millions have been displaced. In a region engulfed in turmoil and violence, women are disproportionally affected.
Lina Jaradat
From Gaza to Sudan, thousands of women have been killed, and millions have been displaced. In a region engulfed in turmoil and violence, women are disproportionally affected.

In a war-torn region, Arab women carry the heaviest burden

Several years ago, to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, I posted a light-hearted comment on my Facebook page.

“In honour of International Women’s Day, I extend my congratulations to men for the remaining 364 days of the year, or 365 in a leap year.”

It was meant in jest, but to my surprise, it sparked outrage among some of my friends, who did not like it. My words were denounced as inappropriate, and women like myself were accused of never being satisfied.

The narrative of women’s oppression was a divisive tactic meant to undermine our society, they said. Feminism was a foreign concept incompatible with our culture. A fervent discussion followed about protecting women’s rights within our cultural and religious frameworks.

It noticed how those who thought of themselves as intellectuals and rights advocates were quick to hurl insults at those with different opinions. This was in the early days of the tumult known as the ‘Arab Spring’.

Arab culture is one that historically places the honour of the family and tribe on women. It has also spawned proverbs that reduce women to mere stereotypes, undermining their value. “A girl’s worries last until death” is a good example.

Lina Jaradat

After the uproar

Today, the Arab world is left surveying the aftermath of several popular movements and uprisings in several countries. This makes it a good time to examine the state of Arab societies in general and the status of women in particular.

If these cultural ‘revolutions’ aimed to end the status quo and start anew, were they a success? Has there been an improvement? Are societies now journeying into a new era? Have women gained or lost?

It is crucial to recognise that women’s rights are inseparable from human rights, at the core of which is freedom. How free are women across the Arab world?

It has long been true that women, along with other vulnerable and marginalised groups, bear the brunt in times of crisis and conflict.

Crisis and conflict can impede development and exacerbate poverty for both men and women. Yet, women and girls face specific challenges and risks, including violence, the deprivation of education, and rising social injustice.

When the state gives way to society under the influence of outdated customs and traditions, inequality grows, and protections shrink. Has that been the case in the Arab world?

This article surveys the status of women's rights in several countries, including Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Palestine.

It is crucial to recognise that women's rights are inseparable from human rights, at the core of which is freedom.


The conflict in Syria has disproportionately impacted women and girls, in part because its society is fragmented into zones controlled by different warring parties, each with its own agenda and methods of ideological or coercive mobilisation.

This division imposed significant oppression, tyranny, and restrictions, especially on women within these territories. As each faction fought for its cause, tens of thousands were killed.

Women who lost their family breadwinner were flung into the role of both mother and father, carrying a double burden to care for their children amidst a rapid descent into poverty and hunger.

But that was not all. Syrian women were also used in various capacities beyond their traditional roles, including in combat.

Some joined the Women's Brigade within the Syrian Arab Army, others joined women's units in the Autonomous Administration in North-East Syria (AANES), and some even joined Islamic State (IS).

Many were subject to forced polygamy and child marriage, often as strategies to escape poverty, deteriorating living conditions, or the threat of sexual violence.

It led to an increase in so-called "crimes of honour". In desperation and amidst national turmoil, some women resorted to prostitution.

Yet, the picture is not homogeneous. The plight of Syrian women varies significantly across different regions, each presenting its own challenges.

Life is particularly dire in internal displacement camps or among refugee communities in neighbouring countries, where living conditions are abysmal.

Women and children often lack access to education, healthcare, employment, housing, or adequate nutrition. They, therefore, suffer disproportionately. For many Syrian women, their lives lack any kind of dignity.

A Syrian medic, taking part in a vaccination campagne against the polio desease, gives vaccine drops to a child, in the town of Ariha in Idlib.


In Sudan, the role of women in the monumental 2018 uprising (that led to the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir) was both significant and a source of inspiration.

The term 'Kandakat' ('Queens') epitomises women's aspiration to transform their reality. This movement was further amplified by the 'No to the Oppression of Women' initiative, which challenged the exclusion of women from political and public life and directly challenged the government to make the necessary changes.

There are direct challenges to women, too. The ongoing war in Sudan has exacerbated an already dire situation. Of the millions displaced, most are women and children. Many have sought asylum in neighbouring states.

However, rather than dampening hopes, the situation has galvanised women's groups and those advocating for women's rights, both within Sudan and internationally.

Those monitoring, documenting, reporting, and advocating for women's rights have redoubled their efforts. Their focus is on violence, the deprivation of basic rights, and the lack of women's access to water, food, healthcare, and education.

Before the war, there were attempts to implement international agreements on human rights, particularly women's rights, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Yet implementation stalled when it came to those in power making changes that would have empowered women. Outwardly, they profess to support freedom and women's rights, but in fact, they have no such interest.

These same regimes have given Sudan government corruption, a breakdown of law and order, and the domination of the public sphere by tribes or clerics. In each case, women suffer the consequences disproportionately.

Given their central role in the family, the impact of these systemic issues women face invariably passes from mother to daughter, perpetuating the cycle.

The ongoing war in Sudan has exacerbated an already dire situation. Of the millions displaced, most are women and children.


Few countries have experienced such deep levels of poverty, hunger, and disease as Yemen in recent years after a power vacuum left by the popular uprising that ousted long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 soon led to civil war.

Women there have faced a double burden: shouldering the daily struggle of domestic life (with the men off fighting) while securing political, economic, and social rights.

In a society where tribal and religious traditions often overshadow legal and constitutional rights, Yemeni women face an uphill battle.

In Yemen, fewer girls are enrolled in education than anywhere else in the region. This helps explain why there is such a lack of awareness of women's rights in the country.

As a result, women often cede control of their lives to their husbands or male relatives. The problem of child marriage, already an issue driven by poverty, has been exacerbated by the war.

Women in rural Yemen have always encountered significant challenges. They are denied the right to work, education, and free expression.

War has only worsened things, while reverse migration to the countryside has made women more responsible for ensuring agricultural productivity.

Randa, a Yemeni baby suffering from severe malnutrition, is carried by her mother as she awaits treatment at a centre run by a humanitarian organisation inside a camp for the displaced who fled fighting.

Despite women's active participation in the early stages of the movement that ousted Saleh, the subsequent war has led to the collapse of societal structures. Yemeni women now face increased violence and confinement.

In some areas, particularly those controlled by the Houthis, women have faced arrest and further marginalisation. Women are the forgotten half in this forgotten corner of the world.


Calls for reform in a nation grappling with huge and entrenched structural and operational problems are often knocked down the priority list. So it is in Lebanon.

Since this is a small country with enormous diversity, the status of women should be a critical issue on the national reform agenda. Yet, women's rights, representation, and participation in Lebanon remain inadequate.

After years of governmental deadlock, unsuccessful presidential elections, and unrelenting crises, problems like gender-based discrimination, gender inequality, and personal status laws unique to each sect look set to continue.

The latter can be prescriptive for Lebanese women and girls in all manner of areas, including public appearance, political engagement, employment, polygamy, child marriage, inheritance, divorce, alimony, childcare, and citizenship.

Proposed reforms aimed at bridging the gender divide and mitigating violence and exclusion of women have languished in the recesses of parliamentary and institutional bureaucracy.

This has only entrenched discrimination, which, in turn, has played a significant role in leading Lebanon to its current dire state.

In Yemen, fewer girls are enrolled in education than anywhere else in the region. This helps explain the lack of awareness of women's rights.


Palestinian women, particularly in Gaza, live under de facto or de jure Israeli occupation. A 56-year-old woman in the West Bank knows no other reality, such is the longevity of Israel's actions.

Across Palestine, including the West Bank and Gaza, women face unique forms of discrimination exacerbated by the conditions of conflict and occupation.

Many have themselves been imprisoned in occupation jails. As mothers, sisters, and wives, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian women have had a male family member whom the Israelis have imprisoned.

By dividing and isolating the Palestinians into separate factions and territories, most aspects of Palestinian life have come to be controlled by Israel's security services. In Gaza, the plight of women is even more harrowing.

According to US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, at least 25,000 women and children have been killed in Gaza since Israel began responding to the Hamas attacks of 7 October.

Beyond the immediate threat to life, women in Gaza face displacement, hunger, and insecurity while maintaining responsibility for their children.

The Israeli siege intrudes on the very essence of womanhood. The humanitarian catastrophe gives neither privacy nor access to essential female-specific healthcare for pregnancies, births, breastfeeding, or periods.

The scarcity of food, exacerbated for women in such a deeply conservative society, further complicates their struggle, with international and humanitarian organisations facing barriers to providing relief.

An injured Palestinian mother and daughter hug each other after surviving Israeli bombardment of Gaza in October 2023.

A United Nations report reveals that out of 12 women's organisations in Gaza, only 10 are operating. Furthermore, their operations are limited to emergencies. The UN Women's Entity describes the war in Gaza as "a war on women," highlighting gender-specific atrocities inflicted on women by Israel.

The future

On International Women's Day, reflections on the future of Arab women provoke poignant concerns and critical questions.

As many Arab countries continue to grapple with conflict and societal upheaval, the outlook for women appears grim. The collapse has left women bearing the brunt of the ensuing chaos and destruction.

From the impersonal impacts on life, livelihoods, living conditions, education and employment to the very personal impacts on women and girls, the effects of war and societal breakdown cascade from the minor to the major.

Despite some progress, Arab societies still have much work to do in terms of equal job opportunities, equal pay (for equal work), and legal protections for women.

Women's pursuit of personal freedoms, political representation, and public sphere participation often starts with education and self-awareness.

Regression in this area underscores the failure of Arab societies to foster substantial change despite the proliferation of feminist movements.

In Syria, for example, various feminist associations and groups—some with international support—seek to empower women through skills development and job opportunities.

Yet the broader picture remains bleak. For many Arab women whose lives are now hugely impacted by extremism, custom, tradition, and male dominance, the situation is arguably worse today than it was a generation ago.

For many Arab women whose lives are now hugely impacted by extremism, custom, tradition, and male dominance, the situation is arguably worse today than it was a generation ago.

A call-to-arms

This International Women's Day, the call to action is clear: it is time to re-evaluate and reinforce the commitment to improving the lives and futures of Arab women, challenging the structures that have long kept them marginalised.

It is crucial to reflect on the future of Arab women, especially after the tumult and upheaval of recent years. State and societal collapse have left women in a particularly vulnerable situation.

The great hope was that these years of upheaval would recast the role of women in Arab states, yet it appears to have brought them only added peril, with women's rights and livelihoods now increasingly compromised.

Despite the advocates for change, the status of women in Arab societies has, if anything, slipped further. Efforts to empower women and give them specific skills to support their families are commendable but insufficient.

Sudanese refugees from the Tandelti area who crossed into Chad, in Koufroun, near Echbara, queue to receive aid kits on April 30, 2023.

As their home and neighbouring states collapse, Arab women face a life of double jeopardy: living under oppressive regimes, confined to rigid societal stereotypes.

Post-independence renaissance movements and progressive parties who championed women in the Arab world have not delivered for them.

They may need a new approach to women's liberation that goes beyond economic empowerment.

Ridding a society of gender inequality and discrimination relies on freedom, democracy, and a culture that values women as much as men. This requires a collective effort.

As Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people."

If women's rights are to be achieved across the Arab world, it will require not just the end of oppression by the bad but the active and vocal support of the good.

One such place to start may even be on Facebook.

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