When people talk about 2017 being a good year for Arab women they normally point to Saudi Arabia’s decision to lift the driving ban.
That was eye-catching.
But there’s a great deal more.
In Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, there was a massive boost to women’s right to be safe from physical, mental and emotional harm.
Tunisia passed a law criminalizing violence against women.
Jordan and Lebanon abolished the so-called marry-your-rapist laws that allowed perpetrators to escape punishment by marrying their victims.
What do these changes really mean?
To understand that, we must first accept what they don’t mean.
These legislative changes don’t mean Arab women are free of the culture of shame.
Unlike in the West, where the mindset revolves around guilt and innocence (or right and wrong), the Arab world and several other cultures (not least in South Asia) operate by honour and shame.
This is not about black and white/right and wrong but about how and when to say or do something. Or even whether or not to say or do something.
The law cannot properly cover concepts of shame and honour. No law can be enough, as Lebanese MP Elie Kayrouz recently said in the context of the constraints faced by Arab women. “The law has an important part to play in changing behaviors and attitudes, however, the law is not enough.”
Indeed, the legal right to report a violent attack cannot reduce a woman’s shameful sense that she is somehow doing wrong in speaking up. It is as if she is engaged in an attention-seeking act rather than a cry for justice.