Why Land for Women?
My iman fortifies me, and I find great joy in listening to the singing of other peasant women in the field… Land is our life and my taqwa brings me even closer to the land, to the beautiful fruit trees. When I die, I will be buried in the land, and I won’t be estranged, because I am filled with taqwa. I also feel total satisfaction when I gather the fruit and vegetables, what God gave us to survive before we join Him.
—Fattouma, small-scale family farmer in Morocco (Sadiqi 2016, 49)
What is a woman’s relationship to land, whether as property, as a factor of identity and culture, or as a productive resource, or why is land a subject for women at all? These are among the questions posed and interrogated in the rich global literature on the subject of women and land. These questions become more specific in each regional context and, for the MENA region, they are the subject of increasing inquiry where the subjects of women and land converge amid progressive civilizational change, involving the dynamic development and interpretation of norms of law and institutions, including institutions of social practice.
One such convergence is found in a major study of Palestine’s Union of Agricultural Works Committees (UAWC) on “Land, Women and Socio-economic Development in the Arab Region,” which seeks to cover new ground and build regional capacity to proffer informed guidance for policy and practice to advance socio-economic development. Within that broad scope of work, commissioned by Global Land Tool Network’s Arab Land Initiative, HIC-HLRN supported UAWC in that effort at the end of 2020 with the essential literature review to ground the relevant questions for an expert group meeting, a coming survey and other outcomes.
At the base of this task is to interrogate the premise that land is important for women. From that point of departure, for HIC-HLRN, the literature review identified why land is important for women “in addition to their human need and human right to land shared with men.” Most of the reasons found in the literature point to the potential benefits to society at large from women’s full and equal participation in productive activities involving land.
The review notes only the occasional example from the literature citing women’s primordial and even spiritual connection to land (Sadiqi; Berriane; Saadi), as exemplified in the citation of Fattouma above. Most of the literature focuses rather on the very tangible nature of that relationship as a pursuit of “secure tenure,” or, in an even-narrower sense, “access” to land. The available literature on women and land reviewed reflects the general literature, which overwhelmingly deals with land as property and contentions over it.
From that common denominator, much of the literature relevant to the Arab region also raises some particular issues and notable gaps.
Among the gaps revealed in the review is the one left by the lack of the codification of land as a human right, except as property right. That may be true globally, but the region’s literature reflects a historic indifference to land as a subject of curiosity and inquiry in connection with women.
While that is changing, the circle of land specialists writing from an interest in gender remains small. The few sources on the subject embody certain assumptions linked to the common and enduring belief in the world that land is not—nor should be—a subject of women’s concern. This may not necessarily manifest as misogyny or bias on the part of authors, but may suggest a common blind spot in the treatment of land.
A latter-day shift and continuing interest in women and land is accompanied by the development of norms, especially arising from the dual interpretive and monitoring mandates of the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies (e.g., CESCR, CEDaW), as well as the numerous and often-overlapping global policy commitments that states have assumed in the final quarter of the last century, and renewed through the present period. In addition, the evolution of the development-related disciplines also has given way to econometrics that argue for a global incentive in gender equality that projects to add $12 trillion to the world’s economy from women’s contributions, notably including through women’s access to, and control of adequate housing, land and other productive resources (Wodon and De La Briere; Woetzel et al). On the other side of the equation is a gap in data on the various impacts (losses, costs and damages) from the denial of women’s tenure, use and control over land, even when the human rights literature captures such instances as violations.
Certain factors of the region’s culture and customs are attributed as the cause of women’s estrangement from land. Due to social constructs of marital economic relations, further assumptions militate against the notion of a woman’s place as an owner, manager or other decision maker on matters of land. Even in matrilineal systems, as in the Comoros and communities with such African systems of lineage and inheritance, a woman may be the nominal owner, but lacks access to credit and other resources needed to realize the land’s full economic potential without a male guarantor or his collateral (AfDB and AfDF 2009).
Gender and asset ownership is also an indicator of the multiple constraints affecting women, however. The patterns, opportunities and constraints of land ownership make the Arab countries the region with the lowest level of women’s land ownership in the world (5%). However, we also learn from the literature about progressive measures such as in Egypt, where 20% of land titles in new (reclaimed) lands distributed to women (Najjar, et al 2020). In Oman, the government has encouraged women to apply for land from the government and put in place implementation strategies that increased significantly women’s secure tenure relationship to land and housing (ALC; Oman VNR,
While the bulk of the literature treats land primarily as property to be distributed and/or exchanged, the overwhelming majority of works intersecting on the subject of women and land in the Arab region is immersed in the matter of transfer of land by inheritance, bequeathed under a will and testament, or adhering to Islamic criteria. While this upholds the assumption that land originates with a male person. The accompanying exegesis turns to the Qur`an, interpreting intentions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Ḥawadīth and the later-developing schools of Islamic law (shari`a) (Sait and Lim 2005). However, the literature on equal—or greater than equal—inheritance entitlement to women is a subject of Islamic liberation theology, which belongs to the wider world of Islamic practice and, so far, remains largely unknown in the Arab region (Abdul Jamal 2005; COHRE 2006; Engineer 1990; Nuryatno 2000; Powers 1986, SiI 2003).
However, the literature reflects a great debate over whether these conventions in Islam are the greatest inhibitors to a woman’s enjoyment of her rightful tenure relationship to land. As learnt from this review, despite the literature’s overwhelming focus on Islam-inspired inheritance laws, their interpretation at the expense of women in the region is often due to other mitigating conditions not specific to Islam, notably deriving from common patriarchy.
Localizing the Debate [تأصيل النقاش]
The critical analyses and theoretical literature on women’s equality of rights, emancipation and economic liberation in the Arab region are predominantly hosted and/or resourced by European and North American institutions. Given the geopolitically interested nature of historic literature on the region on the part of most Western scholars (Said 1976), the intentions behind this pattern does come into question.
Pragmatists argue that Islam, other religions, traditional value holders and international human rights must engage with, and inform each other through dialogue. Most of those involved in such debates in the Arab region agree on the principle that change must be decided on, and initiated by those whom it affects, rather than by outsiders. The literature suggests that the same is true of women and men affiliated with diverse religious or cultural traditions; namely, that the solutions should come from within their own community.
Abdul Jamal, Rafidah. (2005). “The Issue on Inheritance: The Unfair Treatment of Women?” Bismika Allahuma;
African Development Bank (AfDB) and African Development Fund (AfDF). (2016). “Gender Profile of the Union of The Comoros, Summary”;
Berriane, Yasmine. (2016). “Bridging social divides: leadership and the making of an alliance for women’s land-use rights in Morocco,” Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 43, No. 149, pp. 350–64;
Center for Housing Rights and Eviction (COHRE). (2006). In Search of Equality a Survey of Law and Practice Related to Women’s Inheritance Rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (Geneva: COHRE);
Engineer, Asghar Ali. (1990). Islam and Liberation Theology: Essays on Liberative Elements in Islam (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers);
Global Land Tool Network, League of Arab States, Arab Union of Surveyors, UN Habitat and World Bank. (ALC 2018) “The first Arab Land Conference, Dubai, 26–28 February 2018” (report);
Najjar, Dina, Bipasha Baruah and Aman El Garhi. (2020). “Gender and Asset Ownership in the Old and New Lands of Egypt,” Feminist Economics, Vol. 26, Issue 3, pp. 119–43;
Nuryatno,Muhammad Agus. (2000.) Asghar Ali Engineer`s Views on Liberation Theology and Women`s Issues in Islam: An Analysis, Masters thesis (Montreal: McGill University);
Powers, David. (1986). Studies in Quran and Hadith: The Formation of the Islamic Law of Inheritance (Berkeley CA: University of California Press);
Saadi, Mohamed Said. “Empowering Women Through Land Policy Change: The ‘Soulaliyate’ Movement in Morocco,” in Nasser Yassin and Robert Hoppe, eds. Women, Civil Society and Policy Change in the Arab World (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), pp. 87–109;
Sadiqi, Fatima. (2016). “Female Perceptions of Islam in Today’s Morocco,” Journal of Feminist Scholarship, Vol. 11, pp. 436–60;
Said, Edward W. (1976). Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books);
Sait, Siraj and Hilary Lim. (2005). “Muslim Women and Property” (Nairobi: UN Habitat);
Sait, Siraj and Hilary Lim. (2006). Land, Law & Islam: Property and Human Rights in the Muslim World(London: Zed);
Sait, M. Siraj, et al. (2018). Mino Ramaroson, Rebecca Ochong, Rebecca Ochong, Melissa Permezel. “Refitting Gendered Land Governance Strategies with New Global and Regional Development Frameworks: Opportunities and Challenges for Land and Gender Advocates,” paper for presentation at “Land Governance in an Interconnected World,” Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, The World Bank, Washington DC, 19–23 March 2018;
Sait, Siraj. (2007). “Islamic Land Tools to Empower Women: A Global Land Tool Network Initiative” (Nairobi: UN Habitat);
Sisters in Islam. (SiI). (2003). “Case studies regarding women’s property rights, and extracts from Knowing Our Rights: Women, Family, Laws and Customs in the Muslim world” (London: WLUML),;
Woetzel, Jonathan et al. (2015). The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth (London, San Francisco and Shanghai, McKinley Global Institute),;
Wodon, Quentin and Benedicte De La Briere. (2018). The Cost of Gender Inequality Unrealized Potential: The High Cost of Gender Inequality in Earnings (Washington: The World Bank);
سلطنة عُمان. ( Oman VNR2019). الاستعراض الوطني الطوعي الأول لسلطنة عُمان (مسقات: سلطنة عُمان).
Image: Sliman Mansour, Yaffa (1979), Yvette and Mazen Qupty collection. From the cover of “Land, Women and Socio-Economic Development in the Arab Region: A Literature Review.”