New Study Finds Gains for Women’s Rights in the Middle East
Despite continuing resistance from religious and cultural elites, women in the Middle East and North Africa have made modest progress in achieving certain rights over the past five years. While women in the region suffer from greater inequality than do women elsewhere, they now enjoy more economic opportunity, fewer barriers to education, and expanded ability to participate in the political process than they did five years ago. These are the conclusions of Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance, a new study released today by Freedom House.
“These findings remind us of the complexities of women’s status in the Middle East,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. “There are more women entrepreneurs, more women doctors, more women Ph.Ds, and more women in universities, than ever before. However, substantial roadblocks remain for women pursuing careers. For instance, women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to earn law degrees, but not to appear in court on behalf of their clients.” She continued, “and these same women are still subject to abuse at home, lack child guardianship rights, and are legally compelled to be ‘obedient’ to their husbands.”
According to the study, 15 out of the 18 countries in the region recorded some gains in women’s rights over the past five years. Kuwait, Algeria and Jordan saw the most significant progress while Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian Territories—countries enduring internal conflict and the rise of religious extremism—are the only countries to record overall decline. The number of women holding political positions has increased, due in part to the implementation of quota systems for elected offices in certain countries including Iraq and Jordan. Throughout the region, women’s literacy rates have continued to grow, and women than men are now more likely to attend university, in some countries, by a wide margin.
Despite these improvements, violence against women remains widespread as does impunity in cases of spousal abuse or so-called “honor killings”. Among the 18 countries surveyed, only Tunisia and Jordan offer specific protections against domestic violence and none explicitly prohibit spousal rape. Moreover, the entire region suffers from a lack of democratic institutions, independent judiciaries, and restrictions on freedoms of association and the media.
“The absence of democratic institutions is a significant impediment to women’s rights in the Middle East and elsewhere,” said Sanja Kelly, a senior researcher at Freedom House who directed the study. “When courts are incapable of upholding basic legal rights in face of political and societal pressures, those guilty of spousal abuse, gender based discrimination, or even murder, often walk free.”
Some important developments include:
· Kuwait: In 2005, women received the right to vote and run in elections as candidates. In 2009, they reached another milestone when four women were elected to the parliament for the first time in the country’s history.
· Jordan: Advocacy efforts by women’s rights activists helped to secure the Family Protection Law in 2008, which provides key safeguards against domestic abuse, although some of the law’s most important provisions are not yet enforced. The government also established a specialized court in July 2009 to hear cases involving so-called “honor crimes”.
· Algeria: The 2005 personal status law introduced important changes benefiting women. The new law prohibits proxy marriages, limits the role of a woman’s guardian during marriage proceedings, recognizes the parental authority of custodial mothers, and removes the requirement that a wife obey her husband. Also in 2005, the government enacted the new nationality law, which allows women to transfer their citizenship to their children and foreign husbands, subject to certain conditions.
· Qatar and UAE: Family law was codified for the first time. Before the codification, issues impacting women—such as marriage, divorce, and child custody—were determined based on individual judges’ personal interpretation of Islamic law. While seen as an improvement, the new laws in many instances preserve previous discriminatory practices. Women in both countries experienced notable gains in education and employment, and in the UAE more women were appointed to government posts.
· Bahrain: The first female judge was appointed in 2006 and the government rescinded a law requiring women to gain a male guardian’s approval to obtain a passport. The government passed its first personal status law in 2009, but the law is only applicable to the Sunni population.
· Iran: Since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, restrictions regarding modest attire and gender segregation in public places have been more strictly enforced. Restrictions on free speech have led to the closure of prominent women’s rights publications, and participants in peaceful women’s rights demonstrations have been routinely jailed.
· Iraq: Violence against women—particularly “honor killings”, rapes, and abductions—significantly escalated during the coverage period. But there were also some improvements: women currently hold 25.5 percent of the seats in the parliament, and a new nationality law allows women to transfer citizenship to their children and foreign-born husbands.
· Morocco: The sweeping changes engrained in the 2004 family law have been unevenly enforced, and many women—particularly those who live in rural areas or are uneducated—continue to face discrimination in practice. The new nationality law enables Moroccan women married to noncitizen men to pass their nationality to their children if certain conditions are met. Women also made some political gains, and a 12 percent quota was implemented for the June 2009 local elections.
To view the accompanying release materials, including the overview essay, country summaries, and full country reports, click here.
This study was funded in part by the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the United States Agency for International Development and UNIFEM.
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