Women’s Rights in the Middle East & North Africa

As they did previously in 2005, Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization supporting the expansion of freedom in the world, has released a voluminous 589-page survey and report, complete with detailed analyses of individual countries, on Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance.

In essence, the glass is more than half empty, but not so empty as it was earlier in the decade. As Freedom House reports of the eighteen countries surveyed:

“ . . . women throughout the Middle East continue to face systematic discrimination in both laws and social customs. Deeply entrenched societal norms, combined with conservative interpretations of Shari‘a (Islamic law), continue to relegate women to a subordinate status. Women in the region are significantly underrepresented in senior positions in politics and the private sector, and in some countries they are completely absent from the judiciary. Perhaps most visibly, women face gender-based discrimination in personal-status laws, which regulate marriage, divorce, child guardianship, inheritance, and other aspects of family life. Laws in most of the region declare that the husband is the head of the family, give the husband power over his wife’s right to work, and in some instances specifically require the wife to obey her husband. Gender-based violence also remains a significant problem.

“Nevertheless, important steps have been made to improve the status of women over the last five years, and 15 out of 18 countries have recorded some gains. The member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC or Gulf)—which scored the worst among 17 countries in the 2005 edition—have demonstrated the greatest degree of improvement, shrinking the gap between them and the rest of the region on some issues. The most significant achievement occurred in Kuwait, where women received the same political rights as men in 2005, enabling them to vote and run for office, and paving the way for the election of the country’s first female members of parliament in 2009. In Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the first women judges were appointed in 2006 and 2008, respectively. Women have also become more visible participants in public life, education, and business throughout the region, including Saudi Arabia. They have gained more freedom to travel independently, as laws requiring a guardian’s permission for a woman to obtain a passport have been rescinded in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar during this report’s coverage period.

“Outside the Gulf, the most notable reforms occurred in Algeria and Jordan. Following the Moroccan example from the year before, Algeria made sweeping amendments to its personal status code in 2005, vastly improving women’s power and autonomy within the family. 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. In Jordan, after years of lobbying by women’s organizations for protections against gender-based violence, the government enacted the Family Protection Law (FPL) in 2008 and established a specialized court in 2009 that handles cases involving honor crimes. The FPL specifies the procedures that police, the courts, and medical authorities must follow when dealing with victims of domestic abuse, and prescribes penalties for the perpetrators. Jordan is only the second country in the region—after Tunisia—to pass such legislation, although parts of the law are not yet enforced. In nearly all of the countries examined, however, progress is stymied by the lack of democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and freedoms of association and assembly. Excessively restrictive rules on the formation of civil society organizations make it more difficult for women’s advocates to effectively organize and lobby the government for expanded rights. The scarcity of research and data on women’s status further impedes the advocacy efforts of nongovernmental rganizations (NGOs) and activists. And ultimately, the passage of new laws that guarantee equal rights for women means little if those guarantees are not fully enforced by state authorities. Throughout the region, persistent patriarchal attitudes, prejudices, and the traditionalist inclinations of male judges threaten to undermine new legal protections.”

For much more of value and of interest, see Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance.

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Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 2:40 pm  Comments (1)  

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