In honor of International Women’s Day, the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center asked a diverse group of experts from business, politics, media, and civil society to contribute to its third annual report on women’s status in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The publication, “MENA Women: Opportunities and Obstacles in 2014,” includes entries from forty-three women across twenty countries in the region and beyond, offering a broad and timely set of perspectives on the future of women in the Arab world. Although there are several areas of deep concern for women – particularly in Iraq and Syria – the views are generally cautiously optimistic and point to a positive trend line across the region.
Many contributors sighted Tunisia as a ray of hope and potential model for other countries. Tunisia’s new constitution, adopted in January, enshrines equality and commits the state to ensuring gender parity in elected councils and greater female political participation. Morocco is another bright spot. Building on progressive reforms to its constitution in 2011 and outrage over the suicide of a sixteen-year-old girl who was forced to marry her rapist, the country recently revised its penal code to better prosecute sexual violence and end child marriage.
Egypt’s amended constitution, though flawed in several critical respects, does at least remove the most worrying clauses regarding women that appeared in the Morsi constitution. It also sets a 25 percent quota for women in local councils and obligates the government to achieve gender parity in society and politics and uphold ratified international conventions. This stands to empower Egyptian women to leverage the international Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in securing their rights. As several contributors noted, Hala Shukrallah’s ascension as the first female leader of an Egyptian political party, Al-Dostour, is also cause for celebration. Still, onlookers remain rightly skeptical of the military government’s commitment to human rights. Dalia Fahmy, a member of the Egyptian Rule of Law Association, warns that “Egyptians will have to remain vigilant to ensure that laws aimed at protecting women are not sacrificed in the name of stability and that women are treated as dignified citizens rather than subjects of the state—as they historically have been.”
Saudi Arabia remains a notable laggard on women’s rights, but continues to make incremental steps in the right direction. Women participated in municipal elections for the first time this year, and female lawyers are now allowed to obtain permits to practice law in Saudi courts. These reforms are in part the result of grassroots campaigns aimed at exposing government repression. Hala Al Dosari, a Saudi activist, explains, “The October 26 driving campaign, for instance, not only gained significant international exposure, but created a global and national discourse on the position of women in Saudi society as symbolized by the iconic driving ban.” The country also recently saw its first female editor-in-chief take the reins of the Saudi Gazette newspaper.
In neighboring Yemen, women made up 30 percent of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), charged with charting the country’s political transition. The NDC’s final report recommended codifying gender equality, prohibiting gender-based discrimination, outlawing child marriage, and implementing a political quota for women. The constitutional drafting committee is not bound by these recommendations, but they lay the groundwork for important changes.
Elsewhere, the picture is bleaker. In Iraq, a country still gripped by violence, Rend Al Rahim, executive director of the Iraq Foundation and former ambassador to the United States, laments that “political rhetoric about women’s rights and gender equality, sonorously upheld in the constitution, is not matched by actions on the part of the state or political parties, nor is it reflected in the social culture, dominated as it is by a stifling compound of patriarchal conventions and skewed interpretations of Islam.” The Iraqi Ministry of Justice recently drafted a new Personal Status Law that could strip women of what little protection they have from conservative clerical doctrine. Another more progressive law on Protection from Family Violence has made little progress in Iraq’s parliament and is unlikely to pass anytime soon.
In the Levant, the Syrian civil war continues to pose dangers to women, both in the country and in external refugee camps where women and girls are often subject to sexual assault and violence. Overall, several contributors to the report continued to cite conflict and sectarianism as among the top issues threatening women. As Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOW News in Lebanon, points out, “It is not easy to lobby for better opportunities for women when the economy is crumbling and the country is on the verge of a massive civil war.” Militarization and ongoing armed conflict, coupled with Islamic extremism, continue to threaten women’s rights.
Although political quotas might offer a leg up for women in the region, critics argue that the women who end up filling those seats are often elites who might simply toe the party line and fail to champion women’s rights. Increased political and economic opportunities might translate into more women making it to elected office or business boardrooms in the MENA, but it is essential that they keep the plight of all women in mind when they assume positions of power. Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of parliament in Pakistan, offers a promising example from her country where women in parliament came together to pass more pro-women’s legislation in a five-year period than at any other time in the country’s history. The key: the female parliamentarians worked across class lines, religions, and party affiliations to advance the rights of all women.
Taken together, the contributions in this publication offer not only interesting insights on women’s rights and status, but also grounds for hope that, indeed, women are truly transforming the MENA region.