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Judith Colp Rubin*

July 18, 2007

The following article is an extract from the author's book Women in the Middle East (Sharpe, forthcoming).

This article reviews the political and social situation of women in the Islamic Middle East over the past decade. It concludes that while these women have been guaranteed equal rights under their own constitutions and international laws adopted by the government, in practice, they have not enjoyed these rights in politics, marriage, divorce, freedom of movement, education, or work.
Two major studies conducted in 2005 of the situation of women in the Arab Middle East states all came to the same conclusion: Women there are lagging behind the rest of the world. The May 2005 Freedom House report ranked 16 Arab nations on a scale between one and five in several categories related to women's rights, including freedom; economic, political, and social rights; and nondiscrimination. The highest overall score was given to Tunisia, which received an average rating of 3.24, while Saudi Arabia had the lowest score of 1.26.

"The Middle East is not, of course, the only region of the world where women are, in effect, relegated to the status of second-class citizens," the Freedom House report stated, pointing out that in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and North America, there is still a gender gap. "It is, however, in these countries where the gap between the rights of men and those of women is the most visible and significant and where resistance to women's equality has been most challenging."[1]

The second study, "Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World," issued by the Arab Human Development Report, which examined the same countries, concluded that women there "have entered the twenty-first century still dragging behind them the dead weight of such issues as a woman's right to education, work and political activity, matters long resolved elsewhere."[2]

The majority of Middle Eastern countries have long had constitutions granting women equal rights with men. With the exception of Iran and Qatar, these countries have also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Again Women (CEDAW), an international document that calls for guaranteeing women's rights. However, these documents have not translated into equality in marriage and divorce rights or employment, or to a decline in domestic violence against women. One major reason for continued inequality is that there have not been enough women from these countries elected to political office.

According to a public opinion poll included in the Arab Human Development Report, which canvassed participants in four sample Arab countries--Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan--79 percent said women have an equal right to political activity. Women have been able to vote and run for office in 22 Arab League countries as well as in Iran and Israel. The two exceptions have been the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

One of the last Middle Eastern countries to grant women suffrage was Kuwait, in May 2005, although women there were first promised that right in 1991 by the emir, who took seven years to introduce the measure. It was then defeated in parliament. This was due in part to liberal members, who while favoring other democratizing reforms, opposed female suffrage because they feared that women--who would become the majority of the electorate--wouldn't vote for them.

Nor did female voters vote for other women. The first electoral test for female voters and candidates in Kuwait was in April 2006, when two women were among the 11 candidates vying for a seat that had become vacant on the municipal council in the district of Salmiyya, 15 kilometers from Kuwait City. Women voters were in the majority, but the female candidates lost by wide margins. Female candidates have fared equally badly in other countries.

April 2005 statistics from the Interparliamentary Union ranking the representation of women in elected governments worldwide found that Arab states were at the bottom, with an average of less than seven percent representation in the parliament. That was compared to 20 percent in North America, 16 percent in sub-Sahara Africa, and 14 percent in Israel. In Iran, women only made up four percent of parliament in 2006, while Israel the figure was 15 percent--still below that of North America and sub-Sahara Africa.


Experts have disagreed as to the causes of the continued gap between female and male rights. Some have blamed Islam. Others have blamed the region's economic failure, corruption, political oppression, armed conflicts in the region, and scarcity of resources. It has not even been clear how eager those in the Arab world have been for change. Some 88 percent of those participating in the Arab Human Development Report poll said that an Arab human renaissance demanded the rise of women. However, when a 2004 poll conducted by Zogby International asked men and women in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and the UAE to rank the importance of ten different reform issues, they put women's rights second to last in importance.

Women in the Islamic Middle East have been guaranteed equal rights under their own constitutions and international laws adopted by the government. Yet women have not enjoyed these rights in politics, marriage, divorce, freedom of movement, education, or work.

*Judith Colp-Rubin is an author and journalist. She is the author of Women in the Middle East, soon to be published by Sharpe Publishers and co-author of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, (Oxford, 2003), "Hating America: A History," (Oxford, 2004) and Anti-American Terrorism in the Middle East, (Oxford, 2001). She was also founder and publisher of Women's International Net, a magazine about women worldwide. She has reported about the Middle East for several publications in North America.

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