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The Status of Women in the Middle East

The Status of Women in the Middle East

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Published by The Wilson Center

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Published by: The Wilson Center on Apr 23, 2012
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Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program 
This publication represents a selection of pre-sentations made at meetings organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle EastProgram in late 2004 and the first threemonths of 2005. During this time, the MiddleEast Program invited experts from the regionand Washington to consider the progressachieved and the pitfalls facing women in theMiddle East and North Africa (MENA) region.In the last two years, the Middle East Programalso hosted Iraqi women for discussions on therole and participation of women in the politicalprocess, peace building, and reconstructionefforts in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.These meetings were part of an ongoingseries the Middle East Program began in 1998to focus on gender issues, democracy, andhuman rights in the MENA region. Women’srights are an intrinsic part of any society’smovements for democratization, and adher-ence to principles of human rights is critical. Inrecent years, the empowerment of women andtheir involvement in political, legal, economicand social life has become a yardstick for meas-uring the progress of developing countries inadvancing democratization, strengthening civilsociety, and broadening political participation.The MENA region has shown modestimprovement in women’s political participa-tion during the last decade. The number of countries that enfranchised women hasincreased, and modest gains have occurred inthe number of women parliamentarians, cabi-net ministers, and women in decision-makingpositions in both the private and public sectors. Women have also fared well in the area of education. Although the literacy rate among women in the region is still low—and lowerthan literacy among men—the percentage of increase in literacy has been substantial. The
The Status of Women in the Middle East
Beijing + 10: Arab Womenat a Glance
Population andDevelopment in the MiddleEast and North Africa
The Women’s Movement inthe Maghreb
Changes in the Status ofEgyptian Women: A ViewThrough the Prism ofMarriage and Divorce
Women and PoliticalParticipation in Yemen
Cultural Policies andWomen in the IslamicRepublic of Iran
Women and Nationbuildingin Afghanistan
This publication was made possible through a grant from the Ford Foundation and the supportof the Open Society Institute.
increased number of girls in primary and sec-ondary schools and in higher education is alsostriking. While segregation in public education-al institutions is the norm for most MENA countries, no government in the region bars itsfemale population from education. However,governments in the region tend to use women’sexpanded educational opportunities to obscurefailure in other fields, including expansion of legal rights, recognition of full citizenship, andpromotion of equality under the law. Highereducational achievement and economic necessi-ty has led to increases in women’s employment,but fields of employment are still gender biased. Addressing the aspirations of the younger gen-eration—of both men and women—confrontsregional governments with a major challenge.Legal, educational, and cultural practicesand conditions continue to obstruct the polit-ical and economic empowerment of womenin the MENA region. The situation differsfrom countryto country,but
is thesource of personal and family law in allMiddle Eastern countries. Inrecent years, anumber of governments in the region havecome up with newinterpretations of 
topermit changes in personal law,grant womenthe right to seek a divorce, raise the marriageage for girls, ban polygamy,and permit theappointment of female judges. The popula-tion explosion and the inability of govern-ments to provide adequate employment, edu-cational opportunities, and health services hasencouraged activefamily planning programsin a number of regional states, but culturalbarriers haveprevented other societies fromengaging in effectivefamily planning. Largely,the dominance of 
has been an impedi-ment for governments in the region to adherefully to The Convention on the Eliminationof All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Even governments thataresignatories to CEDAWhave listed reserva-tions about clauses they regardas contraven-ing
.This publication provides an overview of developments relating to the status of womenin the region, with special emphasis on soci-eties whereprogress has been significant,
 About the Middle East Program
The Middle East Program was launched in February 1998 in light ofincreased U.S. engagement and the profound changes sweeping acrossmany Middle Eastern states. In addition to spotlighting day-to-day issues, theProgram continues to concentrate on long-term developments and theirimpact on political and social structure, economic development, and rela-tions with the United States.The Middle East Program draws on domestic and foreign regionalexperts for its meetings, conferences, and occasional papers. Conferencesand meetings assess the policy implications of long-term political, social,and economic developments in the region and individual states; the MiddleEast's role in the international arena; American interests in the region; thethreat of terrorism; and strategic threats to and from the regional states.
The Program pays special attention to the role of women, youth, civil society institutions, Islam, and democratic andautocratic tendencies. In addition, the Middle East Programhosts programs on cultural issues, including contemporaryartand literature in the region.Current Affairs
:The Middle East Program emphasizes analysis of cur-rent issues and their implications for long-term developments in the region,including Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Iraq and its neighbors, political partici-pation, globalization, technology transfer,U.S. foreign policy, economicandpolitical partnerships, and the impact of developments in CentralAsia and the Caucasus.
Gender Issues
:The Middle East Program examines employment pat-terns, education, legal rights, and political participation of women in theregion. The role of women in advancing civil society, the problem of traf-ficking in women, and the attitudes of governments and the clerical com-munity towardwomen's rights areareas to which the Program devotesconsiderable attention. The Program also has a keen interest in exploringwomen's increasing roles in conflict prevention and post-conflict recon-struction activities.
Islam, Democracy and Civil Society
:The Middle East Programmonitors the growing demand of people in the region for democratiza-tion, accountable government, the rule of law, and adherence to interna-tional conventions on topics such as human rights and women's rights. Itcontinues to examine the role of Islamic movements in shaping politicaland social developments and the variety of factors that favor or obstructthe expansion of civil society.
Dr. Haleh Esfandiari
 Jillian Frumkin
 Julia Bennett
Special thanks to:
 Jillian Frumkin for coordinating this publication; JuliaBennett, Sherri Haas, and Evan Hensleigh for their editing assistance; andLianne Hepler for designing the Occasional Paper Series.
Photos byDavid Hawxhurst.
such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. The publication also focuses on otherdevelopments outside the Arab world, amongthem Iran’s successful family planning pro-gram and the changes experienced by womenin Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. A longer version of some of the speakers’ pre-sentations, the compilation
Middle Eastern Women on the Move,
and other papers dealing with gender issues in the region can be foundon the Middle East Program’s website(www.wilsoncenter.edu/middleeast).
Based on a Wilson Center presentation March 7,2005.
This overview examines the main achievementsrealized and obstacles hindering the advance-ment of Arab women since the 1995 BeijingConference,
as well as the challenges facingthem in the next decade.
Main Achievements in the Status of ArabWomen
Laws and Legislation 
Therehavebeen enactments of newlegislationand activation of existing legislations that areinfavor of women. They can be summarized asfollows: amending and issuing Family Law (Morocco); modernizing personal status codes(Tunisia) including divorce and nationality (Egypt); revising employment laws in favor of  women; amending social security nets and ben-efits to include women; reviewing penal codesrelating to honor crimes; implementing com-pulsoryprimaryeducation acts for boys andgirls (most Arab countries); introducing thequota system to ensuregreater representation of  women in parliaments (Jordan, Palestine, Iraq).
 Access to International Conventions 
Seventeen out of the 22 Arab countries havebecome signatories to the Convention on theElimination of All Forms of Discriminationagainst Women (CEDAW),
 with all but six of them stating reservations on a number of arti-cles within the Convention [see chartpage 4].The reservations aremainly related to the con-flict between national legislation and
.eservations are on six articles: Article 2, onnational legislation and constitution; Article 7,on public life and political rights; Article 9, oncitizenship law; Article 15, on equality in legaland civil rights; Article 16, on Family Law (marriage and family relations including mar-riage, divorce, and inheritance related toIslamic
); and Article 29, on dispute set-tlement between parties to CEDAW.
Political Participation 
Most Arab countries had upheld suffrage rightsfor women bythe 1960s and early 1970s. Somearestill fighting for these rights. Some countrieshaveadopted special temporarymeasures suchas the quota system in order to ensure higherrepresentation of women in parliaments. Forinstance, women occupy 35 parliamentary seatsin Morocco and Sudan, 30 seats in Syria, and sixseats in Jordan; and there is a quota of 25% inIraq. InSyria, Tunisia, Sudan, Morocco, andDjibouti, women occupy between 10% and12% of the seats, with Syria registering the high-est representation. Thus, between 1990-1994and 2005, womensshareof parliamentaryseatsgrewfrom an average of 3.9% to 6%. Also, women ministers havebeen appointed for thefirst time: six in Iraq; four in Algeria; three inOman, Jordan, and Tunisia; two in Bahrain,Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, and Lebanon; andone in Yemen, Qatar,Djibouti, Libya,Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and theUAE. Women havebeen appointed as judges forthe first time in Egypt, and the percentage of  women judges in other countries, such as in
Beijing + 10: Arab Women at a Glance
By Fatima Sbaity Kassem,
Director, Centre for Women, United Nations Economic and SocialCommission for Western Asia (ESCWA), Beirut, Lebanon
1. The Fourth World Conferenceon Women was held in Beijing,China September 4-15, 1995.There the Beijing Declaration andPlatformfor Action was adopted.Among its goals is to ensurethe fullimplementation of the human rightsof women and of the girl child asan inalienable, integral and indivis-ible partof all human rights andfundamental freedoms (Article 9).2.The Convention on the Eliminationof All Forms of Discrimination againstWomen (CEDAW), adopted in1979 by the UN General Assembly,is often described as an internationalbill of rights for women. It defineswhat constitutes discriminationagainst women and sets up anagenda for national action to endsuch discrimination.

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