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MIDEAST: Gap Lingers Between Women’s Political and Legal Rights

WASHINGTON, Mar 3 2010 (IPS) - Last year, Kuwaitis elected their first female members of Parliament. Yet in countries like Yemen, child marriage remains common and personal status laws still discriminate against women in matters concerning marriage, divorce and child custody.

Aseel al-Awadi is one of four women elected in 2009 to Kuwait's Parliament. Credit: Kuwait-Ra'ed Qutena/creative commons license

Aseel al-Awadi is one of four women elected in 2009 to Kuwait's Parliament. Credit: Kuwait-Ra'ed Qutena/creative commons license

This dual trend is evident across much of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a new report says, with women making considerable strides in achieving certain rights over the past five years, but still lagging badly behind men in others.

The 591-page study released by Freedom House on Wednesday, supported through grants by the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), contends that while women in the region suffer from greater inequality than women elsewhere, they now enjoy greater economic opportunities, access to education, and increased participation in the political process than in years before.

Subtitled “Progress Amid Resistance”, it states that these recent gains have created “grounds for cautious optimism”.

“There are more women entrepreneurs, more women doctors, more women PhDs, and more women in universities, than ever before,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House. “However, substantial roadblocks remain for women pursuing careers. These findings remind us of the complexities of women’s status in the Middle East.”

The report found that Tunisian women enjoy the greatest degree of freedom in the MENA region, followed by women in Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon and Egypt.

But the authors found that, “deeply entrenched societal norms, combined with conservative interpretations of Shari’a (Islamic law), continue to relegate women to a subordinate status.”

They also discussed women’s struggle for equality in a global context and within the United States, where “women today earn roughly 23 percent less than men and make up only three percent of the Fortune 500 chief executives.”

The Middle East is hardly the only region where women experience inequality, but the gap between the rights of women and men there has been the most visible and severe in the world.

Still, out of the 18 countries surveyed in MENA, 15 recorded gains in women’s rights over the past five years, with Kuwait, Algeria and Jordan seeing the most significant improvements.

Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian Territories – all of which have been subject to military occupation or internal conflict – were the only countries to record overall declines.

The bulk of the report focuses upon the regions lack of democratic institutions, independent judiciaries, and what it defines as “excessively restrictive rules on the formation of civil society organisations which make it more difficult for women’s advocates to effectively organise and lobby the government for expanded rights.”

“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.”

The number of women holding political positions has also increased, according to Freedom House’s study, due in part to the adoption of quota systems for elected offices in countries such as Iraq and Jordan.

The most significant gains for women in politics occurred in Kuwait, where women received political rights equal to that of men in 2005, letting them vote and run for office. This legislation preceded the election of the country’s first female members of parliament in 2009.

Meanwhile, in Yemen this year, conservative lawmakers succeeded in postponing a draft law that would make marriage illegal for girls under the age of 17.

“Yemen is still very much a tribal society whereby early marriage is a traditional factor,” Nadya Khalife, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line last week. Khalife said child marriages were common in Yemen and neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

“There are numerous factors that have to do with culture and tradition, and the socio-economic situation of families,” Khalife explained. “For instance, families may marry off their daughters for economic reasons, a family that may be poor may see an incentive for marrying their daughter because the husband and his family will have to pay mahr or a bride price – a mandatory gift in Islam given to the bride’s family by the groom and his family.”

Freedom House calls on governments in the Middle East and North Africa to provide greater legal protection for women against domestic violence as well as to increase the legal, economic and political rights of women.

The Washington, D.C.-based think tank, which is a registered non-profit organisation, characterises itself as “an independent nongovernmental organisation, [that] supports the expansion of freedom in the world.”

Sixty-six percent of Freedom House’s funding comes from the U.S. government, according to their most recent financial statement.

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