The Arab Spring had the great promise of economic prosperity and societal transformation toward equity and equality among men and women. This promise remains unfulfilled. This past year MENA women continued a revolutionary pattern of culture change that laws cannot keep up with and do not reflect. While countries and even cities vary widely, one of the countries in which this transformation is the most visible is the United Arab Emirates, where women have benefitted from an astounding history of female leadership.
Dozens of Emirati women interviewed in declared that their families no longer used religious or cultural traditions as a pretext to control life decisions now in the hands of their daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. In , the new UAE Cabinet included eight women 27 percent of the total cabinet members. In November , Dr. Now, more women than men complete secondary education and enroll in university and post-graduate education, and women own 50 percent of small and medium enterprises in the UAE.
This little, yet powerful, Gulf country sets a stunning example of what the presence of women in leadership can do to bring about what many political scientists deem as nearly impossible in the endless confrontation between state identity and religious norms in the region.
Women Driving Positive Change in the Middle East | Wilson Center
In the field of international development, progress is usually thought to fall into one of three fundamental categories: the economic, the social, or the political. Life being the complex experience it is, we often end up describing initiatives or results in hyphenated terms that reflect the multi-disciplinary nature of… well, life. There is much going on across the MENA region to address this variety of needs despite exceptionally difficult circumstances. What is conspicuously absent from most of these worthy endeavors, however, is a conscious strategy to integrate religiously thoughtful approaches that can both deliver better results and begin to reshape the religious narrative at this critical time from the ground up.
As the valiant and committed women and men of the region go about their work, they instinctively navigate the religious backdrop to all they do deftly and courteously.
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I have seen this skill over and over again from the Levant to North Africa to the Gulf, and it is nothing short of elegant diplomacy and conflict management in action. This specific aspect of the work of local activists is the unsung aspect that makes all the difference, but for a seismic shift to higher ground something more has to happen. The religious backdrop does not tend to infringe upon men for the most part, but it does have serious implications for women even when it is at its most subtle. A lot has happened since the s in this regard—extremism is only the most visibly harmful expression of this trend—but we now need to reach above and beyond the post-colonial era.
Engaged citizens of whatever primary or hyphenated field are uniquely positioned to deploy a deeper grasp of Islam as an ally in their work. This should be of primary concern to women activists, who are uniquely positioned to influence future generations and access other women. But it is not enough. Although family law varies from country to country, it remains an impediment to equal rights for women region-wide. It disadvantages women among other things in matters of divorce, child custody, inheritance, the age of marriage for girls, freedom of movement, and access to education and employment.
The countries of the Middle East are not homogenous—in terms of politics, economics, or laws affecting women. In a number of countries, the issues of women in leadership positions, equality under the law, or even access to schools for girls are hardly relevant because women are struggling for basic survival. Yemen and Syria are in a state of war, and Iraq is hardly stable.
Women are taken as slaves or added to multiple-wife households. They are raped and killed. In Syrian refugee camps, young girls are sold to older men as brides or concubines so that their families can survive. Elsewhere, the record remains uneven. For example, in the Gulf states, where there is economic prosperity, it has been easier for women to rise into leadership positions in the government and private sector. In Jordan and Lebanon, two countries grappling with tens of thousands of refugees, women continue to be represented in parliament and in cabinet positions, but the numbers are small.
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In Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, women continue to be part of the decision-making process but at a modest level. In Iran, the record of women in leadership roles continues its usual pendulum swing, depending on the policies and whims of governments. Dalia F. The repression of civil society organizations, including human rights defenders and journalists of the past few years, has now led to the freezing of assets and travel bans. Soliman was arrested from her home on December 7, and taken for interrogation. In January , Ms. The NGO law adopted by Parliament in can end independent civil society altogether because of the targeting of NGOs and human rights defenders.
Women across political and religious spectrums spoke out against the proposal, arguing it opened the way for more abuse of children and encouraged forced marriages. Thousands of women across the country publicly protested the measure on November 19, and over three days more than , people signed a petition asking Parliament to cancel the draft.
It was heartening to see Turkish women and men take a stand against a questionable government policy in a time when many inside and outside of Turkey were questioning the state of democracy in the country.
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The government withdrew the proposal on November 22 after President Erdogan called for reconsideration of the law. It is unlikely Erdogan would have intervened if women had not spoken out, including those from groups that are seen as AKP supporters, and protested against the law. As Turkey moves toward holding a referendum in April on a new presidential system, which will give Erdogan even greater control over the Turkish government, I hope that the Turkish public remembers the success of their efforts against the abuse law and feels free to stand up and speak out for what they believe is right for their lives and country.
This does not constitute an official release of U. Government USG information. The author is a paid employee of the USG and conducted this research under a USG-funded fellowship at an external institution. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of any USG agency.
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Across the region, national legal frameworks refer to equal protection of the laws but do not place any distinct obligation on the state to act. While it is a positive sign, it is ineffective when not accompanied by more affirmative provisions. Many of the constitutions took a stronger approach to non-discrimination by establishing an equal protection clause, essentially enunciating that the state must not apply its laws differently.
Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco have further led the region in their constitutional provisions by establishing that the government will take an active role in working toward the realization of parity between the sexes, including establishing independent commissions for the promotion and enforcement of these rights. Moving forward, governments across the region ought to undertake a systematic review of the legislation to eliminate all forms of discrimination in the legal system and ensure that international norms related to gender equality are fully embedded in the national legislative framework.
Governments should also establish effective mechanisms to monitor the commitment to the implementation of international norms. Notably, the formal justice sector services play an important role in challenging legal inequality and overcoming obstacles linked to social norms. Justice sector institutions and the services they provide are tools for women to challenge constraining social norms and discriminatory legal frameworks.
There are several concrete areas in which the judicial sector can and should improve its performance and accountability. In addition to eliminating written de jure barriers to equality, legislators should seek to close the gaps in the lawmaking sphere that permit the extensive use of discretion. Women throughout the Middle East and North Africa are responsible for driving positive change, despite facing significant obstacles including political instability, economic uncertainty, legal inequality, and physical insecurity. One of the most visible—and perhaps intractable—threats in the region for all of these issues remains ISIS.
Women have been a significant force fighting against ISIS. Current estimates indicate that some 10, women are on the frontlines in Iraq and Syria. These Kurdish groups existed before the rise of ISIS and while some tensions endure among them, they have been remarkably successful in their efforts against the terror group. Women in the MENA region have been on the frontlines fighting for a better future—whether at work, in the home, or on a literal battlefield—and continue to be a critical element in defeating the Islamic State and driving positive change in the region.
Since then, the French colonial regime and the secular governments that followed after independence enacted laws recognizing equality for women. The rising influence of Islamist politics, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in , was seen by Tunisian secularists as a threat to the advances made by women over the preceding century. Society, as is often the case, still lags behind. Today, Tunisia has one of the highest proportions of seats held by women in national parliaments compared to other countries in the region.
In June , the Tunisian parliament legislated, with an overwhelming majority, plans to increase female representation in local government across the country. The new law requires parties or blocks to put forward an equal number of men and women at the top of party lists of candidates. Although Tunisia is seen as a beacon of hope in the region for democracy and the rights of women, formidable challenges remain.