FAR BEHIND: WOMEN IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Judith Colp Rubin*
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
"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
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."
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
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.