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Women's plight holds back Arab renaissance

* UN report says proportion of women MPs in Arab nations lowest in the world
* Calls for reopening of some Islamic jurisprudence

GENEVA: Huge discrimination against women in the Arab world is holding back overall economic prosperity and social development in the region, a United Nations report said on Wednesday.

“An Arab renaissance cannot be accomplished without the rise of women in Arab countries,” the “Arab Human Development Report 2006” said.

“Directly and indirectly, it concerns the well-being of the entire Arab world.”

The UN Development Programme’s report, which was compiled by Arab experts and academics, said countries in the region must give women more access to the “tools” of development, such as education and health care, and consider positive discrimination.

In many nations, women’s exclusion is enshrined in laws that specifically restrict their activities, even though the constitutions of most Arab states would provide a basis to eliminate bias, according to the report.

“The business of writing the law, applying the law and interpreting the law is governed above all by a male-oriented culture,” the report entitled “Towards the rise of women in the Arab world” said.

“A complex web of cultural, social, economic and political factors, some ambiguous in nature, keeps Arab women in thrall,” the report said, pointing to “cultural hangovers” and the way societies are structured to deal with education and the family.

Women’s rates of participation in economic activity in the Arab world are lower than in any other part of the world, the report said. Female unemployment rates are between two and five times higher than those of men in most Arab nations.

Less than 80 percent of girls attend secondary schools in all but four of the Arab nations, with the highest rates of deprivation in the less economically developed countries. One half of women are illiterate, compared to one third of men.

However, the report also highlighted some of the stark differences that exist within the Arab world.

In Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, more girls are enrolled at school than boys. Mediterranean Arab nations were frequently cited as providing more rights for women.

Most Arab countries - except Gulf states - granted women the right to vote in the 1950s and 1960s, and more governments have been appointing women ministers in recent years.

However, the proportion of women parliamentarians in Arab nations remains the lowest in the world, just ten percent, and female ministerial posts are often “symbolic”, the report said.

Some of its authors argued that mainstream currents of Islam were not the key factor hampering women’s empowerment, despite western perceptions.

But the report called for a reopening of some Islamic jurisprudence to reflect the different dynamics of modern Arab societies and “fundamental Quranic verses that recognise equality and honour human beings”.

Conflicts, foreign occupations, terrorism and the dominance of “conservative and inflexible political forces” protecting “masculine culture and values” were the biggest obstacles, it added.

Maternal mortality rates are “unacceptably high” in Arab nations, averaging 270 deaths per 100,000 and ranging from just seven per 100,000 in oil-rich Qatar to over 1,000 in impoverished Somalia and Mauritania, the report said. afp


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