New Survey Assesses Women's Freedom in the Middle East
Friday, May 20, 2005 2:15 PM

Freedom House today released the first ever comparative assessment of women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa. The study offers a unique and critical analysis of the status of women in one of the most complex and important regions of the world.

The report, "Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Citizenship and Justice" found a substantial deficit in women's rights in the 16 countries and one territory reviewed. Women are at a profound disadvantage in practically every institution of society: the criminal justice system, the economy, education, health care, and the media.

The release of the study follows the recent decision by Kuwait's parliament to grant women the right to vote and run in national and local elections, a notable development in a region where many women are routinely denied political rights.

The study rates countries on a numerical scale, offering the first such ranking of the status of women in the region. The survey's methodology is derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Only three countries -- Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria -- scored above average in some areas of women's rights. Saudi Arabia earned the lowest scores.

According to the study, women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) face a systematic gender gap, aided in large measure by discriminatory laws and by the routine lack of enforcement of existing laws guaranteeing equality and fair treatment. While women in the region have made substantial gains in education, none of the countries evaluated meets internationally recognized standards for women's rights protections.

"This survey will be instrumental in facilitating and supporting national and international efforts to empower women in the Middle East and North Africa," said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. "It will strengthen the efforts of those working in the region in behalf of women's rights and help identify critical areas for reform."

The survey, including individual country reports, ratings, and methodology, is available online.

Freedom House will release the survey findings at a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Jordan on Saturday, May 21, at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center at the Dead Sea from 2:00-2:30 PM.

As the study reveals, gender inequality in the region is compounded by high levels of illiteracy among women, apathetic governments, and patriarchal traditions, all of which conspire against women, leaving them unaware of their rights and ill-equipped to advocate for them.

The survey core is comprised of in-depth narrative reports describing the challenges and progress on women's rights in: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Palestine (Palestinian Authority and Israeli-Occupied Territories). The study covers developments through the end of 2003.

The Freedom House study is the culmination of an intensive 20-month-long research process by a team of 40 leading scholars, analysts, and women's rights experts; focus groups and consultations with women's advocates were conducted in several countries. A committee of specialists on Islam, human rights, and the legal, social, and political issues surrounding women's rights formulated the survey's methodology.

"This first-of-a kind, comparative survey offers crucial new insights into the substantial gender gap in the region and outlines a series of policy recommendations to improve women's rights," said survey director Sameena Nazir. "The findings underscore the importance of investing in women's education as an area where most progress has been noted. Education levels for girls and young women have improved, and women's employment opportunities are expanding," she said. "However, as the study makes clear, deep structural problems are holding women back in most areas of life."

The study identifies several major obstacles that prevent women in the MENA region from enjoying the full range of legal, civil, political, economic, and social rights, among them:

Inferior status due to legal discrimination: While 16 of the 17 countries examined (all except Saudi Arabia) enshrine the concept of equal rights in their constitutions, women face legal forms of discrimination that are systematic and pervade every aspect of life; in some countries women are susceptible to harsher penalties than men for certain crimes.

Discrimination in nationality and citizenship laws: Women do not enjoy the same citizenship and nationality rights as men in MENA countries. A woman who marries a foreigner cannot pass on her citizenship or nationality to her spouse and, in most countries, cannot confer her citizenship to her children.

Domestic violence: No country in the region has laws that clearly outlaw all forms of domestic violence. The burden of proof is placed entirely on the female victim in cases of gender-based violence, which discourages women from reporting crimes. Some laws, such as those that encourage men who rape women to marry their victims, even condone violence against women.

Lack of information; Absence of voice: Women in the region are largely unaware of their rights, due in part to educational weaknesses and the failure by governments to engage in public education campaigns. Students, especially girls, are not taught about citizenship rights. The media also largely fails to cover injustices suffered by women. Cultural attitudes generally regard women's demands and protests as contrary to women's traditional, subservient roles.

Women's inferior status in family law: In almost all MENA countries, women face gender-based discrimination in family codes. Except in Morocco and Tunisia, family laws relegate women to inferior status within marriage and family life. Husbands are given power over their wives' right to work and travel, and they can divorce their wives at any time, without reason and without going to court; women are required by law to meet specific conditions in order to seek divorce through a court of law.

Lack of complaint mechanisms: With the exception of Egypt, MENA governments do not provide mechanisms for women to file complaints of gender discrimination.

As part of the study, Freedom House conducted focus group sessions with a cross section of men and women in Egypt, Kuwait, and Morocco. While inequalities enshrined in law are a major impediment to women's rights, focus group participants revealed that lack of knowledge and information, societal biases by men and women against women, and certain interpretations of religious doctrine are prominent among the challenges facing women.

"While the world is well aware that the inequality of women is a major problem in the Middle East and North Africa, this study sheds new light on its varied sources and consequences," said Ms. Windsor. "Women have a fundamental role to play in the democratization of Middle Eastern societies. As pressure mounts for democratic change in the region, gender equality and women's rights must necessarily be addressed and dealt with meaningfully, as witnessed recently in Kuwait, where women were finally granted the right to vote," she said. "The lack of women's rights must be regarded as a chief obstacle to democratic reform."

The survey evaluates countries according to five categories: nondiscrimination and access to justice; autonomy, security, and freedom of the person; economic rights and equal opportunity; political rights and civic voice; and social and cultural rights. Universal standards of comparability, based in part on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were employed in rating country performance. Ratings are expressed on a five-point scale (1-5), with 1 signifying the lowest degree of freedom women have to exercise their human rights and 5 reflecting the highest degree. A score of 3 in any category reflects a country's imperfect adherence to universally accepted rights standards. Countries seldom receive a score of 3 in any of the five categories, and some countries receive the lowest score of 1. Among the survey's major recommendations: Women should enjoy equal status under the law in all aspects of life; Family laws should be revised to ensure equal rights within marriage and family; Domestic violence should be considered a serious crime in all instances; Legal and traditional barriers to women's participation in politics, government, and the private sector should be removed; Governments should increase spending for education, ensure that all women have access to education, and eliminate laws and practices that discriminate against women in education; Governments should take aggressive steps to eliminate legal and social obstacles to women's economic equality; Governments should institute reforms in the status of migrant workers to ensure that women domestic workers are not exploited or discriminated against; Governments should work to eliminate social traditions that require a woman to seek a male relative's permission to receive medical treatment for her general or reproductive health. Funding for this project was provided by the U.S. Department of State's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).

Published in: "New Survey Assesses Women's Freedom in the Middle East," Freedom House, 20 May 2005