By Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, Regional Programme Director, Arab States, UNIFEM
Date: 8 March 2006
Amman — Gender inequality is generally recognised as being one of the main obstacles to development in the Arab world.
The latest Arab Human Development Report notes that in general, women suffer from inequality with men and are vulnerable to discrimination, both in law and in practice. Despite laudable efforts to promote women's status, the report notes that "success remains limited".
Greater progress is required in women's political participation, in changes to personal status laws, in the integration of women in development, and in the right of a woman married to a foreign husband to pass on her citizenship to her children, according to the report.
The failure of existing legislation to protect women from domestic violence, as well as violence perpetrated by society and the state is another "deficit area", it says.
Despite this prognosis from Arab experts, the Director of UNIFEM's Arab States Regional Office, based in Jordan, Dr Haifa Abu Ghazaleh, remains upbeat about women's changing status in the region.
In excerpts of an interview with IRIN, she said that progress on women's rights was being made, although much more remained to be achieved.
QUESTION: Are women's rights improving in the Middle East?
ANSWER: The situation for Arab women has improved slightly in all spheres of public and private life. Women's access to education and health has increased considerably compared to past decades and their participation in the economy, environment and decision-making spheres is steadily growing.
Q: Which countries have made improvements in respect of women's rights and what specific measures have they taken?
A: In the Middle East ... women's human rights have entered the agendas of numerous NGOs and governments, which are slowly introducing legislative changes. ... In Jordan, for example, an amendment to Article 340 of the penal code was introduced in December 2001. This amendment cancels an exemption from punishment for men who kill female relatives who are found committing adultery. Other amendments introduced in Jordan, as well as in Egypt, include the right for women to file for divorce unilaterally, provided there is economic compensation [khule].
In both Jordan and Palestine, initiatives concerning violence against women have gained momentum and, although governmental actors have taken no specific steps to design a comprehensive plan of action, NGOs are increasingly providing services [i.e. counselling, protection through hotlines and shelter facilities] and information.
In Lebanon, the work of the National Commission for Lebanese Women as well as NGOs contributed to legislative changes introduced to the labour law and the penal code in 1999 and 2001. Changes in the labour law have included an increase in the period allowed for maternal leave from 40 days to seven weeks, the prohibition of women's dismissal due to pregnancy ... and the granting to female employees of qual benefits and privileges.
In addition, Kuwait has recently granted women the right to vote and run for elections as part of a constitutional monarchy framework. Kuwaiti women will be able to participate in the next national legislative elections in 2007 as voters and candidates.
Q: Where are women's rights not improving?
A: The rights of women in the Arab region are constantly violated ... women are still deprived of exercising their basic rights due to unawareness of these rights or simply because of weak monitoring systems to ensure the realisation of their rights.
The application of laws is also prejudiced against women since judges, prosecutors and lawyers are generally hesitant to take up cases involving women's rights because of societal views that these issues ought to be resolved within the family.
Q: What roles do culture and religion play in the suppression of women's rights?
A: Societal norms deny women the possibility of enjoying full membership of their families and communities. Pre-determined roles, allegedly based on culture and the interpretation of religion, are presented as undeniable facts and even forced on them [women] by their families, or by the state through discriminatory laws. Women generally enjoy little status or authority within the family and social structures: a large gap persists between women and men in the area of decision-making, particularly in relation to issues of women's health, family matters and society.
Women are still subjected to restricting traditions and customs whereby they are deprived of educational rights because preference is usually given to males. In many cases, they are also deprived of being productive members of society because social pressure may force them to marry at an early age and to bear many children.
Q: What role can religious and community leaders play in the protection of women's rights?
A: Religious and community leaders everywhere have a special responsibility to reaffirm those principles that promote women's rights through taking an active role in advocacy on the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Q: Are governments in the region taking their legal commitments under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women [CEDAW] seriously?
A: Seventeen Arab countries have signed or ratified CEDAW ... most Arab countries do not go beyond the signature, despite their obligations to ensure the full implementation of CEDAW and the adoption of its articles.
Q: What provisions in CEDAW are governments in the region finding it hardest to implement and why?
A: Among the 17 countries that have ratified or acceded to CEDAW, 13 countries have expressed reservations. In addition to reservations on specific articles, some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Mauritania, have also made a declaration ... that the state is not committed to the implementation of any of CEDAW's articles if any of these provisions do not comply with the provisions of Islamic Shar'iat [law].
It is important to note that many countries have not recognised a women's right to vote and stand for elections. These include Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]
Haifa Abu Ghazaleh is Regional Programme Director of UNIFEM's Arab States Regional Office in Amman, Jordan. This interview is reprinted here with permission from IRINnews.org.