Title: The Bleak Reality of Women’s Rights in the Middle East and How far the Arab Spring Must Go —
Though the Arab Spring offers great promise for helping women gain equitable human rights in the Middle East, there is still tremendous work to be done on this account. Unfortunately, recent liberal political movements have even sparked backlash from conservative regimes causing them to be increasingly stringent and overbearing on women rather than helping to resolve the problem. Despite the positive media attention, there is still prevalent oppression of women at different levels throughout the Middle East. We will examine several of the most fundamental ways in which women are systematically discriminated against. These categories include (1) lack of personal autonomy; (2) limited participation in society; and (3) disparate access to education.
Commonly in the Middle East, women’s personal autonomy is severely limited due to deeply entrenched patriarchal family systems. For example, in most Middle East nations, it is exceedingly difficult for a woman to file for divorce, polygamy is often legal and socially acceptable, and there are even laws that condone “honor killings” for transgressions of perceived improper conduct. For example, in Turkey, according to the Prime Ministry’s Human Rights Directorate, in Istanbul alone there was one honor killing every week and UNICEF estimates that as much as two thirds of all killings in the Palestinian territories were honor killings.
In Egypt, often considered one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East, UNICEF found that from 1997 to 2007, 96 percent of women between 15 and 49 have experienced female genital mutilation. In Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, and Oman female genital mutilation is also an issue.
And in Afghanistan the government has even gone so far as to pass a law permitting Shia men to deny their wives sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands’ sexual demands. In much of the Middle East women can be married off by their parents at very young ages and without consent. As a result, the New York times reports that “officials are alarmed by what they describe as a worsening epidemic of suicides, particularly among young women tormented by being forced to marry too young, to someone they do not love.”
This patriarchal system of guardianship against women extends beyond marital relations to almost every aspect of life. In the Human Rights Watch’s 50-page report called “ “Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship,” we find that Saudi women often must obtain permission from a guardian (a father, husband, or even a son) to work, travel, study, marry, or even access health care. Unfortunately such restrictions against personal autonomy are prevalent throughout much of the Arab world. The Human Rights Watch report provides an illustrative example stating, “Fatma A., a 40-year-old [woman] cannot board a plane without written permission from her son, her legal guardian. “My son is 23 years old and has to come all the way from the Eastern Province to give me permission to leave the country.”
From the above examples and statistics, we can see that is literally true that women are essentially treated as minors and are denied the basic autonomy to control their bodies and even the entire substance of their lives.
Literacy is one of the most fundamental indicators of a person’s education. As Frederick Douglass, the great American social reformer and statesman who escaped slavery, once wrote, “once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Without literacy, a person is denied the basic opportunity to be an informed and versed participant in society. As such, literacy within population demographics is a key indicator as to whether a country is providing the vital educational opportunities for people to harness and apply their intellect and personhood in order to meaningfully engage society. In the words of President Clinton “literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and responsibility.”
Unfortunately, in the Middle East, the statistics of literacy amongst women are very poor. Women over 15 years-old have an illiteracy rate 42 percent when compared to men at 22 percent.
In Morocco, Egypt, and Syria, women’s illiteracy rates are 64, 56, and 40 percent, respectively. Further, in communities where there is a basic offering of education for women, the Arab Human Development Report from 2002 still holds that “the most worrying aspect of the crisis in education is education’s inability to provide the requirements for the development of Arab societies.”
Participation in Society:
According to the United Nations Arab Human Development report, “Arab women’s capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms [. . . .] In some countries with elected national assemblies, women are still denied the right to vote or hold office. And one in every two Arab women can neither read nor write.”
In the Freedom House’s 2010 report Freedom in the World which surveyed the state of women’s political rights and civil liberties globally, the Middle East/Northern Africa (MENA) region came-in dead last. Concerning employment, in the Population Reference Bureau’s report “Empowering Woman, Developing Society,” we find that only 20 percent of women 15 and older are an active part of the labor force in the Middle East/Northern Africa region. This is the lowest ratio of any region in the world. Further, of that 20 percent of women participating in the labor force, the majority are employed as manual labor in the agricultural sector with little prospects of significant job mobility.
What these reports and others like them consistently find is that gender discrimination in the Middle East is often codified in law, family law or civil codes, ethics and mores. Beyond having their personal lives severely limited as discussed in the section above entitled “Personal Autonomy,” here we see that women also have limited opportunity to participate in civil society as a whole. Systematic discrimination that prevents women from working, driving, voting, holding public office or even being admitted to a hospital are all examples of how women are blocked from being full participants in society.
The results of Egypt’s 2000 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) provide insights into families’ preferences for investing in their children’s education. Women with children ages 6 to 15 were asked, “If parents have one son and one daughter and can send only one child to the university, which child should they send?” While 53 percent of the women said that the decision should depend on the children’s capabilities, 39 percent said that the son should go to the university, compared with only 8 percent who said that the daughter should go. The survey also found that mothers of children who had never attended school were more likely to cite the cost of education as a reason for not educating their daughters than for not educating their sons.11
However, the situation in the region is slowly changing. Women activists, who generally come from the educated segments of society, are challenging the status quo; demanding equality in the family and society; and calling for women’s economic, political, and social empowerment. The trend’s intensity varies by country but is visible even in relatively conservative nations. In addition to facing political pressure for reform, countries are dealing with economic changes that are creating an impetus for women to become more active outside the home. As the region’s cost of living rises rapidly, families are increasingly forced to depend on the additional income that female family members can provide.
The most worrying aspect of the crisis in education is education’s inability to provide the requirements for the development of Arab societies,” according to the 2002 Arab Human Development Report.
  http://www.prb.org/publications/policybriefs/empoweringwomendevelopingsocietyfemaleeducationinthemiddleeastandnorthafrica.aspx