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Gender Equality: Women’s Rights Are Advancing Unevenly In Saudi Arabia, North Africa and the Middle East

By Caroline Alexander

Jan 12, 2019

When Saudi Arabia finally allowed women to drive in June 2018, pioneers hit the roads and celebrated the end of a notorious restriction on the freedom of half the country’s population. At the same time, rights campaigners were drawing attention to another, arguably more limiting measure still in place in the kingdom: the guardianship system that makes women legal dependents of male relatives. Women’s rights are advancing unevenly in Saudi Arabia, as well as across North Africa and the Middle East, a region that regularly rates worst or second worst to sub-Saharan Africa in overall assessments of gender equality. The role of women is the subject of sustained public debate, with campaigns for equal treatment resisted by entrenched patriarchal and conservative forces.

1. How Do Guardianship Restrictions Work?

A Saudi woman can’t marry, obtain a passport or travel abroad, or even leave prison without the permission of her designated guardian — usually a father or husband, and sometimes a brother, uncle or son. Women who defy their guardians can end up in complicated familial or legal situations and in some cases can even be jailed. In January, a young Saudi woman who fled from her family, barricaded herself in a hotel room in Bangkok and demanded asylum became the poster child for a campaign to abolish the rules. They are mostly derived from a strict interpretation of a verse from the Koran, the sacred book of Islam. In 2016, activists presented the Royal Court a petition with 14,000 signatures demanding an end to the system. Small changes have been made since then. For instance, women no longer require their guardian’s involvement to open an interior ministry account necessary to receive certain government services.

2. Why Did Saudi Arabia Let Women Drive?

The Saudi monarchy has an ambitious campaign to diversify the economy and wean the kingdom from dependence on oil revenue. Many restrictions related to gender mixing and social life have been loosened. Lifting the ban on driving was also part of this effort. If more women are to have paying jobs, they need to be able to drive to work. At the same time, the government jailed some of the country’s most prominent women’s rights campaigners, accusing them of collaborating with unspecified hostile foreign entities.

3. Where Is Progress Being Made In The Region?

Advancements are most pronounced in Tunisia, birthplace of the pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring that started in late 2010. The country’s 2014 constitution, heralded by activists as a model, affirms equal rights and duties for male and female citizens and says the state will strive to achieve parity in all elected assemblies. Tunisia overturned legislation banning Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men — a prohibition still common in the region. President Beji Caid Essebsi’s cabinet has approved a proposal to equalize inheritance rights of sons and daughters, passing the bill on to Parliament for consideration. It’s a bold measure in a region where laws typically award daughters half of what sons receive, in line with conventional interpretations of Islam’s holy texts. Tunisia has also enacted laws against economic discrimination and harassment of women.

4. What Advances Have Women Made Elsewhere?

Since the Arab Spring, seven of the 20 Muslim-majority countries and territories in the region have joined Tunisia in criminalizing domestic violence. They include Morocco, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Six governments have repealed colonial-era laws that allowed a rapist to escape prosecution by marrying his victim and thus preserve the “honor” of her family. And women are breaking into traditionally male spheres. The United Arab Emirates’s first female fighter pilot led the country’s initial airstrike against Islamic State in Syria in 2014. A Jordanian woman became the first from a Middle Eastern country to become a professional wrestler. One in three startups in the Arab World is founded or led by a woman.

5. Are Women Gaining Political Power?

Slowly. Women’s representation in national parliaments rose to an average of about 17.5 percent in 2017 from 4.3 percent in 1995; the global average is 23.4 percent. Mostly since 2010, 11 nations and the Palestinian Authority have adopted legislation to increase women’s participation in politics, mainly through quotas that ensure a minimum percentage as candidates for office — with Tunisia one of the few countries in the world to require equal gender representation across candidate lists. In 2011, Saudi Arabia became the last country to extend the vote to women. The U.A.E. elected the region’s first female parliamentary speaker in 2015, and a handful of women have won mayoral elections, including in Baghdad, Tunis and Bethlehem in the West Bank. Tunisia recently appointed a woman as deputy head of its central bank.

6. What Are The Biggest Hurdles That Remain?

Twelve of the 15 countries in the world with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in North Africa and the Middle East, according to a World Economic Forum report. Societal pressure remains strong, especially outside urban areas, for women to stay home. Obstacles to equality include disregard for and weak enforcement of rules against child marriages as well as laws giving a husband the right to unilaterally divorce his wife. A new regulation in Saudi Arabia mandates that women are notified by text message when a court issues her husband’s divorce decree, so that at least she knows. Women continue to pay for speaking up. In Iran, dozens were arrested in early 2018 in connection with protests against the requirement that women wear veils in public. In Egypt, a woman was detained for three months and given a one-year suspended sentence for complaining in an online video about sexual harassment.