Beyond the Veil

Point of View, by the Middle East Program's Kendra Heideman, Centerpoint, November 2010

Nov 04, 2010

Addressing women's rights in the Middle East remains a complicated and contentious issue. Part of the challenge stems from misperceptions and disagreements about the status of women and women's rights in the region. Should women be treated with justice and equality? Or should women be governed under a patriarchal hegemonic order?

The status of women in the region differs widely from country to country. Despite such variation, discussions of women's rights in the Middle East tend to focus on the inequalities that women face in their daily lives based on the existing personal status laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody.

In many Middle Eastern countries, women are at a disadvantage legally, socially, and politically. They are typically underrepresented in political life and occupy only 9.5 percent of all parliamentary seats. Yet some countries, like Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, have election quota systems, ensuring a certain number of women are elected to parliament. Still lagging behind other parts of the world, women's access to equal education and economic opportunities varies across the region but has generally improved in many countries recently.

Improvement in the status of women in the Middle East is slow and can be disheartening, but activist women and women's movements in the region continue to push for change within their societies. Women's groups in Morocco, followed by groups in Iran, have organized One Million Signature campaigns to change unequal and discriminatory laws. Women's NGOs in Jordan helped bring attention to the problem of honor killings, which led to the creation of a specialized tribunal to hear such cases and to end lenient sentencing.

Violence against women no longer goes unaddressed. Women's NGOs, human rights organizations, and some government entities are addressing these issues, but with sensitivity because of the associated social taboos, as is the case with crimes related to honor killings and sexual and domestic violence.

The age of marriage in the region varies from 13 in Iran to 19 in Algeria. Though still young in some countries, this is an improvement on previous ages of legal marriage in the region.

Throughout the Middle East, women continue to struggle for their rights and demand change. To advance women's rights in the region, comprehensive efforts are needed to empower women throughout the political, economic, legal, and social spheres. Various groups of women including women's NGOs, women in politics, and businesswomen need to continue to work together across sectors if change is to come.


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