Survey Rates Women's Rights in MENA Region

By Soliman, Motazz | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Survey Rates Women's Rights in MENA Region


Soliman, Motazz, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Panelists discussed a recent Freedom House survey entitled, "Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Citizenship and Justice," at a June 7 luncheon at Freedom House's Ballroom in Washington, DC. The event was cosponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and Freedom House, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that advocates democracy and freedom around the world.

CSID president Radwan Masmoudi first gave an overview of the historical importance of Islam to women's rights in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. Pointing out the oftenunrecognized impact Islam can have with respect to advancing these rights, Masmoudi cited examples of women who held leadership positions in Islamic history, including Khadijah, who is recognized as the first independent Muslim businesswoman.

Cautioning that misconceptions can emerge in the course of cross-cultural comparisons, Masmoudi argued that issues such as the advancement of women's rights should not be placed exclusively within the context of Western culture. According to Masmoudi, problems with women's rights in the MENA region can be caused by social culture and mechanisms, economic realities, and government repression on freedom.

Sameena Nazir, the study's senior research coordinator, presented an overview of the study's findings. The U.S. Department of State's Middle East Partnership Initiative funded the study, conducted over a period of 20 months in 16 countries and the Palestinian territories. The report covered several broad themes with respect to women's rights, including "nondiscrimination and access to justice"; "autonomy, security, and freedom of person"; and "economic rights and equal opportunity."

Each country was compared with others in the region, Nazir explained, then measured against international human rights standards, most notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For example, it was noted that the Persian Gulf received a high score for funding education and health care programs and a low score for efforts toward equality and political rights, whereas poorer states, like Yemen, scored lower on education and health but higher on equality and political rights.

Included within the broader themes were more specific findings, Nazir said, such as "inferior status due to legal discrimination" resulting from a contradiction between a country's current laws and its constitution. Family laws can restrict women's freedom of movement and ignore domestic violence, she noted. Although not limited to the Middle East, this last point is particularly vital to women in the region. In the absence of clear laws to criminalize or prevent domestic violence, or with the presence of laws which complicate legal recourse, abuse is unstoppable. In addition, social customs and practices may encourage abusive behavior. Finally, Nazir observed, few countries have a mechanism in place to inform women about their rights or to receive complaints against infractions.

Brian Ketulis, a senior consultant at Freedom House, explained that focus groups were established in order to listen to public perceptions of the status of women's rights rather than evaluate these rights. …

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