First Published: 2003-04-28

Women's rights in Arab world still lagging behind

Arab world makes snail's progress on women's rights due to political unrest, religious power, tribal culture.


Middle East Online

By Fabien Novial - BERLIN

30 out of 230 seats in Moroccan parliament allocated to women

Across the Arab world, women's rights are being stifled by political unrest and conservative women in positions of power, lawyers, intellectuals and officials told a weekend conference in Germany.

"In recent years, our countries have lived through conflicts that have led our governments to make women's rights a secondary issue," Jordanian lawyer Asma Khader said.

"Conservative forces in our patriarchal and sometimes tribal societies mean that women themselves, in positions of political, social or religious power, can be the fiercest defenders of the status quo," she said.

"Women who represent the system are more loyal to it than to the female condition," agreed Palestinian writer Sumaya Farhat-Nasser.

More than half of all Arab women are illiterate, according to the United Nations Arab Human Development Report 2002.

Although female literacy in Arab countries has tripled since 1970 and twice as many Arab women now receive primary and secondary education, women remain drastically cut out of political and economic life, the report found.

Arab women hold 3.5 percent of parliamentary seats, the lowest rate in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa, and are also least represented in the workforce, the report said.

"Women need access to education and work in order to know their rights and to be able to defend them," Khader stressed.

Princess Basma Bint Talal of Jordan, who heads the country's national commission for women, assailed the lack of progress of women's rights.

"The rights agenda for Arab women is treading water compared to other regions, stuck as it is between a civil society in crisis and government that does the absolute minimum," she said.

"Nothing has been done under the EuroMed partnership between the European Union and the Maghreb, which pledged to put women at the heart of development initiatives," added Aicha Belarbi, the Moroccan ambassador to the EU.

Moroccan women's rights activist Rabea Naciri welcomed their remarks, saying: "It is a great innovation to hear officials speak of the condition of women in such a realistic, balanced way."

"In Morocco, we have even started to dare talk about secularism, about separating religion from politics. That is what will make a real difference to the condition of women," she argued.

Observers say the rise of religious fundamentalism has held back women's emancipation in many countries across the Arab world.

Even in Morocco, statistics show almost half of Moroccan women with a university qualification still need their husband's permission to leave the home, Naciri said.

"Moroccan women have to wage a daily battle with their husbands and in-laws to defend their right to work," she added.

Nacri said, however, that Arab governments were slowly waking up to women's rights with, for example, 30 out of a total 230 seats in the Moroccan parliament allocated to women candidates in last year's general election.

The UN report also noted some positive political developments, such as a law raising the age of marital consent from 15 to 18 in Jordan and laws to give women a recourse for divorce in both Jordan and Egypt.

The conference was hosted by the Berlin centre for world cultures.


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