Hard-Won Progress and a Long Road Ahead: Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, January 1, 2010
Sanja Kelly
Northern Africa
Western Asia

This paper summarizes the main findings of the 2010 edition of "Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The country reports presented in the edition detail how women continue to face systematic discrimination in both laws and social customs. Deeply entrenched societal norms, combined with conservative interpretations of Islamic law, continue to relegate women to a subordinate status. They are significantly underrepresented in politics and the private sector, and completely absent from the judiciary. They face gender-based discrimination in personal-status laws, which regulate marriage, divorce, child guardianship, inheritance, and gender based violence remains a significant problem.

The paper highlights the progress that has been made in improving the status of women since 2005. Some countries have demonstrated a greater degree of improvement in women's lot than others. In some, women have become more visible participants in public life, education, and business. They have gained more freedom to travel independently, as laws requiring a guardian's permission for a woman to obtain a passport have been rescinded in some countries.

The paper identifies the following findings on obstacles that prevent women in the MENA region from enjoying the full range of political, civil, economic, and legal rights:

  • Economic Opportunities - On average, only 28% of the adult female population is economically active, the lowest rate in the world. In nearly all MENA countries, however, women today are better represented in the labor force and play a more prominent role in the workplace than was the case earlier this decade
  • Academic Achievement - Education has been a prime area of progress for women in the region, and it is an important avenue for their advancement toward broader equality. Since the 1990s, women in all18 MENA countries have made gains in access to education, literacy, university enrollment, and the variety of academic fields available to them. That trend has continued, for the most part, over the past five years.
  • Protection from Domestic Abuse– the MENA countries have an array of laws, practices, and customs that pose major obstacles to the protection of women and the punishment of abusers
  • Equality Before the Law –despite the constitutional guarantees, women in the region face legal forms of discrimination that are systematic and pervade every aspect of life.

The accompanying country-specific data which indicates any gains made by each country can be accessed at:http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=383&report=86

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Women\'s Rights Middle East North Africa, Kelly, 2010