Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Supporting the Fight for Freedom and Equality

While the rest of the world commemorated International Women's Day on March 8, women in the Middle East had less to celebrate than most. Though women around the globe have made substantial progress in increasing their rights in the home, workplace, and political sphere, a new Freedom House survey finds that despite modest gains in the last 5 years, women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region continue to suffer from a dismal deficit in human rights.

In this part of the world, societal norms that relegate women to subordinate status continue to impede progress. Governments remain resistant to addressing inequalities for women through progressive policy or legislation and often actively pursue policies of repression. Laws against marital rape and spousal abuse are largely absent in the region, so-called "honor" killings persist, and segregation and discrimination remain par for the course in educational and political institutions.

It is perhaps not surprising that women's rights fare particularly poorly in a region that suffers from a broad deficit in freedom and human rights compared to the rest of the world. Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2010 report found that in 2009, political rights and civil liberties declined globally for the fourth consecutive year with the MENA region once again coming in dead last. Currently, 88% percent of the population in the region resides in countries that are Not Free* and lack of democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and freedom of association and assembly impede improvements for women. While it's encouraging that women in the Middle East have made some progress, one has to wonder if it can really be cause for celebration in a part of the world where the bar is so low.

This is not to say that the gains women have made are insubstantial. To the women who can now vote and run in elections in Kuwait, who can obtain a passport without male approval in Bahrain, or who are serving in parliaments in a number of countries, these gains have absolutely improved the quality of their lives and their ability to actively participate in society.

Yet, their successes have often been achieved in the face of strong resistance from clergy and governments. Women's rights groups in Jordan spent years advocating for protections against gender-based violence. The Syrian government considered legislation intended to increase religious influence over family law until action by women's rights organizations forced it to be tabled. And a regulation forbidding young women from leaving Libya without a male relative was rescinded only after a public outcry that included criticism from even the state-owned newspaper.

We cannot expect governments in the Middle East and North Africa to take it upon themselves to support policies that help women. In fact, it's clear that if left to their own devices, many governments in the region would turn in the other direction.

So what can be done to help the women of the Middle East? International NGOs should continue the good work they've done to support civil society activities in the region. The United States and other democracies must make the promotion of human rights and women's rights a priority in relationships with every government in the region, no matter the strategic situation. Ultimately, change has to come from within, but we have to listen and be responsive to the needs of the women on the ground to support them in their fight for freedom and equality.

*According to the Freedom House Freedom in the World 2010 Report

Sarah Trister is an advocacy officer with Freedom House in Washington, DC.