Uneven Progress for Women in the Middle East

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Women in the Middle East continue to face inequality in the workplace, legal system and ballot box. However uneven, much progress has been made in many countries — judging from the editorial and op-eds in the various regional dailies, there seems to be a growing acknowledgment of the importance of women in the workplace and the political arena. Considerable obstacles remain, however, as the violence faced by women in Afghanistan attests. Even in Israel, where women have enjoyed a considerable amount of freedom and equality, the rise of ultra-Orthodox parties has meant that instead of moving forward, women are finding themselves having to deal with new morality norms.

Until recently, unlike their male counterparts, Saudi women were not allowed to sponsor their non-Saudi husbands or children into the country. As Sabria Jawhar points out in an op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News, that reality has now changed. However, Jawhar is concerned the high cost of insurance might still put that reality out of reach for most Saudi women: “It has only been about three years that Saudi women have been allowed to sponsor their non-Saudi husbands and children.… However, there is still much wrong with the system, which places undue burden on Saudi women — both financially and emotionally…. In the instance of the Saudi woman bringing her daughter and husband into the country, the price for health insurance was a one-time fee of SR 2,250 for the father. The Saudi wife has no alternative but to purchase the insurance in order to register her husband as a sponsor for the daughter, and then have the daughter’s sponsorship transferred to her. This is an almost impossible amount of money for many Saudi wives and mothers.”

In Egypt, according to an article on the Egypt Today website, politicians are beginning to recognize the electoral value of wooing women voters, even though much more remains to be done: “Following the second revolution in 2013, the strategic importance of women, representing 49.7% of voters, is increasingly recognized by Egyptian officials and commentators…. [T]he discourse surrounding Egyptian identity in a polarized political environment continues to impact the extent of women’s participation in government. Second, inequality in the treatment of women is highlighted by the endemic sexual harassment that underpins a feeling of insecurity among women when in public. Although reactive in nature, they have been met with praise from a number of civil society organizations and political figures. Among them President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has been vocal in his support for the political participation of women. The sustainability of participation in the political system and public sphere by Egyptian women faces a number of difficulties despite legislative and legal support. Pressures from society in addition to an inherent media bias will continue to challenge easy access and participation.”

Other governments, including the one in United Arab Emirates, are trying to increase the participation of the women in the workforce. In a recent editorial, the Gulf Today staff expressed approval for a recent decision taken by UAE’s Cabinet “setting up of the UAE Gender Balance Council to ensure greater role for Emirati women in all work fields is surely an admirable step that will boost the UAE’s local and international status…. Emirati women have also proven their skills beyond doubt in any role assigned to them in the service of the nation, including the Armed Forces, national service, police and security…. Today, women account for nearly 70 per cent of all university graduates in the country and fill around 60 per cent of government jobs, providing ministers in the cabinet and also members of the Federal National Council…. It is absolutely clear that the latest cabinet decision will help achieve more equity between genders and carry on the legacy of the Founding Father Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a man who set an example for empowering women and unleashing their potential.”

Despite such progress, in other parts of the region, women continue to remain vulnerable to violent attacks. In an op-ed the Afghani daily Outlook Afghanistan, Hujjatullah Zia laments the recent spike in violence against women: “A spate of violence against Afghan women, documented between August 2014 and February 2015 by UNAMA, reveals women’s high vulnerability to social and domestic harms. This report recorded a total of 148 acts of violence, which indicates that some of 110 women and girls were subjected to multiple acts and forms of violence that laceration and battery were the most prevalent forms. This report has found out that: by the time women facing violence reached institutions or informal mechanisms to report abusive conduct, they were often physically and mentally traumatized, with little or no financial and emotional support…. These mortal wounds inflicted on their minds and hearts did not recover, rather insults are being added to the injury with each passing day.”

Even in Israel, which on these issues is typically held to be apart its neighbors, the emergence of ultra-Orthodox parties has put the rest of Israel’s secular society in a bind over calls for more conservative dress codes. For example, Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer writes about recent controversies related to the debate on modest clothing: “underneath the freedom and openness that characterizes Israeli secular popular culture lurks a palpable growing nervousness that society is headed in a more repressive and fundamentalist direction. It’s not a new feeling, but it has picked up steam since the reentrance of ultra-Orthodox parties into the government coalition and key positions of power…. [T]here is an element of fear and urgency that distinguishes the conversation…. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox dress codes become more and more extreme, and the battles over them more pitched – as religious women in Beit Shemesh who wear long skirts, cover their shoulders and their heads with headscarves, are attacked because their sleeves weren’t long enough…parts of Jerusalem, where there is a small cult of women that believes in extreme modesty: full black burqas that cover their bodies and faces even more indistinguishably than the Muslim niqab.”

And it seems that the ultra-Orthodox are not stopping at Israel borders, but, as this Times of Israel report points out, their influence has spilled into Europe as well, with ultra-Orthodox rabbis singling out Jewish women who drive their children to their schools: “The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission declared on Sunday that it is ‘unlawful’ for ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools in London to expel pupils if their mothers drive them to school, condemning the exclusion policy that was laid out in a recent ruling by a local Belz Hasidic sect banning women from driving…. A number of Belz rabbis in the Stamford Hill suburb had written that female drivers defied Hasidic norms as well as ‘traditional rules of modesty.’ The rabbis also said that, as of August, children driven to school by their mothers would be expelled. One local rabbi told the paper that he supported the policy because it upheld the community’s traditional values.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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