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Women in the Middle East: milestones but mountains still to climb

Women chant slogans in front of the main office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), during a rally ahead of International Women's Day, in Gaza City, Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Arabic reads, “Jerusalem is the
AP Photo/Adel Hana
Developments mark progress but there is work to be done on abortion rights, pay equity & gender-based violence

International’s Women’s Day 2018 marks a landmark year in women’s rights in the Middle East. In a region that has often trailed behind international standards in gender equality, it has witnessed a number of exciting breakthroughs over the past year. While the obstacles to overcome are still hefty, the path ahead looks hopeful.

Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world to still ban women from driving, announced in September that it would overturn its historic prohibition. The unprecedented announcement came after a years-long battle by women’s rights activists, some of whom were jailed for defying the ban on female driving.

Amid a modernization push initiated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a policy change was made permitting women to open their own businesses without the consent of a husband or male relative. This marked a major step away from the strict guardianship system that has existed in the Kingdom for decades.

Turning to the sports field, in January, Saudi women were permitted to attend a football match for the first time. Although the seating remained segregated, for the ultra-conservative Muslim country, the presence of women at an event often perceived as “male-only” was a significant occasion.

AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

In the same vein, only a few days ago, Saudi Arabia hosted its first marathon for women where hundreds of women, many dressed in traditional Islamic attire, raced in the eastern Al-Ahsa region.

Mosul in Iraq hosted its first ever women's marathon to coincide with International Women's Day on Thursday where 300 women ran through the streets to demonstrate their freedom after the city was retaken from the Islamic State Group. This marked a real change for women in the city, who faced harsh restrictions under the hard-line rule of the jihadists.

Despite the positive reforms, Saudi women still require a legal guardian for a number of matters. Women must still be accompanied by a male family member to travel and to work. They still do not have legal right to apply for passport, travel abroad, get married or open a bank account on their own.

In Iran, the only country in the world to impose a mandatory headscarf on both Muslim and non-Muslim women, has seen a spate of unprecedented protests against the edict.

As women took to the streets protesting publicly without a headscarf, 29 were arrested. Only yesterday, an Iranian woman was sentenced to two years in prison after removing her veil in public. Although those demonstrating are tiny in number, their impact has been strong in reigniting a core debate that has preoccupied the Islamic Republic since its founding.

Tunisia, a country viewed as being ahead of most Arab countries on women’s rights, ended a decades-old-ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslims in September last year. Human rights groups in the country campaigned for the ban’s removal arguing that it undermined the fundamental human right to choose a spouse.

Historic strides were also made when Tunisia passed its first national law to combat violence against women in July 2017. The legislation encompasses a “broad definition of violence”, UN Women wrote in a press release, also providing for “new protection mechanisms” to enable victims to access the needed assistance. Most critically, the law “eliminates impunity for perpetrators of violence.”

Jordan also amended its 2008 domestic violence law, “enhancing the stability and safety of family members by providing them with psychological and social support,” the Jordan Times reported in 2017.

AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Last month, Morocco’s parliament too passed a law recognizing violence against women as a form of gender-based discrimination, imposing penalties on perpetrators. The legislation is said to help women and also raise awareness but critics argue that it doesn’t go far enough to address the deeper-rooted social issues nor does it outlaw marital rape.

According to Human Rights Watch, nine countries in the region now have laws to curb domestic violence.

- Israel making strides in military, poor on pay -

Comparatively, women in Israel enjoy higher levels of equality and freedom. Within the military, headway has been made in securing women’s access to the top positions, despite Orthodox opposition to female promotion and mixed-gendered units.

In January, the first woman was appointed to the esteemed position of Commander of the Aviation Squadron. Meanwhile, the army declared in a statement that record numbers of women had enrolled to combat units. Israel’s Defense Force (IDF) has made a number of modifications, such as switching to the use of lighter assault rifles, to enable more women to complete successful training.

The gender pay gap in Israel still remains pronounced, however. Women in Israel still earn less than men despite better education qualification. The Central Bureau of Statistics released data in November 2017 stating that women make 35% on average less than men. In a separate 2017 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report women accounted for 18.1% of all directors on corporate borders, under the 20% average for OECD countries.

According to the Arab Joint List Party, more than half of the 167 Jewish and Arab women murdered in Israel over the past decade have been Arab women. Arab-Israeli women are often victims of femicide and activists argue that these killings tend to be dismissed by Israeli officials as “honor killings”, rooted in patriarchal Arab culture. Many argue that Israeli authorities need to do more to combat attitudes that subjugate or devalue women.

While such developments certainly mark progress, feminists affirm that a lot of work still needs to be done on issues such as abortion rights, pay equity and gender-based violence.

The changes in Iran and Saudi Arabia "are quite small steps in worlds where questions about women are very controlled," said Christine Mauget, in charge of international matters at France's Family Planning agency.

However, they undoubtedly mark significant steps in the right direction.

(Agencies contributed to this report)

Text by Jesseca Manville, Editor and Journalist on English Web Desk

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