An End to Discrimination against Women in the Middle East

If something goes without saying, it goes even better for being said. A valuable survey of the second-class condition of women in Arab countries appears in the NGO Monitor Report that was issued on December 20, 2013. It makes the important point that the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, beginning in Tunisia in December 2010, aroused expectations of advances towards democracy in the Middle East once the autocratic and authoritarian rulers had been deposed in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. It was hoped that the mass demonstrations in those and other Arab countries would bring about major reform, especially adherence to human rights.

The bitter truth is that the Middle East is not, as Raymond Chandler said about his fictional Los Angeles, a very fragrant world. Part of the fetid odor emanates from the continuing discrimination against women and their resulting subordinate status in Arab and many Islamic countries. These countries have refused to abide by the international calls on them to eliminate the inequality of women. Almost equally objectionable is the refusal of many Western organizations and activists supposedly concerned to advance human rights, to recognize the bitter truth as a crucial problem and to demand real, systematic reform.

Those human rights activists should scrutinize the objective analysis in the valuable series of United Nations Arab Human Developments Reports (AHDR), prepared by Arab scholars. Since 2002 these studies have been affirming that undemocratic Arab regimes with their tradition and tribalism have combined to "curtail freedoms and fundamental rights." The studies show the countries in the Arab Middle East region as suffering from three particular shortcomings: freedom, empowerment of women, and knowledge.

More specifically, Arab women suffer from inequality with men and are vulnerable to discrimination both in law and in practice. The AHDRs indicate that nowhere in the Arab world do women enjoy equality with men. Women experience discrimination and restrictions in most fields: lack of education; illiteracy (more than half of Arab women are illiterate); polygamy (in almost all Arab countries, including the region under the Palestinian Authority); divorce, child marriage or forced marriage (legally sanctioned in many countries starting at age eight in Yemen); severe control over dress; inheritance (women get about half that of men in a number of countries); legal testimony (again, worth half that of a man); and political activity.

The 2002 AHDR clearly states that if Arab countries want to develop they must strive for the complete empowerment of Arab women. The 2005 AHDR explains that one of the main reasons for inequality of women is that "the prevailing masculine culture and values see women as dependents of men." Moreover, legal codes uphold this inequality by "claiming to be acting in defense of obedience or 'honor' of women."

Further objective amplification of the status of women is found in the Global Gender Gap index, issued by the World Economic Forum in October 2013. Of the 136 countries studied, the Arab states are at the bottom of the gap in the fields of education, political participation, economic opportunity, and health. The lowest ranked country was Yemen, and close to the bottom were Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Iran, and Egypt.

According to the general conclusion of the 2010 Freedom House no Arab country can be regarded as wholly free. Women face systematic discrimination due to report "deeply entrenched societal norms" and religious practices such as conservative interpretations of and judgments based on Islamic Sharia law. These factors explain the discrimination in personal status laws and family codes that regulate marriage, divorce, child guardianship, and inheritance.

Instead of benefitting from an Arab Spring, women have seen their problems worsen as extreme Islamists have become more influential in a number of countries. No major improvement has taken place in the lives of women. Gross inequality still exists largely because of the impact of Sharia law. Women are subordinated to their fathers and husbands. In some countries women can only marry with the consent of their fathers or male relatives. They are forbidden to marry non-Muslim men.

Domestic violence against them is rarely punished in any real way. Arab legal codes, such as those in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, allow men to use violence against women. Similarly, those guilty of rape are rarely punished. Female genital mutilation is common: 91% of women on Egypt have undergone such mutilation.

Honor killings, supposedly to defend "family honor" are prevalent in a number of countries, including the Palestinian Authority. The NGO Report and the country reports of the U.S. Department of State indicate the nature of some of those murders: beheadings, burning alive, forced self-immolation, torture, stoning to death for sexual or moral offences.

The role of women in public life is still limited or nonexistent. In some of the countries women are segregated in public institutions, and their freedom of movement is greatly restricted not only within a country but also abroad because women may need permission of a guardian to obtain a passport.

All this is contrary to international declarations that call for recognition of men and women as equals. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted in December 1966 and entered in force March 1976) Article 3, states that the parties "undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the Covenant." Article 23 prohibits discrimination concerning marriage, divorce, and child custody.

A similar statement was made in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that was also adopted in December 1966 and entered in force in January 1976. Article 2(2) says that the parties "undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social, and cultural rights set forth in the Covenant."

The NGO Report discusses the issues concerning discrimination against women. It correctly blames Western human rights organizations, such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, for their lack of sustained advocacy on behalf of women's rights and for their refusal to give the question of women's rights the prominence it deserves. Instead of concentrating on issues of freedom and equality for Arab women these human rights organizations eagerly pounce on alleged abuses of democratic nations -- the Western countries and the State of Israel.

Human rights activists have painted themselves as concerned with inequality in the Arab countries by focusing on relatively minor issues and bestowing excessive praise when minor reforms put in place. But they have not tried to tackle the elephant in the room, the elimination of systematic discrimination against women. The time is long overdue for them to do so.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.

If you experience technical problems, please write to