Positive steps towards protecting the rights of women in the Arab world

2017/08/06 Issue: 118 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly

The lives of women in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa region just got better — at least in terms of the law.

The Tunisian parliament outlawed all forms of violence and abuse — physical, psychological and even economic discrimination — against women. It has done away with the so-called marry-your-rapist legal provision.

Jordan soon followed suit and scrapped its own law that lets rapists off the hook if they marry their victims. Jordanian legislators also amended an article of the penal code that allowed “severe anger” as a mitigating circumstance for men who kill female relatives in the name of “family honour.”

Tunisia and Jordan’s legislative steps to protect victims of rape allow them to join Morocco and Egypt, which previously cancelled similar laws.

These are signs of welcome change and may have a domino effect. Already, Lebanon is considering repealing the marry-your-rapist provision in its law.

Other battles are being waged on the legal front. In Jordan, regula­tions were introduced to curb child marriages. However, the new measure is considered ambiguous and probably of limited use in a country where 13.5% of women wed before the age of 18, thereby perpetrating a cycle of poverty, illiteracy and emotional hardship. A young, poorly educated mother cannot serve as a strong role model for her daughter, especially when, as in Jordan, most early marriages end in divorce, physical abuse or even murder.

In Tunisia, too, legal measures don’t fully address the challenges. Its sweeping legislation to protect women from violence may require political will to allocate additional funding for shelters and other institutions that would provide refuge.

In May, a survey of Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian territories by the United Nations and advocacy group Promundo reflected the extent of the problem. Between 10% and 45% of men who were ever married admitted to having beaten their wives. Between 31% and 64% confided to having harassed women in the street.

There is much still to do, of course. There is a huge case to be made against gender discrimination in the workplace. Almost half of young Arab women looking for jobs are unable to find them, a shocking statistic compared to the global average of 16%.

The fight for the rights of women must be waged by society as a whole because the resistance to reform often stems from an undis­cerning perception of tradition and faith.

There is no reason, however, for tradition or faith to be used to legitimise gender bias. Even in a deeply conservative society such as Saudi Arabia, the cabinet just appointed three women to the newly formed Family Affairs Council. This comes at a time when the private sector has seen a significant jump in female employment — 130% in the last four years, the Saudi Ministry of Labour said.

Women in the Arab world still have a long way to go but there is reason for cautious optimism.

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