The uphill struggle of Arab women

Gulf countries top list of Arab countries, according to world study.

Still overcoming hurdles

2015/04/17 Issue: 1 Page: 20

The Arab Weekly
Soumaya Sokkar

Tunis - If you are one of those people who longs to see global gender equality in the workplace, the bad news is that it is probably not going to happen in your life­time. That is because, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), it is not expected to be achieved un­til about 2095.

For nine years, the Global Gen­der Gap Report has monitored the strides and setbacks countries have made in gender equality. The four general category indexes of the on­going study are: Economic Partici­pation and Opportunity, Education­al Attainment, Health and Survival and Political Empowerment.

The gender gap is narrowest when it comes to the Health and Survival and Educational Attainment indices and widest in the areas of Economic Participation and Opportunity in all 142 nations observed.

Who made the world’s top five na­tions for gender equality? Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Den­mark – the rest of the world has a lot to learn from the Nordic nations.

Nicaragua, Rwanda, Ireland, Phil­ippines and Belgium came sixth to 10th. While European countries make up most of the top 20, there are three African states, three coun­tries from the New World – Nicara­gua, Canada and the United States, one from Asia – the Philippines, and one from the Pacific region – New Zealand.

So where is the Arab world in all of this? At the end of the list. Out of 142 nations evaluated, the top scoring Arab coun­try appears at the 113th spot. Contrary to what some may suppose, the top scoring Arab states were those of the Gulf region and not the seemingly more liberal countries of the Levant or North Africa. Kuwait ranks first in the Arab region fol­lowed by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Tunisia, Bahrain, Algeria, Oman, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mau­ritania, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Mali, Syria and Yemen.

The top Arab per­former, Kuwait, leads strongly in the areas of Overall Earned Income and Eco­nomic Participa­tion and Oppor­tunity. However, it lags in its performance in the Health and Sur­vival and Political Empowerment sub-indexes, which list it as one of the lowest 10 countries.

The UAE follows closely after Kuwait. Although it scored below average in Economic Participation and Opportunity, it has greatly im­proved its own status since 2006 in the Political Empowerment and the Educational Attainment and Health and Survival categories.

Another outwardly surprising Gulf nation to climb up the Global Gender Report list is Saudi Arabia, the largest Gulf state. The kingdom improved on its past scores in the Economic Participation and Oppor­tunity and Educational Attainment sub-indexes, with the highest im­provement of enrolment overall in tertiary education. However, it does not have one female minister.

Of the “Arab spring” countries, only Tunisia and Bahrain maintain a spot in the top five performing Arab countries. Egypt follows not too far behind but Syria is third to last in the overall gender gap list and Yemen is last of all the 142 measured worldwide.

Women’s rights in Tunisia and Bahrain have not been overly af­fected by political instability in those countries since 2011. The two countries have safeguarded the progres­sive achievements of wom­en more than their regional counterparts. This is particu­larly true of Tunisia, which re­mains the only Arab country to prohibit polygamy and repudiation (divorce through mere verbal deci­sion of the husband), most thanks to the Personal Status Code which has guaranteed equal rights for women, since 1956.

In the cases of Egypt, Syria and Yemen, however, women are report­ed to suffer from sexual harassment, domestic violence, child marriages, violations of reproductive rights, honour killings and even, in the case of Egypt, from genital mutilation.

Although most Arab League states have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CE­DAW), they have without exception stipulated reservations to contracts based on cultural or religious sharia family laws.

The CEDAW drafted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 is dubbed the Bill of Rights for Women. It is composed of a preamble and 30 articles that describe what consti­tutes discrimination and sets up an action agenda to end it. Many activists worldwide denounce the reservations made by Arab states as contradictory, arguing that any “reservations” to equality result in inequality.

Soumaya Sokkar is an Arab Weekly Tunisian-Egyptian writer. She is based in Tunis

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