CAIRO, Egypt – A recent poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that Egypt is the worst Arab country in which to be a woman. Of the 22 states surveyed, Egypt took the bottom ranking followed by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Comoros, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, topped the list as the country with the best prospects for its female inhabitants.
The results of the poll were pulled from responses collected from 336 gender experts. Questions in the survey were based on provisions of the UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which 19 Arab states have ratified, though often failed to enforce. The poll focused on women’s integration into society, gender-based violence, reproductive rights, and attitudes on women’s role in the work force and politics.
What earned Egypt its bottom rank? Lots of things – Egypt scored low marks in just about every area: sexual violence and harassment, literacy rates, trafficking, discriminatory laws. The vast majority of Egyptian women – a full 91% – also face the horrifying practice of female genital mutilation.
Given that women played a prominent role in Egypt’s revolution, many had hoped life for women would improve in post-Arab Spring Egypt. It would seem, however, that life has worsened. As a result of the instability brought on by the revolution, women have faced a surge in violence against them – 99.3% of women are subjected to sexual harassment. Further, the election of now-toppled President Morsi, a leader in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organization, contributed to the rollback in women’s rights.
Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy responded to the survey’s findings: “As the miserable poll results show, we women need a double revolution, one against the various dictators who’ve ruined our countries and the other against a toxic mix of culture and religion that ruin our lives as women.”
Iraq’s second-worst ranking is due to the worsening of conditions for women in the country since the 2003 invasion by U.S. troops. The invasion left 1.6 million Iraqi women widows and displaced thousands more, creating conditions ripe for trafficking and sexual violence. Only 14.5% of women are employed and the stark economic realities drive some women to work as prostitutes in neighboring countries.
Termed “the world’s largest women’s prison” in a leaked US diplomatic cable, Saudi Arabia ranks third-worst for women among Arab nations. Saudi women are banned from working, traveling abroad, marrying, receiving healthcare or even opening a bank account without securing permission from a male relative. And despite the recent efforts of brave protesters, women are still banned from driving. Further, marital rape is not recognized within the oil-rich country and rape victims are often charged with adultery.
As in Iraq, Syria’s instability and civil war have had devastating consequences for its women, thus it is the fourth worst country in the rankings. The UN reported that huge displacement both within Syria and across its borders has left millions of girls and women vulnerable to rape, harassment and trafficking. Furthermore, as explained by a Syrian women’s rights campaigner: “The Syrian woman is a weapon of war, subjected to abductions and rape by the regime and other groups.” Rights groups report that both President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel militias sexually abuse girls and women in detention centers and during raids.
The bright spot in the survey is Comoros. Topping the rankings, the small island state boasts comparative social freedom for its women with contraception being widely accepted and property often being awarded to women after a divorce. Though Comoros fared poorly in terms of female participation within the political sphere – women hold only 3% of seats in parliament – sexual abuse is recognized and punished. Whereas few countries in the Arab world even recognize marital rape, half the inmates in jail in Comoros were imprisoned for sexual aggression.