SEATTLE, Washington — On September 26, 2017, King Salman of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive. This was a monumental advancement for women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), as Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that did not allow women to drive. Within the past decade, women’s rights in MENA have progressed in the face of adversity. Here are some of the factors holding women back, how the situation has progressed and what women in MENA are doing for themselves.
Advancing Women’s Rights in MENA
The patriarchal culture that influences laws and societal expectations in the region has proven difficult to overcome. The following are several consequences of this culture and advancements that have taken place in response.
Marital Rape Law – In 2017, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon repealed a law that plagues the majority of the MENA region to this day. The law in question allows a rapist to evade prosecution if they marry their victim. Removing this law directly combats the patriarchal roots that have taken hold of government systems in these countries. This advancement helps remove the stigma that women who have been sexually assaulted are unable to be married. Moreover, repealing this law exemplifies the respect given to women’s autonomy.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – The MENA region accounts for one-fourth of FGM cases globally. This practice is extremely harmful, as it can lead to serious health complications, such as reproductive trouble and death. In the 1990s, 70% of women and girls in MENA were mutilated, many before the age of nine. Today, that statistic has dropped by 20% in those countries. This is a tremendous step toward advancing women’s rights in MENA, one that other countries can look to as a positive example.
Violence Against Women – At least 37% of women in MENA have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. The Ministry of Women, Family and Childhood in Tunisia reported that at least 60% of women in the country have experienced domestic violence. Despite this figure, Tunisia is the most progressive country in regard to women’s rights in MENA. Fortunately, the Tunisian government passed a law in 2017 that allows citizens to speak up if they witness or suspect violence. The law also provides law enforcement with relevant training. Other countries in the region have taken note and established laws to address violence against women. In February 2018, Morocco formally recognized violence against women as gender-based discrimination.
- Exclusion From Politics – Women in MENA have long been prohibited from participating in politics, but this is changing as well. As of 2019, countries such as Algeria (25%), Morocco (20%), Israel (23%) and Iraq (25%) have higher percentages of women in power than the United States (23%). In December 2017, Qatar made history when it appointed four women to the Shura Council. Just prior to this, the country’s foreign ministry appointed a female spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Women of MENA Have Taken Matters Into Their Own Hands
To continue increasing gender equality in MENA, it is essential that the women affected by patriarchal laws and customs are involved in dismantling them. The following are three examples of women in MENA coming together to fight for women’s rights.
Saudi Women Take the Wheel – Granting women the right to drive was a groundbreaking step for Saudi Arabia. However, the King is not to thank, rather women activists are. Saudi women campaigned for two decades before they were allowed to drive a car. These women were intimidated, harassed and arrested for defying the law, but their perseverance has finally paid off.
Using New-Age Technology – The women of MENA have taken their activism to the Internet. Back in 2011, Yalda Younes, Farah Barqawi, Sally Zohney and Diala Haidar created a platform on Facebook called “Uprising of Women in the Arab World.” The campaign for freedom has garnered over 100,000 followers and mobilized women across the Arab world. Part of their demonstrations included posting pictures and videos of themselves driving which gained the support of their male counterparts.
HarassMap – In December 2010, four women launched a platform called HarassMap. Their intent was to stop sexual harassment on the streets of Egypt. Since then, more than 80 countries have created similar apps in an effort to stop sexual violence against women.
The past decade has shown that there is hope for women’s rights in MENA. Countries in the region are progressing toward a more equal state of existence and women are feeling more empowered and creating solutions for the obstacles they face. Moving forward, it is essential that this momentum continue to ensure a brighter future for women and girls in the region.
– Mary Qualls