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Arab women still have a long way to go; change must come from within

Staff Reports

“Now we see a springtime of hope across the Middle East,” US First Lady Laura Bush recently told the audience at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. But how true is this, especially for the oppressed women of the region?”Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression. It’s the right to speak and vote and worship freely”, the First Lady stated. “Human rights require the rights of women.” Unfortunately, the position of many women in many countries in the Middle East is a disadvantaged one.Laura Bush stressed the importance of education and granting full rights to women to participate in economic and public life, but let us look at some alarming statistics.According to the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report, in the Middle East some 65 million adults are illiterate, almost twothirds of them women. In fact, one in every two Arab women can neither read nor write and some 10 million children still have no schooling at all.What kind of civilized society can one have when many of the mothers the most important influence on a child’s development and early education are illiterate and considered to be second class citizens? The widespread authoritarian style of child rearing affects how the child thinks by suppressing questioning, exploration and initiative. It is no wonder that so many illiterate or badly educated children fall prey to Islamist fanatics who indoctrinate them with hatred for the West.Utilization of Arab women’s capabilities through political and economic participation remains extremely low. In many countries of the region, women suffer from unequal citizenship and legal entitlements. In some countries with elected national assemblies, women are still denied the right to vote or hold office.Freedom House has just published a comparative assessment of women’s rights in the Middle East in a report entitled “Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Citizenship and Justice.” This seeks to explain the causes and consequences of sex-based discrimination in the region. The organization says its study is the most comprehensive look at women’s rights in 17 Arab countries and ranks countries on the rights and freedoms they offer women.According to the study, all but Saudi Arabia have constitutions mandating the equality of women, but basic criminal, family and labor laws are consistently skewed against women. Women face a systematic gender gap, aided in large measure by discriminatory laws and by the routine lack of enforcement of existing laws guaranteeing equality and fair treatment. None of the countries evaluated meets internationally recognized standards for women’s rights protections. None of the countries has a law declaring domestic violence a crime, and there are no efforts to inform women of the laws that do exist to protect them.So, where is the “springtime of hope?” Laura Bush stated that women have enjoyed “extraordinary progress” in recent months, especially in Kuwait, where they recently won the right to vote, and Lebanon, where they protested the Syrian presence there alongside men. It is interesting to note that Kuwait and Lebanon have high (80 percent) female literacy rates, whereas in Yemen, for example, 74 percent of females are illiterate.”Women who have not won these rights are watching,” said Mrs. Bush. “They are calling on the conscience of their countrymen, making it clear that if the right to vote is to have any meaning, it cannot be limited only to men.”One of the greatest obstacles to progress is distorted interpretation of Islamic law. There are many examples where the teachings of the Prophet have, according to some scholars, been distorted to support existing customs and legislation where women are treated as second class citizens. Thus one can find quotes that appear to justify keeping wives confined to the home, stoning for adultery, and strict separation of men from women.Years ago, I was invited to a dinner in a Middle Eastern country where the other male guests and I sat on chairs around a table, feasting. On leaving the table and passing the kitchen, I saw the women squatting on the floor eating from a common dish the remains of the food that the men had been eating. I was disturbed, but, as a guest, refrained from commenting at the time. I do so now, as I see that incident as a symptom of a culture that requires change if “human rights” is to mean anything.I heartily approve of the First Lady’s raising the matter in a public forum. The criticisms by the UN’s Arab Human Development Report and by Freedom House can only help focus international attention on the problem. It may be “politically incorrect” to judge other cultures by so-called Western standards, but I believe that in this case it is necessary. It remains to be seen whether the Middle Eastern countries will themselves pay attention and develop a more modern and equitable approach to treatment of their women. VTPeter Leslie is a former CFO of the United Nations Development Program, now living in Vail. His comments on UN issues are on the web site of the Foreign Policy Association and his column appears periodically in The Vail Trail.


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