A new report issued by Freedom House says that women in sixteen countries in the Middle East and North Africa face serious legal and societal discrimination. Sponsored by the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative, the survey found that in most of these countries women are at a disadvantage in the criminal justice system, the economy, education, health care, and the media.
In the majority of the countries surveyed, women are subject to discrimination in legal matters dealing with the family. These family codes grant husbands power over the wife's right to work and travel. Moreover, in many countries a man may divorce his wife at any time for any reason.
There are some notable exceptions. Tunisia has had a relatively liberal family code for many years, And Morocco enacted legislation that expanded women's rights in 2004. Egypt has made recent changes in the family code to give women expanded divorce rights. But despite these changes, Egyptian women still face unequal treatment.
The report found that the participation of women in political life in countries of the Middle East and North Africa is the lowest in the world. Arab women are underrepresented in senior positions in politics, government, the judiciary, and the private sector. In Saudi Arabia, women are not even allowed to vote.
Moreover, not one country in the Middle East and North Africa has a law that clearly makes domestic violence a crime. Offenses can range from wife-beating to brutal battering of female family members by male family members. Other forms of violence against women include female genital mutilation and honor killings.
One bright spot is education. Over the past ten years, women in all the countries surveyed, except Yemen, have made gains in access to education, literacy, and university enrollment.
The need to grant women equal rights will grow more urgent as the demands for reform are felt throughout the Middle East, says U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:
"There are those who say that democracy is for men alone. In fact, the opposite is true: half a democracy is not a democracy. As one Muslim woman leader has said, "Society is like a bird. It has two wings. And a bird cannot fly if one wing is broken."
Empowering Arab women is critical to the development of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.
The preceding was an editorial reflecting the views of the United States Government.