There is good news and bad for women living in the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA region. According to a new study by Freedom House, an international non-governmental human rights organization, the good news is that most countries registered notable progress since 2005, especially in terms of economic opportunities, educational attainment, and political participation.
The bad news is that a serious deficit in women's rights persists in every country in the MENA region.
In no country in the world can women claim to have all the same rights and opportunities as men. But according to Sanja Kelly, the project's director, "it is ... in the MENA region that the gap between the rights of men and those of women has been the most visible and severe.
Women face gender-based discrimination in personal-status laws, which regulate every aspect of family life. Gender-based violence also remains a significant problem," said Sanja Kelly in her introduction to the report.
However, in the 5 years since the last report, important steps have been made to improve the status of women, and 15 of 18 countries have recorded gains. Most notably, the Gulf Cooperation Council member states, which, in 2005, had the worst rating among 17 countries, have demonstrated the greatest degree of improvement, said Sanja Kelly.
The most significant achievement occurred in Kuwait, where women received the same political rights as men in 2005. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates appointed their first female judges. Women have also gained more freedom to travel independently and to participate in public life.
Algeria amended its personal status code in 2005, vastly improving women's power and autonomy within the family. And Jordan enacted a new Family Protection Law and established a specialized court to handle cases involving honor crimes.
However, conditions for women have worsened in Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, partly due to an uncertain security situation. Gender-based violence has increased, forcing women to stay home, thus hindering their opportunities to get an education or a job.
Women in the MENA region still have a long way to go to achieve meaningful progress. Even in those countries that show some progress, women's rights are lagging behind international momentum.
But it is a necessary step in the right direction.