Big surprises about women’s rights in the Arab world

by Tim Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 November 2013 00:01 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Our latest survey of gender experts reveals tectonic changes in attitudes three years after the Arab Spring

Visit for full coverage of our expert poll on women’s rights in the Arab world

First, the really big surprise: Egypt is the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman.

Not Saudi Arabia, with its ban on female drivers and a guardianship system that forbids women travelling abroad, working or even opening a bank account without permission from a male relative.

Not Syria, where reports of sexual torture are rife and millions of displaced women and girls are vulnerable to trafficking, forced marriage and rape.

Not Yemen, not Sudan, not Somalia.

But Egypt – the Arab world’s most populous country and cauldron of the Arab Spring.

Almost three years ago, the Egyptian revolution raised hopes of greater freedoms and more rights for women. Gender equality was to be enshrined in the country’s new constitution. Women stood side-by-side with men in Tahrir Square and there was a spine-tingling sense of elation.

Today, those hopes lie in tatters.

At least that’s the feeling from Thomson Reuters Foundation’s latest perceptions poll of gender experts, which this year focuses on women’s rights across 22 Arab states.

The experts gave Egypt dismal grades in almost all categories of the survey, which were based on provisions of the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Egypt has ratified the convention, often called the world’s “bill of rights for women”.

The survey looked at women’s place in the family and their integration into society. It explored their political participation and economic inclusion. It assessed reproductive rights and various forms of gender violence. Taken together, Egypt ranks last.

Sexual harassment is endemic – 99.3 percent of the female population has experienced it. So is female genital mutilation – the prevalence rate is 91 percent.

Add a surge in sexual violence, a rise in conservative Islamist influence and a rollback of legal rights since the 2011 revolution and you start to see how hard women have it.

Nevertheless, the result is unlikely to sit well with a lot of readers who might wonder how many Egyptian women would wish to swap places with their counterparts in Saudi Arabia.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia’s ranking as third-worst country for women, slightly ahead of Egypt and Iraq (more on Iraq in a minute), shows that women’s rights have a very long way to go in the conservative kingdom.

Saudi scored badly when it came to freedom of movement, property rights, workplace discrimination and political participation (though women will be able to vote in municipal elections from 2015). Women who report rape or sexual assault risk being charged with adultery.

But the poll also revealed incremental but tectonic changes in attitude.

Saudi ranked higher than many other Arab states when it came to areas such as access to healthcare, education and reproductive rights (birth control pills are available over the counter in chemists). Restrictions on employment have been steadily loosened and some activists are optimistic about ending Saudi’s ban on female drivers.

All of which meant Saudi scored better than Iraq, the next big surprise near the bottom of the ranking.

Once at the vanguard of women’s rights in the Middle East, Iraq scored particularly badly in terms of access to education, child and forced marriage, property rights, reproductive rights, trafficking and gender violence.

The country has 1.6 million widows and hundreds of thousands of displaced women are vulnerable to kidnapping and rape, aid agencies say. All of which points to how far women’s rights have regressed in the decade since the U.S.-led invasion.

Just as surprising is how badly the experts rated Lebanon, once known as the "Switzerland of the East". It came 16th overall – or seventh from the bottom.

That makes Lebanon worse for women’s rights than insurgency-ravaged Somalia, which a previous Thomson Reuters Foundation poll, in 2011, ranked the world’s fifth-most dangerous country for women.

But our 2011 survey only covered threats to life and limb. It didn’t take into account attitudes towards a woman’s role in politics, the economy and the family. It didn’t look at inheritance laws or access to contraception.

In fact, Lebanon ranked worse than Somalia in four out of our latest poll’s six categories: women in politics, women in the economy, women in the family and reproductive rights. Somalia scored worse on violence against women and women in society.

In Lebanon, women hold 3 percent of seats in national parliament. In Somalia, they hold 14 percent. (In Egypt, the figure is 2 percent.) In Lebanon, women make up 23 percent of the workforce. In Somalia, the proportion is 38 percent. And in Lebanon, the penal code allows a rapist to avoid prison if he marries his victim.

The poll revealed other surprises too: widespread polygamy in Tunisia; a spike in honour crimes in Syria (300 a year, according to women’s organisations); sky-high rates of female genital mutilation in Djibouti (93 percent); generous statutory maternity leave with pay in Mauritania (100 days) and the aggressive enforcement of laws against sexual violence in Comoros (half of inmates in Moroni’s prisons are being held for sex crimes).

Visit for special coverage of the poll, including analysis, full results and interactive info-graphics.

We’d like to hear from you too. What do you make of the poll’s findings? Do they square with your own experiences? Join the debate by visiting the link above and clicking on "Discuss".



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