The Challenge of Equality for Arab Women

By June 2, 2022 No Comments

Going Backward Is Not an Option: The Challenge of Equality for Arab Women
No country in the world has achieved gender equality. The reality is that women are still not able to equally participate in all aspects of social, economic, and political life. In 2021, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that globally we are 136 years away from closing the overall gender gap between women and men. In fact, ground was lost since 2020, when the gap needed 100 years to close. As a result, a whole new generation will have to wait for equality. This is primarily due to setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made a significant detrimental impact on women’s rights globally.

There is a lack of women in positions of power, decision-making, and authority. In general, women in senior positions are still ‘firsts’ rather than the norm, and inequality is most visible in this sphere because women are rendered virtually invisible. In fact, WEF’s Global Gender Gap Index reveals that more than 80 countries have never had a woman head of state—and it will take 146 years to attain gender parity in politics.

Gender Inequality in the Arab Region

The Arab world is particularly reflective of these global trends. The region remains the area with the largest overall gap—estimated to be 153 years. According to the above index, the United Arab Emirates is the only Arab country ranked in the top 100 countries approaching equality. Moreover, in the latest Women, Peace and Security Index, four of the bottom ten states are Arab. Conservative ideologies and entrenched patriarchy make it very difficult for women to advance, especially in public life. Some of the greatest barriers are discriminatory laws, gender-based violence, lack of alternative childcare options, unfair wages, unequal division of domestic labor, and the shrinking of civil society space.

Arab women hold only 17 percent of seats in national parliaments—despite the fact that more than half of the Arab states with representative councils have introduced women’s quota systems. Women in the Arab region were not allowed to vote until the 1950s or 1960s when nationalist regimes embarked on modernization projects following colonial rule. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia only granted suffrage to their citizens in 2006 and 2011, respectively.

Even though education and educational attainment have improved in Arab states, this accomplishment has not translated into labor force participation. Arab women continue to be marginalized in Arab economies. In fact, in many Arab states, highly educated women are more likely to be unemployed than those with less education. As of 2020, only 18 percent of Arab women participate in the labor market, a figure that is significantly lower than the world average of 46 percent. Low wages for women are a disincentive, and the absence of adequate childcare provision often means that women must give up their professional aspirations in order to raise their children and care for their families. It comes as no surprise then that most unpaid work is done by women, and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic since 2020. Women in Arab states do almost five times unpaid care work as men—a ratio of disparity that is the highest in the world.

In over 100 countries, laws still exist that restrict the type of work women can do; for instance, needing permission from their husbands before pursuing a job. Nearly 2.4 billion women live in countries with discriminatory economic laws, and women in the region still have only half of the legal rights afforded to men. Women in the Arab world are subjected to discriminatory personal status laws and harsh male guardianship systems. While such laws differ across the region, overall they continue to obstruct gender equality by defining the status of women in society in overly narrow and overwhelmingly patriarchal terms. As a consequence, they are placed at a disadvantage in nearly every aspect of their daily lives, including regulating choices such as marriage, divorce, child custody, freedom of movement, and education.

As long as violence against women exists, all other progress is arguably purposeless. In any state of emergency, women’s rights are the first to be taken away and the last to be restored. This has been much worse in the Arab region because of the widespread patriarchy, chronic insecurity, backlash against fundamental women’s rights, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Gender-based violence has increased due to the pandemic and women have suffered far greater losses in comparison to men throughout the global health crisis.

Read Full Article

Written by Dr. Lina AbiRafeh
Publication date: April 22, 2022

Support Arab Women

Find out about nonprofits supporting women’s rights in the Arab World

Click to Help the empowerment of Women, for free