International Women’s Day, a time to reflect on gender rights in the Arab world

From Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, times are changing in the Arab world and women are gaining more and more rights.
March 11, 2018
Saudi Zumba instructor Nouf Khayat jumps during a running event marking International Women’s Day in Old Jeddah, on March 8. (Reuters)
Much to celebrate. Saudi Zumba instructor Nouf Khayat jumps during a running event marking International Women’s Day in Old Jeddah, on March 8. (Reuters)

International Women’s Day, celebrated March 8, serves as an opportunity to hail advances in women’s rights and voice support for women around the world. This year, the observance drew attention to the Middle East and North Africa, where some of the most exciting reforms and positive developments have emerged.

For the first time, Saudi Arabia was at the top of the list. Over the past year, the kingdom introduced landmark reforms for women’s rights and promoted women to key positions in government.

The process began in February 2017 when Sarah al-Suhaimi was appointed the first female chairman of the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul) and Rania Mahmoud Nashar was named the first female chief executive officer of a major Saudi banking firm, Samba Financial Group.

This was quickly followed by the Saudi government granting women the right to drive and announcing it would open more jobs and career opportunities for Saudi women. In February, Tamader bin Youssef al-Rammah was appointed deputy minister of labour and social development.

The exemplary reform movement is the brainchild of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, whose Vision 2030 aims to modernise and diversify the Saudi economy. A key part of this process is ensuring equality for women.

Saudi Arabia was not the only country to see improvements in women’s rights. Tunisia passed legislation to protect women and ensure equality between the sexes.

Last summer, Tunisia — along with Jordan and Lebanon — scrapped legal provisions that allowed rapists to evade punishment by marrying their victims. The Tunisian parliament also passed a law criminalising all violence against women, which was hailed by UN Women, a gender equity group, as “a major step towards achieving gender equality.”

Last September, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi took on bigger challenges. He overturned a law that prohibited women from marrying non-Muslim men and set in motion legislation to reform the country’s inheritance law, which currently allots men double the amount of their female counterparts.

If legislation granting men and women equal inheritance rights is approved, it would cement Tunisia’s status as a leader on women’s rights in the Arab world.

While women must continue striving for their rights — in schools, universities, courtrooms and all public spaces — their struggle must also be championed by Arab men. After all, empowering women is important for all of society. We cannot succeed unless we protect and invest in all citizens, men and women.

Lingering gender inequality in the Arab world taints the region and presents a negative image. Many in the West believe that women in Arab societies live under conditions of marginalisation and oppression, secluded from public life.

The situation is not that dim. Many Arab women are active members of their societies, playing key decision-making roles in the family and enjoying the right to equal pay at the workplace. This while issues of gender inequality in the workplace persist in the United States and Europe, serving as a troubling reminder that Western liberalism has also failed women.

While Arab women have indeed faced many challenges, their achievements have surpassed expectations.

In the United Arab Emirates, a regional pioneer in women’s empowerment, about 70% of school and university students over the past five years have been female, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 stated.

Since its establishment on December 2, 1971, the UAE has enabled women to occupy leadership roles in the state and private sectors. Women have played key roles in the country’s development drive and have held positions in government, from ministers to speaker of the Federal National Congress.

From Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, times are changing in the Arab world and women are gaining more and more rights — a fact much of the world is still ignorant of. While many in the West have a distorted view of women in MENA, they have been busy securing hard-fought rights.

Looking ahead, their struggle should continue with the same urgency. Despite the progress made, there are elements of society — particularly of the Islamist creed — that are determined to roll back women’s rights and reshape society into how it was centuries past.

It is up to all of us — men and women — to make sure their project does not succeed and that women continue to be empowered and respected in all areas of life.