Despite progress made in female participation in public, political, and economic life, the MENA region still faces challenges in achieving gender equality.
The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the MENA region’s most significant issues and trends, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on possible future scenarios. On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, we turn the spotlight on the condition of women in the region by analysing a few emblematic case-studies.
On March 8, the international community celebrates women worldwide and draws attention to the issues related to the global female condition. When it comes to the MENA region, although the status of women overall has improved in the last decade through an increasing female participation in public, political and economic life, many challenges persist, and gender equality is still a distant goal. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia showcase how significant progress has been made. A progressive law grants Tunisian women protection and rights, as well political freedom, while reforms have ensured greater civic rights to Saudi Arabian women. However, positive achievements are not enough to break the glass ceiling. Parliaments throughout the region remain largely male-dominated and women struggle to reach high-level governmental positions; deep gender disparities in the labour market still exist, along with a significant geographical gap in the overall female condition between urban and rural areas. Furthermore, the condition of women is threatened by the instability – when not in crisis – of many regional economies. Let alone countries such as Afghanistan, that have retrograded on gender issues; Iran, where the revolt advocating for women rights is being repressed by the authorities; or war-torn countries like Syria and Yemen, where young girls and women often pay the highest price. As socio-economic achievements remain fragile, the determination and bravery of women in making their voice heard in many MENA countries is impressive, as they continue to take to the streets to demand greater rights and opportunities.
Experts of the ISPI MED network react to the status of women in selected countries of the region.
Tunisia has progressed in gender equality, but the glass ceiling is still intact
Of all the nations in the MENA region, Tunisia has always had progressive gender equality laws enacted in the Personal Status Code (1956) and subsequent reforms related to gender equality (e.g., banning polygamy, the right to abortion since 1973, equal pay for equal work, protection from domestic violence, guardianship of children, etc.). But these highly celebrated rights seem to conceal a more nuanced reality. Despite significant achievements on paper, a considerable gender imbalance in Tunisia remains. Furthermore, a glass ceiling preventing women from rising to positions of power and securing greater representation in the government still exists. The latest legislative elections that delivered a male-dominated parliament with only 25 women out of 161 members highlight how the achievements of women remain fragile and the new conservative approach to gender equality threatens to reverse female political gains.
Emna Ben Arab, Assistant Professor at the University of Sfax, Tunisia
Lebanon’s broken economy has a negative impact on women
Lebanon continues to sink deeper into crisis with the economic meltdown taking its toll on all sectors. This has affected the population at large, but women bear the brunt. Even prior to the compounded crises hitting the country, laws protecting women’s rights were inadequate and often fell short on addressing gender justice from a holistic perspective. To this day, some still believe that women’s rights issues are not a priority and, unfortunately, we heard a minister in the current caretaker government express this publicly. The statement should concern all reformists in the country, not only women rights defenders. The nation is under attack by those who want to maintain the status quo, by those who want to keep clientelism and inequalities in society by professing that they are protecting “confessional representation”. The nation needs new leaders who cherish the values of democracy, accountability, and equality. This is a call for the women in my country to take the lead, to fill the void and to guide us to be the nation of equals.
Laury Haytayan, MENA Director at Natural Resource Governance Institute
Economic goals accelerate change for Saudi women
In Saudi Arabia, women are accelerating on the road towards social and economic change. This is primarily due to the “Vision 2030” reforms: female employment is at the core of post-oil diversification. The Saudi kingdom is providing more freedoms and opportunities than before to its female citizens: for instance, Saudi women over 21 can now travel abroad and obtain a passport without the permission from their male guardian. However, this occurs as a top-down concession and many activists are still in jail. New role models are emphasized by local media (Saudi women can now serve in the armed forces and are allowed to drive trains, for example), also as part of a “charm offensive” to capture Western public opinions. Many female ambassadors were appointed in Saudi Arabia such as Haifa Al-Jedea, who was recently named ambassador to the EU. Female inclusion is helping young Saudis, especially in Riyadh and big urban centres, to “rally around the reforms flag”, in order to block potential discontent. How the most peripheral and often conservative Saudi regions will cope with changes remains unknown.
Eleonora Ardemagni, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI
Iranian women face socio-economic difficulties, but today the society follows them in their protests
For decades, Iranian women have been subject to multi-layered discrimination rooted in the societal patriarchy. After the Islamic Revolution, the situation has worsened as the state-sponsored structural discrimination became an integral element of post-revolutionary Iran. Despite this, thanks to the resilience of Iranian women, Iran has had one of the highest numbers of female university graduates across the MENA region. Nevertheless, higher education has not assisted the female labour force to be able to participate in economic activities. One in every 5 Iranian women had access to employment opportunity. In this respect, Iran falls behind countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt. Gender-based violence, discriminatory laws, and patriarchal structure of the society in which the state has been investing heavily in promoting a culture based on portraying the image of an ideal women as submissive and fully reliant on male family members have contributed to resentment and frustration of Iranian female population. Iranian men have become increasingly aware and supportive of the rights of their fellow female citizens. The recent unrest in Iran that was triggered by the killing of a young female, Iranian men and women united and became the turning point of months long nationwide protests in Iran. However, the grievances have remained unanswered by the state. This keeps the likelihood of further intensification of protests in which Iranian women are heavily present, significantly high.
Sara Bazoobandi, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI; Marie Curie Fellow, GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies
Afghanistan: The worst place to be a woman
According to the Women Peace and Security Index (WPS Index), the worst place in the world to be born a woman is Afghanistan. A country where women, despite risking lashes, stoning, arrest, and torture, have been protesting since August 15, 2021, the date of the return of the Taliban to power following the Doha agreements signed by Donald Trump’s US administration. Between 2001 and 2018, during the period of occupation by international forces, the number of women with higher education had increased nearly 20-fold, and one in three young women was enrolled in university. But on the 20 December the Taliban – disregarding the promises made in Doha – banned the enrolment of women in universities and deprived more than 100,000 female students of the possibility of completing their studies. It’s easy to see why, since the Taliban returned to power, the percentage of women over 15 who feel safe in their community has risen from 35.5 percent to 9.8 percent. Despite this, the Afghans have not closed themselves at home: after December 20, the girls have returned to the squares of Kabul and Nangahar to protest again. Even at the cost of their life.
Marta Serafini, Journalist at Il Corriere della Sera
This edition of the MED this Week was edited by Luigi Toninelli