Activists and human rights groups paint a daunting portrait of the equality landscape between the genders in the MENA region, as they prepare to mark International Women’s Day, March 8. The coronavirus epidemic, certainly, did not help the plight of women this past year. Still, going forward, the largest issues facing women in the Middle East were entrenched long before the pandemic hit.
In the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries, women’s rights defenders have it tough.
While prominent Saudi women’s activist Loujain al-Hathloul was freed last month after almost three years in prison, Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Nouf Abdelaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani remain in jail after their 2018 arrests on charges of advocating for women’s rights.
They are part of a 13-member cohort that advocated for women’s rights issues, including the right to drive, which is now permissible by law. Nine other activists were captured at the same time and released, while they wait for their day in court.
“Those who are behind bars are the champions for the change that took place,” Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, told The Media Line, referring to women driving.
“While this is one example of how we are getting success, we are achieving success with lots of sacrifices,” he said. “It’s not easy to have change in these countries.”
While I’m happy for International Women’s Day, we shouldn’t forget women on the other 364 days
While Ibrahim says that is it is difficult to confer the title of the “worst” human rights offender against women on any one Gulf country, Saudi Arabia is up there when it comes to gender norms and the male guardianship system.
“Social gender rules are clearly distinct. Men are supposed to be tough and have all the opportunities. Women still don’t have a lot of access to lots of services like hospitals, travel, marriage [of their own accord]. There is a lot of repression going on,” he said.
“It is really problematic when you talk about which country is better than the other, but we have a chronic problem across the region where women don’t have access to basic rights,” Ibrahim added.
This includes male guardianship, which is particularly pernicious in the Kingdom of Saud.
“In some cases, the guardian could be the younger brother and a woman, at 32 years of age, has to get permission from her 12-year-old brother,” Ibrahim said.
“We are facing problems all the time. It’s all about this mentality about treating women as second-class citizens or as a kind of individual who can’t decide for themselves, of course it’s not acceptable,” he said.
“This mentality is very much rooted in oppressive governments. When you confiscate public rights, surely you are also going to confiscate the rights of women,” Ibrahim said.
The United Arab Emirates, which tries to bolster its reputation as a more modern Gulf country, still has notions of women that are dated.
“The UAE says that they are a very civilized state, but behind all these palaces people are still in prison,” Ibrahim said.
The harsh treatment extends even to royalty.
Women are still portrayed as property of the man and the man can do whatever he wants
The whereabouts of Sheikha Latifa, 35, daughter of the Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, remain unknown after the BBC published undated videos of the princess saying that she was being held against her will and believed her life was in danger.
The video marked the first time the public had heard from her since December 2018, when she was brought back to the UAE after a failed attempt to escape, due to what she said was an oppressive relationship perpetrated by her father.
Ibrahim says there is no such thing as independent media anymore in the Gulf, only traditional outlets owned by the state. As a result, people go online to publish “real” stories, leading the governments to crack down on this by instituting new cybercrime laws against journalist and activists.
In the UAE, this includes two female activists, Amina Al-Abdouli and Maryam Al-Balushi, who are still in jail despite completing their five-year sentences both set at the same time in 2015, which were supposed to end on Nov. 19, 2020.
Ibrahim says that in many cases, criminals fare better than human rights defenders.
“Criminals are treated better than defenders. On the day of their release they can go anywhere, they often get released after serving two-thirds of their sentences,” he said. “Defenders face a travel ban as soon as they get out, and they don’t get amnesty and serve the full amount,” he said. In addition: “The families of defenders pay a heavy price, they have no access to their money in banks or to jobs.”
However, the most exploited women in the Gulf may not be Arab at all.
“Coronavirus is affecting all sectors of society across the Gulf, but there’s a lot of pressure on migrant women … I’m worried about the situation of housekeeping workers and other female workers who are really not being given their full rights in the Gulf,” Ibrahim said.
While many Gulf states made changes to their kefala, or employer sponsorship system, the program remains problematic. While Qatar ended the employment consent for migrants to switch jobs and raised the minimum wage, many workers, particularly women, fell through the cracks. Domestic workers, who are often female and mostly from Asia, require permission to leave the house in order to search for a job.
According to statistics from January 2016 to August 2020 from the United Kingdom-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 61,000 migrant workers experienced some type of labor abuse, the most common of which was “wage theft.”
Without much legal recourse available to them, migrant workers often cannot do anything if they are underpaid or not paid at all. Labor unions are completely off-limits to them.
Suad Abu-Dayyeh, an Amman-based women’s right activist and consultant on gender rights in the region, says that in the Arab world in general, the biggest problem women face is family law.
“The family law that tackles women’s everyday life – divorce, marriage, custody, inheritance – all these laws are mostly governed by Sharia and are very much discriminatory to women, also Christian courts are discriminatory,” she told The Media Line. “I think it will take years and years to challenge this family law because it is very much related to religion and people are objecting to any amendments to this law.”
“We need to have a unified law, this is our dream in the region as activists. We need to have civil laws that govern our lives as women. It shouldn’t be dividing women by religion. Still, we have a very long way to go,” Abu-Dayyeh said.
This also includes nationality laws that prohibit women from passing citizenship to their spouses and children. However, there have been some recent changes in Egypt which now allow women to transfer citizenship to their offspring.
Abu-Dayyeh says that penal codes are problematic for women in the Arab world.
“Marital rape is not a crime in most of the countries in the region,” she said, noting that Tunisia is one of the rare countries that criminalized the practice in a recent violence against women bill. “Women are still portrayed as property of the man and the man can do whatever he wants,” she said.
Another problematic portion of penal codes in the region criminalizes abortions. “Anyone who might support a girl in getting one, even from incest or rape or an extramarital relationship, will also be punished,” she said.
This could lead to the woman being a victim of a so-called “honor crime,” where the offending female is killed by make relatives to preserve the family’s reputation.
Abu-Sayyed says the Arab world is becoming more conservative, indicating a step back for women’s rights.
“You can see society becoming more conservative. You can see more women in veils and hijabs, and fundamentalists are becoming stronger,” she said.
An example of this is seen in the Palestinian territories, where women’s rights activists and groups face threats because they are demanding a family protection bill that would help victims of violence based on gender.
Abu-Dayyeh attributes the shift to the geo-political situation in the region.
“I think it’s the implications of all the wars in the region, there is no rest for people to think about treating women in a different way,” she said.
In Israel, Michal Gera Margaliot, former executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, says that the employment sector and representation are the biggest problem facing women in Israel.
“This year was really tough. Women lost their jobs much more than men did. The reason this happened is because their wages are lower and because in most houses they are the main caregivers and when they closed the education system, then women were the ones to stay with the kids” during the coronavirus shutdowns, Margaliot told The Media Line.
“We need to fix the employment here in Israel and in more places in the world. You need to not only work on the participation of women in the labor market, which was very high in Israel before the pandemic – the highest in the OECD, you need to change the fact that men are main providers and secondary caregivers and women are main caregivers and secondary providers. You need to work on the quality of work to reduce wage gaps to have women and men everywhere,” she added.
As a result, Margaliot says that adequate parental leave needs to be established, the state should sponsor day care from a much earlier age, school days should be extended, and the number of working hours reduced.
The second challenge women face is representation, both in government and in senior levels of the employment market.
“It’s not only about the numbers, but the quality. You need to have senior women in decision-making junctures,” she said.
In government, this includes committee heads. While a record number of women – eight – held ministerial posts in the last government, almost all the committees they led were minor.
Ahead of the March 23 national elections, only one woman leads a party, Merav Michaeli of Labor. However, there is cause for some optimism.
“This is the first time ever that there are seven parties that will be in the next parliament, or are close to the threshold, that have women in the No. 2 position,” she said. These include the Blue and White, Meretz and Yamina parties.
Margaliot believes that about 30 women will secure Knesset seats in the upcoming election, which is approximately one quarter of all parliamentary seats.
“It’s not like it is getting worse when you look at the three first rounds of elections where we were furious,” she said, referring to the three elections that took place between 2019 and 2020, It’s “It’s not getting worse, but it could get better,” she said.
The third challenge facing Israeli women is domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault at home and in the workplace. Margaliot says the government has detailed plans to combat both, but they have not been funded.
“They need to take these detailed plans forward and create spheres where women feel safe. Only when you’re safe can you flourish,” she said.
While domestic violence rose during the pandemic, the issue has plagued Israeli women for a long time.
“At the end of 2018, there was the largest protest ever in Israel over women getting murdered and domestic violence. The governmental decision to have a national plan to fight this issue passed in July 2017,” Margaliot said. “It’s not going anywhere in the near future, but if you won’t put the resources, and the thought and the time to decide that it’s part of your priorities, it will just get worse. It can’t get better.”
While activist Abu-Dayyeh says International Women’s Day is important, she says that problems facing women need to be focused on and alleviated all year.
“While I’m happy for International Women’s Day, we shouldn’t forget women on the other 364 days,” she said.