Middle East: For Middle Eastern women, tokenism no longer cuts it

In the last few months, Iraqi women have witnessed with dismay the erosion of Iraq's secular family law.
There is serious pressure to replace it with a law based on Islam and religious law - a change that will impact negatively on all spheres of women's lives.
If this occurs, Iraqi women will replicate the experience of Iranian women who lost most of their rights after the Islamic revolution of 1979, when the family law of 1967 was replaced by a law based on the Sharia, or Islamic law.

It has taken Iranian women 27 years to regain some of those rights. The experience of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, in Iran under the Islamic Republic, and now in Iraq, is a reminder that while considerable progress has been achieved in the area of women's rights in the Middle East and North Africa, reverses are always possible. The reversion to religiously-based personal law in the new Iraqi Constitution could encourage Islamic forces across the region to pressure governments to slow down measures to expand women's rights.

But in the last few decades there has been a palpable transformation in the role of women in Middle Eastern societies. Today, except in Saudi Arabia, women in all the countries in the region, from Afghanistan to Morocco, have the right to vote and to be elected to Parliament or to local councils.

Kuwaiti women, among the last to secure suffrage, were enfranchised in 2005, and Afghani women will be voting in the parliamentary elections in September 2005. Participation of women in elected bodies across the region is roughly around 7 percent. The number of women parliamentarians varies from one in Yemen to 13 in Iran to 87 in the current Iraqi Parliament.

Today, in most countries of the region, only a few women serve as ministers, ambassadors, deputy ministers, and even judges. Women still constitute a low 9 percent of ministers in the region. Iraq has six women ministers, Jordan three, Bahrain two, Kuwait one, and Iran none. Most countries in the region do not allow women to become judges, but Lebanon and Syria have a good record on women judges, while Egypt appointed its first woman judge in 2003. In Iran, women still cannot become judges, but they can advise clerics presiding over family courts.

Awarding the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to Iran's Shirin Ebadi, a judge in pre-revolution Iran, for her work on behalf of women's and human rights focused international attention on the achievements of women in the region.

Governments in the region, ready to open educational opportunities to women at all levels and to allow women to work as long as they remain in gender-specific jobs like teaching and health services, were surprised to discover that educated women, like their uneducated predecessors, were no longer satisfied to remain at home, be good homemakers and mothers, or to confine themselves to "women's" work.

It is primarily women themselves who have pushed for wider access to education and employment, for changes in personal status laws, and for political participation and general empowerment. Advances in women's role and rights are also due to enlightened leaders who provided support, international conventions that obligate governments to specific practices, and a multitude of conferences focusing on improvement of the status of women around the world. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is the most important vehicle provided to women activists. Seventeen Arab countries have ratified CEDAW, though usually with reservations, especially regarding compatibility with the Sharia.

Education, employment and political participation have focused attention on personal status laws. Some women activists argue that women can be fully integrated and enjoy equal rights as citizens in Islamic societies, even under existing personal and family laws. Others believe these laws must be changed, or reinterpreted, if women are to be fully integrated into society and enjoy equal rights. This debate continues throughout the Middle East.

While advances are undeniable, much work remains to be done. Despite the opening up of the job market, for example, women in the region account for only 32 percent of the labor force - a low figure even among developing countries. Besides, women in the Middle East are no longer satisfied with what they regard as tokenism: an ambassador or a deputy minister here, a handful of women parliamentarians there.

Women are seeking representation and participation based on merit and qualification. Until that is achieved, a number of women activists have been pushing for a quota system. They note that without it, we would not have 87 women in the Iraqi Parliament and 35 women in the Moroccan Parliament. The quota system is not perfect, but women activists feel it can be an important instrument for breaking down barriers and furthering women's political participation and integration.

Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.

Source: The Daily Star, 5 August 2005