Women’s Rights in the Middle East


Recently, women’s rights has been a popular subject in the Western media with the debate of consent. Some female personalities such as French actress Catherine Deneuve, have themselves attacked women’s right of consent, backing it up by the illogical argument that this will lead to an imbalance in women-men relationships. While Western countries now debate women’s consent and the gender pay gap, the Middle East is disparate concerning their female citizens’ rights. 

Historically, the Middle East gave women more rights than in the West including the right to own and manage property, to sue and be sued, to enter into contracts and conduct businesses, rights granted to Western women only relatively recently. Nevertheless, family law and inheritance gave fewer rights to Middle Eastern women. There’s a clear irony as the same Islamic law since its provision advanced women’s rights against the norms in the 7th century, but leaves them at a disadvantage today. Indeed, child marriage, the duty of obedience and difficulty to get divorced, have become part of the everyday life of women in Middle Eastern countries ruled by the clerics.

Still, politics has tried to reduce those inequalities and has been key in promoting equal rights between men and women in the Middle East. Charismatic nationalists such as Turkish Kemal Ataturk in 1920s, Tunisian Habib Bourguiba in 1950s, the Shah of Iran in the 1960s and even the Marxist ideology in Somalia have helped women to achieve legal equality with their male counterparts. Unfortunately, some of those countries have cancelled those reforms after the resurgence of the power of the conservative clerics since the 1970s, leading to an unstable and problematic legal status for the Middle Eastern female citizen. For instance, until recently, Iran enforced for 39 years a strict dress code with harsh criminal penalties.

Even the most unequal country, Saudi Arabia, has granted women more rights since the new millennium. Indeed, in 2001 women were allowed to get their first personal ID card, and in 2006 this right evolved, allowing women to obtain them without the requirement of the permission of their guardian. Also, the 2013 reforms allowing them to ride bicycles and motorbikes have now gone one step further as from this year, women will be allowed to drive cars and obtain a driving license by themselves. They have also been granted the rights to enter professional football matches in three stadiums.

Morocco, a more Westernised country, has only updated its family law recently, now allowing divorce due to irreconcilable differences for both men and women and it was only 5 years ago, following a teenager’s suicide, that they repealed the law allowing a rapist to avoid prosecution by marrying his victim. Also, it’s important to note that Egyptian women gained the right to vote in 1956, less than a decade after Belgium which only allowed full voting rights in 1948, and 15 years before Switzerland finally granted female suffrage.

The Middle East were more advanced in women rights than the West was historically and have been faster to grant rights in the past 5 years than the West. Although Western countries may rejoice and try to influence the Middle East in following their examples, they should not forget that they are still lacking some fundamental rights including equal pay and the cultural norms of consent. Moreover, Middle Eastern countries are tending towards the development of the same conservative religious movement as in the Middle East in the 1970s, with the rights lost today likely to be more difficult to get back.


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