By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 8, 2006; A25
Arab countries have made some advances in their treatment of women in recent years but have failed to significantly improve conditions for them, according to a report carried out under the aegis of the U.N. Development Program.
The report, released yesterday in Yemen, urges Arab leaders to make genuine changes and to reinterpret Islamic laws as a means to empower women.
Arab governments have "announced a host of reforms targeting freedom and good governance," the report says. But "reforms often seemed empty gestures to cover up the continuation of an oppressive status quo."
"Women are making gains, but they are not realizing their full potential yet in contributing to the prosperity and strength of their societies," Amat al-Alim Alsoswa, director of the U.N. Development Program's Arab bureau, said in a telephone interview from Sanaa, Yemen's capital. "There is only partial progress. Women in the Arab world are moving closer to legal equality, but this is not enough."
The report notes that political and military crises such as the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are part of the broader context of development in the region. Arab leaders often blame such conflicts for delays in implementing reforms. But such crises do not absolve governments of their failures, according to Alsoswa.
"We do not accept these issues as an excuse for not taking care of other problems," she said.
Alsoswa also said that although women's participation in politics has grown in such countries as Morocco, Bahrain and Iraq, it is "still below what it is outside the Arab world."
After 40 years, women in Kuwait won the right last year to vote and run for office, yet no woman has been elected to parliament. In Yemen, women have voted and run for elective office since 1993, but there is one female lawmaker in an assembly of 301. Female cabinet ministers remain rare in the Arab world.
The report recommends using affirmative action or quotas, at least temporarily, to put women in decision-making positions, as was done in Iraq and Jordan. Quotas are especially important in countries where "discriminatory clauses are embedded in their legal structure," it says.
The U.N.-sponsored report was crafted mostly by Arab experts in various fields, including authors, researchers, academics and Islamic jurists. They were selected in an effort to give Arab societies a sense of ownership of the report.
"This particular report will be very controversial," said Alsoswa, who became Yemen's first minister for human rights in 2003. "As an ordinary reader, I am going to be vocal in my criticism. This report is the property of the people."
The report is the latest installment of a project launched in 2002 to identify the social, educational, political and cultural reasons why the Arab world has fallen behind other regions. Although certain legal advances had been made against gender discrimination, the report says, they were insufficient in a context of conservative social norms. The report also chided governments for not living up to declared reforms.
In Jordan, significant strides were made in passing labor laws affecting women, the report notes, though it also says women remain subjugated and underemployed because of entrenched traditions. Meanwhile, Tunisia and Morocco are described as reinterpreting Islamic law to enhance women's rights relating to inheritance, divorce, custody and other issues.
At an event to launch the report yesterday, according to Alsoswa, some participants said Arab countries have undertaken reforms that are secular in nature, rather than anchored in Islam. But the authors of the study cite modern interpretations of Islamic law that guarantee equality for women.
Even when Arab countries create legislation that protects women's rights, Alsoswa said, women can still face oppression.
"Judges really read those laws in a personal way, based on their own experience and not the law, and this is one of the obstacles," she argued.
The report also notes that health conditions for women in the Arab world are poor and that men receive better care. "Women in Arab countries, especially the least developed countries, suffer . . . high rates of risk of morbidity and mortality connected with pregnancy and reproductive functions," the report says.
Education proved a bright spot, in some ways. Female enrollment in colleges has risen, and girls outranked boys in humanities and sciences in a dozen countries.
Despite such achievements, Alsoswa said, a sense remains that improvements are not being made quickly enough.
"We are still talking about issues we started talking about in the last century," she said.