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International Women’s Day and Its Significance to the Arab World

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By Leila Hanafi: Improving women’s rights is crucial to achieving nearly all of the United Nations (UN) Millennium Development Goals, the global development framework adopted by the UN in 2000 for improving people's lives and combating poverty in a sustained and sustainable way by 2015.

As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, it is essential to emphasize the importance of protecting the rights of women and girls, and empowering them to be active community leaders as these are important aspects of building a robust rule of law in nations and regions around the world. This is especially important in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as women, who make up more than 50% of the population, redefine their roles and forge new pathways of participation and leadership.

Across the MENA region, there are blatant shortcomings in terms of how the law is written and how the law is applied in practice. Improving the application of the law requires a collaborative approach of a variety of actors, including law and the judiciary, government, faith leaders, media outlets, educational institutions, and civil society groups. Adapted by the World Justice Project (WJP)-an independent, multinational organization to advance the rule of law for the communities of opportunity and equity- this multidisciplinary approach has proven to enhance the efforts of educating society about women’s rights.

In the UN Arab Human Development Reports, gender inequality was identified as one of the main obstacles to development in the Arab region. Although significant advances in social indicators, political participation and legal rights have been recorded over the past years, the gender gap remains the prominent challenge for the region. Tackling this deficit is a prerequisite for moving forward. It is essential for improving economic growth, creating jobs, and advancing the rule of law.

Political Participation and the Rule of Law:

In MENA, political participation of women is very low compared with other regions of the world. In The Lenses of Gender, Sandra Bem offers an excellent description of the dynamics that propagate gender inequality. Bem’s main argument is that: what is ultimately responsible for every aspect of gender inequality, is not male-female difference but a “social world so organized from a male perspective that men’s special needs are automatically taken care of while women’s special needs are either treated as special case or left unmet.” Across the region, several governmental institutions and political processes tie women's rights and benefits to their being the wife or daughter of a male citizen, thus rendering them dependent, second-class members of society.

Many governments of MENA countries often overlook the strong potential that women have to bring about reform. Since the uprisings began in the MENA region, we have seen women being denied freedom of expression and despite such obstacles, women continued to mobilize through technology and physical movement. The historical uprisings in the region show how important it is to educate the region’s growing women population about political participation: the rights and obligations that tie them to their state.

In these times of change, it is crucial to foster dialogue across different stakeholders including government, civil society, and the private sector to develop collaborative projects to bring fresh ideas from women to the forefront, to enhance legal protection of women and to support their role in advancing the rule of law development process. More importantly, it is time to re-assess countries efforts to bridge the gap between national commitments to gender rights standards and their implementation and enforcement across the region.

Case Study of Morocco:

As a young Moroccan-American, having grown and worked cross-culturally through progressive legal and social complexities, I feel the need to emphasize Morocco’s evolving experience in addressing women’s issues as it can serve as a template for discussion across the region. The reform of the Moroccan family law, the Moudawana, is a bold move and a progressive piece of legislation for women in Morocco.

Morocco has made steady, significant, and substantial progress in elaborating and implementing democratization and good governance reforms due in great part to the civil society that has developed and matured rapidly, especially with respect to women’s associations. The quick pace of reforms and the emergence of new civil society actors, at various levels, have resulted in strong opportunities to strengthen and broaden women’s rights and the rule of law.

King Mohammed VI himself has shown his determination to reassert and reinforce the rights of Moroccan women. When he addressed Parliament about the changes to be made to the Moudawana, King Mohammed VI posed the essential question “how can society achieve progress, while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated and suffer as a result of injustice, violence and marginalization?”

These reforms, which signify a new commitment on the part of Moroccan government to improve the status of women and children have set the country on a path to become a modern, democratic society, and a leading model of both a strong women’s movement and progressive reforms in the Arab world.

Economic Participation and the Rule of Law:

Comparative studies on gender and economic growth show that the Arab region can gain significantly in economic terms if it closes the gender equality gap. According to a 2010 gender report by the World Bank, each employed person in the Arab world supports more than two nonworking dependents. Unsurprisingly, high unemployment and low female labor force participation rates make MENA’s economic dependency ratio the highest in the world.

Across the region, further efforts are needed to promote women's equality at work. There is a pressing need for consciousness-raising and gender sensitization at all levels among women themselves, their communities, and decision-makers. Indeed, significant efforts by governments and employers are needed to integrate women further into economic life. Mainstreaming gender in national development plans and policies (by removing gender bias in the labor market, including gender-based occupational segregation) can pave the way for greater female participation, thus improving the capacity of women, and the productivity of the economy.

Moving Forward:

Today, women constitute a source of knowledge and innovation, and when harnessed effectively, provide an excellent resource to make a vital contribution to the development agenda of their countries. I believe that with the growing concerns in MENA over the level of women inclusion in the development process, these times present a major break-through in the ability of women to contribute to progress and promoting rule of law across the region.

As my generation experiences an unprecedented level of interaction and interdependence throughout the Arab world, I can only hope that in years to come we will still have the drive to look beyond obstacles and develop innovative solutions for women to create positive change throughout the region.

Leila Hanafi can be reached via this email system: Click here to connect.

Comments (1 posted):

Jessica on 31 March, 2011 03:38:34
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I'm a freshman at a high school in Texas. I was actually looking at this article for a school project. Thank you for your help and putting out the information. I didn't know women were as deprived off their rights anymore. I apparently was wrong, but I'm glad that some countries are taking notice of women's rights.

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