More Than Women's Rights at Stake in Gender Equality Fight

This past month, former acting president of Egypt Adly Mansour passed a law that defined sexual harassment for the first time and classified it as an offense punishable up to five years in prison. The news followed increases in public outcry to the ongoing problem of sexual and gender-based violence in Egypt but shortly after the passage of the law, reports and videos surfaced of women being brutally assaulted during public gatherings in Tahrir Square.

Egypt has had a problem with violence against women for quite some time now. A 2008 demographic health survey in Egypt found that 91.1% of women between 15 and 49 had been subjected to genital mutilation. An Egyptian human rights group found that over 500 women had been survivors of mob rape and mob sexual assault between January 2011 and February 2014. A 2013 study by the UN also found that 99.3% of women in Egypt had been subjected to abuse ranging from street harassment to rape.

For comparison, Iceland, which is regarded as the most gender neutral state in the world, reported that 42% of women aged over 16 have experienced sexual harassment. In the United States, 67% of women reported experiencing street harassment and 55.9% are survivors of assault. While sexual and gender-based violence is not exclusive to the MENA, it is admittedly more prevalent in the region.

Addressing sexual and gender based violence is critical to ensuring the safety of women and other underrepresented communities within the region, but further steps must be taken to address the underlying problems that promote these types of behaviors. Promoting gender equality and empowerment not only helps women, but the region as a whole.

UNESCO’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2013, which uses economic, political, educational and health criteria to measure gender inequality, has found that inequality is most prevalent in Middle Eastern countries and is detrimental to the overall development of the region. Research has shown that gender equality leads to economic growth by providing more human capital, increasing labor productivity and by improving agricultural productivity. Not a single Arab country ranked in the top 100 of the Global Gender Gap Report. Out of 136 countries researched in the report, Jordan ranked 119th, Turkey 120th, Algeria 124th, Egypt 125th, Saudi Arabia 127th, Morocco 129th, Iran 130th, Syria 133rd, and Yemen came in dead last at 136th.

In Arab countries, girls account for 60% of children that are not in school, which is the highest rate of any region. Additionally, only 25.2% of women in the MENA are employed or actively seeking a job compared to over 50% of women in other regions. This problem has showed no signs of slowing down over the last three decades, with female labor force participation increasing at extremely low levels with an average increase of 0.17 percentage points per year. These numbers serve as a threat to regional development as evidenced by a study conducted by the World Bank which found that in order to address the MENA’s rising unemployment issue, 200 million jobs must be created in the MENA by 2050 with women filling three-quarters of them.

However, the outlook for achieving gender parity in the Middle East isn't entirely bleak. Over the last forty years, the MENA region has made vast improvements towards achieving gender parity in health and educational outcomes. 5 countries from the region, including Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia were among the top 10 fastest movers. Two of the largest problems that women in the MENA region face are conservative religious orthodoxy and exclusive political systems, but an increasing number of women’s rights activists and NGOs have been able to effectively mobilize and secure many political, social and economic victories for women throughout the MENA region.

Following the Arab Spring, women activists in Tunisia were able to secure important victories by preventing rule under sharia law and successfully including a clause in its constitution that declared women and men as equal. In 2012, protesters in Jordan peacefully organized against the rape-marriage law, honor crimes and women’s harassment, signaling a “new generation of women coming to the forefront in calling for equality under law”. Additionally, in Egypt, women lobbied the government to secure legal protections against sexual violence and harassment.

An increasing number of women have become involved in business and financial sectors. According to the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, women business owners in the MENA are “well ahead of their counterparts in Western Europe and North America” with respect to the size of their firms. Competitions such as “Women Powering Work: Innovations for Economic Equality in the MENA Region” provide funding and additional resources to advance economic opportunities for women in the region.

Additionally, foundations and organizations created by women for women, such as the Middle East Women Entrepreneurs and the Business Development Center in Palestine, reflect an important trend of fostering the development of women entrepreneurs throughout the region by providing access to shared knowledge and financial resources.

Throughout the region, women have also become more visible and vocal in the public sphere. The popular Arabic talk show “Kalam Nawaem” features four Arab women hosts that discuss important taboo social issues throughout the region, including topics such as gender equality, sexual harassment, and divorce. Additionally, lists such as “100 Most Powerful Arab Women” reflect the growing number and influence of women in government and business sectors. Although there is still much work to be done, women throughout the MENA region have proven that they have the power and the agency to create tangible change.