In the wake of protests that brought the despotic Mubarak regime to its knees, thousands of Egyptian women decided to again march to Tahrir Square and demand their rights. They sought not to make the regime crumble, but to mark the 100th International Women’s Day on March 8. These protesters were met not by armed police, but by a larger group of men who proceeded to harass and grope the women, beating some and sending many of the marchers fleeing. This is reflective of a darker side of the Egyptian protests, one that saw American reporter Lara Logan sexually assaulted for more than 20 minutes as a crowd chanted “Jew! Jew! Jew!”
This reality represents a key challenge as the revolutionary dust settles around the Middle East. Arab states will have to do more than just allow their subjects to vote to escape the current cycle of despotism and economic underdevelopment. In many ways, the entire region has been culturally and economically stagnant over the past 40-odd years of autocratic rule – leaving an inheritance of backward, centralised economies with an over-dependence on oil-exports from state-owned conglomerates. In order to reverse this reality which lies at the base of most of the region’s problems, Arab societies will have to liberate the most truly oppressed of their members – women.
In the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, which surveyed and ranked 134 countries worldwide, with the exception of Brunei (no 77), the 16 Arab states included in the index all fell into the bottom 32 spots. The bottom 10 included Yemen, ranked last at 134, followed by Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt and Syria at 129, 127, 125 and 124 respectively. Neighbouring Turkey and Iran scored similarly, ranking 126 and 123 respectively. (Israel had the best regional score by far, ranking 52.)
Arab countries scored particularly poorly on “economic participation and opportunity” and on “political empowerment”. For the former, again with the exception of Brunei, they filled 14 of the bottom 20 spots (with Iran and Turkey also in the bottom 10). Brunei let itself down in “political empowerment”, where it was second from bottom and where neighbouring Arab countries plus Iran filled an additional 7 of the bottom 10 spots. These results look even worse when the relatively modern and secular Gulf Arab states are excluded.
Indeed, the UN’s 2005 Arab Human Development Report, said that only 33.3% of Arab women 15 years and older work, compared to a global average of 55.6%. The report also states that the Arab states have the lowest female political representation of any regional group in the world.
One key factor identified as an underlying catalyst of all the recent Arab unrest is demographics – huge numbers of impoverished youth in Arab urban centres with little or no employment opportunities. Thanks largely to the internet, they have a sudden awareness that the rest of the world do not live the same way. They are angry enough to gather en masse and demand change, and educated and savvy enough to use electronic means to evade the efforts of the autocratic authorities.
The demographic difficulties that sparked the Arab protests can be linked directly to the repression of women. Improved technology and healthcare have resulted in a decline in infant mortality. While in most countries this is followed by a decline in fertility rates, by excluding women from the workforce and public life, Arab states have made having many children more appealing. A 2008 UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia report indicates that in the first decade of the 21st century, most Arab countries had a fertility rate considerably higher than the global average of 2.4 children per woman – with Libya at 3.0, Egypt at 3.3 and Yemen as high as 7.0. The Arab population has grown at a rate of 2% per year over the past 30 years, leading it to more than double.
There has been some progress, however. The same UNESCWA report shows the overall Arab fertility rate dropping steadily over the past couple of decades. This has been attributed to improvements in education – with women staying in school longer, so marrying later – as well as an incentive for those women who do find work not to marry and have children since once married, it would be almost impossible for them to remain in the workforce.
Of course, while the UN has helped identify some of the region’s problems, it has been predictably dysfunctional in terms of helping resolve them. The UN Commission on the Status of Women contains many of the worst offenders – such as Mauritania, Turkey, Pakistan and recently Iran, ranked 113, 126, 132 and 123 respectively on the WEF’s index. In its recent March session, the UCSW passed only one country-specific resolution – aimed at Israel for “holding back the advancement of Palestinian women”. The session did pass a largely useless report on the advancement of women and gender equality in the Arab world, which combined feel-good clichés with the inevitable swipes at the “Israeli occupation” for “breaching human rights, including women.” Free passes were of course given to Iran, where guards rape women before execution and women are forced to sit at the backs of buses; Saudi Arabia, where women who are not covered from head-to-toe are arrested, and Turkey, where 37% of marriages include child brides.
But the problems of the region cannot be addressed, nor modern democracies constructed, as long as these issues are pushed under the carpet by regimes, the UN or conservative thugs. On International Women’s Day, Saudi journalist Samar Fatany noted that, “the participation of women in the workforce is no longer a luxury; it has become an economic necessity.” Just a few weeks later, Saudi authorities determined that the country was “not ready” to allow women to vote, even in the low-level municipal elections that the autocrats do allow. Only the Arab people themselves can turn these trends around and march their countries into the 21st Century. Whether or not this will happen, only time can tell.