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January 26, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 318

Arab Human Development Report: The Plight of Arab Women for Equality

January 26, 2007 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 318

Introduction

The Arab Human Development Report2005 (AHDR): Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World is the fourth in a series of reports on human development in the Arab world prepared under the auspices of, and issued, by the United Nations Development Programme. The report was launched in San’a, the capital of Yemen on December 7, 2006. [1]

In the Foreword to the report, Saudi prince Talal Bin Abdul Aziz, the President of the Arab Gulf Programme for United Nations Development Organizations and a Saudi prince, made an attempt to disassociate religion from the adverse conditions and, often, the abuses, discrimination, and maltreatment suffered by women in the Arab world. Prince Talal writes:

"Religion has no connection with any of the mistaken practices that are carried out against women. Our societies, however, give precedence to custom over true worship and provide foundations for assumptions that have no grounding either in the Holy Koran or in the authenticated practices and sayings of the Prophet (the Hadith)."

The reality, of course, is different. There are millions of illiterate people subjected daily to pressures by ignorant clerics to force women to wear the veil and, in most extreme cases, the niqab (total coverage of the woman’s body from head to toe) which is tantamount to subjugating her identity for no reason other than preserve the patriarchal society. [2] The report under consideration has put the issue of religion quite aptly: the reform process, meaning the emancipation of the Arab woman, requires, above all, reconciliation between freedom and faith. (p.1) History teaches that freedom unrestrained can lead to anarchy; religion strictly interpreted often leads to oppression and ignorance.

The Nature of the Reform

The accumulated impact of the three previous reports, combined with pressures from the outside, particularly from the United States, has escalated the demand for reforms in the Arab countries-reforms that "go beyond window dressing," meaning reforms that address the major problems from which Arab countries suffer: "political repression, marginalization, and absence of the basic components of good governance." (p.27)

While noting the attempts for reforms, often futile, by such movements as "Kefaya!" [Enough!] in Egypt or "the Damascus Declaration" by leading figures in civil and cultural life in Syria, the report underscores the worsening human rights violations in the Arab countries, the violations of public liberties and freedoms of opinion and expression and the targeting of reformers and human rights activists. (pp.34-6)

The Rise of Women

Women empowerment and role enhancement in the Arab countries is the central theme of the UNDP report. "[T]he ultimate objective," the report stresses, is for women in the Arab world "to enjoy all components of human rights equally with men," (p.55) In this regard, "the transition towards good governance," which is indeed a tall order in a region dominated by various degrees of authoritarian regimes, will be a pre-requisite for women to advance. (p.64)

Review of Data

The report provides a wealth of data on many aspects of women’s life in the Arab world and how they fare in comparison with other countries, both developing and developed. The report focuses on four principal indicators by which obstacles to advance women acquiring human capabilities are measured: health, education, economic activity and political participation.

Health

Starting with child birth, Arab women, particularly those in the non-oil producing countries, endure the risk of high morbidity and mortality connected with pregnancy and reproductive functions. The average mortality rate is 270 deaths per 100,000 live births, rising to 1,000 deaths in the poor Arab countries while in the case of Qatar there are only 7 deaths per 100,000 live births. (p.70)

The average fertility rate of 3.81 live births in the Arab countries is high compared with the rest of the developing world where the rate, according to the World Health Organization, does not exceed 2.9 births. (p.71) At the current rate of growth, the population in the Arab countries will double almost every 20 years. Such a rate of growth will place unmitigated burdens on social services, schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and the environment and will augment unemployment which is already high at about 20 percent of labor forces, and which could generate political instability and social dislocation.

The report underscores another problem, a phenomenon referred to as "years of life lost to disease." This health indicator shows shows that women lose more years of life to disease than men. However, the number of years lost to disease by women in the rich oil producing countries has more to do with lifestyle and with deep-seated discrimination based on gender than with the wealth of the country. (pp.71-2)

Education

The report draws a grim picture of girls’ education in the Arab countries. In general, female access to education remains below that of males (three quarters of females versus four fifths of males). The exception is in some oil producing countries and in Lebanon, the Palestinian territory and Tunisia, where there is a higher rate of enrolment by women than by men. In general, Arab women are poorly prepared in terms of education to participate effectively in public life. Data show that the Arab region has one of the world’s lowest rates of female education, a fact that translates into a low rate of literacy. (Table 1) Indeed, one half of females are illiterate compared to only one third of

Table 1: Gender Inequality in Education

 

 

Adult literacy rate Female rate (% ages 15 and above) 2003

Adult literacy rate Female rate as % of male rate 2003

Youth literacy rate Female rate (% ages 15-24) 2003

Youth literacy rate Female rate as % of male rate 2003

All developing countries

69.6

84

81.2

92

Least developed countries

44.6

70

56.8

81

Arab States

53.1

71

75.8

87

East Asia and the Pacific

86.2

91

97.5

99

Latin America and the Caribbean

88.9

98

96.3

101

South Asia

46.6

66

63.3

79

Sub-Saharan Africa

52.6

76

67.9

88

Central and Eastern Eastern Europe and the CIS

98.6

99

99.6

100

OECD

--

--

--

--

High-income OECD

--

--

--

--

High human development

--

--

--

--

Medium human development

73.3

86

84.1

93

Low human development

47.9

73

63.6

86

High income

--

--

--

--

Middle income

86.2

93

96.3

99

Low income

49.9

70

65.4

82

World

--

--

--

--

males. The limited opportunities for women for enrollment in higher education further deepen the gap for professional advancement. Despite its wealth, Saudi Arabia enrolls fewer women than men in its education system. (pp.74-5)

Educational Deficiency

Educational deficiency starts at the pre-school level where a child in the Arab countries is provided an average of 0.4 years compared to 1.6 years in Latin America, 1.8 in Central and Eastern Europe and 2.2 years, in North America and Western Europe. In general pre-school enrolment in the Arab countries is 20 percent, but is a mere 5 percent in Algeria, Djibouti, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen-three of the five countries being oil exporting countries. In developing countries in general the rate of enrolment is 42 percent. (pp.75-6) The report suggests noticeable improvement in the enrolment of children at the primary school level although the enrolment of girls is, on average, only 90 percent of the enrolment of boys. The gap widens at the secondary school level where the enrolment of girls represents 80 percent of the enrolment of boys. There are two reasons for the discrepancy: first, a deficiency in public education policy that fails to address equality in education and, second, a tradition in the Arab society that views the education of girls as less important than the education of boys.

In terms of higher education some equality has been achieved, but the figures are partial and, thus, misleading. They are partial because an overwhelming percentage of students who study overseas, particularly from the oil-rich countries, are male and they are not accounted for in the national data. For example, Saudi Arabia has announced that 7000 students will be attending foreign universities in the coming school year. But experience suggests that only a handful of those studying overseas are women.

There is also the proclivity among Arab families to encourage the girls’ reproductive role over their continued education and professional advancement. Moreover, there is the built-in discrimination against women in admission to certain professional schools. In Kuwait, for example, a male candidate to the engineering and petroleum studies is admitted on the basis of a grade point average of 67.9, whereas female students must achieve an average of 83.5. (p.79) The underlying irony of these numbers is the evidence that girls in the Arab countries are more successful students than boys at all levels of education and are less likely to drop out of school or repeat the school year. In other words, the lower rate of girls attending schools at all levels should be attributed to discrimination against them rather than to inherent scholastic ineptitude.

Illiteracy Constrains Development

The report shows disturbing figures regarding illiteracy in the Arab countries, which enter the 21st century with 60 million illiterate adults, representing 40 percent of all adults, most of them impoverished and rural women. This rate is higher than the world average and higher even than the average in developing countries. (p.80) (Table 2)

Table 2: Rates of Literacy

 

 

Adult literacy rate (% ages 15 and above) 1990

Adult literacy rate (% ages 15 and above) 2003

Youth literacy rate (% ages 15-24) 1990

Youth literacy rate (% ages 15-24) 2003

All developing countries

67.0

76.6

81.1

85.2

Least developed countries

44.2

54.2

57.2

64.2

Arab States

50.8

64.1

68.4

81.3

East Asia and the Pacific

79.7

90.4

95.0

98.0

Latin America and the Caribbean

85.1

89.6

92.7

95.9

South Asia

47.7

58.9

61.7

72.2

Sub-Saharan Africa

51.1

61.3

68.5

73.7

Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS

98.7

99.2

99.7

99.5

OECD

--

--

--

--

High-income OECD

--

--

--

--

High human development

--

--

--

--

Medium human development

70.6

79.4

83.2

87.5

Low human development

45.1

57.5

63.7

70.1

High income

--

--

--

--

Middle income

81.2

89.6

93.6

96.8

Low income

50.2

60.8

64.4

73.0

Economic Activities

As in the case of school enrolment, women’s rates of participation in economic activities in the Arab countries are lower than in other regions in the world. (p.85 and Table 3) There are two reasons for this situation: First, the demand for labor is constrained by limited economic growth and the ensuing high rate of unemployment; and, second, there is the traditional perception that men are the breadwinners and, as a result, women are last to be recruited during economic expansion and first to be fired during economic recession. (p.86) Given that women are better learners and score higher scholastically than men, the discrimination against women runs contrary to economic efficiency. Put differently, the situation produces "an unfortunate phenomenon" whereby "an abundance of qualified female human capital is suffering from above average rates of unemployment." (p.201)

Table 3: Gender Inequality in Economic Activity

 

 

Female economic activity rate (% ages 15 and above) 2003

Female economic activity rate (index, 1990=100, ages 15 and above)

2003

Female economic activity rate (% of male rate ages 15 and above) 2003

All developing countries

56.0

102

67

Least developed countries

64.3

100

74

Arab States

33.3

119

42

East Asia and the Pacific

68.9

100

83

Latin America and the Caribbean

42.7

110

52

South Asia

44.1

107

52

Sub-Saharan Africa

62.3

99

73

Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS

57.5

99

81

OECD

51.8

107

72

High-income OECD

52.8

107

75

High human development

51.1

106

71

Medium human development

56.4

101

68

Low human development

61.3

99

71

High income

52.5

107

74

Middle income

59.5

102

73

Low income

51.2

103

61

World

55.6

103

69

Arab Women in Political Life

In the vast majority of the Arab countries women have the right to vote and to run in parliamentary elections. In reality, however, the Arab region is rated last in terms of the share of women in parliament. (p. 96 and Table 4) Iraq is an exception because its constitution guarantees about one third of the seats in parliament for women. However, none of these female parliamentarians has been quoted in the Iraqi press as having delivered a major policy speech during the debate in parliament and perhaps none are expected to do so.

Table 4: Women’s Political Participation

 

HDI Rank

Year women received right to vote

Year women received right to stand for election

Year first women elected (E) or appointed (A) to parliament

Women in government at ministerial level (as % of total) 2005

40 Qatar

--

--

--

0.1

41 UAE

--

--

--

0.1

77 Saudi Arabia

--

--

--

0.0

81 Lebanon

1952

1952

1991 A

0.1

89 Tunisia

1957, 1959

1957, 1959

1959 E

0.1

90 Jordan

1974

1974

1989 A

0.1

102 Occ. Palestinian Terr.

--

--

--

--

106 Syrian Arab Republic

1949, 1953

1953

1973 E

0.1

119 Egypt

1956

1956

1957 E

0.1

124 Morocco

1963

1963

1993 E

0.1

151 Yemen

1967, 1970

1967, 1970

1990 E

(.)

For women to be active in political life they must enjoy a degree of liberty which now is being denied to them. Indeed, the report points out, that "[S]imply making a connection between women and freedom excites controversy in some quarters and conflicts with custom and tradition."(p.114)

As far as the executive branch in the Arab countries is concerned, the appointment of women as cabinet ministers has been rare. The first woman minister was appointed by Egypt in 1956, followed by Iraq in 1959 and Algeria in 1962. Since then at least one woman serves as a minister in every Arab government except the Saudi government. Most women, however, have been appointed to second tier cabinet positions; none have been appointed to what is referred to in the Arab world as sovereign ministries such as foreign affairs, defense, interior (responsible for national police) or finance (resource allocation). The report makes a crucial observation that in the absence of political competitiveness in almost all of the Arab countries, the role of women, even if they were represented in greater numbers, would not make much difference in the political life of the country or the status of women. Likewise, women’s participation in political parties is described as "symbolic." (p.99) The report attributes this phenomenon to "the cultural legacy and the patriarchal system prevalent in the Arab countries." (p.100)

Poverty and Gender

While the report suggests that there is no "feminization of poverty," i.e., no clear evidence that women suffer from higher levels of poverty than men, there are indices-health, knowledge and income-which, as discussed above, are not favorable to women. (p.113)

On the issue of household income, there are no reliable data to provide reliable indicators about the degrees of poverty of households headed by women. The report seems to suggest that the great majority of households that are headed by women through no choice of their own (meaning widowhood, divorce or abandonment) appear to be poorer than other households, particularly those headed by unmarried men. (p.113)

In the context of poverty in rural areas, the report refers to the practice of removing young girls from the countryside and forcing them to serve as household servants "in a form of neo-slavery." It is "a black mark" on human development in the Arab countries. (p.119) These girls are illiterate and will most likely remain so while they serve their urban masters with no hope of ever saving enough money to upgrade themselves to literacy status.

The report criticizes the "harsh and degrading treatment meted on foreign female domestic workers," who work long hours, receive low wages, and often suffer sexual assaults or abuses. The number of these domestic workers in the Gulf countries is staggering:

 

Country Number

(in thousands)

Saudi Arabia

426

United Arab Emirates

261

Kuwait

241

Oman

145

Bahrain

36

Qatar

38

In the case of Kuwait, Oman and Qatar foreign domestic workers represent more than 70 percent of the female labor. (p.121)

A Strategic Vision

An introductory sentence in the last chapter of the report which seeks to design a strategy for the empowerment of women in the Arab countries sums it all up: "The Arab renaissance [izdihar] cannot be accomplished without the rise of women in Arab countries."(219) The strategy recommends that Arab girls and women must acquire knowledge "on an equal footing with boys and men," that they should be given opportunities for "effective participation in all types of human activity outside the family," and that they be given a good measure of freedom with regard to the rights of citizenship and freedom from physical and mental abuse. (p. 220-1)

Regrettably, however, the recommendations for such a renaissance do not rise beyond generalities and often fall into platitudes. After dwelling at great length on what needs to be done, the report concedes that what it has offered is "no more than intellectual grist for forces of renewal in the Arab countries." (p.231)

Conclusion

In discussing the "Arab Women’s Movement: Struggles and Experiences," the report observes, rather ominously, that the Arab countries "have entered the twenty-first century still dragging behind them the dead weight of such issues as a woman’s right to education, work and political activity, matters long resolved elsewhere." (p. 123)

While most of the Arab countries have promulgated constitutions that grant women equal rights with men, laws governing domestic relations are adjudicated by clerics or religious legal scholars who often give preference to men over women by assigning twice the weight to evidence rendered by men than that rendered by women. Women’s struggles to rise above and beyond their current inferior status are inexorably linked to the broader political reforms that must take place in their respective countries. Unfortunately, the signs of such a change appear only on the distant horizon. For it is not clear why women would be any more successful in enjoying various measures of freedom at a time when the rest of society lives under an authoritarian political environment.

*Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.


Endnotes:

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 104, "Human Development Report in the Arab World," July 24, 2002 Human Development in the Arab World: A Study by the United Nations ; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 151, "The Failure to Establish a 'Knowledge Society' in the Arab Nations: Arab Human Development Report, November 6, 2003 The Failure to Establish a 'Knowledge Society' in Arab Nations: Arab Human Development Report ; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 219, "The Arab Human Development Report: An Appeal for Openness and Freedom," April 29, 2005 The Arab Human Development Report III: An Appeal for Openness and Freedom.

[2] See the excellent article by Bilqis Hamid Hassan, "Is the niqab required by religious," Elaf, January 16, 2007.

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