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Women's Rights Remain a Challenge in Middle East

(Washington, DC--July 20, 2005) The results of a Freedom House survey show that religion is used to discriminate against women in predominantly Muslim countries, although it is not the root cause of the discrimination. Sameena Nazir, Senior Research Coordinator at Freedom House and project director of the "Survey of Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa" provided an overview of the study to a recent RFE/RL audience.

Nazir said the survey examined women's rights in 17 selected countries and territories (Algerian, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, the Palestinian Authority and Israeli-Occupied Territories. The survey's goal was to review the progress of women's rights, identify the obstacles to progress, examine the causes and consequences of gender discrimination, and make recommendations for further progress in women's rights.

Although the methodology of the study compares conditions across the 17 countries, the standard for women's rights against which all 17 are evaluated is the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The countries were scored on a scale of 1 to 5 in five broad categories: I. Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice; II. Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person; III. Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity; IV. Political and Civic Voice; and V. Social and Cultural Rights. A score of 3.0 represents conditions "in which a woman's ability to exercise her rights is sometimes restricted by the government or non-state actors," said Nazir. "Of the 17 none score even a 4.0," she said, "Tunisia which grants most social rights received a 3.3, but scores low in political rights."

Nazir gave many examples from the survey of legal discrimination against women. The study found for instance that in the Gulf States 70 percent of residents are non-citizens, many of them migrant Asian women who work as housekeepers and have no rights, but face gender based discrimination as well. Nazir noted that "Islam condemns slavery, but in reality, slave-like practices against migrant workers exist."

The study makes both specific country recommendations, but has eight major recommendations addressed to the governments on a range of issues such as domestic violence, legal and traditional barriers to women's participation in politics, government and the private sector, and migrant worker rights. Nazir said, "there has been movement in the region, there is a democratic struggle," so the purpose of the Freedom House study which is funded by the U.S. Department of State's Middle East Partnership Initiative, is to guarantee that women's issues are part of the civic debate.

The study is available in both English and Arabic. It can be reviewed in English at the Freedom House website, at