Often the news about women in the Middle East focuses on the numerous ways they are treated as second class citizens. Whether it’s the horrors of child marriage or a 15-year-old girl being shot for advocating education for women, the Middle East isn’t thought of as bastion of progressiveness when it comes to women’s rights.
Saudi Arabia is one of the richest nations in the world, but is rated the worst developed country for women, according to the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, which measures reproductive health, the labor market and empowerment of women through education and politics. In recent years, however, there have been small reforms taking place. For example, women can now work as sales clerks in lingerie shops, a position previously only held by men. They earned the right to vote in 2010 and will be allowed to run for elected office beginning in 2015.
Of course, they are going to need to have a male relative drive them to the lingerie shop, the voting booth and to their government office since Saudi Arabia is the only country where women are not allowed to drive.
Late last month, Saudi Arabia increased legal options for women that are victims of domestic violence. The new law allows for fines and jail sentences of up to two years for physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Repeat abusers could also risk losing guardianship of their children. Workplace abuse is also included, and requires that all abuse be reported immediately, and anonymity is afforded to the informant if they desire.
Still, they have to have a male relative accompany them to the court house in order to report the abuse. Nevertheless, it’s a step in the right direction.
Palestinian women may also get to chip away at the wall that is separating them from their rights.
In Gaza and the West Bank, the governments are working on changing divorce law. There are two stages of marriage in the Palestinian tradition: the “engagement,” in which a couple has a marriage certificate (so as to make any outings together respectable and legal), but lives separately and do not engage in sexual activity; and the “real” marriage in which they live together and have sex. During the engagement, the man pays the bride a dowry and pledges a future amount in the event he divorces her. Currently, should she decide to divorce him, she has to get his permission – something he is not likely to do if he would have to pay her money.
The new law would allow for a woman to seek divorce without the man’s permission during both stages.
The two regions have separate governments, with Gaza being run by the Islamic movement of Hamas and the West Bank ruled by the secular Fatah party. They are working together to modify the divorce laws to give some uniformity to the divided territory. The head of the Supreme Religious Court in Gaza says the more moderate interpretation of Islam is still in line with Sharia law because “marriage in Islam is based on love and tolerance. If neither exists in a marriage, the couple should break up and live in peace separately. Marriage is an agreement between two sides; logically, both sides should have the right to end it.”
There is a catch. The woman must repay the dowry, as well as any living expenses that occurred while they were living together.
Progress achieved — one tiny step at a time.