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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Women’s Rights Gain Traction in Gulf Arab States, Inequality Persists


Women in the Gulf Arab states are making small but notable gains in their struggle to achieve equality with men, according to a new study from Freedom House. Women’s rights advanced the most in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates over the last five years, but patriarchal laws and social customs continue to foster one of the world’s most restrictive environments for women.

“Women’s activists in the Gulf need support more than ever to transform these gains into real momentum,” said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. “The progress that has been made in several of the Gulf countries is a tribute to the tenacious efforts of women’s activists, who persevere despite a political environment which severely restricts the exercise of fundamental political rights and civil liberties.”

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Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Gulf Edition (PDF) examines the state of women’s rights in the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council from 2004 through 2008. The Middle East Partnership Initiative funded the study. It is the first installment of a larger report covering the entire Middle East and North Africa region due out in November.

The study examines five key areas based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

  • nondiscrimination and access to justice
  • autonomy, security and freedom of the person
  • economic rights and equal opportunity
  • political rights and civic voice
  • social and cultural rights

According to the study’s findings, Bahraini women enjoy the greatest degree of freedom in the Gulf region, followed by women in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman. Saudi Arabia lags significantly behind, with women there among the most restricted in the world.

Women are most likely to be able to exercise their economic and political rights, with more women entering the workforce, graduating from universities and participating in politics. Political rights increased the most for women in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Three countries showed improvement across all five categories: Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

However, systematic discrimination across the region continues to relegate women to subordinate status. Personal status laws, which govern family issues such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, are a pervasive source of gender-based discrimination in the region. In some countries, women must obtain a male guardian’s approval to marry, to work, and in extreme cases, to undergo mandatory surgery. In addition, domestic violence targeting national women as well as expatriate workers remains a significant problem.

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