This week started off with worldwide observations of March 8, International Women's Day, a time to recognize women's social, economic and political achievements.
Women in the Middle East had some reason to partake in the celebrations.
Egypt and Yemen in 2003 and Algeria in 2005 granted women equal rights to nationality, meaning that spouses and children are recognized as citizens and are able to enjoy state benefits they had been denied. In 2009, Jordan withdrew reservations on freedom of movement and choice of residence. Morocco in 2008 said it intends to remove all its reservations to the U.N. treaty requiring it to eliminate gender discrimination. If it keeps its promise, this could provide significant momentum for women's rights in the region.
We can, however, only hold a partial celebration in the Middle East as we contemplate numerous stubborn barriers.
Laws in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon still provide reduced sentences for murderers of female relatives who claim family "honor" if victims have been caught in an "illicit" sexual act.
In Yemen and Saudi Arabia, no minimum age exists for marriage, depriving thousands of girls of their childhood, undermining their right to an education and leaving them to face physical and sexual abuse and life-threatening risks from too-early pregnancies.
Most governments in the region--including Libya, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates--do not have laws to protect women from domestic violence. Women are not encouraged to report abuses to police; if they do, they are almost never taken seriously.
Follows CEDAW's 30th Anniversary
This year's International Women's Day is especially important, following the 30th anniversary in December of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. The treaty has been ratified by the vast majority of nations, including nearly all in the Middle East and North Africa. Iran alone in the region has not ratified it.
But even though most of our governments ratified the treaty, many have made numerous formal "reservations" about carrying out its requirements to end discrimination in education, health and all aspects of public and private life.
Governments have excused themselves from amending discriminatory laws, from providing for equality in marriage and from allowing a woman to pass on her nationality to her children.
It is particularly important for governments to eliminate discrimination against women in the so-called private sphere.
Governments need to reform the personal status laws that govern the daily lives of millions of women in the region, including marriage and divorce, custody and guardianship and inheritance, and make sure that they conform to international standards of equality.
Freedom in Marriage and Divorce
In a region in which so many women and young girls are pressured to marry someone chosen by their families and in which there is so much violence against them, it is critically important for them to be able to make decisions freely about entering into marriage and to have equal rights to divorce.
Mothers should have equal rights to custody of their children and be able to make decisions in the best interest of the child, a right that is still almost exclusively afforded to fathers.
Women need to be protected from all forms of violence and to know they can seek redress. That means repealing numerous provisions in penal laws that sanction the murder of women and girls, which is still too often seen as a private matter. The same is true of protecting them from rape or any other form of abuse in marriage.
Women can now start looking forward to next year--March 8, 2011--and hope by then for greater cause for celebration.
This will occur if our governments take urgent steps to meet their commitments under the treaty to end discriminatory policies and to promote women's human rights.
Otherwise, the treaty will remain a piece of paper instead of a beacon of hope.