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(Beirut) – Middle East and North Africa (MENA) governments can respond to the popular demands of the region’s youth for reform by implementing five changes in 2018 to arbitrary, outdated legal systems that infringe upon citizens’ rights and liberties, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2018. Some governments in the region have already embarked on important progress, but most remain hostage to rigid mentalities.

Demonstration outside Lebanon's Parliament on December 6, 2016, with women in white dresses and wrapped in bandages, calling for the repeal of article 522 of the penal code. © Patrick Baz / AFP

“The people of the region are sick of their governments’ tired excuses for failing to make basic reforms that will dramatically improve everyone’s quality of life,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “While the region is reeling from the untold destruction from armed conflicts in four countries and heightened repression elsewhere, there’s a lot that governments can do to give the young generation a reason to believe that progress is possible in the Middle East.”

In the 643-page World Report, its 28th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that political leaders willing to stand up for human rights principles showed that it is possible to limit authoritarian populist agendas. When combined with mobilized publics and effective multilateral actors, these leaders demonstrated that the rise of anti-rights governments is not inevitable.

Here are the top five reforms MENA governments can move to make this year:

  1. “Don’t Want to Marry My Rapist #MeToo!”: Women in MENA made clear that it is not OK to let a rapist escape prison by marrying his victim, a legal loophole that dates to Napoleonic times. Families who agree to such judicially sanctioned marriages do so largely to escape the stigma of a daughter “stained” by rape. Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon abolished these horrific laws in 2017, following Morocco and Egypt, which did so in years past; seven other countries in the region where this provision remains – Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria, and Palestine – should immediately abolish it.

“Shame on every legislator who still thinks they’re doing a rape survivor a favor by allowing her rapist to escape punishment by marrying her,” Whitson said. “The only dishonor that persists when a woman is raped is when governments and societies fail to punish the rapists and provide real support to their victims.”  

  1. “I’m Not Any Man’s Property”: MENA women made some advances on nationality issues in 2017: Tunisia repealed a decree that prevented Muslim women – but not men – from registering marriages with non-Muslims; it also passed a landmark law on violence against women, instituting measures to prevent violence, protect survivors, and punish their abusers. In response to Qatari women’s demands to pass nationality onto their children like Qatari men, Qatar pledged to grant residency to children of Qatari women, providing most but not all rights that non-citizen children have. This half-baked measure still means children of Qatari mothers and foreign fathers won’t have a right to a passport and to travel as Qatari nationals. Saudi Arabia promised that government agencies would end “arbitrary” applications of its male guardianship system, which deprives adult women the ability to apply for a passport or travel without a male guardian’s consent, but has yet to dismantle the entire system; it also promised to finally lift the ban on women driving in June 2018. Fortunately, female legislators in Iraq were able to stop some legislators from undermining women’s rights in Iraq’s personal status laws, including reducing the permissible age for marriage to 8. Even the invisible women in the region – the migrant domestic workers who hail mostly from Asia and Africa – are starting to gain recognition of their rights, with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates passing laws on domestic workers. In 2018, MENA governments should act rapidly to allow women equal rights with men to pass on nationality to their children; abolish whatever remnants remain of the guardianship system; and enact and implement laws on violence against women and domestic workers’ rights. Ending systemic discrimination in divorce, child custody, and inheritance should come next.

“Most MENA women are at the bottom of the global barrel of rights and equality, with governments manipulating stale justifications based on culture and religious interpretations,” Whitson said. “2018 should be the year when women in the Middle East are finally heard and can enjoy the rights and protections like women around the world.”

  1. “Get Out of Our Bedrooms”: Despite urgent problems of poverty, unemployment, failed infrastructure, and crippled economies, many MENA governments nevertheless devoted extensive resources to prosecuting people for their adult, consensual bedroom activities. While nearly every MENA government retains laws that criminalize sex outside marriage and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) sex, Egypt stood out during 2017 by targeting the LGBT community with sweeps of arrests of suspected gay men. Police in the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Tunisia, among others, arrested or harassed people for adultery, kissing, and other so-called “morality” offenses. Survivors of sexual violence can be convicted under such charges if police or prosecutors don’t believe their claims of rape, discouraging reports of sexual assault. Iran and Saudi Arabia enforced strict codes on women’s hair covering and dress.

“Plenty of young people in the Middle East know well that when governments profess to enforce morality, they are hiding behind a hypocritical façade to cover up their critical failures in governance,” Whitson said. “What might have worked to placate the masses in the past won’t work anymore, and governments would be wise to bring their out-of-date notions on morality into the 21st century.”

  1. Stop Jailing People for “Insults”: Many MENA government officials jailed people for alleged insults to them or to loosely defined notions of the country’s “reputation,” “national interest,” “culture,” or “religion.” Saudi Arabia went so far as to define “insulting the king,” crown prince, or head of state as a terrorist offense for which the punishment is five to 10 years imprisonment. Bahrain jailed human rights activists like Nabeel Rajab for an “insulting” tweet. Kuwait sentenced a writer to seven years in prison for insulting the state of Qatar. MENA governments should abolish any law that even uses the word “insult” in its definition of a crime.

“It’s the right of people to criticize their government officials on whatever grounds they wish, and officials with a life tenure to power are entitled to no special protections,” Whitson said. “Politics is a tough business, and thin-skinned government officials who can’t stand to be criticized should pitch a tent in some remote corner of an uninhabited desert instead and consider a new line of work.”

  1. “Let me in! Let me out!”: Many MENA governments have treated their countries – and sometimes the countries of others – as massive jails, arbitrarily denying people the right to leave or the right to enter. Saudi Arabia has imposed arbitrary travel bans on many Saudis, and reportedly detained visiting foreign government officials like Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while Israel has refused to allow Gazans to exit even for urgent medical treatment or education abroad. Bahrain stripped hundreds of its nationals of their citizenship to punish families of activists. Israel refused entry to people – including Jews – whose political views it doesn’t like, and blocked human rights workers and journalists from accessing Gaza. Saudi Arabia also has banned human rights workers and journalists from traveling to war-torn Yemen.

“The temerity of governments that treat their citizens like property to be held on to or disposed at whim is an insult, to say the least,” Whitson said. “And they only embarrass themselves with what they are trying to hide when they block entry to journalists and human rights workers – because the truth always comes out.”

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