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
Despite setbacks for women’s rights around the globe in 2017, some of the most exciting reforms and positive momentum emerged from the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisian women have new protections against violence. Migrant domestic workers in the Gulf are armed with new labor protections. And the Saudi ban on women driving was lifted.  This is an exciting time for women in the Middle East, but on this International Women’s Day, the road to women’s human rights in the region remains long.

The changes in the region are a credit to the women human rights defenders who have faced harassment, intimidation, and imprisonment for their efforts. And the struggle continues. Since December, several women in Iran have faced arrest for peacefully protesting the mandatory hijab laws.  Saudi Arabia detains and charges women who seek to end the male guardianship system. Some women live in exile while other prominent activists like Azza Soliman and Mozn Hassan in Egypt remain trapped under travel bans.

In positive developments, last summer, Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon repealed their rape-marriage exoneration laws, following similar moves in past years by Morocco and Egypt. These colonial-era relics had allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victims. However, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Syria, and Palestine still have these laws on the books, as do countries in Latin America and beyond.

The Middle East and North Africa had long been the region with the fewest legal protections against domestic violence, but we are turning a corner. In 2017, Tunisia adopted a comprehensive violence against women law that allows women to get emergency and long-term protection (restraining) orders against abusers. Jordan amended its 2008 domestic violence law with some partial improvements, and in February 2018 Morocco passed a law recognizing violence against women as a form of gender-based discrimination. Nine countries in the region now have laws to curb domestic violence.

Weaknesses remain. Morocco’s law will still leave most women vulnerable to violence as it failed to allow women to seek a protection order without filing a criminal charge. Other countries retain provisions that require women’s obedience to their husbands or male guardians. The United Arab Emirates has no specific law criminalizing domestic violence and instead its penal code allows a husband to discipline his wife or minor children, so long as the assault does not exceed limits prescribed by Sharia.

In a positive step, Tunisia repealed a decree in September that prohibited Muslim women from registering marriages with non-Muslim men, the first such action in the region. Its amended elections law providing gender parity is kicking in, with upcoming elections this year, as political parties are required to have women  on their candidate lists.  The presidential Commission for Individual Freedoms and Equality has reviewed current legislation for discriminatory provisions against women including unequal inheritance laws, which have particularly affected women in rural areas.

The invisible women of the Middle East—migrant domestic workers—are beginning to gain recognition of their rights. In 2017, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates passed laws on domestic workers’ rights, establishing limits to their working day, a weekly rest day, and paid annual leave, following other countries in the region. These laws vary in how much protection they provide, are still weaker than labor law protections for other workers, and their effectiveness will depend on enforcement. Oman and Lebanon, two major destination countries for migrant domestic workers in the Middle East, still have no effective labor protections.

The most serious impediment for migrant domestic workers’ rights in the region is the kafala system, which traps migrant workers by prohibiting them from changing or leaving jobs without their employer’s permission. There is some hope for reform. In 2017, Saudi Arabia issued a decree to allow domestic workers to change employers in 13 situations, including not being paid for three months. And Qatar may end its kafala system as part of its new commitments under a technical agreement with the International Labour Organization. 

One of the most infamous offenders, Saudi Arabia, has moved toward incremental reforms for women. In 2017, it announced that girls will have physical education in state schools, women will be able to enter stadiums as spectators, and beginning in June 2018, women will be allowed to drive. Last April, Saudi Arabia promised that government agencies would end “arbitrary” applications of its male guardianship system, prohibiting state agencies from requesting male guardian permission if there are no rules requiring it. However, women are still required to have male guardian permission when applying for higher education, marrying, traveling abroad, and obtaining a passport. There are still no prohibitions on discrimination against women, and some employers continue to ask for male guardian permission to hire a woman even though the law doesn’t require it.

There is good news to report this International Women’s Day. But discrimination and violence against women in the Middle East and North Africa remains pervasive and entrenched. In particular, laws across the region relating to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance discriminate against women. Governments in the region should stop harassing women’s rights activists and continue to come through with serious reforms so that all women are free to live without discrimination or violence ruling their lives. If they do, next March 8, we will have more to celebrate.