Libya Tribune

By Nadereh Chamlou

This is a chapter of the forthcoming e-book ‘The Future of the Middle East’ co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication later this month.


Neo-Islamization phase

The widening gap between women’s rights in the West and in the MENA countries began in earnest in the late 1970s. A turning point in the global gender agenda was the first United Nations Conference on Women that took place in Mexico City in 1975. It shone the spotlight on a range of laws that, despite the right to vote, still constituted persistent discrimination against women.

The Conference led to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. Over the years, of the 194 UN member nations, 187 countries would ratify CEDAW, though curiously, two countries would still reject to do so ideologically – the US and Iran.

CEDAW caused a great deal of push-back within other Muslim countries. On the one hand, women’s rights groups urged for ratification in parliaments since governments that had voted for the CEDAW adoption by the UN, on the other hand conservative groups raised the specter that CEDAW contradicted the Shari’a.

In the end, most Muslim-majority countries ratified CEDAW with so many specified reservations that essentially made the convention meaningless. Slowly, however, women’s rights advocates have been able to justify and push their governments to remove some of the reservations.

In most non-Muslim counties, however, CEDAW offered a platform and a comparative common denominator to guide gender-intelligent legal reforms. It also strengthened the hand of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who would mobilize the grassroots and generate an impetus for change.

Many countries took the opportunity to review old laws in diverse fields, ranging from labor laws, to pension regulations, to social security provision, assess to credit which were redrafted to remove specific legal-based discrimination.

The process would frequently entail that a law or regulation would be challenged through the judiciary for contradicting the spirit of constitution – the highest law in the land – that guaranteed all citizens regardless of sex, gender, age, race, religion, etc. equal treatment.

This process of harmonizing the body of laws with the spirit of the constitution has not fully taken place in most MENA countries. As mentioned above, even though a large body of civil codes is based on laws that were imported from the West in early decades of the 20th century, the discriminatory elements are now justified under religious codes. A good example is the nationality law.

Throughout the ages, women and men intermarried from different parts of the Ottoman or other Muslim lands. The concept of citizenship was invented in the West. When the law was “imported” into MENA, women in the West could not pass on their nationality to their children. In the meantime, Western countries have removed this restriction; it still exists in MENA legal codes. A Lebanese woman from Beirut married to a Syrian man from Damascus cannot give the Lebanese nationality to her children.

Despite its origin, the gender based discrimination is now justified in terms of the Sharia. Christian denominations are not any different. Little by little, though, some countries are finding ways to reform such laws, albeit with great difficulty.

Growing conservatism

Part of the growing disparity between the MENA countries and the rest of the world can be blamed on a growing conservatism since the end-1970s. While the 50s/60s/70s witnessed a secular outlook, the period since has been infused with an Islamic resurgence, in which the question of women’s rights is challenged again.

Several factors played a role. On the geopolitical front, the 1979 Revolution in Iran is perhaps the most visible pivot toward conservatism. It reversed most of the reforms of the Pahlavi regime. Another case is the growing conflict within the broader Middle East.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, in which the West fed and used extremist Islamist groups and ideology to fight communism. The continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fueled radicalism among Arabs.

Therefore, from Afghanistan to Morocco, conservative movements gained ground because they provided a useful tool for people to identify against enemies. This was further augmented by the massive amounts of financial support from Wahabi sources that further engrained austere religious thinking that was misogynistic at its core.

A further development that could provide a partial explanation for the conservative tide since the 1980s is a disproportionately faster growth of the traditionally-inclined share of the population vis-à-vis to the modern and progressive segments.

What does this mean? Female fertility rate declined from about seven children per woman in 1960 to three children in 2006. While this is good news, it is important to pay attention to the differential fertility rate within the population.

Despite lower average fertility rates, religious/traditional families, in which gender roles were more pronounced, still had more children than the “modern” secular family. Larger traditional families are also more likely to discriminate between sons and daughters.

In unitary small families the girl child is likely to be treated the same as her brother and both sexes to grow up with gender egalitarian experiences. Fast forward a generation, the differential fertility rate between the traditional and the modern segments of the society lead to conservatives outnumbering the seculars – and this tilts attitudes and politics accordingly.

There are frequently pictures of graduating classes of Arab universities between these two different points of time. They demonstrate perfectly the increasing conservatism of Arab societies. Above are two such examples.

Where do we stand?

The Mexico conference led to subsequent conferences in Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995) to monitor progress. In the West, the legal changes achieved creating a de jure level playing field for women. However, even Western societies still retained hidden sexism and implicit discrimination.

Affirmative action for women and for ethnic minorities enabled women to make advances into fields that were previously male-dominated. However, affirmative action was regarded as benefiting women or minorities, and not necessarily the society at large.

This perception began to change when in the late 1990s and early 2000s a series of academic articles quantified with robust methods the significant economic returns of gender and race diversity. The studies analyzed the performance of publicly traded Fortune-500 firms over an extended period.

Controlling for various characteristics, those that embraced diversity in leadership showed a consistent track record of higher growth in earnings per share and better return on equity in comparison with firms that were led by only white men.

Diversity was measured as having at least three women or minorities on board.

These studies were seminal and were replicated repeatedly in the US and in other countries – all with similar results and conclusions. The studies did not posit that by adding just a few token women to company boards earnings could be hiked up.

The findings suggested that a company that managed and rewarded its diverse talent pool was likely to be more attuned to market changes, more agile to recognize and adjust to risks, and more likely to better manage its other tangible and intangible assets. Think-alike and uniform boards were less likely to see risks and opportunities.

These studies inspired a range of economic literature that set out to estimate the cost of gender inequality at the family, firm, and economy-wide levels. Universities, corporations, international organizations, and even management consulting firms were among the leading institutions to say that “empowering women is smart economics.”

This marked an effective departure from previous approaches in which women’s rights and equality were a goal in themselves. Today, women’s empowerment is not only important on its own but benefits everyone.

The Cost of Gender Inequality for MENA

The main cause of economic losses are the persistent legal barriers and sticky social norms that impede women to access employment, entrepreneurship, promotion, and innovation opportunities. Recent literature by the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, IMF, and various UN agencies demonstrate that the MENA region still has the widest legal disparities between men and women.

Not only do these barriers and discriminations place most of the countries of the region at the bottom of any gender-based rankings, they also translate into considerably high gains that these economies could achieve in terms of increase in GDP if they were able to remove the barriers.

For instance, women in Egypt face some 20 gender/sex-specific legal barriers in the economic sphere over and above the barriers that men encounter. If Egypt were to remove these gender-based barriers, its GDP is estimated to increase by as much as 39 percent.

Similarly, if Iran is found to have 23 legal barriers. If removed, it could boost the GDP by some 41 percent. Similar analysis for the US, for instance, yield a potential increase of 13.7 percent, for Japan, 19.76, and for Germany 14.3 percent.

In the long run, the region’s combined GDP could be 37.8 percent larger solely by the removal of gender-based legal barriers. If not addressed, over time, the cumulation of the GDP loss among MENA countries due to gender barriers could lead to a considerable backwardness, as had been envisaged by the 19th century thinkers like Qasim Amin.


There are two main differences between early efforts of the women’s rights movements and today’s approach. The first distinction is that earlier approaches focused on rights-based arguments. This was best articulated at the Beijing Conference in 1995 when then-First Lady Hilary Clinton said that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.

Building on the concept, today’s focus is to quantify the economic cost of gender-based discrimination – the loss of welfare to the entire society – when they fail to realize their potential and are held back. This approach provides new tools, fresh ideas, and innovative methods to create a level playing field for all.

The second difference is the argument that it is not simply enough to educate women and to bring them into the workforce. The real gain from gender-equality can only be achieved when women are involved at all levels of decision-making and leadership because they bring new and different perspectives and insights that are based on their experiences and needs.

These insights can lead to better business decisions and better public policies that can ultimately lead to more efficient outcomes for the society. Fortunately, in several MENA countries, women have advanced in government and business position and it seems promising that they will have more opportunities to influence policies and process for more inclusive societies.

MENA countries made considerable progress during the 20th century to strengthen the capability of their female populations through education and healthcare. But, in terms of opportunity and empowerment, the gap between MENA and the West may not have been narrowing in the past 30 years.

MENA has not been able to enact the types of legislative changes that are necessary to remove de jure sex-and gender-based barriers. The rest of the world has moved more systematically because the persistence of discrimination ultimately leads to loss of economic potential.

This lethargy, and at times slowness and push-back, has been largely due to a rise in conservatism, which is partly due to demographic movements, partly due to rising conflict in the region, and partly to a rise in fundamentalist discourse and finance.

As to the fate of the three women at the beginning of this paper, sadly, their destinies seem to echo the efforts they launched. The reformist king, Amanullah Shah of Afghanistan, was forced to abdicate by conservative forces in 1929. His reforms were largely overturned, then gradually came back, then reversed by the Taliban, and since 2003 slowly reintroduced. Queen Soraya died in exile in 1968.

The Queen of Iran, too, left during the 1979 revolution, which ended the secular Pahlavi monarchy. Most of the gender-based reforms of the 50-year rule of the Pahlavis were reversed, except women’s right to vote. The queen died in exile in 1981.

Latife, the wife of Ataturk, lived a low-key life and died in obscurity in 1975. Though recent times have seen a revival of conservative attitudes toward women by the Erdogan government, the reforms in Turkey were the most sustainable among the three countries.

In the Arab world, there are positive signs, though. Many countries have appointed women ministers with important portfolios to break the glass ceiling. And, recently, women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to drive, to travel with the permission of a mahram, and to participate in elections.

Perhaps, with all the ups and downs, forward and backwards, the women in the region are finally turning the corner. Muslim women have come a long way. They are not where they were, they are not where they want and need to be.


Nadereh Chamlou is a former Senior Advisor for the The World Bank.

Image Credit: Ali Em via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)