Cairo – As several countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) elect bodies to write new constitutions, women are looking to expand their rights through legislation.
Tunisia’s newly elected constituent assembly has begun a year-long process of writing a new constitution, and women’s rights advocates greeted the inaugural meeting with protests to demand that their rights be guaranteed in the future constitution.
Under former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia was hailed as one of the most advanced countries in the Arab world in terms of women’s rights, due to abolition of the Personal Status Code in 1956.
Following Ben Ali’s ouster, many fear an Islamist takeover after the moderate Ennahda party’s win in last month’s first free elections.
More than any other region, the imbalance of economic status and rights between men and women remains the greatest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Coupled with a lack of strategic planning to integrate women into political life, this has led to a low level of representation in parliament.
According to the International Parliamentary Union, 6.5 percent of parliamentarians in the Arab world in 2005 were women, compared to 4 percent in 2000.
Egypt, whose population of about 85 million constitutes a third of the Arab world and which hosts the MENA region’s largest parliament, had only 4 percent female representation in 2005.
In an effort to facilitate women’s entry into politics, Egyptian women’s rights advocates encouraged a group of rural women to have a say in what a new domestic violence law should entail.
“As a means of empowerment we asked the women to consider themselves a committee and pretend they’re in the parliament and write down the key issues in the law that need addressing,” Dr. Magda Adly, director of the El-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo told IPS.
“Not only were these women who are traditionally marginalised able to be active in the political process, they also were able to articulate their needs better than more educated authors of similar legislation in the past.
“Women were present in past parliaments but were merely décor because they lacked interest in ratifying laws to improve the situation of women. I’m more concerned about having articles in the new constitution that are for the betterment of Egyptian women because those laws will be with us for some time.”
Laws pertaining to marriage, divorce and domestic violence have long favoured the social position of men.
In Yemen, the Personal Status Law, which covers marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, gives women fewer rights than men, excludes women from decision making, and deprives them of access to assets.
“At the moment, Yemeni women really suffer from marginalisation, discrimination and gender gaps in the educational system,” Samia al-Haddad, programme and human rights officer for the Yemeni Organisation for Development and Rehabilitation told IPS.
“The education gap between men and women is 65 percent, which means that for every six boys only one girl is enrolled in school, and she’ll most likely drop out before finishing her basic education. This is due to a belief that men are more useful.”
The 1994 Yemeni Constitution guarantees equal rights for all citizens, but Yemen has one of the worst records of child marriage in the world. Official figures show that while an April 2010 law sets the minimum age for marriage at 17, nearly 99 percent of Yemeni women have been married before the age of 18, with 14 percent married before the age of 15.
“Embedded cultural traditions have made it hard for Yemeni women’s voices to contribute in their pregnancy, access to healthcare services, and investigations of sexual assault and violence,” adds al- Haddad.
“This is why we’re demanding a 30 percent representation in the transitional government as well as a seat at the negotiating table when it comes to drafting a new constitution once president Ali Abdullah Saleh steps down. After the revolution, women are no longer willing to accept their lowly status in society.”
In the West Bank, Palestinian women are the majority amongst university students but in 2009 women accounted for about 15 percent of the labour force.
According to the Euromed Gender Equality Programme (EGEP), Palestinian women are under-represented in the government with only five of the 23 ministers, and only 17 of the 131 legislative council seats belonging to women.
“This is based on the division of labour between men and women in the region and the belief that women should be more active in the private sphere because they’re more emotional and deal with the home,” Amal Khraisha, general director of the Palestinian Working Women Society for Development and a candidate for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections within the Palestine Independent List told IPS.
“It’s important that we restructure the current labour discourse and press for new governments to implement better social protection for women and improved economic rights at the household level. It’s an uphill battle but we must change the culture of the previous regimes.”