Women's rights improving in Middle East: study

Violence against women remains widespread however


Women's rights have improved in 15 of 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa over the past five years, although violence against women remains widespread throughout the region, a U.S. study has found.

Democracy watchdog group Freedom House pointed to "modest" economic, educational and political progress for women, despite a continued pushback from religious and cultural elites, in a region where women suffer more inequality than anywhere else.

Women in Tunisia, which along with Jordan provides legal protections against domestic violence, topped the list with the most rights, followed by their counterparts in Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon, the group said in a study released Wednesday.

Yemen and Saudi Arabia lagged significantly behind.

The plight of women worsened only in Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories, amid internal conflict and a rise in extremism.

In Kuwait, women earned the same political rights as men, and four women were elected to parliament in May for the first time in the country's history.

A 2005 reform in Algeria improved women's autonomy in the family and lifted a family code that had recognized women as guardians of kin and tradition rather than rather than autonomous individuals.

A new specialized tribunal for cases involving honor crimes was established in 2009 in Jordan, only the second country to do so in the region after Tunisia.

Yet on average, only 28 percent of women work or are "economically active," the lowest rate in the world.

"There are more women entrepreneurs, more women doctors, more women Ph.Ds, and more women in universities, than ever before," said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, which supports and monitors democracy and human rights.

"However, substantial roadblocks remain for women pursuing careers."

She noted that in Saudi Arabia, women can earn law degrees but are barred from appearing in court on behalf of their clients.

And in Iraq, the slaying, rape and kidnapping of women "significantly escalated" last year, although a quarter of parliamentary seats are held by female politicians.

So-called "honor crimes" involving the killing of women are usually committed by a male relative for acts perceived to have tainted a family's honor.

There are more women entrepreneurs, more women doctors, more women Ph.Ds, and more women in universities, than ever before

Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House