MIDDLE EAST: Shaky progress
Barry Rubin «View Bio

When US soldiers arrived in Saudi Arabia to help liberate Kuwait in the wake of Iraq’s 1991 invasion, their number included female personnel, most of whom spent time behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Perhaps inspired by these women, several dozen Saudi women later held a demonstration in which they drove cars. It was a first in Saudi Arabia, and it was illegal.

Women were not and are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. And despite a recent statement by a Saudi prince that the law on women drivers would soon change, there has been no sign whatever that it will.

This toing and froing over adjustments – no stronger a word is justified – to the rights of women in many Arab countries is the norm.

When a well-known Saudi businessman submitted his regular column to leading local newspaper Okaz last year, outlining a future of equal rights for men and women in Saudi Arabia, it was rejected and then finally published – as the contributor’s last. And this despite the fact that the contributor was a major shareholder in the publication – which was founded by his father.

The leading rationale cited by Arab governments contemplating improving the rights of women is that gender inequality is one of the main – although there are many other – reasons for lagging economic development in the region. Yet even those governments are slow to act on this manifest truth.

After the Iraqi army was driven from Kuwait in 1991, Emir Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah promised Kuwaiti women – already around 30 percent of the country’s work force – greater political rights. Eight years later, in a fair reflection of the pace of change where the issue of women’s rights is concerned, the monarch issued a decree giving women the right to vote and run for elected office – in the next but one election, if approved by parliament.

Elections duly held in July 1999 returned more liberals than ever before, winning 16 of the 50 seats in parliament. Supporters of women’s suffrage confidently predicted that the women’s political emancipation was nigh.

In the event, however, Islamist members of parliament passionately opposed giving women the vote, and garnered wide popular support for doing so.

“Those women who are calling for political rights have reached menopause and need someone to remind them of God,” said one conservative MP. The proposed law was rejected by 32 votes to 15.

The government suggested it would resubmit the bill in 2000. A liberal parliamentarian remarked, “One thing I know for sure: in 2003, women will have their political rights.”

But he was wrong; Kuwaiti women still don’t have the right to vote or run for office.

Kuwait is arguably the most democratic country in the Arab world – certainly in the Gulf. And still, of the two million people living in the country, only 800,000 are Kuwaiti citizens. Of these, just 112,000 (males) can vote.

A similar situation persists in Jordan where, in 1999, the government proposed canceling article 340 of the Penal Code, according to which killing a wife or female relative engaged in adultery was not a crime. Even after the king endorsed the change, a poll showed that about two-thirds of his subjects opposed doing so.

Indeed, this popular aversion to greater rights for women is a widespread phenomenon. In Iraq, once considered one of the most progressive countries in the region so far as the rights of women before the law was concerned, the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council recently passed Decision No. 137, calling for Iraq’s civil code to be replaced with Islamic law. After protests from various quarters, the decision has reportedly been withdrawn. But it is not clear what the verdict would be should the issue be put to the popular vote.

Amidst the gloom, it is of course possible to point to some examples of progress. Women have the vote in Qatar; in several countries they are elected – in small numbers – to parliament; they have assumed an increasing role in business; and are better educated than they once were. Saudi Arabia is not typical.

Yet the pace of change remains remarkably slow – virtually stagnant in a place like Iran. And in Egypt, where a recent survey revealed that one-third of women had been beaten by their husbands, female circumcision is widespread, and a husband who kills an adulterous wife receives no more than a three-year jail sentence.

Part of the problem is the rising influence of Islamist groups – or government efforts to appease such groups.

But often women, if not exactly part of the problem, are not part of the solution, either. In many countries of the Middle East, by no means do all women support a basic change in their status. And even those who do are often not exactly ‘progressive’ on other issues.

It has been estimated that more Kuwaiti women are conservative than are Kuwaiti men – and that, given the chance, such women would vote for parties that would deny them the vote.

Of course, this is not a picture that holds universally true. In Iran, women have emerged as a major constituency favoring democracy and a more moderate regime. But in general, the appeals of traditional viewpoints, radical Arab nationalism, and Islamism have attracted far more women than have liberal ideas.

In the end it may be up to women to decide which side of the argument is loudest – and what shape democracy takes in the Middle East.

Barry Rubin is director of Global Research in International Affairs and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.