Women

Women in North Africa have a range of religious practices, forms of dress, and roles in society. But nowhere in the Arab World do women enjoy equal legal, let alone social, rights with men.[1] Although issues of domestic violence, assault, and lack of job opportunities are issues for women around the world, Freedom House identifies these as particular concerns in North Africa. Divorce laws, which in the worst cases make it very difficult for a woman to divorce and very easy for a man to do so, are one indicator of the unequal legal status of women. Still, many countries have made advances in these regards: In all Maghrebi countries, women can vote and receive advanced education, and several countries significantly reformed their family codes in the past decade to improve women’s rights. There are also women leaders throughout the Maghreb, many of whom were active during the Arab Spring.[2]

Several states issued progressive women’s rights codes in the past half-century. All countries ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),[3] though some of them with significant reservations. In 1956, Tunisia passed the Code of Personal Status, which remains to this day one of the most progressive family laws in the Arab World. It abolished polygamy, gave women the right to divorce, and required consent for marriage.[4] The code has remained largely in place, with some reforms. Women have made strides in professional sectors as well. Currently, Tunisia plans to include a quota of 50 percent women in its next parliament.[5] However, legal and social inequality persists, especially in rural areas.[6]

Morocco passed a revised family code in 2004 which included the right to divorce, child custody, and self-guardianship.[7] Most recently, Morocco gave women official “civic and social equality” with men, rather than the former guarantee of mere political equality.[8] However, it remains to be seen how this guarantee will be implemented – many argue that societal barriers prevent women from obtaining full justice in Morocco.

Algeria revised its conservative family code in 2005 to grant women more rights to divorce, housing, and independence; many saw this as a positive but incomplete reform.[9] Still, the country has seen a growing number of women’s rights groups in the last five years, and has also taken great strides to end domestic violence.[10]

In 2008, Egypt passed two major reforms which allowed women to become judges and added steps toward gender equality, such as an increase in the minimum age of marriage to 18 and the criminalization of female genital mutilation (FGM).[11] Previous reforms in Egypt, including giving women the right to divorce, have also helped further women’s rights.[12]

Women are able to attend school and receive advanced degrees in all countries in the Maghreb. In Algeria and Tunisia, enrolment in secondary education for women is higher than for men.[13] However, unfortunately education does not open the same employment opportunities for women as for men.[14] Women work predominantly in the home: only 28% of women in the Arab World were active in the workforce in 2004.[15]

Women are still treated unfairly in many courts across the Maghreb regarding assault and domestic violence. Women have little recourse to institutions for protection, either legally or socially. In Libya, punishments for women who have broken moral codes include assignment to “social rehabilitation” homes, sometimes against their will, and there is no explicit limit to the length of time that women can be held.[16] Egypt’s personal status law is still viewed as largely discriminatory against women, and Moroccan courts continue to allow girls vastly under the legal age of 18 to marry.[17]

Despite positive reforms, pockets of resistance persist. Large demonstrations protested the reforms improving the legal status of women in both Morocco and Egypt.[18] In Libya, despite former president Muammar Qadhafi’s push for legislation to improve women’s rights and employment,[19] unequal laws remained in place. In many of these countries, cultural resistance to reforms prevent them from having a significant effect on women’s rights. Thus some rights could be improved by further implementing already existing laws. Still, however, most advocates of gender equality see much room for improvement in the legal systems as well as their implementation.

By Colleen McCullough


[1] “Women’s Rights and Democracy in the Arab World.” Democracy and Rule of Law Project. The Carnegie Endowment. Feb, 2004. http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/CarnegiePaper42.pdf.

[2] Juan Cole and Shahin Cole. “An Arab Spring for Women.” The Nation. April 26, 2011. http://www.thenation.com/article/160179/arab-spring-women.

[4] “Tunisia.” Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, 2011. Freedom House. http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=444

[5] “Tunisia Prepares for October 23 Elections.” Project on Middle East Democracy. July 14, 2011. http://pomed.org/blog/2011/07/election-process-ensues-in-tunisia.html/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Morocco.” Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, 2011. Freedom House. http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=444

[8] “Q&A: Morocco’s referendum on reform.” BBC News. June 29 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13964550

[9] “Algeria.” Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, 2011. Freedom House. http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=444

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Egypt.” Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, 2011. Freedom House. http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=444

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Women’s Rights and Democracy in the Arab World.” Democracy and Rule of Law Project. The Carnegie Endowment. Feb, 2004. http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/CarnegiePaper42.pdf.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Libya.” Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, 2011. Freedom House. http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=384&key=259&parent=24&report=86

[17] “Child Marriage in Morocco Criticized.” Magharebia. May 5 09. http://www.magharebia.com/cocoon/awi/xhtml1/en_GB/features/awi/features/2009/05/05/feature-01

[18] “Women’s Rights and Democracy in the Arab World.” Democracy and Rule of Law Project. The Carnegie Endowment. Feb, 2004. http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/CarnegiePaper42.pdf.

[19] “Libya.” Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, 2011. Freedom House. http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=444.

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