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Study Finds Modest Gains for Women's Rights in the Middle East Amid Ongoing Repression

A new study released by Freedom House shows that women in the Middle East and North Africa have made modest progress in winning more rights and opportunities over the past five years, despite ongoing resistance. But, violence against women remains widespread in the region, along with impunity for spousal abuse and so-called honor killings.

Sanja Kelly, a senior researcher and managing editor at the independent watchdog organization Freedom House, summed up the bad news concerning women in the Middle East and North Africa at a news conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

"Women in the Middle East are being discriminated in all aspects of lives," said Sanja Kelly. "And the Middle East still remains probably the most repressive region in the world when it comes to these issues."

The new study, based on extensive field interviews in 18 countries in the region found that 15 countries recorded some gains in women's rights over the past five years. The most significant progress came in Kuwait, Algeria and Jordan. Only Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian Territories recorded an overall decline in women's rights over the past five years. Among the 18 countries surveyed, women enjoy the greatest degree of freedom in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Women in Yemen and Saudi Arabia lag significantly behind.

Among the 18 countries surveyed, only Tunisia and Jordan offer specific legal protection against domestic violence.

Rana Husseini is a journalist with the Jordan Times and an expert on the practice of family members murdering a woman for real or perceived crimes of morality, known as honor killings. In many countries, so-called honor killings are often not considered a crime and are not punished. Husseini said this has changed in Jordan.

"They are considering the murder of women as a regular murder and this is something very important," said Rana Husseini. "They did not change some of the laws that are related to this murder, but they are considering it a regular murder and this is a great achievement for the women of Jordan."

All of the women's rights' experts present at the news conference said that women still suffer greatly under unjust personal status laws, which relate to divorce and child custody matters, and the ability to travel freely. Egyptian women's rights activist Dalia Ziada explained that many women, including herself, have to get permission from their husbands or fathers to travel.

"I can tell you and you might be surprised for this, for me to travel, I have to take [get] permission from four persons in my family, and if they did not accept I cannot go anywhere," said Dalia Ziada. "If only one of them did not accept, like a veto, you know?"

The report said that the absence of democratic institutions is an impediment to women's rights in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere, and that courts need to be capable of upholding basic legal rights in the face of political and societal pressures.