Why do Arab states lag the world in gender equality?

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Achieving gender equality is a challenge for all states – but particularly for those in the Middle East. The Arab Human Development Report (UNDP 2006) highlights the multiple ways that gender equality continues to lag behind in the region when compared with the rest of the world. Some of the most difficult challenges concern elected office; women are roughly one in ten of the members of Arab parliaments (9.7%), roughly half the world average (18.4%). (IPU 2009) This pattern persists although some significant breakthroughs have occurred in particular states, notably the adoption and implementation of reserved seats in Morocco and candidate gender quotas in Iraq (Norris 2007). But the problem is not simply the lack of women’s voices in the highest echelons of power. Most governments in the Middle East have now formally endorsed, with reservations, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), pledging to establish women’s rights.1 Yet the Arab Human Development Report documents that the region has some of the high rates of female illiteracy, and the lowest rate of female labor force participation, in the world. Women in the region encounter serious problems of basic health care, educational access, and income poverty, as well as suffering from exposure to violence, limited legal rights, and lack of access to justice. These conditions are compounded by problems of social exclusion, the curtailment of fundamental freedoms, and lack of democracy.

Petroleum perpetuates patriarchy? Any observers looking at the limited rights which women face in some of the major oil‐rich states, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, might easily be persuaded that there could indeed be a strong linkage. But a more detail analysis of the evidence suggests that structural accounts of gender inequality have always suffered from several major flaws, and the petroleum patriarchy thesis does not stand up to scrutiny. It seems more plausible to conclude that long‐standing religious traditions leave an enduring mark on the norms and beliefs, the attitudes and values, which characterize different societies. These cultural values leave a deep imprint upon the way that men and women see the most appropriate division of labor for men and women in the home, family and public sphere – including the contemporary role of women in elected office. Thus Buddhist and Confucian, Catholic and Protestant, Hindu and Muslim societies each display certain distinctive ideas about gender and sexuality –and these values continue to leave an imprint on the lives of women and men, even when post‐industrial societies become more secular in orientation. Active engagement in Protestantism has thus gradually dwindled and died out in Scandinavian countries (Norris and Inglehart 2004), including involvement in religious services and organizations, as well as adherence to the importance of religion in people’s lives. Nevertheless the legacy of religious traditions continues to be evident in contemporary Scandinavian values.  

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