In light of the Driver Ban lifting in Saudi Arabia and other Women’s Rights gains across the Middle East and North Africa, scholars Benjamin G. Bishin and Feryal M. Cherif ask some pertinent questions. Such as — Why are Middle Eastern countries advancing women’s rights… and why have they lagged for so long? As the experts explain: “Many observers have blamed women’s inequality on religion, specifically Islam. Our research finds that these explanations are too simplistic.”
Here’s a sampling of their findings:
Religious explanations fall short
We find that when Islam dictates support for women’s rights — such as the right to own and manage property — Muslim-majority nations may be reluctant to extend or enforce these rights…We find that countries tend to discriminate against women by applying religious norms in inheritance rights — but for property rights where Islam enjoins equality, the practice is more mixed. This inconsistency suggests that religion-based explanations fall short.
Education, Employment and Activism
First theory is called “Core rights” – women’s rights to education and employment are the building blocks with which to begin political organizing for equality, developing a group sense of fairness (or the lack thereof), and building public support for women’s equal socioeconomic standing. This gives politicians, pundits and other domestic elites reasons to support women’s rights.
Second theory is that women’s rights advocacy fosters change as domestic and international activists promote new norms of equality by publicizing nations’ practices — both those that treat women equally and those that lag — and pressuring governments to conform to global standards.
Our research shows that these theories are consistent with the recent advances in gender equality in Saudi Arabia and the region at large. Examining women’s property rights in 41 Muslim-majority countries, we find that women are likely to enjoy more secure property rights in countries where, first, women have greater access to education and second, where there are dense networks of women’s-rights activists. Where women are more aware of their rights, better positioned to challenge male kin, and have the socioeconomic power to hold politicians accountable, their property rights are stronger….
It’s true in many other Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries, where girls outperform boys in school and enroll in universities at higher rates than boys. Moreover, an increasing number of Arab women have joined the labor force — albeit not yet at levels as high as global averages.
In addition to core rights, women’s-rights activism has also substantially increased in the Middle East and North Africa in the past few decades. Between 1980 and 2015, the number of women’s-rights groups operating in the region nearly tripled