Go Comoros

11.12.134:45 AM ET

Which Arab Countries Are Best For Women?

A new report looks at the state of women's rights and protections across the Arab world, with some surprising results.

It was in the early afternoon in July when the 19-year-old woman—let’s call her Jasmine—was on her way to meet some friends at a coffee shop not far from Tahrir Square. She asked that her real name not be revealed. “I feel ashamed, I don’t want my family to know,” she said.

She says she is the victim of rape by three men. She was walking along an empty road that day, and saw them standing across the street. She did not see them following her until they forced her into the entrance of a house. “It was all very fast, one had a knife, he said ‘Don’t shout, don’t shout.’ I was scared,” Jasmine said in a Skype interview.

They pushed her into a dark corner under the stairway of the house where two of them raped her, while the other filmed it. “Then they said that if I would go to police, they would make sure the video would go on the Internet,” she said tearfully.

She did not go to the police, like the majority of women in Egypt who have been sexually attacked or harassed.

According to women’s rights organizations in the region, violence and harassment is at its worst ever in Egypt. Last July, 91 women were publicly raped in Tahrir Square, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which released a poll today on “Women’s rights in the Arab World.”

"When you read everything that comes out of Egypt, then women in general were better off under [Hosni] Mubarak than now,” said Monique Villa the foundation’s CEO.

In their analysis, the foundation stated that the “rise of political Islam in Egypt has swiped secularism away,” and that, after the crowds dispersed from Tahrir Square, women were expected to return to their traditional roles of mothers and wives. Most political gains for women have been lost. “Women are struggling to preserve their dignity, and far from progressing, they are fighting to preserve the rights they had before the Arab Spring,” the foundation says in its release on the report.

The ranking is based on the key provisions of the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and looked at how women are currently fairing in politics, society, the family system, and the economy in 22 Arab League member states, and whether women have access to reproductive rights, and are protected from gender-based violence.

The foundation sent the poll in Arabic, English and French to a total of 600 gender specialists in the 22 countries. Syria was included as well, even though the country was suspended from the Arab League in 2011.

Most of those polled were aid and healthcare workers, policy makers, journalists, academics, and lawyers in each of these countries. “This poll is like taking photograph of a certain situation at this moment,” Ms. Villa said “it is about the situation of women in these countries.”

In the ranking of the worst countries, Egypt was followed by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. In Iraq, the foundation found, women’s living standards are worse now than under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“The U.S. invasion has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi widowers without income and with little prospect of employment,” says the report.

The Union of the Comoros ranks first in women’s political and economic rights in the foundation’s poll, followed by Oman, Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar.

Despite its poor record in human rights and freedom of political expression, in the Comoros, women are not discriminated against by law. According to the gender experts the foundation interviewed, 20 percent of politicians in ministerial positions are female, and women make up to 35 percent of the country’s workforce. In case of divorce or separation, women are regularly awarded land and property unlike in many other Arab League countries. “The legal system of the Union of the Comoros is under the French influence and it has given women more rights than elsewhere in the League,” Ms. Villa said.

The results of the foundation’s poll show that overall, Arab countries ruled by a monarch or Emir, despite often engaging in other questionable human-rights practices, had better results when it comes to women’s rights than other Arab states. “If you can get a pro-woman benevolent leader, you can often in the short run get far better outcomes for women than democracy, which as a system just mean ‘the people rule,’” said Shauna Lani Shames, who taught women's studies and is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University.

Shames said that there is no guarantee that “the people” would be fair or just in the ruling. “In fact, especially if "the people" have strong cultural and conservative traditional ideas about the role of women in society, then feminists will be in a minority and can easily lose out in a democratic system of decision-making.”

Some of the results of the Thomson Reuters foundation confirm Shames’s analysis. For example, the kingdom of Bahrain placed the best and Iraq placed the worst result in “Women in Society,” where the foundation asked, among other things, whether girls were expected to give up education sooner than boys, or if they “feel pressured to get married before they are 18.” Women in Bahrain are among the most highly educated in Arab countries—more than 60 percent university students are women, according to official estimates.

On the other hand, in the category “Women in Politics”—which looks at whether women had equal access to run for all elected positions in public office—Djibouti placed first and Saudi Arabia placed last. “In general Saudi Arabia is making small steps but women remain second-class citizens,” Ms. Villa said.

In the category “Women in Economy,” where the Comoros got the best and Palestinian territories the worst results, the foundation looked at questions such as whether widows are likely to lose property if they do not marry a male relative of their former husbands, or whether gender-based discrimination in the workplace is punished.

The Comoros got also the best results in “Women in the family” while Syria got the worst, with the ongoing humanitarian crisis lowering the living standards for women. Women are becoming increasingly ‘weapons of war’ in Syria and its neighboring countries. In refugee camps, rape and child marriage are being reported daily. “Some families don’t see any other option than getting even their underage daughters married, in some cases they got money for them,” said Amani, a 19-year-old Syrian who had arrived at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan two months ago.

The Comoros also scored best in “Reproductive rights” while Egypt got the worst ranking.

Egypt also got the worst scores in the category “violence against women”, where among others one question asked was if “female genital mutilation is a common practice in the country” while Algeria ranked best. “With these polls we want to help women to shed light into what is happening with them in their countries,” Ms. Villa said.