A new policy briefing by the NGO, Equality Now, on how marriage laws in the MENA region and around the world discriminate against women and girls reveals how failure to reform means they are at increased risk of human rights violations, such as child marriage and domestic violence.
In Egypt, 62 per cent of men and 49 per cent of women agree with the practice of honour killing. According to the World Bank, at least 35 per cent of women in the MENA region have experienced some form of violence by an intimate partner at some stage in their life.
"As shocking as this figure is, it is likely to be an under-estimate, as gender-based violence frequently goes unreported due to obstacles such as social stigma, victim-blaming and concerns that the case will not be dealt with effectively by the State," Dima Dabbous, Equality Now's regional representative in the Middle East and North African region told MEMO.
"In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, cases of domestic violence, child and forced marriages surged in the region, as they did globally, with women and girls from poorer communities and refugee families in conflict areas especially impacted."
Almost 30 years ago, in a conference hall in Beijing, world leaders pledged to remove existing unfair laws and make legal equality a reality. But these goals, promised at the 4th UN Conference on Women, are not only far from being realised, Equality Now's briefing says, but they are getting worse.
"Advances in the MENA have been slow and inconsistent," says Dima. "Worryingly, in recent years, there has been a backsliding on women's rights in some countries. Governments have been reluctant to address or prioritise reform, and countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia have been actively targeting and punishing women's rights activists."
In Lebanon, the father has all parental authority, apart from breastfeeding and, if a woman remarries, she loses custody of her children. Under Algeria's Family Code, a woman requires the permission of a male marriage guardian, whilst in Israel, under the Marriage and Divorce Law, the divorce relies solely on the will of the husband.
Three decades since that conference, these discriminatory laws are not being removed because there is a lack of political will, says Dima. "This is fuelled, in part, by those in power seeking to preserve the status quo and maintain support from conservative constituencies that do not support women's empowerment."
"Attempts to reform family laws can be risky, even dangerous, in some MENA countries," she continues, "especially where authoritarian governments treat peacefully campaigning for women's rights as a crime punishable by social and economic sanctions, imprisonment, torture and even death."
Last year, leading Egyptian women's rights activist, Amal Fathy, was sentenced to a year in prison after she criticised the government's failure to protect women from sexual harassment. In 2016 Egyptian lawyer and feminist Azza Soliman was arrested, her assets frozen and a travel ban put in place. Azza has now been cleared of charges against her in a terror court, but is still banned from travelling.
Also in 2021, prominent Saudi women's rights activist, Loujain Al-Hathloul, was released from prison after three years in detention where she was tortured. Despite being released, Loujain was banned from travelling.
Whilst laws strengthening legal rights for women and girls have been introduced in the region, other strategies need to also be put in place, which generate public support to make sure they are accepted and implemented, says Dima.
"Achieving systematic, lasting change requires shifting negative attitudes and behaviour towards women and girls. For example, in Egypt child marriage is forbidden by law and denounced by the religious Al-Azhar authority, yet it remains widely practiced and culturally accepted."
And, whilst the Egyptian government has increased the number of women appointed to government positions and criminalised denying women their inheritance, they have, at the same time, continued to squeeze free speech.
There are restrictions on civil society, including a law which prohibits NGOs from disclosing the results of field research without government approval, threatens fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds for receiving funds without government approval and prohibits cooperation with foreign organisations and experts.
Beyond the MENA region, there is almost no country in the world which has eradicated sex discriminatory laws, says Dima. By 2022, only 12 countries achieved full legal equality, according to the World Bank.
"Sex discriminatory marital status laws make gender equality impossible. Until women and girls have legal equality, there will continue to be the proliferation of harmful practices such as child marriage and forced marriage, and sexual and gender-based violence."
"One major area of reform in personal status laws that states in the [MENA] region must undertake is to make their nationality and citizenship laws gender-equal, so that women have the same rights as men to transfer nationality to their children and spouses, and acquire or change it," Dima adds later. "This will improve women's lives, as well as their families, and bring countries into compliance with international law, which requires gender equality in nationality rights."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.