Human Rights Watch Muslim Women

From: Human Rights Watch website here
Women's Rights in Middle East and North Africa

The human rights of women throughout the Middle East and North Africa are systematically denied by each of the countries in the region, despite the diversity of their political systems. Many governments routinely suppress civil society by restricting freedom of the press, expression, and assembly. These restrictions adversely affect both men and women; however, women are subject to a host of additional gender-specific human rights violations. For example, family, penal, and citizenship laws throughout the region relegate women to a subordinate status compared to their male counterparts. This legal discrimination undermines women's full personhood and equal participation in society and puts women at an increased risk for violence.

Family matters in countries as diverse as Iran, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia are governed by religion-based personal status codes. Many of these laws treat women essentially as legal minors under the eternal guardianship of their male family members. They deny women equal rights with men with respect to marriage, divorce, child custody; and inheritance. Family decision making is thought to be the exclusive domain of men, who enjoy by default the legal status of "head of household." These notions are supported by family courts in the region that often reinforce the primacy of male decision-making power. These courts have rarely appointed women as judges, further denying women authority in family matters.

While husbands can divorce their spouses easily (often instantaneously through oral repudiation), wives' access to divorce is often extremely limited, and they frequently confront near insurmountable legal and financial obstacles. In Lebanon, battered women cannot file for divorce on the basis of abuse without the testimony of an eyewitness. A medical certificate from a doctor documenting physical abuse is simply not good enough. Although women in Egypt can now legally initiate a divorce without cause, they must agree not only to renounce all rights to the couple's finances, but must also re-pay their dowries. Essentially, they have to buy their freedom. In Bahrain, where family law is not codified, judges have complete power to deny women custody of their children for the most arbitrary reasons. Bahraini women who have been courageous enough to expose and challenge these violations in 2003 are currently being sued for slander by eleven family court judges.

Though some women's rights activists in the region are working within shari'a (Islamic law) to promote women's human rights, others are calling for a clear separation of religion and government in part because of the ways that a rise in religious fundamentalism throughout the region has resulted in further violations of women's rights. Governments routinely join forces with religious figures in order to curtail women's rights, including their sexual autonomy. Many states criminalize adult, consensual sex outside of marriage. Women in Jordan who are thought to have "dishonored" their family have been beaten, shot, or stabbed to death by their male family members. The Jordanian penal code condones these killings by providing the perpetrators of these crimes with reduced sentencing under the law. In Jordan, judges often inappropriately apply a "fit of fury" defense in "honor" crimes cases, even when the murder was clearly premeditated. In Morocco, women are much more likely to be charged with having violated penal code prohibitions on sexual relations outside of marriage than men. Unmarried pregnant women are particularly at risk of prosecution. The Moroccan penal code also considers the rape of a virgin as an aggravating circumstance of assault. The message is clear: the degree of punishment of the perpetrator is determined by the sexual experience of the victim.

The relationship between women and the state in the Middle East and North Africa is essentially mediated by men. In many countries in the region, women's right to vote, to acquire an identity card or passport, to marry, to work, or to travel is granted only with the consent of a spouse or other male family member
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Many countries in the region have also repeatedly failed to protect the human rights of women and girls who are trafficked from Eastern Europe and Asia to work in their countries' sex industries. While little is done to stop the traffickers, trafficked women in the region risk being penalized for their actions under laws that prohibit prostitution and extra-marital sex.

Violence and insecurity resulting from war has had particularly detrimental effects on women in Iraq. Insurgent groups have targeted female professionals including politicians, civil servants, journalists, and women's rights activists. These groups have also attacked women for what they considered "immoral" or "un-Islamic" behavior, like dancing, socializing with men or not wearing a hijab, the Islamic headscarf. Iraqi women's participation in the country's reconstruction efforts is also routinely undermined. Iraq's new constitution, adopted in October 2005 through a popular referendum, granted Iraqi women the right to transfer citizenship to their children but failed to explicitly guarantee women equal rights within the family. Iraqi women risk losing many of the right afforded to them in the 1959 civil family law, which may be replaced with regressive sectarian laws derived from the most discriminatory interpretations of shari'a law.


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