"Empty gestures" for women's rights

Surprise -- the U.N. say Middle Eastern countries are slacking off when it comes to gender equality.

Published December 8, 2006 8:12PM (EST)

On Thursday, the United Nations issued a report criticizing Middle Eastern countries' treatment of women, slamming the region for using "empty gestures to cover up the continuation of an oppressive status quo." Released in Yemen -- which recently took last place in the World Economic Forum rankings of 115 countries' efforts to address gender inequality -- the report recommends reinterpreting Islamic law to empower women, using affirmative action or quota systems to increase women's political representation and expanding legal restrictions on gender discrimination. The U.N. also advocates better healthcare for Middle Eastern women, who generally receive poorer care than their male counterparts and have "high rates of risk of morbidity and mortality connected with pregnancy and reproductive functions," according to the report.

As welcome as the report is, it's hard to know whether even these optimistic, tangible suggestions could have the desired effect. Many Middle Eastern countries have passed at least some laws protecting women's rights, but "judges really read those laws in a personal way, based on their own experience and not the law, and this is one of the obstacles," Amat al-Alim Alsoswa, director of the U.N. Development Program's Arab bureau, told the Washington Post on Thursday. The Post flags the difference between de jure and de facto progress, noting that "in Jordan, significant strides were made in passing labor laws affecting women," but "women remain subjugated and underemployed because of entrenched traditions." The report advocates finding both secular advancements and modern interpretations of Islamic law to guarantee women's equality, which sounds like a great approach, except for those citizens who aren't interested in secular advances or modern interpretations. And unfortunately, there seem to be plenty of people who aren't interested in either. When a region's stagnation is cultural as much as it is legal, reform is bound to be slow.

Not to say there isn't enormous room for improvement, legally speaking -- wherever sharia is the law of the land, it's safe to say women's rights could use a lot more protection. And it's worth hoping that the U.N. report will put pressure on the region to improve. But, Alsoswa admitted, "this particular report will be very controversial." So it's also worth hoping that the report's recipients don't react to the report by running in the other direction.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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