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MIDDLE EAST: Women's status up in Saudi Arabia, down in Syria, says study

November 11, 2009 |  7:13 am

Kuwait060109

The subject of women's rights in the Middle East is contentious. Sensational media coverage of honor killings and child brides equates religious conservatism with gender inequality, incensing Western feminists on the one hand and provoking regional backlashes on the other.

The reality is far more nuanced, according to the the 2009 Global Gender Gap Report released in late October by the World Economic Forum, which ranks countries based on women's economic participation, educational attainment, health and political empowerment.

In Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar -- socially conservative Persian Gulf countries that all rely on some form of Sharia Islamic law -- more women than men enroll in higher education, although they have yet to be fully incorporated into the workforce. 

Syria, on the other hand, which is ruled by a nominally secular regime, has slid in the rankings for the last three years. 

Iran scores low in the fields of economic, educational and health equality, but performs relatively well on political empowerment. 

Saudi Arabia and Egypt still hover near the bottom of the list, but have improved steadily since 2006. 

Yemen remained the lowest-ranked country in the world for the fourth year in a row.

Despite some glimmers of hope, women in the region face a steeper uphill battle than their counterparts in other parts of the world. Most Middle East and North African countries "not only continue to perform far below the global average, but also do not show much improvement over the last year or have deteriorated,” the report said. Exceptions included Israel, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, all of which improved in their overall score compared with last year. Israel and Kuwait were ranked the highest in the region, at 45 and 105, respectively, followed by Tunisia, the UAE and Jordan.

It is important to note, however, that many of the countries surveyed since 2006 have shown improvement in their overall score over a four-year period, even as their rankings slipped. This means that women in the region are making progress within their countries, even if the rate of improvement is slow compared to the global average. Ranking is also affected by the number of countries included in the study, which has risen from 115 in 2006 to 134 in 2009.

“Countries that do not fully capitalize on one-half of their human resources run the risk of undermining their competitive potential," said the study's co-author, Saadia Zahidi, head of the Forum's Women Leaders and Gender Parity Program. "We hope to highlight the economic incentive behind empowering women, in addition to promoting equality as a basic human right."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: Kuwaiti lawmaker Salwa al-Jassar, one of four women elected to Kuwait's parliament earlier this year. Credit: Yasser Al-Zayyat AFP/Getty Images

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