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  • Fee Merali

Women's Right in the Middle East: Progress or Regress?

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


Women’s rights in the Middle East are embedded in a rich history of contradictions. As early as the seventh century, Middle Eastern and Islamic law allowed women to have increased legal and property rights, but decreased rights regarding family politics, compared to women in the West. In fact, Turkey was one of the first countries to grant women the right to vote in 1934.

Throughout history, Muslims have undergone a process of cultural selection, whereby cultural practices upholding the principles of Islam and Shariah Law were adopted. Shariah law, a history of patriarchy, paternalistic authoritarianism and corrupt autocracy have left women in the Middle East disadvantaged. In contrast, Western women’s rights have advanced in an exceeding proportion to that of Eastern women in the last 100 years.

While on the surface the situation for Middle Eastern women appears to be a dire one, politics in these countries is acting as the driving force for change and reducing inequality. However, is this an actual victory for women’s rights or a politically calculated move towards international acclaim?

The Istanbul Convention is a resolution signed by 42 European countries, seeking to further enshrine women’s rights in law. President Erdoğan recently announced that Turkey plans to withdraw from the treaty on the basis that it “puts a dynamite on the foundation of family” and that Turkey must pave its own path towards combatting gender inequality.

This statement follows the violent murder of Pınar Gültekin, a Turkish university student who was found in a barrel in the woods in July, burned and strangled to death by her former boyfriend. Pınar’s death is one of the innumerable femicides happening in Turkey, particularly those committed within the context of “honour killings” that are becoming increasingly common in Turkey. As Erdoğan's party rises the conservative ideology has eroded the hard won rights for women.

It is estimated that between 417-474 women were violently killed in Turkey in 2019. The campaign group We Will Stop Femicide started tracking the murders after they found out that governmental figures were unreliable, if they existed at all, and varied across departments.

Despite Erdoğan's insistence that it is the government who must ensure the protection of gender equality and women's rights, his governmental policies have prioritised traditional family values. Such policies are likely to further institutionalise violence and femicides while cultivating a culture that normalises such behaviour.

Meanwhile, former Sudanese President and tyrant Omar al- Bashir was ousted in 2019, following a six-month-long protest. During the protest, hundreds if not thousands of women experienced politically motivated acts of sexual violence. The new transitional authorities have already begun to dismantle the previous Shariah-law-based regime and repeal laws restricting women's freedoms as the former ruling party has been dissolved.

However, the recent sexual harassment of beloved Sudanese sing- er Asha el-Jabel in August has raised the question of whether the new government's legislation is sufficient to protect women from sexual violence, dismantle the underlying institutional patriarchy that legitimises such attacks. In fact, the most visible difference between al-Bashir’s autocracy and the transitional government is that gender-motivated attacks are being perpetrated not by the state, as was the case in the 2019 revolution, but by citizens.

To ensure the appreciation of women’s rights (e.g. the right to vote and access to education) that Sudanese women fought for and enjoyed prior to the start of al-Bashir’s government in 1989, Sudan must create a legal system that protects the public and punishes perpetrators.

In contrast, the development of Saudi Arabia’s women’s rights has accelerated rapidly in the last few years. The self-proclaimed 'new Saudi' is characterised by a range of reforms that further women’s rights, such as women gaining the right to drive in 2017. However, these reforms implemented by Mohammed Bin Salman are not as revolutionary as they appear. While the four most prominent female activists who fought to make driving legal for women languish in prisons, Saudi Arabia cannot claim to be furthering women’s equality.

Whilst it is without doubt that the advancement of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is a good thing, the government’s wielding of this reform displays an underlying political agenda. Namely, to win over young Saudis, prevent uprisings against the royal family, and gain a position of influence within international politics.

Over the next few decades, women’s rights in the Middle East have a long way to go. In order to truly revolutionise gender equality in the Middle East, governments in these countries must tackle the underlying patriarchal beliefs that underscore years of oppression.

Image: Flickr / UNHCR / S. Rich



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