A guide to the violation of women's human rights in Middle East

Human rights and fundamental freedom are constantly violated in Middle Eastern countries.

These countries are placed at the bottom of the ranking made by “Global Gender Gap Report”. According to 2018 data, 13 of 17 countries in Middle East are under the global average and, Yemen places itself in the last spot. This indicates female emancipation is yet to be reached in most of those countries. However, we must make a consideration: the issue is strongly influenced by the concept of contextualization. First of all, it is appropriate to take into consideration that what for us western people is white for others is black; in that same way we can discuss about rights.

For western people some rights are basic and those are recognised by conventions of great importance, such as the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” of 1948 signed by countries at UN that have accepted the principles declared and the “Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” of 1950 which has involved European countries. Nevertheless, we are dealing with declarations which have been signed only specific nations, while other have used other Treaties or no Treaties. Other nations have created different documents, for example Muslim countries (therefore many countries of the middle east region) in 1981 have proclaimed at UNESCO the “Islamic Declaration of Human Rights”. This way of thinking helps us understand how we should value this kind of issues considering the context they are in. By using this logic, we could better understand how to our eyes certain things are considered violation of human rights while for other it isn’t so.

This reasoning doesn’t want to be a justification to unacceptable behaviours, but it should be considered as a guide on how to better comprehend other cultures.

The society of most of the nations considered are based on a patriarchal system that is afraid of external influences as they could taint their own traditional balance. Though, in some countries women managed to obtain a better status than the one they had beforehand, the underlying idea that men and women must have different recognitions is still deeply-rooted.

Nonetheless at this present day where means of mass communication like internet, television and radio allow us to share what happens in the world wherever we are, it is difficult for authoritative countries (not just Middle East) to be left out of a diffusion of ideas and behaviours and consequently deny those rights that other countries have

Muslim women still have a long way to leave behind the role imposed on the traditional systems they live in, but there are many aspects of the problem. Traditional systems reflect religion, then again culture and mentality are influenced by them. This leads us to another consideration: if women’s role were to be revised, society and politics would be affected by it and, many regimes fear this situation. That’s why the process of women empowerment keeps being delayed.

The example of Saudi legislation is blatant: it is a society based on a specific interpretation of the Islamic doctrine which consists in depriving women of fundamental rights or subjugate their economic and social life to the presence of men.

Under the Saudi monarchy every woman must have a “Wali” – a male guardian – who can be their father, brother, husband or an uncle. Without one of them by their side, Saudi women can’t do anything. We could affirm that women don’t exist as law body. Among the various limitations, they can’t travel by themselves, open bank accounts, donate or inherit money, start economic activities and many other things.

In June 2018 Saudi women were finally allowed to drive a car on their own, and that was a big victory. Before this, Saudi women had to rely on their brothers, husband or drivers to move. It has been an historical turning point for a kingdom ranked as the stricter and conservative in the world. The measure, among the reforms aimed at modernising the country, gives hope to other steps in this direction in the future.

In an interview with “The Atlantic”, the prince Mohammed Bin Salam, the one who permitted women to drive, has admitted there still is work to be done for women empowerment, but at the same time he explained there are deeper and more complex aspects, which are rooted in social and cultural differences: “Some families like to have authority on their own members. […] There are some families who like this system. On the other hand, there are open-minded families who allow women and daughters to do what they want. Therefore, if I agree to these requests it means I am Causing troubles to families who don’t want to give freedom to their daughters”.

The go-ahead to driving is a great step forward for a strongly authoritative country like Saudi Arabia, but there still are numerous limitations to women’s freedom as:

- they don’t have the right to a fair trial. In court of law their deposition equals half of a man one

- they can access only half of the inheritance, while their brothers can have all of it

- before women get married, they need the permission of their guardian and if it’s a marriage with a foreign man, the Interior Ministry must approve the union

- they can’t open a bank account since they don’t have the freedom to manage their financial resources

- they can wear a small selection of clothes*

* as we explained in our previous article, Saudi women must wear a specific kind of clothes including the “Niqab” which leaves only the eyes uncovered. In the last few years women received a small choice on how to wear the veil and what colour it should have, but strong limitations persist.

- women have very few occasions to spend time with men other than their family members, in fact it is norm to find public places divided in section between men and women.

Nevertheless, these obligations aren’t given by religion. Islam doesn’t impose these precepts and we can find sacred texts and various Muslim countries which don’t apply these restrictions to prove it. Religion, indeed, isn’t and can’t be used as an excuse to the delay of women gaining independence. It isn’t accidental that Gulf countries, which have the same religion, don’t act in the same way.

To confirm this, we have many activists’ words and actions that keep fighting for the achievement of human rights, as the Saudi activist Aziza Al-Yousef declared to The Guardian in 2016: “women should be considered citizens with equal rights”. She was the one guiding a campaign in which thousands of people signed the petition to uproot the dictatorial regime privileging males in her country: “Everybody affirmed that this is not religion, they are just governmental norms and they should be changed”, she insisted during one of the many manifestations.

In 2018 Aziza Al-Yousef was imprisoned in a cell and subjected to cruel treatments because of her activism for human rights. A few months ago, in May 2019, she was granted temporary release, after being imprisoned for nearly a year. But many other women share a similar story. These are stories of challenge, struggles and sacrifices all aimed at freeing women who still live oppressed.

Amnesty International points out that women’s rights aren’t violated only in middle eastern countries. In a 2018 document named “RIGHTS TODAY” – “The situation of human rights in the world”, we find a list of politics and laws aimed to oppress and control women all over the world. The number of these provisions keeps increasing all over the world, while activists risk their lives in order to shed a light on human rights’ violations; among them we find Ahed Tamimi, the young Palestinian activist that was unfairly imprisoned because she tried to defend her people. Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef are three activists imprisoned in Saudi Arabia because of their fights for women’s rights and lastly, Marielle Franco, murdered in Brazil for fighting for the respect of human rights.

It looks like women need to fight with more and more force to obtain their rights and even in Europe we are dealing with an increase of hate and discrimination towards female movements and society. Our society is spoiled and politicians feed into these problems as they blame specific groups for some social and economic problems.

Some movements spread hate and discrimination and have a great influence on the political level; at the same time politic parties take these ideas using the same rhetoric used by the movements. With the support of some politicians and media it is nearly impossible to avoid the diffusion of hate and intolerance.

We should be aware that even EU member States, together with the other states violating human rights must put more effort in respecting the agreements on human rights.

Unfortunately. steps backwards have been taken on international protection of human rights even in countries like Switzerland which supports economic interests and not only them in stark contrast with fundamental human rights. Choosing Geneva as the “worldwide capital of human rights” demands the government to be a strong supporter of human rights, but this rarely happens.

We must fight for women, with women and as women.

Translated by Francesca Cioffi 

Original version by Sofia Abourachid

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  • L'Autore

    Sofia Abourachid

    Dottoressa in Scienze Politiche, Relazioni Internazionali e Diritti Umani con Laurea acquisita presso l’Università degli Studi di Padova.

    Dottoressa Magistrale in Relazioni Internazionali curriculum di Diplomazia e Organizzazioni Internazionali con Laurea acquisita presso l’Università degli Studi di Milano.

    Appassionata di diritti umani e di tutto ciò che concerne il sociale, tra cui tematiche di uguaglianze di genere, minori, donne, immigrati e terzo settore. Altrettanto appassionata di storia e di politica internazionale, così come di formazione, comunicazione, e percorsi di motivazione.

    Con la sua storia, le origini arabe, e skills personali, in Mondo Internazionale ha ricoperto la carica di Project Manager per il progetto TrattaMI Bene; oggi, oltre ad essere Editor, ricopre il ruolo di Chief Editor dell'area Diritti Umani.


    Graduated in Political Science, International Relations and Human Rights with a Degree from the University of Padua.

    Master's Degree in International Relations, Diplomacy and International Organizations
    curriculum with a Degree from the University of Milan.

    She is interested in human rights and everything related to social issues, including gender equality, minors, women, immigrants and the third sector. She is equally passionate about history and international politics, as well as training, communication, motivation and personal growth.

    With her personal history, her arab origins, and personal skills, in Mondo Internazionale she held the role of Project Manager for the TrattaMI Bene project; today, in addition to being Editor, she also holds the role of Chief Editor of the Human Rights area.


From the World Middle East & North Africa Sections Human Rights


Medio Oriente orientevsoccidente libertà fondamentali violazione Religione Cultura Diversità Women Middle Eastern human rights

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