Women's rights movements have historically done a lot of good in the United States. The recent #MeToo movement, for example, raised awareness about the abuse many women experience and touched off a useful national debate.
It's all too easy, though, to forget that the conditions for women elsewhere vary greatly.
Consider the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where their most basic human rights are severely limited and threatened daily. Certain countries have made some progress. In 2017, Saudi Arabia repealed bans that prevented women from driving and attending soccer matches. Still more can be done to pursue equal rights for all. We in the United States would do well to remember these women and advocate for further reforms on their behalf.
Here are five reforms Middle East and North African governments could make (and Western feminists should get behind) in 2018:
1. Continue repealing "marry-your-rapist" laws
Many MENA countries have legal provisions that allow men accused or convicted of rape to avoid punishment. Often called "marry-your-rapist" laws, these provisions generally state that a rapist won't be prosecuted if he marries his victim. These laws provide no protection for the victims of rape and actually empower the perpetrator.
Thankfully, growing internal pressure is changing that status quo. In 2017 alone, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan repealed their versions of the law. With enough pressure, it's possible that 2018 could be the end of "marry-your-rapist" laws in the MENA.
2. Provide legal protection for victims of domestic violence
Domestic violence rates toward women in the MENA remain high. Many countries use their religious and legal codes to justify domestic violence. However, MENA nations are slowly starting to recognize the devastating effects that violence has on both women and their families and are increasing legal protections for victims.
The Ministry of Women, Family and Childhood in Tunisia reports that at least 60 percent of Tunisian women have experienced some form of domestic abuse. In 2017, the country passed a historic law that institutes measures that prevent violence, protect survivors and punish their abusers. It says, among other things, that citizens are entitled to notify police if they witness violence against women, provides special training for police, and empowers professionals such as doctors and teachers to ask questions if they suspect abuse in the home.
3. Update laws that bar women from the workforce
While economies worldwide continue to grow more prosperous and free, many economies in the MENA are struggling. This is, in part, due to the under-participation of women in the workforce. Gender-based discrimination laws and cultural stigmas that prevent women from participating in the economy cost the region $575 billion annually, according to a report by the international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Despite hostile environments and imposing barriers to entry, female entrepreneurs are developing innovative methods for skirting the discriminatory laws and are finding creative ways to make a profit. MENA governments can capitalize on this opportunity by completely removing the legal barriers that prevent women from working.
4. Provide legal protection for mothers and maternal rights
Many MENA countries provide little or no legal protection for mothers seeking custody of their children, even in cases of domestic abuse. Often, if a woman wishes to divorce her husband, she loses custody of her children. Furthermore, if the father dies, another male relative, not the mother, often gains custody.
Even in countries such as Tunisia, where laws regarding marriage and family are more progressive, a woman can be granted custody of her children, but the father remains the legal guardian. MENA governments could better serve families by implementing legal reforms that protect a mother's right to her children, especially in cases of domestic abuse.
5. Loosen restrictions on women participating in the political realm
Laws prohibiting women from serving in government are a significant impediment to women's rights and advancement in the MENA. Countries such as Jordan, the UAE and Lebanon have allowed women opportunities to participate in government. Many women from these nations serve in parliaments, on governmental cabinets and in the judicial systems.
Most recently, in December 2017, Qatar appointed four women to its Shura Council for the first time in history. This decision came shortly after the Qatari Foreign ministry appointed a woman to be spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The MENA region has a long road to achieving gender equality, but implementing these reforms would be a good starting place. It's up to the people of the MENA to do it, however. Internal change is the only way to guarantee long-term results in the region.
But those of us in the United States can continue advocating on their behalf. If we want progress on women's rights, we shouldn't forget the women across the Middle East and North Africa.