Women's Rights in the Arab World

 (December 10, 1999)


The UN, international organizations and local human rights NGO's constantly pressure the regimes in Arab states to improve the state of human rights in general and women's rights in particular. According to UN data, the proportion of women's representation in Arab parliaments is only 3.4% (as opposed to 11.4% in the rest of the world). In addition, 55% of Arab women are illiterate. The Assistant to UN Vice Secretary General, Angela King, publicly called on Arab states to grant women their rights.(1)

Arab regimes find different ways to deal with the international pressure to improve women's rights. They often prefer to introduce mild improvements in women's status rather than to enacting radical reforms that might contradict their ideology and antagonize conservative elements in the country.

Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia recently announced its intention to issue, for the first time, identification cards for women.(2) Previously, women were registered on their father or husbands' identification cards.

Also in Saudi Arabia, 24 women showed up at the parliament and insisted on taking part in the discussions. Their appeal was rejected, but, facing international pressure, the Parliament Chairman Sheik Muhammad bin Ibrahim bin Jbeir explained that the parliament was not prepared for the presence of women in the building. He added that the parliament has allocated women "special seats including separate entry and exit, which prevent any contact between them and the MPs." Blocked by a wall, the women may watch the sessions, but are invisible to the MPs. These seats allow women's presence in the hall. Nevertheless, the Chairman stated "this does not mean that the council would discuss women's issues. Women will not take part in the discussions. They can only be guests and observers." In addition, Sheik bin Jbeir claimed that "Appointing women as parliament members is out of the question. Nobody even thinks about it, because the issues the parliament deals with are public matters under the responsibility of men."(3)

Women's Suffrage in Kuwait

A similar problem was raised in Kuwait, where the government, on behalf of the Amir, presented a bill allowing women to vote and to be candidates for office, starting in 2003. This bill was rejected by a vast majority in the parliament. An alternative bill, presented by some parliament members, failed by 2 votes, after the Parliament Chairman, whose sister is the President of Kuwait University and who is known for his liberal opinions, voted against it in order to repay the Islamic Movement which had voted for him for chairman of the parliament.(4)

"No less than 70% of the MPs oppose granting women political rights," claimed Islamist MP Sa'ad Tami, "which means that a large base of the Kuwaiti people oppose the act."(5)

Known Islamist scholar Fahmi Al-Huweidi expressed "shock and sadness" that the Kuwaiti Parliament voted down the act, showing that "some of our societies are still far away from [the beginning stage]" He added that the use of Islamic authority to foil the act is a distortion of Islam's position. "I was saddened by the laughter and screams of joy of the many bearded Muslim youth who gathered in front of the Parliament when they heard that the bill had failed, as if they heard that Jerusalem was liberated or that our Muslim nation had imposed its will on the superpowers or on the WTO."(6)

The Struggle over Reducing Penalties
on "Family Honor Crimes" in Jordan

Jordan saw the most significant struggle for improving women's rights. A long public debate was held by women's movements and human rights NGOs in an attempt to cancel article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code. This article stipulates: "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery (with a man) and kills, wounds or injures one or both of them, is exempt from any penalty." Another clause states: "He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives with another in an adulterous situation, and kills, wounds or injures one or both of them benefits from a reduction in penalty."

King Abdallah recently declared his official support for amending this law. His position was not popular with the Jordanian public. A survey conducted by The Jordan Times discovered that 62% of the Jordanians oppose amending article 340. Most respondents claimed that it would lead to "moral corruption."(7)

The dispute between the regime and the Islamic Movement, which opposed the amendment of this law, unfolded in the Jordanian press for several months. Thus, the King's Advisor on Islamic Affairs, Sheik 'Izz Al-Din Al-Tamimi, published a document stating that Islam prohibited taking the law into one's own hands, even if the accusation of adultery is proven. In such a case, Sheik Al-Tamimi explained, the only person in charge of "inflicting the punishment" is "a specialized employee designated by the government," following a fair trial. The illegal Islamic Liberation ['Tahrir'] Party responded by publishing in the press a letter calling on parliament members to vote against the amendment of the law, claiming that "Islam calls on all Muslims to defend their honor, even if they have to kill for it."(8)

The Jordanian Parliament Reject
the Government Bill to Amend the Law

On November 21, 1999, the Lower House of the Jordanian Parliament, which is controlled by conservative and tribal elements, rejected the government's demand to cancel article 340 of the Penal Code, claiming that the bill contradicts the constitution.

Many of the members explained that their opposition to the bill stems from the conservative character of Jordanian society. MP 'Ednan Al-'Aqrabawi said: "There is no justification for the amendments because each society has its own uniqueness"(9). MP Mahmoud Al-Kharabshehm, speaking for 31 other MP's, said: "The changes will lead to a degredation of Jordanian society, affect the Jordanian family, and remove the deterring element embedded in article 340."(10)

Some MP's sympathized with the motives of men who kill their female relatives. "[As a rule,] a man cannot tolerate an obscenity," said MP 'Abd Al-Majid Al-Aqtash, "So can he be asked to tolerate an obscenity that is personally related to him?"(11) MP Muhammad Kilani also objected to the amendment of Article 340. While admitting that "if there was punishment [for family honor crimes], we wouldn't have such crimes," he claimed that Article 340 is based on the theory of "Lawful Defense" which is "endorsed by legal schools worldwide _the main element here is the temporary loss of sanity. If a man finds his wife in bed with someone else, and he kills her immediately, he should not be punished because he was overwhelmed by his emotions."(12)

Only a few MP's supported the bill's essence. MP Muhammad 'Adwan, stated, "No one has the right to be the judge, the prosecutor, and the executioner at the same time."(13)

Jordanian Prime Minister Rawabdeh, lamented: "Unfortunately, we have to face accusations whether we are forthcoming with the women's movements or not."(14)

Senate Drafts an Alternate Bill

Following the vote in the Lower House of the Parliament against the government's bill, the Senate Constitutional Committee forged an alternative bill instead of canceling Article 340. Its text was altered so that women are also exempt from any penalty if they murder their husbands in similar circumstances. The Senate Committee also adopted three government proposals that were also rejected by the Lower House:

1. More severe punishments for men who murder female relatives who were victims of rapes;

2. Canceling the articles that exempt a rapist from any punishment if he marries the victim;

3. More severe penalties for "adulterers," male and female alike.(15) Under Jordanian law only the woman is an "adulterer," while the man is described as her "partner."

The proposal to exempt women who murder their husbands in "family honor" circumstances won the majority of support. This creative solution caused a public debate and the Islamic Movement declared its opposition. Former Minister of Religious Endowment ['Awqaf'], Dr. 'Abd Al-'Aziz Khayyat, published a religious ruling ['fatwa'] stating: "A woman under the Religious Law [Shari'a] does not have the right to murder her husband if she catches him in an improper situation with another woman." Dr. Al-Khayyat explained that when a husband is caught with another woman "it is not considered an offense against the family honor, but rather an offense against the marital life." In such a case, the most the wife can do is "to apply for a divorce."(16) Sheik 'Abd Al-Baki Gamo, the only Senator to oppose the compromise bill of the Senate Committee, stated, "Whether we like it or not, women in Islam are not equal to men in several aspects. Female adulterers are worse than male adulterers because they determine the family ancestry and if they bear children [out of wedlock] then the right to inheritance would be lost."(17)

In a November 29, 1999 vote, the Senators expressed their support of the bill, but returned it to the Constitutional Committee for re-phrasing because some senators said it was unclear from the bill if it exempts women who murder relatives other than their husbands.(18)

Reactions of Women's Organizations

The disappointment from the first rejection of the bill to cancel 340 in the Parliament was soon replaced with mixed feelings following the alternative bill of the Senate Committee. Jordanian Women's Union Vice Chairman, Nadia Shamrukh, said for example that although it is better when law enforcement authorities make the decision [to punish adulterers], she congratulated the exemption of women who murder their adulterer husbands and said this was "logical and acceptable."(19) The President of the Arab Women's Union, Emily Naf'a, was less pleased. She said the rejection of the original bill is "a step backwards, because Article 340 remains intact, despite all the efforts... the addition of a clause reducing or exempting [from punishment] women as well is evading the need to abolish the article altogether and turns its back on women's equality. The protection of women cannot be pursued in this way, [the bill] is a compromise that would change reality."

Endnotes

(1) Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 4, 1999.

(2) Al-Quds Ai-Arabi (London), December 4, 1999.

(3) Al-Hayat (London), October 25, 1999.

(4) Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 1, 1999.

(5) Ruz Al-Youssef (Egypt), November 28, 1999.

(6) Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), December 8, 1999.

(7) The Jordan Times (Jordan), November 9, 1999.

(8) The Jordan Times (Jordan), November 9, 1999.

(9) Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(10) Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(11) Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(12) The Jordan Times (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(13) The Jordan Times (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(14) Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 11, 1999.

(15) The Jordan Times (Jordan), November 28, 1999.

(16) Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(17) The Jordan Times (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(18) The Jordan Times (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(19) Al-Dustour (Jordan), November 30, 1999.

(20 The Jordan Times (Jordan), November 30, 1999.


Source: MEMRI