Women's Rights in the Arab World
(Updated December 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
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
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
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
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
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
(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.