Women in North Africa secure more rights

Despite hurdles, notable legal, political and social progress
From Africa Renewal: 
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Women demonstrate in Algeria for changes in the Family Code to allow them greater rights Women demonstrate in Algeria for changes in the Family Code to allow them greater rights.
Photograph: Reuters / Zohra Bensemra

Hayet Laouni is a member of Tunisia’s senate and an owner of her own maritime business. She credits her success to the liberal approach to women’s rights that the government has shown since independence, and to its investment in education. “I am very grateful to my country,” she says. “I was born and grew up in a part of the world where life is supposed to be hard for most people, but harder for women. In fact, I come from two parts of the world, Africa and the Arab Muslim world.”

She is not alone. In 2007, Tunisia was ranked the highest in North Africa by a “gender gap” index compiled by the World Economic Forum, headquartered in Switzerland. Examining women’s school enrolment, access to jobs, earnings and other indicators around the world, the index also ranked women’s status in Tunisia as the second highest among all Arab countries. However, on a global scale Tunisia was still near the bottom, ranking 102 out of 128 countries surveyed. Algeria came in at 108, Egypt at 120 and Morocco at 122.

A number of sub-Saharan countries did notably better in terms of women’s rights and social position, with Ghana ranked at 63 and Kenya at 83. While North African countries appear to be doing poorly in relation to the rest of Africa, they have in fact witnessed a decade of substantial reform, achieving some progress in improving the status of women.

Reforming family codes

Much of the reform has been in these countries’ “family codes,” sets of laws guiding the role and status of women in marriage, as well as their rights in divorce and custody matters. The family code has been an important focus for women’s rights activists because its laws are “absolutely critical and fundamental in Muslim society,” says Mounira Charrad, a Tunisian-born professor at the University of Texas who has researched women’s issues in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

Those laws, Ms. Charrad told Africa Renewal, “address issues that are at the core of social life.” Successfully reforming them, she says, can improve women’s marriage rights, access to divorce and ability to secure custody of their children.

In recent years women in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have secured more rights, greater access to education and a modest increase in their political representation.

Tunisia reformed its family code in 1957. However, it was only in 1993 in Tunisia (and a decade later in Algeria and Egypt) that a woman who married a foreigner could pass on her citizenship and nationality to her children. Prior to that, the children had to apply for residence permits just like any foreigner.

“When the present Tunisian government allowed a woman to pass on her citizenship to her children, this created a seismic cultural change in the society,” Ms. Charrad told a panel convened in 2007 to mark the anniversary of the 1957 reforms. “Traditionally citizenship, as well as all other legal rights, was passed on through the father’s side. By permitting citizenship to pass through the mother’s line as well, the law challenged the entire patrilineal concept of the family.”

Much of the credit for this progress lies with the emergence of dynamic and indigenous women’s movements in North Africa during the 1980s and 1990s, explains Valentine M. Moghadam, head of the gender equality and development section of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Leila Rhiwi was the director of one such group in Morocco, Printemps de l’égalité (Spring of Equality). Women in North Africa today enjoy more rights and protections than 20 years ago, she told Africa Renewal. “Then it was very different. At that time women did not have any power over their own lives.”

But progress has been halting and uneven. In 2005 Egypt granted women expanded divorce rights. But efforts to change the law to allow women to travel without the permission of a husband or father were dropped by the government for fear that they were too radical to pass.

Ms. Rhiwi, who is currently the women’s rights coordinator for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (a region known as the Maghreb) for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) observes that there have been different degrees of progress in Morocco compared with Algeria and in the Maghreb countries compared with Egypt. “What we have seen is a change in the law, not a change in society. However, changes in law allow for changes to occur in the society.”

Between law and practice

Ms. Charrad agrees. “The law has made a difference in countries like Tunisia, where reforms happened in the 1950s. There we have had a length of time to see the changes. We know now that when the laws change, women are able to file for divorce more easily and custody is easier.”

“What the law does not change is the social situation,” she told Africa Renewal. “Socially, divorce remains very difficult. They [divorced women] suffer economically, and they find themselves treated as outcasts.”

Eman el-Emam (centre) was one of about 30 women judges sworn onto the bench in April 2007 in Egypt Eman el-Emam (centre) was one of about 30 women judges sworn onto the bench in April 2007 in Egypt. Conservative groups opposed the appointments, but the country’s highest Muslim legal authority ruled that the move did not violate Islamic law.
Photograph: Reuters / Tara Todras-Whitehill

Ms. Moghadam notes that the countries of North Africa continue to be marked by social practices that not only discriminate against women and are inconsistent with international treaties, but also contravene their own national laws. “Egypt’s constitution grants equality to all citizens,” she points out. But Egypt’s family law contradicts that equality “by placing women under the guardianship,” or legal control, of their fathers, husbands or other family males.

The 2005 Human Development Report on Arab States, published by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), observes that “the business of writing the law, applying the law and interpreting the law in the Arab world is governed above all by a male-oriented culture.” Yet countries like Tunisia show that it is possible, in a Muslim country, to address “the injustices against women in personal status matters without infringing upon the principles of shari’a,” as the Islamic legal code is known.

“We can no longer say that in the Muslim world it is hard to change women’s rights,” comments Ms. Charrad. “Women have really gained very significant rights in Tunisia and Morocco.”

“We need to move away from the generalized statements about that part of the world and come up with a more nuanced way of looking at it,” Ms. Charrad adds. “Once we see the diversity of the experiences of women in the Muslim world and see that some women have gained substantial rights, we can learn from those cases.”

Rights limited by ‘guardianship’

Caroline Sakina Brac de la Perrire, a social scientist who conducted research on Algeria for a 2004 study on women’s rights in North Africa and the Middle East by Freedom House, a US-based group, argues that Islamic doctrine provides women with tools that they can use to counter conservative social practices. For example, under Islamic law a marriage contract may allow each spouse to state in writing his or her specific rights in the marriage. Used properly, she maintains, this provision could serve to guarantee some rights for women in marriage.

Unfortunately, Ms. Perrire adds, this option is rarely used and is usually restricted to stipulations that do not contravene shari’a. Moreover, many women do not contract their own marriages and therefore have no control over what is guaranteed in writing.

Until 2004, an Algerian woman needed a male guardian (father, brother or uncle) to formalize her marriage on her behalf. In Egypt, another researcher found, while educated girls have a substantial say in choosing their husbands, in the rural areas marriages are often contracted by the fathers. Libyan girls can still be married off by the father or guardian without their input.

Such “male guardianship,” the Freedom House study notes, also has implications for women’s economic welfare. For example, the dowry, money paid by the groom, conforms to Islamic stipulations that the man provide for the bride and is often the only income a woman can keep in case of divorce. But in Morocco and Egypt, poor women often receive little or no dowry. A national survey found that 60.7 per cent of rural women in Morocco reported that “their husbands or guardians appropriated” such income.

Moreover, women can often be divorced by their husbands immediately and without explanation, a practice known as “repudiation.” Only in 2004 did Algeria abolish repudiation as a form of divorce. Morocco, which previously made it easier for men to divorce their wives, granted men and women equal rights to file for divorce in 2004.

In Egypt, a law passed in 2005 granted women the right to a no-contest divorce. However, a woman who exercises that right may lose her dowry, alimony and other gifts given by the man’s family, a serious deterrent for women with few economic options.

Legal assistance

Some governments, in response to the advocacy efforts of women’s organizations, have made institutional changes to ensure better access to justice. Egypt introduced a new system of administering child support and alimony and has brought divorce and inheritance issues under one judicial authority. Victims of discrimination can also send confidential complaints to a new gender ombudsman’s office, which has received 7,000 complaints since 2005.

Rebecca Chiao of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights told Africa Renewal that since the changes were implemented in Egypt, her group has held an average of 6,000 consultations annually with women seeking legal assistance in understanding and using the new regulations.

Reform of inheritance practices has been minimal. According to shari’a law, women are entitled to inherit a share that is half that of their brothers. But in Egypt and Libya, reports the Freedom House study, women’s access to inheritance, housing and property is often determined by their educational level, family support systems, economic status and access to legal information and mechanisms. As a result some women, especially in rural areas, do not even get their half share. Moreover, non-Muslim women married to Muslims cannot inherit matrimonial property.

“Inheritance laws are very explicit in the Koran,” observes Ms. Charrad. “For most people, to change them is to question a fundamental piece of the religion. In contrast, marital and divorce laws in the Koran are less explicit, therefore much more fluid and open to varying interpretations.”

Reproductive rights

Overall, women in North Africa have made important progress in reproductive rights — in fact, notably better than in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Tunisian law protects the right of a woman to decide whether to practice birth control or have an abortion. Estimates by the World Health Organization indicate that contraceptive use in Tunisia grew from 24 per cent in 1980 (the current rate in most of sub-Saharan Africa) to 63 per cent in 2007. Nearly all Tunisian women live within 5 kilometres of a source of family planning and they typically wait until about age 27 to get married, compared to about age 16 in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

In Egypt, 96 per cent of women live near a family planning centre and about 60 per cent use the centres’ services. The Algerian government has created an innovative family planning policy that reimburses people for purchasing contraceptives. More than 90 per cent of births in Algeria and Tunisia take place in public health facilities, drastically reducing maternal and child mortality in those countries.

One persistent problem in Egypt is female genital mutilation (FGM) of girls 7-10 years old. Amira El-Azhary Sonbol, a researcher for the Freedom House report, notes that while the practice has been illegal there since 1996, it remains common. “Egyptians widely believe FGM to be an Islamic practice,” she has reported, “even though it is also performed by Egyptian Christians and is not practiced in most Muslim countries outside the Nile valley.”

Ms. Moghadam notes that many laws in North Africa and the Middle East are seen as directly resulting from Islamic injunctions, while they in fact derive from tribal or pre-Islamic cultural practices. In a study on women and Islam for UNDP, she cites the veiling and seclusion of women, controls over women’s sexuality, male privilege and parents’ preference for sons, all of which reinforce current norms and laws.

Politics: a male preserve

One area in which male dominance is especially notable is political representation. Morocco got its first senior female political figure in 1997, a secretary of state in the cabinet. Since then there have been few others. Moroccan parties agreed in 2002 to reserve 30 seats out of 325 for women in parliament. In 2004 Algerian women comprised almost 20 per cent in the upper house of that country’s legislature, while in Egypt women make up a meagre 8 per cent in both houses and there are few women in cabinet posts.

Women have fared better in the judiciary. Algeria has 800 women judges, about half the total in the country. There are also 1,065 women lawyers out of a total of 6,400. In Tunisia, women make up 27 per cent of judges and 31 per cent of lawyers.

Public attitudes appear to support such trends. A Gallup poll published in August 2007 found that 75 per cent of Moroccans, 70 per cent of Tunisians, but just 51 per cent of Algerians believe women should hold cabinet-level leadership posts in government.

Ms. Rhiwi cautions that while women’s representation remains limited at the national level, the problem is worse locally, noting that in Morocco women make up less than 1 per cent of local government officials. “We have done a lot at the national level,” she says. “Now we have to do the same at the local level.”

Moreover, she notes, women’s representation nationally is not legally fixed, but simply a result of political parties’ agreement to observe quotas for women. “We hope to get it entrenched in the law. We have to also ensure that the changes will be real, effective and institutionalized.”

Countering violence and harassment

Violence against women is poorly legislated against and rarely prosecuted the world over. North Africa is no exception. Although Tunisia provides for the death penalty in cases of rape of girls under 10 years old, rape in Morocco is regarded as indecent assault or public indecency. In Egypt, domestic violence and marital rape are not considered crimes. Victims have to use other laws, such as battery or physical assault, if they wish to prosecute perpetrators.

But interpretations of Islamic shari’a law have sometimes proved flexible. In April 1998, during Algeria’s civil war, the country’s Supreme Islamic Council, the highest religious body, issued a fatwa (religious edict) permitting abortions by victims of war rapes, although abortion is not legal in most Muslim countries. But at the other extreme, about 30 women displaced by the war and seeking work in two oil towns were raped, killed and mutilated in 2001. The attacks were condoned by conservative clergy who claimed that since the women were travelling without a male escort, they were prostitutes. The attackers were never successfully prosecuted.

In 1999, Egyptian women’s groups successfully lobbied to change a law that forgave rapists if they married the victims. The Ministry of Social Affairs subsequently put in place 150 family counselling centres to help victims.

The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights conducted a survey in 2005 on the harassment of women walking in public. “At the time, it was impossible to talk about the issue,” Ms. Rebecca Chiao of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights told Africa Renewal. “Even the word ‘harassment’ was not accepted. Nobody knew what it meant and they were offended by it.” The centre then recruited volunteers to raise awareness on the issue. “We tried to be creative and innovative. Teachers talked to schools, journalists recorded advertisements for radio and we had music bands and film. Since then, we have seen substantial change.”