03/07/2008, 00.00
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The Middle East and its women: between emancipation and discrimination

The female world in Arab countries celebrates victories in education and work, but the road to equality between the sexes is still a long one. Emancipated women ask for recognition from their hardly liberal countries, which often see them as a threat to the status quo.

New York (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Women who study, manage the family finances, and work, but endure combined marriages, political discrimination, and sexual abuse.  This is the far from consistent condition of women in Arab countries, where emancipation and progress alternate with abuse and violation.

Today in New York, the 52nd session of meetings organised by the UN commission on the status of women concludes.  In many countries, the rights of women are violated, and the scenario shown by the Middle East is highly varied.

According to Haifa Fahoum al-Kaylani, founder of the Arab International Women's Forum, the female world in Arab countries has attained significant objectives: from the shores of Tunisia to Iran, the number of women with degrees in medicine, pharmacy, and law has grown exponentially.  It is calculated, in fact, that about 70% of graduates in the Arab world are women.  Just a few days ago, news came from Egypt that the post of state official for marriage cases has been given to 32 year-old Amal Selim. She is the first woman to hold the post in Egypt, where over the past year 30 women have been appointed as judges.

But it is also true that in the economic and political spheres, the presence of women is decisively limited, and in some countries the patriarchal culture is the cause of persistent discrimination.

In the United Arab Emirates, businesswomen aspire to compete with their male counterparts, and in the conviction of being able to bring something unique to the economic growth of their country they are applying pressure to the government in order to transform this ambitious dream into real emancipation.

Kuwait seems to be one of the countries with the lowest representation of women in parliament, and according to Salwa Al Jassar, head of the Women's Emancipation Centre, women in Kuwait, in spite of being educated and often very rich, are far from obtaining equality in politics, and neither the legislative nor the executive branches seems to have any particular interest in accelerating the process.

This situation is similar in Yemen, where on Thursday, March 1, during a meeting of the Arab Sisters Forum for Human Rights, the participants invited civil society and the media to mobilise in order to bring light and pressure to the unjust condition of inferiority to which the female sex is relegated.

In response to the appeal launched by the UN commission that met in New York to guarantee greater attention and advancement to women, Qatar promised to clear the way to equality between the sexes at all levels.

But in Saudi Arabia, the response to the mixed delegation of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women seems to counter the perception that women in the Saudi kingdom are second-class citizens subjected to a hypocritical and patriarchal culture.  According to some Saudi women, in fact, women are gaining emancipation: "We can travel by ourselves", says Lubna Al-Ansari, who affirms that she obtained permission from her husband.  A male member of the same delegation, commenting on the current law on polygamy, says that in reality this reduces to four the number of women that a man can marry.  According to the delegate, moreover, in addition to satisfying a strong sexual desire, a man might marry multiple women in order to perform a "humanitarian action", since married women have greater economic security.

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