Women and the Middle Eastern Law

16 Aug 2015

Laws for women in the Middle East are strict and bound heavily by religious traditions. There are several legal systems that have been combined and amalgamated to create the legal systems in the various Middle Eastern countries. Customary and Islamic laws have been appended with a few foreign laws to create the current structure of the legal systems in the nations in the MENA region. Legal issues involving women’s status in the Middle East tend to be quite different from those in the West. Although there are feminist organizations in Middle Eastern countries, they tend to be small and to lack significant input into the political process.

There are several groups that are constantly fighting for reform in these laws which give women more freedom, independence and rights in the countries. Often these legal changes have been far in advance of the state of social evolution; it may take many years before some segments of Middle Eastern societies feel the impact. While reform may be immediately significant for educated women in major urban centres, illiterate women, particularly those in nomadic or rural communities, may not understand their legal rights or enjoy the independence and resources required to benefit from legal reform.

Generally, Middle Eastern women enjoy something close to legal equality with men in political life, access to education, professional opportunities, and salaries – goals for which Western women have long had to struggle. In contrast, where Middle Eastern women have been severely disadvantaged has been in the areas of family law and inheritance, where women are accorded fewer rights than men and are subordinated to male authority.

Since obtaining their independence from Europe, most Middle Eastern governments have undertaken legal reforms directed at reducing the inequalities between men and women, but they have had to face strong opposition from Muslim clerics. The only country of the Middle East to resist any concessions to modernity has been Saudi Arabia. There, women suffer disabilities beyond those required by most interpretations of Islamic law, such as being required to be totally veiled anytime they appear in public, and being forbidden to drive anywhere in the Kingdom. The Islamic fundamentalist movement has campaigned to forestall any legal changes that might undermine male domination and privilege in the family and to eliminate reforms that have enhanced women’s rights – a campaign which invokes traditional interpretations of Islamic law as its justification.

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