Gender Equality in the Arab Region: A Story of Progress and Regress

By Dr Lina Abirafeh, Director of the Institute for Women's Studies in the Arab World

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The annual World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report presents an analysis of the gap between men and women in the areas of health, education, politics and employment. Globally, the gap between men and women was measured at 32% in 2017, an increase from 31.7% in 2016. It was the first time the gap increased in a decade.

The WEF estimates that it will take 217 years to close the economic gender gap. This figure varies dramatically by region. For instance, it will take 580 years for the Middle East and North Africa to reach economic equality. The region ranks lowest on the index – with an average gender gap of 40%.In terms of political equality, four of the five world’s worst countries are from the region – Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, and Yemen.

2017 also saw the release of another critical gender-based ranking, the first-ever Women, Peace and Security Index, measuring well-being – defined by three dimensions: Economic, social, and political inclusion; Formal laws and informal discrimination in the justice sector; and Family, community, and societal security. This is a major milestone in understanding the challenges and constraints faced by women worldwide. The WPS index, an examination of 153 countries, is unique in that it combines gender and development indices with peace and security indices, recognizing that there is no hope for equality as long as insecurities persist.

It is firstly worth noting that not one single country attains perfect scores on women’s inclusion, justice, and security. Similar to the Global Gender Gap Report, here too the Arab Region sits at the bottom.Worse still, between patriarchal societies, increased conservative movements and lack of political will to move towards gender equality, the Arab region today is seeing a backlash against women’s rights and freedoms.

The WPS Index notes the region’s high levels of organized violence and discriminatory laws alongside generally poor scoreson inclusion. This means that we face the combination of pervasive socio-political violence and institutionalized discriminationcoupled with weaknesses in terms of social inclusion. This combination is toxic for women – and serves as an impediment to progress for all.

Meanwhile, we continue to face challenges in the labor market as well. The global average for women’s employment is close to 50% – Syria is at 12%. And – 37% of men in the region do not accept the idea of women working. Discriminatory norms remain strong.

Arab women are dramatically underrepresented in the labor market, an underutilized economic force, with only 24% working outside the home – one of the lowest female employment rates in the world. Most women who work outside the home are relegated to traditionally feminized sectors or the informal market. Unpaid care continues to be viewed as “women’s work”. And women are promoted less and have virtually no access to decision-making positions in every sector.


In terms of parliamentary representation, the region continues to fare poorly. In particular, Lebanon has among the lowest numbers of women in parliament. The recent election of 6 May did little to improve these numbers. Without a quota and positive discrimination in favor of women’s political participation, women’s needs and interests will continue to be sidelined in political arenas and broader policy discourse. However, presence in politics does not necessarily entail power in politics, and women continue to be relegated to lower positions with little autonomy. Lebanon has only one female minister. And the Minister for Women is male.

These relatively-poor social indicators, combined with a range of conflicts and protracted crises result in a challenging landscape in which to advance women’s rights. However, unless we commit to advancing gender equality, the region will continue to be plagued by violence.The duration of the region’s many protracted crises can in part be seen as an indication of our neglect of half the population. Global research demonstrates that women’s empowerment and gender equality are critical prerequisites to stability and sustainable development.

And yet, the situation is not all bleak. In the region, there’s a remarkable – and yet little-known - story to be told. In 1973, the first institute dedicated to the study of women emerged – in Lebanon. The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World – now in its 45th year – is housed at the Lebanese American University, an institution that was originally established in the 1830s as a school for girls.

The Institute works at the intersection of academia and activism to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment throughout the Arab region through pioneering education programs, applied research focused on social change and policy change, community-based development programs, outreach and engagement.

For instance, to address some of the development challenges in the region, the Institute established an innovative certificate program in Gender in Development and Humanitarian Assistance, focusing on practical training for present and future gender practitioners. This program builds local capacity to address local challenges – addressing gender-based violence, engaging women in security issues, and integrating gender across the full range of development and humanitarian programming.

Research on and by Arab women and on gender issues builds a body of knowledge to further social change and policy change. The bi-annual journal Al-Raida (The Pioneer) is IWSAW’s signature product – in publication since 1976 – fully available online. Arab Country Gender Profiles provide key information on gender issues for each of the 22 Arab countries.

The Institute’s community-based sustainable development projects operate for the long-term in targeted areas such as providing gender-based violence training for the Lebanese security sector, a non-formal life-skills training package called the Basic Living Skills Program, guidance for female migrant domestic workers, and many other projects. Regional conferences and learning events promote gender issues on a variety of themes and encourage activism for equality and women’s rights, for instance on applying the women, peace and security agenda in the Arab region.

IWSAW’s animated song on gender equality – In My Hand, Bi Ideh in Arabic -  engages youth as champions using a lighthearted approach that sets a precedent for the region. The annual student video competition in honor of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women also inspires youth activism – the videos Misplaced Guilt and Covering Up are powerful examples that demonstrate the potential for art-as-activism in the region.

In short, there is a force for change! The Institute is among those in a vibrant civil society – intersectional, youth-driven, human rights-based, and committed to social justice.

In order to achieve sustainable development, as well as peace and stability, the Arab region must prioritize and promote equality, rights, respect, dignity for women. The continued denial of women’s rights is a harbinger of future instability and conflict. And the force women represent in this region is formidable – and can no longer be sidelined. **


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Dr. Lina Abirafeh is the Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University. Her background is in gender-based violence prevention and response in development and humanitarian contexts. She brings over 20 years’ experience in countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, and others. Her 2015 TEDx talk summarizes her experience. Lina completed her doctoral work from the London School of Economics and published “Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan: The Politics and Effects of Intervention” based on her research. She speaks and publishes frequently on a range of gender issues.

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