The big gains for women’s rights in the Middle East explained
Saudi Arabia, under the initiative of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, gave women in the kingdom the right to drive.
Saudi Arabia has been the only country in the world to ban women from driving — an internationally recognized symbol of unequal status. Along with the ability to drive has come new rights and freedoms: the ability to join the military, work in intelligence services and attend sporting events and concerts. A senior cleric even commented that women should not be required to wear the abaya.
Saudi Arabia is in good company. Across the Middle East and North Africa, countries have been upgrading women’s rights. Since 2011, nearly every country in North Africa has adopted a gender quota, in which parties are required to nominate a minimum percentage of women as candidates for office, to increase women’s representation in politics. In Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Yemen and Morocco, women can now pass on citizenship to their children, and Lebanon may soon join this list. The region has seen the widespread repeal of laws letting rapists escape punishment if they marry their victims. And nine countries adopted laws against domestic violence.
Why are Middle Eastern countries advancing women’s rights — and why have they lagged for so long? Many observers have blamed women’s inequality on religion, specifically Islam. Our research finds that these explanations are too simplistic, as we will explain.
Religious explanations fall short.
Some observers argue that women’s inequality in Muslim-majority countries, particularly in places like Saudi Arabia, is because of Islam — implying that reform will come only if more liberal interpretations emerge or these nations secularize. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris find that gender inequality is more prevalent in societies where Islam is the dominant faith. Muslims living in the West appear to hold more patriarchal views than non-Muslims, suggesting that inequality adheres to the religion’s teachings or values.