UNDP Report: Islamic Movements at the Vanguard of Women’s Empowerment

Posted on December 11, 2006


Source: Arab Human Development Report Launch, December 06, 2006

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Arab Human Development Report 2005 due to be released in 2006, women in the Arab world are not realizing their full potential and are not being provided with equal opportunity. The report states that this situation poses difficulties not only for women, but represents an obstacle to progress and prosperity in Arab societies in general.

Human development requires more than economic growth alone. The fight against poverty is not a campaign of charity – it is a mission of empowerment. This is especially true as regards women, given that, of the world’s one billion poorest people, three-fifths are women and girls. Full participation and empowerment of women, as citizens, as producers, as mothers and sisters, will be a source of strength for Arab Nations and will allow the Arab World to reach greater prosperity, greater influence and higher levels of human development,” said United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Kemal Derviş.

Despite Arab women’s equal status under international law, their numerous accomplishments in many fields, their contributions to family and society, many cultural, legal, social, economic and political factors impede women’s equal access to education, health, job opportunities, citizens’ rights and representation in the public square. In private life, tradition and discriminatory laws continue to pose an obstacle to their advancement. The Report asserts that the biggest impediments to development for many Arab citizens, women and men, have been foreign occupations and the ‘war on terror.’

Nevertheless, some progress has been made. First, most Arab countries now have a parliament, a politically representative entity where some participation by women is now implemented. Still, the Report warns that “In all cases…real decisions in the Arab world are, at all levels, in the hands of men.” Second, contrary to what popular media may assert, Islamic movements have championed women’s empowerment. “In the last five decades, the internal dynamics of these movements, their relationship to mainstream society and their positions on vital societal issues, on human rights and on good governance and democracy have undergone significant, progressive changes,” the Report explains. Most of the mainstream Islamic movements now enjoy a more progressive leadership among their younger members. There is also internal demand for more democracy. Third, in the public-opinion polls commissioned for the Report, Arab populations now express a desire for more gender equality that has existed in the past and today.

The Report notes that the Arab world is changing, as women’s issues penetrate intellectual and cultural discourse. Although the modern Arab women’s movement is too often misinterpreted as a Western invention, gender equality is not new in the region. For example, Egypt’s first “women’s educational society” was founded in 1881, with raising public awareness of women’s rights as a key objective. (Note from Rafik Beekun: it is important to note that Islam has, from the beginning, given both genders equal, but not identical rights.  Whether Muslims have actually applied these principles or followed idiosyncratic, cultural traditions is another issue.)

The Arab Human Development Report 2005 suggests the rise of Arab women must include:

– Total respect for the rights of citizenship of all Arab women.
– The protection of women’s rights in the area of personal affairs and family relations.
– Guarantees of total respect for women’s personal rights and freedoms.

In addition, the Report calls for the temporary adoption of affirmative action in expanding the participation of Arab women to all fields of human activity. The whole report can be purchased on line for US$10 and downloaded from here.