The empowerment and liberation of women is a key transformation of the modern age. It doubles the inputs for economic growth, multiplies the effects of education and prospects for innovation, dismantles a key cornerstone of societal and political inequality and repression, and brings new experiences and perspectives to shape social, cultural and political perspectives.

A new report published by the UNDP, the Global Social Norms Index (GSNI), indicates that 9 out of 10 people around the world, men and women, still hold unequal views of the capacities of the different genders. In the Middle East, significant progress has been made over time, but the horizon of gender parity is still many decades away. The economic, social, cultural, and political futures of Middle Eastern countries will largely pivot on which try to resist the arc of historical change and maintain women’s subjugation, and which choose to empower, integrate and engage women to lead the future. 

Globally, the GSNI, which measures public opinion regarding gender capacities and rights, shows a persistent and widespread gender bias around the world. The UNDP’s other metric, the global Gender Inequality Index (GII), a composite measure of gender inequality and women’s empowerment, has shown no measurable progress since 2019. With socio-economic setbacks from Covid 19 and the Russian war in Ukraine, and political setbacks in the resurgence of authoritarian and conservative political cultures and regimes, the report warns that the world is far from being on track to meet its gender equality Social Development Goal (SDG) by 2030.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows the Middle East and North Africa far behind the global average, and estimates that, at current rates, it would take another 115 years for the MENA region to achieve gender parity. Although there is considerable variation between countries, and between different sectors, the continued marginalization of women remains a crippling obstacle to economic, social, cultural and political development, as well as a continued violation of human rights.

The struggle between the control and empowerment of women started playing out in the Middle East and North Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The decades of women’s progress during the middle decades of the 20th century, during the early liberal period of the region, in the 1920s and 1930s, followed by the nationalist and socialist waves of the 1950s and 1960s, saw historic progress along this path. But the rise of Islamist movements from the late 1970s onwards, as well as the shift of political and economic power within the region from secular and relatively gender-positive regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, to the socially and religiously conservative Arab gulf states, as well as the rise of an Islamic republic in Iran and an Islamist-leaning party in Turkey, moved the needle for women backwards in many of these countries. But first the UAE and now Saudi Arabia awoke to the importance of women’s empowerment, breaking the rigid mold that prevailed in their conservative countries before. And advances in women’s education and health in other parts of the region, have seen a steady rise in women’s roles, although there is still a long way to go.

In education and health, the MENA countries have closed over 96% of the gender gap, and this is an important bedrock for the further empowerment of women; but in economic income the gap has been closed only by 24%, and in political empowerment, the gap has only been closed by 15%. Unpacking the data by country, interesting divergences emerge. In the GSNI, countries where views of women’s parity improved over the past years included Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia; while countries where they regressed included Libya and Iraq. In the WEF report, the UAE, Lebanon and Israel score highest overall, but the countries with the most positive change since 2021 include Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. In the general ranking of countries by gender gap, Iran, Algeria and Afghanistan occupy 3 out of the 4 lowest rankings among 146 countries worldwide.

The Arab Barometer which has been measuring Arab public opinion since 2016 notes a persistent lag in overall attitudes toward gender equality, but also notes a positive trajectory between the surveys of 2016 and those of 2021 and 2022. In more troubling data, 2 out of every 5 partnered women in the MENA region experience domestic violence; 92% of women in Egypt between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced genital mutilation, and 14% of Arab girls marry under the age of 18.

Of course, the empowerment of women and the drive toward equal rights should be seen both as a natural right, as well as a process that reaps valuable dividends not only for women but for the society and region as a whole. Integrating women fully into the economy from the work force to the board room and economic ministries, provides powerful new drivers of innovation and growth for struggling economies. The integration of women into politics and policy brings new and valuable perspectives, life experiences and talents to an often ossified political and policy system. And bringing women into diplomacy and conflict resolution is also critical; while we see many more women diplomats in the Middle East, the negotiations to end civil wars in Yemen or Libya, or to achieve progress in broken and divided political systems like Iraq and Lebanon, have almost no female participation at the leadership levels. And the liberation and empowerment of women is the key to increasing the levels of freedoms and empowerment throughout society.

Of course, the question of gender parity is also playing out dramatically on the grand political stages of the region. After decades of acute patriarchal repression, Saudi Arabia has moved quickly to empower and increase the margins of freedom for women in the economic, social and cultural spheres, while continuing to acutely restrict political freedoms — for women as well as men. In Afghanistan, the reverse is happening; a resurgent Taliban has moved quickly to reverse the hard-won advances and freedoms that the country’s women and girls had gained in the past 20 years. In Iran, the state has moved violently to preserve its control of women’s bodies and head gear, fearing that if women wriggled free of state control, the whole edifice of the Islamic Republic would be at risk.

And this points to a critical political element of the gender question. Men’s authority and control over women is often the cornerstone of wider societal and state control and repression — the mother of all repressions, as it were. It cements within the family, the society, and the culture, the principle of inequality, the principle of the inherent right of one group to repress another, and undergirds the wider logic of state repression. The regime in Iran is not incorrect, that if they lose their control over women, the wider logic and edifice of top-down and authoritarian repression in the name of conservative and supposedly religious values comes under threat. In Saudi Arabia the challenges are different: the leadership in Riyadh recognized that holding women back was holding the whole economy back, and have moved to quickly harness that potential. But it will be hard, in the long run, to liberate and empower women in some sectors, but deny empowerment in other sectors — especially the political. 

The struggle between the control and empowerment of women is a central dynamic of the modern age and has transformed societies and economies throughout the world. The struggle still has a long way to go in the MENA region. Although there are important signs of progress, they are still too little and too slow. The societies, economies and people of the region can’t afford to wait throughout the rest of the 21st century to manifest the rights and powers of half of the population, and to maintain this crippling and impoverishing subjugation. In many countries, women are bravely leading the way for change; all should follow that lead.

Paul Salem is president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East.

Photo by Lynsey Addario/Getty Images Reportage

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