Arab Human Development Report 2005

Encouraging a Non-Ideological Debate

The fourth and final scheduled Arab Human Development Report was now published; it carries the subtitle "Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World". The report offers a historical overview of the women's movement in the Arab world, writes Sonja Hegasy

The subtitle of Arab Human Development Report itself commanded attention by touching on to two important messages: First, the issue at hand is not just "the Arab woman," but all women in the Arab world, including Kurdish and Berber women, but also foreign women who live and work in the region.

The report made reference, for example, to the lack of rights for Asian domestic workers in the Gulf States. And secondly, the wording of the subtitle – "Towards the Rise of Women" – makes it clear that this is about an ongoing process. The editors place emphasis on tracing this process at least as far back as the beginning of the nineteenth century. The report offers a historical overview of the women's movement in the Arab world, as well as many individual examples of women in art, culture, and politics.

The Arab Human Development Reports have been published since 2002 by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) with financing from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and the Arab Gulf Programme for United Nations Development Organizations.

The Renaissance of the "Arab Renaissance"

These reports address the most serious deficiencies in the Arab world: a lack of access to education and knowledge, lacking future sustainability, the limited rights of citizens, and women's lack of participation. Nader Fergany – an Egyptian sociologist – and his team of authors speak of wanting to spark an "Arab Renaissance" (nahda), for which one of the main prerequisites is the rise of women in Arab society.

The new report was first introduced to the Arab public in Sana'a, Yemen on December 7. In Berlin the report was introduced by the Iraqi-Kurdish writer Haifa Zangana and the Nader Fergany.

Haifa Zangana, a member of the AHDR advisory board, has written several novels as well as an autobiography depicting torture under Saddam Hussein. At the presentation in Berlin she said that gender issues are important, but not necessarily her priority at the moment:

"I am sorry, we cannot afford to think of it, because we are worried. We are dealing with our basic needs. The right to survive, the right of [free movement so that] women [do not have] to give birth at an Israeli checkpoint, the right for an Iraqi woman to reach the hospital which she cannot reach. This is what we are involved in on a daily level."

Basic structural disadvantages for women

The report is based in part on field work including surveys of 1000 people in each of four countries: Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. The results demonstrate the high health costs in these countries particularly for women, including a high rate of mortality for mothers. The average literacy rate among women in the Arab world is 50 percent.

The statistics for this large region, which spans an area approximately the size of continental Europe from Portugal to Poland, does not necessarily indicate which countries have made progress and invested large sums in educational programs for women. But it does demonstrate the basic structural disadvantages for women: women are particularly disadvantaged in the gainful employment sector; they often have no social security.

The work they do is largely located in the informal sector, and is thus not recorded in the regular statistics. The report argues that new methods for compiling statistics are long overdue. Women often have a very minimal income. In this respect they are not much different than other women around the world. Violence against women is a taboo subject in the region.

Calls for more internal democracy

The report also points to women's disadvantages in the legal systems of the Arab world. This is also apparent in the context of the politicization of religion. The authors nonetheless note a range of differing opinions within the various Islamic movements.

"Over the course of the last five decades, the main currents have undergone important developments, for example regarding their attitudes toward human rights, good governance and democracy. A parallel development in these main currents is that many of them are seeing a younger leadership." Calls for more internal democracy are being heard from among their base constituency.

Haifa Zangana reports that many women who are vocal in the Islamist movement, such as Nadia Yassine, have welcomed the report. Nader Fergany repeatedly made a plea for women's right to decide whether they want to wear a headscarf. This was meant to pertain to Europe as well. The report's approach is not to dictate to various countries what they must do – but often enough it does offer a lesson for the European and Western public.

It's not the money!

In a discussion with the Parliamentary Secretary of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Karin Kortmann, Nader Fergany argued that "Western aid strategy needs to be re-invented. We need an end to the mentality of throwing money at problems and thinking that this will solve them. It is not the amount of money you send. It is your position on the legitimate Arab rights that matters most."

Also noteworthy is the report's evaluation of the effects of the colonial period on women. "Due to social change in the colonial period, the Arab women's movement experienced many new developments." This point seems to indicate that the authors are interested in encouraging a non-ideological debate – an approach that would also be welcomed among its readers.

Sonja Hegasy

© 2006

Translated from the German by Christina M. White

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