• This report also in Arabic.

(February 2006) The issue of women’s rights is gaining prominence in policy debates as pressure for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) continues to grow. Experts contend that a larger role for women in the economy and society is vital to the region’s progress. But despite their impressive gains in education and health, women in the MENA region still face gender discrimination that prevents them from reaching their potential.

To varying degrees across MENA countries, discrimination against women is built into the culture, government policies, and legal frameworks. In particular, the region’s family laws codify discrimination against women and girls, placing them in a subordinate position to men within the family—a position that is then replicated in the economy and society.

Written by Valentine Moghadam, chief of the gender section at the Social and Human Sciences sector of the UNESCO office in Paris, and PRB senior policy analyst Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, this policy brief examines recent trends in women’s activism and family law reform in the MENA region. It highlights how Morocco recently adopted an entirely new family law that is consistent with the spirit of Islam, yet based on equal rights for both men and women. That a feminist campaign succeeded in altering family law in a MENA country where laws are based on the Sharia (Islamic law) shows how effective coalitions can be built in MENA countries by linking social and economic development to women’s rights.