Rights of women on International Women's Day
20 March 2016
By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi
International Women's Day was celebrated on March 8. The day was first
observed as a popular event after the United Nations General Assembly invited
member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN day for women's rights and world
peace. Before that, such a day was endorsed by the first conference of the
Women's International Democratic Federation, held in Paris in 1945. It was
said that the idea of celebrating the day originated after the brutal
dispersal of demonstrations of women seeking their rights held in New York in
the middle of the 19th century. There were similar demonstrations in the same
city in the early 20th century, and by that time men began to come forward to
recognize the rights of women.
On International Women's Day, men congratulate women, and women also
congratulate each other by exchanging roses and gifts. As part of the
celebrations, newspapers publish articles and interviews, and radio and
television stations host special programs praising women by lauding their
contributions and underscoring their rights.
In fact, this is a single day which is devoted exclusively to women while the
rest of the days of the year are supposedly for men. This was illustrated by a
cartoon that was circulated in social media. In the cartoon, a man is seen
dragging his wife by her hair with a comment: ''After the passing of
International Women's Day.'' This prompts me to ask just how far women's rights
have actually been secured.
The BBC Arabic service recently aired a report published by the International
Labor Organization (ILO) on the occasion of International Women's Day. The
report shows that there are enormous challenges women continue to face in
finding and keeping decent jobs. The report titled ''Women at Work: Trends
2016'' also indicates that women have failed to achieve more in terms of equal
opportunities in the employment market as compared to their male counterparts
ever since the Fourth International Women's Conference held in Beijing in
1995. This has led to huge gaps that are very difficult to narrow while
implementing the Sustainable Development Program, initiated by the United
Nations in 2015.
The report examined data from up to 178 countries and concludes that
inequality between women and men persists across a wide spectrum of the global
labor market. What's more, the report shows that over the last two decades,
significant progress made by women in education has not translated into
comparable improvements in their position at work. At the global level, the
employment gender gap has closed by only 0.6 percentage points since 1995 with
the unemployment rate among women stands at 6.2 percent as compared to 5.6
percent among men. Women continue to work longer hours per day than men in
both paid and unpaid work. Most often, women are forced to accept lower
quality jobs compared to the jobs taken by men.
If this is the condition of working women at the global level, what is the
condition of Arab women, and what is their status compared to other women in
the world? How many years will it take for Arab women to be on a par with
women at the global level? The Egyptian columnist Farida Naqash, chairwoman of
the Forum for Women in Development, said that Arab women have paid a big price
for retrogression. Arab women were the first victims of unemployment after
many Arab countries witnessed slow growth and development after governments
pursued new liberal policies based on the reduction of government spending on
public utilities, she said.
According to Naqash, in the event of reducing spending on health and
education, women are the first victims as traditions and old customs look down
on them as inferior to men. She also draws attention to the fact that nearly
31 percent of families in Egypt are being taken care of by women even though
women constitute three out of four unemployed people in the country.
The situation of Saudi women is similar to that of other Arab women. They face
numerous problems, such as those pertaining to divorce, custody of children,
maintenance, and hurdles in getting citizenship for their children from
foreign husbands. They also want other rights, such as the right to drive.
Religious scholars have so far not pronounced women's driving as taboo and
society is not the decision maker in this regard. There should be a political
decision to sort out this pressing issue.
At the same time, we have to admit that Saudi women, during the last five
years, have managed to achieve many things. These include their entry into the
Shoura Council and permission to take part in municipal elections as voters
and candidates. They were also able to take up a large number of jobs during
this period. A Saudi woman has become the first editor in chief of a daily
newspaper. There are several young women among foreign scholarship students
and some of them have brought laurels to the Kingdom through their excellent
academic performance even at the global level.
— Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast
Asian affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com