Statistics Show Women Fare Badly in Muslim Countries, but U.N. Official Says Critics Are ‘Stereotyping’ Islam

Patrick Goodenough | October 22, 2010 | 6:07am EDT
Font Size

A Palestinian woman wears a niqab. (AP Photo)

( – The head of the U.N. Population Fund blames stereotyping for the perception that Islamic societies are “backward” when it comes to the treatment of women, but data released by other international agencies challenge that assertion.

U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Thoraya Obaid, a Saudi, made the statement in an interview with Inter Press Service (IPS), as the agency she heads released its annual report on the world’s population.

This year’s report focuses on the way women are affected by conflict, and Obaid told IPS that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein left Iraqi women worse off.

(Human rights advocates say the rights enjoyed by Iraqi women under family laws enacted two decades before Saddam seized power in 1979 were set back after the Baathist regime fell, as newly empowered Islamists pressed for marital and family matters to be regulated by shari’a law.)

“Although the [Iraqi] constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of gender, in practice conservative societal standards impeded women’s abilities to exercise their rights,” the State Department said in its most recent annual human rights report.)

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, leaves a news conference in London following the release of UNFPA’s annual report regarding the state of world population, on Wednesday Nov. 18, 2009. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Obaid said conditions for Iraqi women had worsened after the U.S.-led invasion.

The interviewer then asked her, “How does this square with the perception that, left to themselves, Muslim societies are backward, and that the U.S. is the progressive one?”

Obaid replied, “That is a political question in many ways. There are stereotypes of Muslim countries, and Muslim women.”

“This is the stereotyping of a people and also of a religion, and as a result assumptions are based on such perceptions,” Obaid added. “In many ways it is perceptions that hinder Muslim women in many places.”

Obaid pointed out that she is a Saudi woman – “and see where I am right now.”

Ali Alyami, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, said Friday that Obaid was “a defender of her oppressors.”

“I know her, and her position is more important to her than speaking the truth to power,” he said.

Obaid’s career achievements stand in stark contrast to the situation faced by millions of women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic world, as borne out by two major reports released this month.

The World Economic Forum last week distributed its annual Global Gender Gap Report, a review of how 134 countries have succeeded in closing gaps between women and men in four areas – economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival.

While some non-Muslim countries do poorly, the vast majority of the worst-scoring countries are Islamic, most of them Arab states.

Seventeen of the 20 countries at the bottom of the gender gap scale are Islamic – Lebanon (placed at 116), Qatar (117), Nigeria (118), Algeria (119), Jordan (120), Oman (122), Iran (123), Syria (124), Egypt (125), Turkey (126), Morocco (127), Benin (128), Saudi Arabia (129), Mali (131), Pakistan (132), Chad (133) and Yemen (134).

The three non-Muslim countries in the bottom 20 are Nepal at 115, Ethiopia at 121 and Cote d’Ivoire at 130.

Another 13 Muslim-majority countries appear higher up in the ratings, with the five scoring the highest Kazakhstan (41), Kyrgyzstan (51), Brunei (77), Bangladesh (82) and Indonesia (87).

School enrolment, literacy, employment, politics

On Wednesday, the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) released another major report, also dealing with the status of women around the world in 2010. The numerous indicators explored in the report include the rate of girls of primary school age enrolled in school, compared to that of boys.

The seven countries with the biggest gaps are all Islamic countries – Chad (a 22 percent difference between boys and girls enrolled), Yemen (20), Pakistan (16), Guinea-Bissau (16), Mali (14), Iraq (13) and Niger (13).

Two Islamic countries do break the pattern significantly – in Iran the percentage of girls enrolled in primary school is nine percent higher than that of boys; Mauritania also has five percent more girls enrolled than boys.

When it comes to the difference between literacy rates in adult women and men, Islamic countries once again score worst for women.

Of the seven countries with the biggest literacy gaps, five are Islamic – Yemen (a 36 percent gender gap), Mozambique (30), Guinea-Bissau (29), Niger (28) and Pakistan (27). The non-Islamic two are Central African Republic (28) and Ethiopia (27).

With the net cast wider, of the 28 countries scoring worst for women when it comes to literacy, 20 are Islamic states.

The DESA report also tracks the percentage of women represented in parliaments in 2009. Rwanda scores highest, with 56 percent of its parliamentary seats held by women.

At the other end of the scale, the only countries with no female representatives are all Islamic, and all Arab Gulf statesOman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Finally, Islamic states fare poorly in a list showing the percentage of women making up the adult labor force.

In 27 countries where women accounted for less than one-third of the total adult labor force, 22 are Islamic states, with the UAE (women comprise 15 percent of the workforce), Saudi Arabia (16) and Qatar (16) scoring worst.

mrc merch