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Afghanistan One Year Later — and the story of one Afghan woman

Lina AbiRafeh

One year ago today — on August 15, 2021 — Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Again.

We all know the story of how Afghanistan, after two decades of aid and military support, unfathomable amounts of money, numerous elections, and many feeble attempts at peace, returned in 2021 to where it had been in 2001 — under the suffocating rule of a regime known as the Taliban.

I will, however, tell the story from the perspective of women, the ones who have been — and continue to be — most affected by this story. Here, we will begin with a so-called peace deal that betrayed women, bargaining their rights away. A deal made between men, all with blood on their hands. It is a story that, for Afghan women, came full circle.

Last year, as Afghanistan was falling, I reached out to my friend Aziza, women’s rights leader and partner from my time in Afghanistan. I asked how she was, and how the women’s movement would fare. The full conversation was published in my 2022 book, Freedom on the Frontlines.

On 11 June 2021, Aziza wrote:

Things are not going to get any better. We feel stuck in a vicious cycle and fear from this precarious situation. Aid has ended and NGOs have long been closed. We will not have achieved what we had hoped. What we set out to do. What we started to do. And now we have to adapt to whatever that may come in order to survive.

On 16 June, I published a piece on CNN arguing that the US rhetoric of liberation that animated their invasion nearly 20 years ago had fallen short of its goal. This built on an argument I made in my 2008 doctoral thesis and later in my 2009 book, Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan. There, and again here, I argued that the status of Afghan women was used as the barometer to assess social change, and that the promise of freedom had fallen short.

The $780 million the US spent to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan was about to go to waste, I explained, as the hasty withdrawal of US troops would likely lead to greater human rights violations, more school closures and increased violence against women. The voices I heard from Afghanistan were fearful. Women’s rights were hanging in the balance. Again.

Two decades of investment in women undoubtedly did achieve many goals: schools reopened for girls, giving them access to education, including university. Women had access to employment. They worked, flew planes, joined the military, became government ministers, and more.

But gains were patchy. Progress was perpetually met by major backlashes, a resurgence of a fundamentalist order, and more violence against women. Rural women still lived in Taliban-controlled areas, under severe restrictions. They did not benefit from these improvements. Opportunities for work, health care, or education never reached them.

On 22 June, Aziza told me this:

We could have predicted this. Patriarchy is so embedded in the culture and roots. There is need for gender awareness, education, and prolonged efforts to change what generations of men in power have created. The work that was done during the last two decades was not enough to change the fundamentals. It provided a short-term relief to what women had suffered during Taliban, but it could get worse when there is no more intervention.

On 24 June, I was invited to speak on CNN, building from my article. I was asked how serious things were for Afghan women. Very serious, I explained. At that point we had already heard of greater human rights violations, more school closures, increased violence against women. It was just getting started — things would get worse.

At that time, despite gains made, two-thirds of girls remained out of school, 70 percent of Afghan women and girls still could not read or write, and more than 80 percent of Afghan women and girls experienced abuse. Most of this took place in the home. Women’s security in the home is a reflection of the security in the country. If women cannot be safe at home, they’re not safe at all. And if women are not safe, then no one is safe. This, I have long argued, should be the barometer by which the entire intervention is judged.

Afghan women are incredibly strong. They have always demonstrated that strength, along with incredible courage and resilience. They always had strong voices and the ability to use them. But, are we listening? They have powerful voices, but they have no microphone. Did we do all we could to amplify their voices as they articulated their own needs? Did we even meet those needs?

On 10 August, US intelligence warned that it would take 30–90 days for the Taliban to topple the government and occupy Kabul. The city fell five days later.

Aziza wrote to me, explaining that progress made through international intervention was patchy — and only for the urban elite. Rural women’s lives hardly changed. If anything, Aziza explained, “financial aid may have fed their families, but the patriarchy remained.” And, she added, “today they are under the same abuse — or even worse.”

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban reached Kabul.

Read the full article here.

Body Negative To Body Positive:  Shaking Off The Effects Of Social Media’s Body And Beauty Ideals

Kate Eisenreich

Sometime in eighth grade, when I was about thirteen, after begging my parents for the longest time, I was finally allowed to join my friends on the popular photo sharing social media app, Instagram. I loved being able to connect with my friends. I loved watching videos of social media influencers trying the latest makeup trends. I loved being able to finally understand internet meme culture. Using the app was really fun for me. I shared photos of myself and looked at pictures of my friends on it. It was, however, also the first time that I really thought about how I looked. When you like a post on Instagram, the app is designed to show you more of that content and similar content in your feed. Because I liked fashion and makeup, I was unknowingly pushing women, using tons of photoshop and plastic surgery and claiming it was natural, into my feed. Comparing my posts to those of  these influencers and models made me feel inadequate. The app showed me posts claiming to fix my perceived inadequacies and make me more beautiful. These posts encouraged viewers to go on unhealthy diets, workout to change the shape of one’s body, and monitor the amount of calories one consumed. Still quite young and quite impressionable, these things affected me and when I looked in the mirror, and I wondered if I was good enough, pretty enough, and skinny enough. I began to worry about what others saw when they looked at me in real life.

 Luckily, around the same time the body positivity movement, a social movement preaching self-love and acceptance of different bodies, sprung up. I began to see women’s bodies highlighted positively and realistically, sans filters. I began to realize that the internet had warped my perception of myself in an unhealthy way. I slowly began to patch over my fissures of Instagram-instigated insecurity and learned to love myself and my body. Despite my own healing, I still saw many of my peers struggling with body image. I watched a distant friend of mine receive treatment of an eating disorder. And she was not alone. Globally, from 2000 to 2018, the percentage of the population with eating disorders increased from 3.4% to 7.8%. Around two-thirds of those diagnosed with eating disorders are women. 

Scientists have linked social media to eating disorders. A study found that Facebook users who compare themselves to others while using Facebook are more likely to suffer from disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. Interestingly, a user who does not engage in unhealthy comparisons while using Facebook is also more likely to suffer from disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. So, whether you believe that content displaying body or beauty ideals is affecting you, by simply consuming mainstream media, your brain will begin to adopt these beauty standards.  Researchers found that on YouTube, around one third of content discussing anorexia can be described as “pro-anorexia”. Additionally, there is a directly proportional linkbetween the amount of time a user spends on social media and their risk for an eating disorder. This link becomes even more apparent when the sample is limited to only teen girls and young women, who, as a demographic, are more likely to engage in social media usage for longer periods of time and more often. Worldwide, the average amount of time spent on social networking sites by internet users has increased from 90 minutes to 147 minutes a day. The increase in amount of time spent on social media will likely result in an increase in low body satisfaction and eating disorders if we do not change our exposure to the way social media portrays body and beauty ideals. 

From encouraging dangerous cosmetic procedures, to causing a global uptick in eating disorders, to pushing western beauty ideals to larger audiences, social media can be a dangerous place for perception of body image. And while social media is slowly becoming more diverse and realistic, this is only true if a user actively seeks more varied representation their feed. The idea that thin white cisgender able-bodied people are the epitome of beauty still permeates much of the content we consume. To protect all social media users, especially young women who may be more susceptible to social media’s influence, we must help to create and promote content that portrays a variety body types, does so realistically, and holds influencers accountable for not being transparent about cosmetic procedures and photoshop.  And ultimately, we must undo the negative effect social media has already wrought by actively fighting against rigid, unattainable body and beauty ideals within our own communities.

Contact the Eating Disorder Hotline if you are struggling with an eating disorder.  

Time to put girls first…

Lina AbiRafeh

“The first time I was raped, I was 9,” Caroline told me as we sat side by side on a broken branch in the mud. The first time. I couldn’t turn to face her. All I could do was give her space to talk, while I listened…

“It’s the bathrooms that are most dangerous. We try not to go unless it’s urgent. Even then, we can shit in a bag and throw it outside. We have learned how to protect ourselves”.

Caroline told her story, while we sat in the dirt side by side on the small step leading to her hut in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, if not the world. An open sewer ran by the hut. Children played in the rubbish around the slum — most not wearing any pants. They kicked a Coke can around and laughed. An emaciated goat looked on.

I tried to focus on the can and the shuffling of little bare feet in the dirt. Concentrate. Don’t cry. It doesn’t help. But I really wanted to find a private place to cry — next to impossible in an overcrowded slum.

“Girls are raped because they don’t have underwear,” Caroline continued. “It just makes things easier for men”.

Her elbows poked through the holes in the sweater she wore as a dress. She wasn’t wearing any shoes, and I suddenly wanted to use my too-solid hiking boots to clear the soda tabs from her patch of dirt. I could feel grimy sweat rolling down my neck into the collar of my t-shirt. I wished it would rain.

“Everyone calls me Caro”, she added.

I turned to Mercy Musomi, director of the Girl Child Network, working in Kibera. She stood with her head slightly bowed. She’d heard all these stories before — and far worse.

It was Mercy who led me to Kibera — and to Caro. “How much,” I asked her. “Just tell me how much it will take”.

I left Kenya the next day, leaving my remaining cash and the contents of my suitcase behind for Mercy to give to Caro and other girls.

That was 2007. I’ve been supporting and advocating for the Girl Child Network ever since.

When I met Mercy, the Network provided for the basic needs of 40 girls in the slum. Most were HIV-positive. Most had survived rape — at least once. And most had undergone genital cutting. And yet they were filled with power and courage — and still able to laugh. Mercy’s Girl Child Network had been raising money for years to build a safe haven for girls just like Caro.

The Network supports girls to stay in school and builds leadership skills through after-school activities. Once, Mercy noticed that the girls were missing up to a week of school a month because they did not have sanitary supplies. And so she found a way to raise money to distribute pads. And then she noticed that the girls did not even have underwear. And so Mercy found a way to provide that too.

When I met Caro, she did not have the time to participate in the Network or to think about school.

Caro left school to care for her parents, who both died of AIDS when she was 10.

“If I could, I would teach one day”, she told me. “I feel like I have been teaching all my life”.

I left Kibera — and Kenya — committed to helping the Girl Child Network continue to support girls like Caro. And I supported Caro as well, paying for her education and whatever else I could in order to give her a chance to become whatever she wanted, to make her own choices, to control her own life.

In a slum of over 1 million people, helping one girl doesn’t feel like much. But I wasn’t going to leave until I helped one girl.

The Girl Child Network was founded in 1995 after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing to work on child rights — girl-child rights specifically.

Mercy founded the Network because she herself is a survivor of violence. “I was 12 when I experienced gender-based violence,” she told me. “No girl should ever have to go through this. For me, it was my school principal. He was married and in his 50s. And I was a student. A child. I only wanted to learn.”

Mercy understands all too well how important it is to ensure that schools are safe. And how no one, or nothing, should get in the way of a girl’s right to learn.

She continued: “It is always older men who take advantage of young, innocent girls. Girls who have no role models or mentors to empower or support them.”

These girls now have Mercy. They cannot ask for a better mentor. Or a stronger champion.

Get involved here.

Read the full article here.

Menopause Madness: Conversations with my MenoPosse

Lina AbiRafeh

It all started with a very full bladder and lots of time spent peeing. I’d pee, then pee again. And then the bloating, as if I was morphing into a giant inflatable float for lazy days in summer swimming pools. And then the rapid weight gain — smack on the belly. I’m an apple. A pancake. This isn’t how I get fat.

The belly had me so baffled I actually had to ask a man if his 20-year vasectomy was still valid. “These things don’t usually reverse themselves,” he responded. Funny how when it comes to men’s health, it seems to be so clear cut. And understood. And well researched. And sufficiently funded. Was I missing something here?!

And then I took this dilemma to the doctors. It was met with some chin-scratching. And poking around. And blood tests. And ultrasounds. And especially that pesky pelvic ultrasound where you need to drink until you’re going to burst, only to have that little scanny thing push down very uncomfortably on all the parts that make you want to pee right there on the examination table.

And more tests. Trial and error. Wait — was I the first woman in human history to go through peri-menopause? Near-sorta-pause? Pseudo-pause? WTF-opause?! What-alien-has-hijacked-my-body-opause?!

My theory is that once you’re in or near menopause, suddenly you’re “done” and not of interest to (male) doctors or scientists because you’re no longer able to reproduce. What’s worse, you’re no longer deemed “fuckable” so no one has an interest in what happens to you. In effect, you’ve expired.

I’m not making this up. Too many cultures relegate old women to their huts and knitting. Fables and children’s stories reinforce this. That witch in Hansel and Gretel. The old woman in the shoe. We have all heard where society puts older women. (Subject for another blog one day!)

Even current “tools” to assess women’s health — that boob-squeezing mammogram monster, the evil pap-smear speculum, and much more — none of that was designed with women’s comfort in mind.

Why was this process so clumsy? I decided to poke women in my virtual world — my MenoPosse, if you will — to see what their experience has been.

Women! I wrote into the void.

I am writing my next blog on (older)women’s health and why we are never taught anything about menopause or prepared for the changes and so often misdiagnosed or gaslit by doctors. I’m hearing this from every woman my age — and my own experience as well — so can’t stay silent. Fire away!

And the literal/figurative floodgates opened. Nearly 100 comments and messages within the first 24 hours. Damn.

What follows is a compilation of this feedback. There’s a lot to learn from the experiences of women. Especially when it comes to our own bodies. It’s about time we listen.

Firstly — what’s menopause? I’m not a doctor (or, not that kind of doctor) so I won’t go into detail. There’s google for that.

Instead, let’s start with Kathryn Baecht’s piece, packing power and punch because in humor lies truth. She tells us that “the word “menopause” comes from the Latin combination of meno (meaning “menses”) and pause (meaning, “the joy of no longer giving a fuck”).” Precisely.

Apparently this was a curse “originally inflicted on women by an angry god as punishment for eating apples or being witches or some other bullshit excuse.” Perfect.

She identifies two key menopausal milestones: “if a woman has been paid less than a man for doing the same job for at least twenty years OR cleaned up the equivalent of a fifty-gallon barrel of her family’s bodily fluids including any combination of snot, spit, vomit, blood, pus, urine, and poop (including both the diarrhea and non-diarrhea type).”

You get the point. It’s coming for all of us. So, shouldn’t we have a little more info about it?! We’d never even been told what to expect. Instead we’re forced to fumble around in the dark, while this ages-old rite of passage is seldom discussed in professional and medical circles. As a result we’re all ill-prepared, resorting to our own research — and conferring with friends to figure out WTF is going on?!

For some, it is actually an agenda item for weekly get-togethers — an ongoing discussion on the “latest things going on with our bodies that may be related to menopause.”

Meanwhile, modern medicine evolves. We’ve got tests for things like predisposition to Alzheimer’s or blood tests to determine hair loss, one said, but “there’s no test to determine if a woman is in menopause! Why do we have to guess based on multiple symptoms?”

At the same time, all we really hear about is hot flashes — primarily because they are a subject of mockery. But that is often the extent of information on menopause. And “hot flashes” are the replacement clap-back for snide PMS commentary (gotta write a blog about that too!). There’s a way to dismiss women’s opinions at every stage of our lives, it seems.

Read the full piece here.

Creating Feminist Cities in the Arab World 

Lina AbiRafeh

Urban spaces have long been controlled, owned, and built for and by men, and Arab cities are no exception to this. In fact, in many Arab communities, urban space is, by default, male space. Men act as if they “own” the street, which is reflected in how they walk and how they treat women in public. In many Arab cities, as is true elsewhere, men are also far more likely than women to litter, reinforcing the perception that men consider public spaces to be their personal property. Sexual harassment is common in Arab cities, however, attention to gendered urban space is not only about safety. Although many women in Arab cities do risk verbal and physical abuse when they are in public, they must also contend with issues like poor sanitation, limited access to toilets and clean water, and little privacy. Marginalized groups – like migrants, ethnic and religious minorities, young girls, elderly women, and the disabled – are particularly vulnerable to discrimination.

In these cities, many systems make the lives of the typically male breadwinner easier, but fail to account for traditionally female tasks, such as school or grocery runs, making women’s lives more difficult and unsafe. 

Transport systems in particular are aimed at making the male breadwinner’s commute easier, while failing to account for traditionally female roles. These systems are not easy for women and mothers. Mothers and women tend to take less linear trips, stopping frequently to drop off or pick up household goods or children. Most transports systems charge extra for these non-linear trips. Additionally, these transport systems are rarely built with mothers with strollers or young children in mind, making them inaccessible for many women. Pregnant women are often not accounted for in these transport systems, and when they are, offers of a seat are not guaranteed, due to not being visibly pregnant or other rude passengers. 

While these traditionally female tasks – trips to schools, stores, or childcare facilities – should ideally be taken on foot as it requires shorter trips and multiple stops, most neighborhoods fail to plan for this with no, or unsafe, ways to travel by foot. This creates a car dependency for many women and mothers. 

Studies have found women’s health has been impacted by poor planning because women tend to be more physically active in walkable spaces. Spaces that aren’t walkable are correlated to higher obesity rates in women, but not as much in men. Other commentators note that anti-obesity campaigns often target women and mothers as being symptoms of urban issues like a dependency on cars and fast-food when actually a large part of the problem is poorly designed cities and neighborhoods.

While it has held women back in many aspects of their lives, the irony is that the Arab “street” has long been a stage for feminist progress. Even before Arab women raised their voices during the 2011 Arab Spring, urban spaces played host to feminist protests and served as a political barometer for the rest of society.

The port of Beirut blast in 2020 provided an opportunity to build the Arab region’s first “feminist city” which means building a new city with – and for – women. This is about more than safety and public spaces; it is also about equality, dignity, and access to opportunities. Lebanon is filled with private, prohibited spaces – from the government to gardens. A feminist city is built on accessibility, open spaces, public resources, and shared recognition of the value of the city as a home for all. But urban feminism, or the idea of feminist cities, is not widely studied by city planners in the Arab world. Awareness of how public space in Arab cities is gendered is rare, and little information has been collected on how women affect – or are affected by – planning decisions. Without a deeper understanding of the socio-spatial needs of Arab women, the region’s streets will remain the domain of men. How can this be done in Beirut and other Arab cities? 

Solutions to women’s problems in Arab urban life must consider the full range of social and cultural challenges that prevent women and girls from moving freely in urban settings. To help cities in the Arab region progress toward greater inclusivity, governments should focus on four key reforms.

For starters, city planners should cooperate with women’s groups to conduct safety audits and map high-risk areas. By analyzing crime data, for example, planners could determine where to focus improvements such as better lighting and additional policing. When women’s organizations are involved in these types of decisions, cities become safer for women, which in turn improves their access to social, economic, cultural, and political opportunities.

Next, education systems must be reconfigured to encourage more women and girls to pursue careers in architecture, planning, and urban design. In most Arab cities, planning processes are inaccessible to much of the population; they are even less accessible to women. To change the patriarchal status quo, we must encourage more young women to enter these fields, and to design modern spaces that are sensitive to women’s needs.

Third, cities need standardized methods for measuring women’s rights in urban environments. One way to achieve this would be to establish scoring systems created by and for women; surveys could include questions about legal frameworks, engagement in urban planning decision-making, public transportation habits, and views on housing, recreation, and safety.

Finally, urban planners must rethink how they fill public spaces. Consider, for example, historic statues; in many cities, only men are lionized in bronze. Why not women? If gender equality was a criterion in commissioning public art, young women and men would grow up knowing that their city was a place where everyone is honored, protected, and respected.

Urban planning is never gender-neutral, and leaders in Arab cities, in particular, must work hard to account for all residents’ views and desires. For women and girls, requirements include safe streets, well-maintained public facilities, and gender-specific amenities – such as nursing rooms for mothers. In a truly safe city, everyone’s rights are considered, everyone can access public spaces, and everyone is involved in the planning process.

If planners consistently applied such principles to their work, the Arab city would naturally become a catalyst for female empowerment. And when cities become engines of opportunity for women, everyone benefits.

Sidewalk Sexism

Lina AbiRafeh

Every time I walk down a New York City sidewalk, I’m in a 1950s James Dean movie. We’re playing a game of chicken, where — at least in the movie version — two cars drive toward each other along the same path. The first one who swerves out of the way to avoid collision is labeled “chicken” — the weaker one.

In my case, it’s not with cars, but with humans. Human males, in particular. When a male body — of just about any age — is walking towards me, I continue as long as I possibly can to see if he will step out of the way. He never does.

What happens instead is a collision. I’ve been bonked with elbows and shoulders, scowled at, and a few times nearly knocked to the ground. Most of the time, I’m the chicken who swerves. But I try to hold out as long as I possibly can — to make the point, if nothing else.

I started to note these spatial gender dynamics on city sidewalks, wondering if everyone shared my experience. Was I expected to step out of the way every time a man was headed in my direction? Was there an unwritten rule on this that I wasn’t aware of?

Like manspreading and other patriarchal practices of taking up too much space, sidewalk sexism is a way to exert power, to say “I own this space” and to say “you must step out of the way for me.”

I’ve learned this in my informal study: the pavement patriarchy never steps out of the way. It is a daily micro-reminder of who owns public space.

I conducted a super scientific study of observation — one hour on lower 5th Avenue, New York City. It’s worth asking if this is unique to New York (doubtful) or unique to major cities (possible). My theory is still evolving.

I’m interested in the micro-movements in the micro-moments, the split-second gestures of taking up sidewalk space — spreading arms or veering slightly towards, rather than away from, women on a sidewalk when there is ample space that could be shared.

Sure enough, I wasn’t the only woman who jumped out of the way in the face of an oncoming man with no plans to move. In my speedy study, I’d say about 70% of women stepped out of the way. The men continued on their path. That’s enough for me to see a pattern. And a problem.

So to further my so-scientific inquiry, I asked my fellow female pedestrians what they thought.

“I don’t care if I bodyslam anyone… why should I move?!” one said.

“I step out of the way for everyone. It’s what I was taught to do. Be polite.” said another.

Another woman explained that age and race all came into the picture for her. There is a clear intersectional element to this. And height, she said. “Overall, the taller person wins.”

At the same time, when looking down at our phones, sidewalk sexism no longer applies because we’re all the same type of jerk — iPhone zombies.

But the bottom line is that women are expected to behave on the sidewalk as they should in other parts of life as well — sweet and discreet. Don’t be too loud. Don’t demand attention. And certainly don’t take up too much space.

Read the full piece here.

Women in Politics

Kate Eisenreich

From a ban on girls’ secondary education in Afghanistan to strict abortion bans in places like Brazil and Poland, to the recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, we are witnessing serious backlash against women’s rights most notably through discriminatory legislation. It comes as no surprise, then, that women are drastically underrepresented in government. But how bad is it?

Globally, only 26% of national parliament seats are held by women meaning women are massively underrepresented in decision-making bodies despite making up 51% of the population. Comparatively, men receive almost 1.5 times more representation than they should. 

            In fact, several countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Yemen, do not have any women in their representative governing bodies. But that’s not to say it is all bleak for women in government. Plenty of countries are doing better than the average. Rwanda’s representative body contains 61% women, Cuba’s contains 53% women, and Nicaragua’s representative body is 51.7% women. Mexico and the United Arab Emirates both had perfect gender parity in their representative bodies.

            In local government, women fare better with 36% of elected members of local government being women. This could perhaps be because of decreased barriers for entrance at the local level, such as the cost to run or greater childcare provisions. 

            Only 36% of the 195 nations in the world have had a woman as the head of government. Additionally, 50% of the most populous countries have not had a female head of government, including the United States, Russia, China, Mexico, and Nigeria. 

            Inclusion of women in government helps to move forward women’s rights and interests, pushing societies toward complete gender equality. Additionally, women’s participation in government helps everyone in society. Research discovered that local councils in India led by women had 62% more drinking water projects than man-led councils. In Norway, more women in local governments were found to increase childcare coverage offered. Women are also shown to be better leaders during a crisis because they communicated more effectively than men, were better at inspiring and motivating, and were better at relationship building.  

            We all know the benefits yet women are still underrepresented in most governments. So, how to fix this problem? 

            There are, of course, some easier solutions to help women overcome barriers to enter politics. Governments can ensure that women receive paid-maternity leave, do not face sexual harassment by other members of government, make sure to acknowledge the participation of women in their governments, and get rid of archaic laws restricting participation in government by women. Political parties can also encourage more women to stand as candidates. Easy solutions you say but still not implemented… 

            Another mechanism governments have introduced is a gender quota, but opinion is divided. Gender quotas are the most accurate predictor of women’s inclusion in government. There are two types of quotas, legal quotas and voluntary quotas, and those quotas can be enacted at different levels such as primary elections, final candidates, or reserved seats in the legislative body. Quotas help women overcome the discrimination and barriers they face in entering politics and ensure that women are included in government. However, mandatory quotas also take away from democratic choice. Additionally, mandatory quotas are linked to less stable and democratic governments. This may lead many to believe that voluntary quotas are best. However, they cannot ensure women have a seat in a representative body. In the United Arab Emirates, their parliament had 23% women until the adoption of a mandatory reserved seat gender quota of 50%. Now, 50% of their parliament is women. Quotas could be a temporary measure to help pave the way for women to enter government. However, it is estimated that it will take 155 years for gender equality to be reached in politics which raises the question; will a temporary gender quota be able to achieve enough? 

            However it is done, women need to be included in government to protect the rights and interests of women and make strides toward gender equality. 

The Gender Gap in the MENA Region

Rebecca O’Keeffe

Every year since 2006 the World Economic Forum releases a Global Gender Gap report which measures the difference between women and men in four areas: politics, economics, education, and health. This year 146 countries were analysed, 102 of which have been featured since the report’s inception making it a pretty constant and consistent index.

And there’s one thing that the report finds every year: no country has achieved gender parity. 

The 2022 report estimates it will take 132 years to close the gender gap globally, and while this represents an improvement from last year’s 136 years, the gap was 100 years in 2020. Obviously COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact but overall this gap represents a whole generation of backsliding. 

Now this number also masks huge discrepancies both between regions and indicators meaning progress on gender equality and, by extension, development, is actually incredibly uneven. 

So even though, globally, the health and education gender gaps are nearly closed, it will take 151 years to close the economic gap while political parity will take 155 years. 

In terms of regions, North America, the best performer, needs 59 years to close the gap whereas South Asia, the lowest ranked, needs 197 years to close the gender gap. 

Meanwhile, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has the second largest gap which will take 115 years to close. 

Last year MENA’s gap was 142 years. Progress, surely? 

Well, not exactly.

In 2006 the region had closed the gender gap by 55% and since then, they have managed to close the gap by 63%. In other words, it has taken 16 years to advance 8% which is a pretty glacial pace.

This year’s report is not entirely representative of current realities either. It must be noted that Mauritania, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are not included this year. As such, there is a significant difference to the region’s overall scoring as these countries found themselves at the bottom of the table in 2021 where, out of 156 countries, they ranked 146, 152, 154, and 155 respectively. 

It is also worth highlighting that the report examines the Middle East and North Africa as a whole, including Israel, rather than isolating for Arab countries in particular. This has had some effect in terms of regional measurements as Israel typically does better than the Arab countries – this year it topped the region coming in at 60.  

In fact, the 2022 report shows only one Arab country – the UAE – makes the top 100 coming in at 68 followed by Lebanon (119), Tunisia (120), and Jordan (122). The rest of the region’s countries that are featured find themselves in the bottom 20, with Saudi Arabia ranking 127, followed by Egypt (129), Kuwait (130), Bahrain (131), Morocco (136), Qatar (137), Oman (139), and Algeria (140).

When we break it down by indicator there is a broad improvement in economic participation and opportunity with over half of the countries improving their scores, but there is still a lot of work to be done as only 46% of the gap has been closed. This means women in the region still have less than half the economic opportunity as men. 

Educational attainment is a source of optimism with the region achieving 96% parity. This, however, has not been translated into labour force participation which remains an issue across the region most likely due to discriminatory laws, strict gender norms, and harsh guardianship systems preventing women from entering the workforce. 

Even though the region performed well overall with regards to health and survival, life expectancy still lags behind with Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, and Qatar among the worst global performers.

In terms of political empowerment, only the UAE has achieved parity at the parliamentary level, while Saudi Arabia remains at 0%. Saudi Arabia also has 0% for ministerial positions while Lebanon has the highest at 32%. Kuwait and Qatar are the region’s worst performers – and among the worst globally – for political parity and both still have over 96% of the gender gap to close. Notably, Tunisia appointed its first female Prime Minister, who also happens to be the first female head of government in the Arab region. 

Overall, these figures remain low despite more than half of all Arab states introducing quota systems to ensure greater political representation for women, suggesting that considerable structural barriers still exist for Arab women in politics.

So, what does all this mean and where to go from here?

The Arab region consistently performs the worst or near enough the worst across most social indicators in pretty much all indices. And the lived reality on the ground is likely much worse than the numbers allude to. Traditional patriarchal culture, protracted crises, lack of religious freedom, discriminatory legal frameworks, and chronic insecurity have contributed to this gap and stories from the region are overwhelmingly negative.

Arab women’s rights, in particular, are the source of much pessimism and can be characterised by patchy progress and major regress. And today, we are seeing a massive backlash against women’s rights and freedoms. The biggest indicator of peace in a country is how the country treats its women, therefore, it is no surprise that the region has one of the world’s widest gender gaps and has some of the worst records in terms of women’s rights.

Despite these poor records, however, there is good news. Arab women tirelessly continue to fight for their rights despite shrinking civil society space and increasingly repressive crackdowns. Civil society organisations and women’s social movements have been a leading force in shaping advancements in women’s rights across Arab states. Most importantly, young women are leading movements around the region pushing for change. 

This is the news we seldom hear but the stories that need to be told.

And we are hoping to do just that – in a book due for publication 2023. 

We will be looking at the last 50 years of Arab feminism – and what the next 50 will look like because there is a real need to understand what’s holding the region back and what forces are trying to drive it forward. 

We will document various milestones and challenges of Arab feminist movements against the backdrop of significant regional events. We aim to be representative of the region while identifying trends and patterns in each. Interwoven into the chronology will be interviews and dialogues with feminists from the region – essentially a narration of events and an insight into where they hope to go from here. Significantly, we aim to highlight young Arab feminists as a galvanising force.

We believe this book will be important insofar as it will draw together movements, voices, and actors from across the region thereby filling a critical gap in existing publications. Moreover, the focus on young feminists is important in mapping, and giving platform to, the future of gender equality in the Arab region.

To that end, we want to hear from you! We are conducting a survey aimed at Arab youth voices to gauge how feminism and activism has evolved and what hopes there are for the future.

You can find the survey through the following links:



If you’d like to contribute a little more in-depth please get in touch at:

Mind the (Gender) Gap

Lina AbiRafeh

It’s no secret — no country in the world has achieved equality. No, not a single one.

To prove this point, the World Economic Forum created its Global Gender Gap to explain that yes, a big fat gap exists between women and men in the areas of health, education, politics and employment — basically the core building blocks of our lives. If men and women aren’t equal in those foundational areas, they aren’t equal at all.

So, every year since 2006, the Global Gender Gap Report comes out, reminding us that (1) we are doing pretty badly so (2) we had better move faster or (3) we will have a gap forever.

Why track and quantify this grim stuff? To prove that it exists. To show that gender-based discrimination is alive and thriving. And to give us ways to understand how far all societies are from reaching their full potential.

Sure, we’ve had overall gains between 2006 and 2022. Marginal gains. Not-enough-for-me gains. WTF-is-taking-us-so-long gains. And now we have the latest gender gap report to tell us that we need 132 years to close the gender gap. Anyone planning to be around to see it happen?!

Sure, we’re doing better than we were in 2006 (one would hope!) — but even our measly progress hasn’t exactly been linear. In fact, it’s been all over the place, impacted by whatever socio-political stuff is at play at the moment. Meaning wars, recessions, and messy business like global pandemics all contribute to widening the gender gap and impeding progress for women.

So, when the world moves in the wrong direction, so does inequality.

The gap has increased at several intervals — for instance in 2017, the first time the gap had increased in a decade. In 2018, it was estimated to take 108 years to close the gender gap. At the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos that year, they called 2018 “the year for women to thrive.” So much for that claim. The gender gap increased again in 2021 due to COVID. And we’re still feeling the shocks of this. Are we thriving yet?!

At the country level, this year’s report covers 146 countries, 102 of which have been represented since 2006, making it a pretty consistent analysis. But still — no country has achieved gender parity.

The top ten economies did close the gap quite a bit, but as they say, the rich get richer, meaning the gap between the so-called best and worst countries is widening.

Germany records its highest score ever while Rwanda has been in the top 10 every year since it was first included in the Index in 2014.

Even back in 2006, Nordic countries performed best in terms of closing the gap. But even those guys haven’t closed their present-day gender gap. Still, Scandinavian countries perform well — four of the top five spots are Nordic.

Iceland leads the charge and has closed their gap by over 90%. This is the 12th year in a row Iceland has ranked most gender equal. More sharing of unpaid labor has been key to Iceland’s progress. Greater childcare and paternity leave provisions can help reduce the gender gap as the brunt of unpaid labor disproportionately falls to women.

Check out the top ten. And, pay attention to the bottom ten — and why they are consistently at the bottom.

The 2022 Global Gender Gap Report was just released last week. And now you know that no, it did not bring particularly good news. I will say again: we need 132 years to close the global gender gap. One hundred and thirty two years.

Last year it was 136 years. We’ve gained a whole four years! Is that reason to celebrate? Absolutely not.

In 2020, the gap needed 100 years to close. In 2021, this jumped up by 36 years — a whole generation. So, our micro-movements downward really don’t mean much, when you look at it across time. They mean very, very little.

The report confirms what we have always known to be true: there is a direct correlation between gender equality and the level of development in a country. And I have said over, over, over that the clearest indication of a country’s potential for peace, prosperity, progress is not in the type of government it has nor in the state of its economy — it is based on how a country treats its women.

And women should not have to wait 132 years.

Read the full piece here.

Abortion: corporate perk, performative pledge, or genuine action?

Lina AbiRafeh

It has been three weeks since the US Supreme Court decided that women should not have the right to decide for themselves about their own bodies and lives. Three very long weeks.

In case you’ve forgotten already, in the United States on June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving 33.6 million women of reproductive age at risk of losing access to abortion. Abortion access was already being restricted in some states, and others enforced a ban almost immediately following the ruling. To date, abortion is illegal in 8 states and many more have expressed an intention to make it illegal soon.

Patients, health practitioners, lawyers, and politicians have been trying to understand the ramifications of this. Some states have even halted services amidst the confusion. Who’s paying the price for this? Women.

But uncertainty has been cast over just about everyone, including the private sector.

In the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, some companies and corporations have been quick to show support and highlight what steps they will take to help their employees.

Disney, Meta, Buzzfeed, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Amazon, Starbucks, and Netflix are among some of the companies that have gone public stating that they will reimburse employees who need to travel to other states to access legal abortion services. Many already covered abortion care but they are now expanding to include travel costs.

The public were quick to applaud such gestures. Meanwhile, I wondered, are these companies really supporting reproductive rights — or simply appeasing women as part of their public image amidst moral outrage?

Cynicism, yes. But with reason. After all, how many times have we seen corporations jump on board for International Women’s Day only for it to be performative and short-term, with zero tangible change for women once the pink streamers come down.

A reimbursement for abortion care is a lot more than cupcakes for International Women’s Day, no doubt. But — and there’s always a but! — many of these companies had actually donated to the Republican Party and its candidates. JPMorgan, Chase and Co., Johnson & Johnson, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Meta are just some examples. Meaning, they knew that women’s rights were being traded away as part of the party platform.

Hmmm… dubious.

So, what’s behind the corporate abortion bandwagonning? Is it genuine? Is it enough? And, is it viable for those who are on the fence — or those who are unable to publicly proclaim support for fear of alienating part of their client base?

It is clear that covering the cost of an abortion is significantly cheaper than providing maternity leave — and corporations have the added bonus of basking in the glow of the public’s good graces. Economic benefits there too, undoubtedly.

Wait — corporations only thinking about the bottom line? Shocker.

I hear you. Let’s come up with some options to make this work. Because we all need to make this work. For women.

Plus, there is so much more companies can do beyond publicly proclaiming to pay for women to travel to other states. Looking good and doing good means not just abortion but also comprehensive options. Offering to pay for travel is great — if it also includes stronger parental leave policies. And better health insurance. And flexible working arrangements. Just sayin’.

If we’re talking bottom line, providing people with the full range of resources is actually how we reduce the need for abortions — contrary to what some politicians would have us think!

Let’s also recognize that while some companies can make public proclamations of support, not all of them are able to do so, even when their politics aligns with women’s rights. Arguably, there is a risk in speaking out and potentially losing or alienating their client base. The urgent need to support women — and health care providers — far outweighs corporate risk in my mind. But I’m not running the company! So, for companies who have just dipped their corporate toes in these waters, and for others who haven’t — or can’t, or won’t — here are some things you can do to make a difference for women:

  1. Company health policies. Companies can take the opportunity now to introduce or reform adjacent policies for the benefit of employees — especially women. For example, company-provided health insurance should include family planning like contraceptives and all abortion options. They can also provide paid leave for obtaining reproductive health services, including those out of state if necessary. Companies can expand reproductive healthcare without publicly taking a prochoice stand — as much as I wish they would! Reproductive health is healthcare, after all.
  2. Company family policies. Greater childcare provisions, increased parental leave plans, and even better paid time off arrangements will go a long way in making life easier for women and parents. Such support systems also decrease the need for abortions as people will be better equipped to have a family and work. They’ll be better equipped to make a choice.
  3. Company HR policies. Provide women-friendly work spaces and policies such as flexible hours and hybrid working arrangements that allow employees to work remotely. Private rooms to breastfeed are also part of good company practice. Women-friendly policies are actually human-friendly. Flexible, safe work environments are better for all of us.
  4. Company donations. Many companies donate to organizations that reflect their beliefs — here are some good ones. The company’s corporate social responsibility activities could include donating to women’s groups — especially those who support sexual and reproductive health and rights. Collectively contributing to a cause has been shown to increase employee engagement which in turn adds to workplace satisfaction and performance. It can also demonstrate personal interest in the lives, priorities, and values of employees.
  5. Matched employee donations. Alternatively, companies can offer to match employee donations to a charity of their choice. For example, individual employees (or a small collective) might elect to fund programs that are pro-choice, or those that curb domestic violence and sexual abuse. Employers can match these donations without taking a public stance. Not only does this mean more funds go to the charity, it also means the company’s values and ethics align with employees which will increase satisfaction and retention.
  6. Company donations to candidates who support women’s rights. For companies who are politically inclined, I’d suggest putting resources into the right candidates — those who actually care about and are committed to rights, justice, equality. And conversely, stop funding entities that actively violate women’s rights. Yelp is a good example of a company that suspended its donation to anti-choice politicians and will “consider policy positions that violate its employees’ human rights before making any political contribution.” Yes! So, use your dollars wisely.
  7. Build a better corporate culture. Education and awareness-raising is a good place to start. Help everyone in the company understand why these things are important. Companies can organize workshops and training on combating microaggressions and biases, for example. They can also arrange seminars or highlight resources on gender inequities, pay gaps, and other such problems women face in the workplace. Not only does it serve to educate staff, it indicates company policy is inclusive and working to counter discrimination.
  8. Women’s networks. While it is not the job or the burden of women to raise these issues, fostering women networks and mentoring programs can be useful tools and support mechanisms in workplaces. These networks can also advocate and apply pressure on the company to hold them accountable on their commitments to positive change.
  9. Women’s leadership. Cultivate an environment that sees more women in senior leadership. I mean, how many of these corporations actually have women in senior positions? Not enough. Sprouting commitments to equality ring hollow unless they are matched with real action. Women need to be at the forefront and in all positions of power, leadership, and decision-making. It’s about time.

The bottom line is this: investing in reproductive health and expanding policies in favor of women’s rights and gender equality is now more critical than ever. In business language, it allows people to fully engage in the workplace and ensures that companies benefit from a more productive workforce – which clearly also improves the bottom line.

And, also, how about this: it’s the right thing to do.

Read full post here.