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The status of women in the Arab region varies greatly from society to society. Over the last decade, most Arab nations have implemented reforms for women’s rights and shown increasing sensitivity towards gender issues. Governments are committed to working with the international community and local domestic groups on improving women’s position and standing. Currently, 12 out of 20 of nations in the region have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The transfer of power to a new generation of leaders in many of the region’s monarchies has brought a renewed emphasis on women’s rights in those countries. New generations have come to power in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Syria over the past few years. This new generation was educated in the West and has shown a commitment to women’s rights and reforming social codes. Many of these leaders have remarked on the need to improve the status of women as an integral part of national economic development. As they begin to expand democratic institutions in their nations, women’s civil society groups will have new opportunities to push for reform and representation in government.

Three approaches have been suggested for studying development and women in the international development literature. The first approach, women in development (WID), emphasizes the need for women’s participation in development projects. WID programs seek to increase the number of women in conventional development approaches. The second approach, women and development (WAD), seeks to isolate specific development concerns of women and build programs around those needs. WAD programs tend to emphasize household concerns such as clean drinking water, piecework, and improving public services for women. The third approach, gender and development (GAD), sees development as constitutive of women’s role in public life. GAD projects seek to examine the impact of economic development on women’s roles in society and challenge those norms that restrict women’s opportunities. For instance, a GAD project may seek to move women outside of the private sphere and into the public workplace. Most development programs in the Arab region utilize WID and WAD approaches.

One of the critical elements of women’s roles in public life in the Arab region is the status of Islamic law (Shari’a) in a nation. With the exception of Tunisia, all nations in the region determine the personal status of women based on Shari’a. Nations have different interpretations of Shari’a, which leads to substantial regional variation in personal status laws. Many of the governments that have ratified the CEDAW have submitted reservations for areas where the Convention conflicts with Shari’a. Reports filed by these nations on their progress in implementing the Convention demonstrate that several have taken action to reform the domestic Shari’a to increase women’s status in public life. This suggests the possibility that both Islamic law and international human rights standards can be respected in the creation of Islamic personal status laws in the Arab region.

Many nations in the Arab region have shown a strong commitment to providing education for women. Illiteracy rates have declined substantially in a number of nations. This emphasis on education will benefit women in two important ways. First, evidence indicates that higher levels of education help to reduce fertility rates. This will reduce the pressures of unemployment and political instability that high population growth has created in the region. Education also produces a skilled workforce, which will help Arab nations in developing internationally competitive industries.

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