Nadereh Chamlou has addressed gender and development concerns in the Middle East for nearly three decades. So it’s no surprise that in looking at the region after the Arab Spring, the question on her mind is if and how the changing political landscape has benefitted women.
Chamlou, the senior advisor to the chief economist at the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa Region, recently visited The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to share her perspective on women’s access to justice in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. “Once you’ve worked on gender issues, you tend to see any aspect of development from that lens,” she said.
Driving her research is Chamlou’s firm belief in the importance of an empirical basis for defining the gaps in women’s access to justice, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. The discourse on gender mainstreaming has often been criticized for being anecdotal and reactionary, but this narrative is now changing. Chamlou and other economists are leading the way in grounding normative concerns from a data-driven standpoint.
In Chamlou’s view, the Arab Spring holds promise but also presents challenges. For instance, countries in transition, like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, now have an opportunity to effectively integrate gender into the rule of law, she said. “The World Bank is pretty optimistic about the prospects for women in governance, but women, in conjunction with civil society groups, need to work on issues of agency,” she said.
Better social indices for women, especially in the field of health and education, have to be a priority – but equally important, according to Chamlou, is their ability to trigger responsive measures from governments.
In many instances, written constitutions offer ‘formal’ equality to women but they do not guarantee ‘substantive’ equality – formal equality merits that everyone be treated equally before the law, while the notion of substantive equality posits the converse: those in unequal circumstances must be treated unequally. Women may be in need of preferential treatment, given the history of gender-based discrimination in the Middle East and North Africa region, Chamlou said. This is especially true in the sphere of access to justice. Women in the Middle East rarely interact with law-enforcement agencies or the judiciary, even when they are desperately in need of legal remedies, Chamlou said.
To address this issue, Chamlou and a small group of fellow researchers have surveyed nearly 97,000 women (including many in the Middle East) about their experiences with civic-legal matters. Those experiences may include filing civil or criminal lawsuits, approaching the police for assistance, interacting with bureaucrats and government officials for effective dispensation of services, and so on.
The project has revealed several interesting patterns about women’s access to justice. For instance, Chamlou and her team found that MENA civil servants were less likely to request bribes from women than from men. On the other hand, female employees were less likely to complain about discrimination or even harassment in the workplace as compared to their male counterparts.
The most surprising findings, said Chamlou, came from the responses of urban women – mainly those living in and around capital cities in the Middle East. They were found to be reluctant to file police complaints or lawsuits to redress grievances, despite having higher levels of education. “This could be also a result of urban women having a more hectic working schedule compared to others, which don’t permit them to allot time for filing suits or complaints,” suggested Chamlou.
For much of the history of the MENA region, women have been reluctant to seek legal recourse to their problems – if they have engaged the law it has been mostly on account of marital disputes. Beyond the realm of personal law, however, they have not been able to exercise their rights as part of the free citizenry. This is a result, Chamlou observes, of not just reluctance.
The Arab Spring may have the potential to change all that. As countries begin to draft new Constitutions, initiate police reforms and replace old bureaucracies, it is imperative that policymakers account for the role of gender in participatory governance. Chamlou is optimistic about women’s access to justice in the MENA region. At the same time, she said, “women have to take the initiative if they are to claim equality before the law– there can be no question about that.”
-- A student correspondent.