By Tala Khoury, NCCAR Legal Officer and Secretary

Today is International Women’s Day and although it’s 2016, recent years have posed some of the most serious challenges for women in the Arab world. Conflicts from Libya to Iraq have imperilled women; sexual violence, forced displacement, and child marriages – including at the hands of the morally retrograde Daesh – have all been on the rise.

But there is a silver lining of progress that keeps hope alive for the advancement of women’s rights in the Arab world. Last month, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranked Algeria 37th worldwide in its percentage of female parliamentarians, with Tunisia 40th and Iraq 56th. Notably, The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranked Canada in 60th place with only 26% female parliamentary representation. According to the United Nations, 30% female representation is the threshold for affecting real policy change, which some countries in North Africa have already surpassed. After the protests in Algeria in 2011, two elections saw an unprecedented number of female parliamentarians taking more than 30% of the seats in the Algerian lower house. Furthermore, upon his re-election in 2014, Algerian president Bouteflika reshuffled his cabinet and appointed seven female ministers, an act hailed by the United Nations as a “milestone for the Arab world.”

Gender is increasingly protected in law as well. Algeria has committed to gender parity in employment in its new constitution. Following the revolution in Tunisia, new enactments sought to advance gender equality in all elected assemblies, the workplace, and in marriage and divorce.

In Egypt, the 2013 constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender, guaranteed equality between men and women in all civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, and assigned a 25% quota in local councils (though not for Parliamentary seats). The constitution also included a provision incorporating the concepts of tolerance, and non-discrimination in education, resulting in mandatory human rights classes in universities.

Even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has enacted changes, extending a municipal vote to all of its citizens and allowing women to run for municipal office. This was only the third time that Saudi citizens have voted in municipal elections. In 2015, 20 female municipal councillors were elected out of the 2,100 seats available. Although significant work remains, the fact that women were allowed to participate is a small step in the right direction.

These modest achievements towards equality are a consequence of strides in women’s rights in other spheres of civil society. This past year, several Arab states achieved gender parity in educational enrolment. In some instances, women outnumbered men in the pursuit of higher education.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum in November 2015, Oman and Saudi Arabia have achieved gender parity in educational enrolment in primary, secondary, and tertiary education; Jordan, Qatar, and Kuwait in secondary and tertiary education; and Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, and Bahrain in tertiary education.

By advancing educational rights for women and girls, more opportunities are afforded to women to contribute to society, including in the political sphere. A highly skilled Arab female workforce can inject a new perspective when participating in the economic, social, and political facets of Arab societies, advancing human rights in other spheres.

While there is a hard road ahead for the women of the Arab world, the achievements of recent years are even more inspiring in the face of increased violence and conflict. These small steps should be consolidated as women in the Arab world continue to struggle for equality.

Tala is an associate at the Ottawa office of law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP where she carries on a litigation practice focusing on commercial arbitration and white collar crime. Tala is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School, where she has received awards for her achievements in business law and human rights law.

Tala has volunteered with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada as a legal researcher and helped organize a legal symposium on Law & Revolution and the implications for the “Arab Spring” on the development of the law in the Middle East and North Africa. Tala previously worked as a Research Assistant at Osgoode Hall and as a Legal Fellow for the Kosovo Law Centre. She has also worked as a Program and Policy Assistant with Ontario’s Pay Equity Commission, as an intern with the law offices of Ali Sharif Zu’bi in Jordan, and as a Congressional Intern with the Office of Congressman James P. Moran in Washington, D.C.