Gender equal legislation: an utopia

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‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ Even though most countries declare women to be equal in their constitutions, the reality is sometimes far from equal. There are many women’s rights activists, striving for a shared regulation concerning women over the world. The World Economic Forum makes a ranking each year on gender equality, and on the bottom part you can find countries like Yemen, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia.1 Especially in developing countries women fall behind compared to men. What are the obstacles and how is the situations in some of the countries which fall behind?

Equality; a façade

The Arab Human Development Report 2005 found that for many Arabian leaders the political rights for women are a democratic façade. The women form an easily manipulated symbol to prevent criticism on their democratic circumstances. At first sight it seems women have gained a lot of ground on political participation, they have voting rights in most Arab countries for example. However, the percentage of women in parliaments in Arab countries remains the one of the lowest of the world. Even when there is a female minister, their role and capability is limited.

The accessibility of media like the internet offers women a chance to play a more important role. For many, women’s emancipation is still something imposed by the West.

The most important obstacle for the improvement of the position of women is the influence of the Islamic movements, which have a conservative view on women’s  roles in society, according to the Report. Autocratic leaders form an obstacle as well, since they think women’s participation might damage their influence.2

The United Nations

An important acknowledgment for women’s rights was the first United Nations (UN) conference concerning women in 1975, the international year of the woman. In 1993 the UN accepted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. This is one of the most important resolutions on violence against women. It focuses on the protection of women against sexual and gender-based violence.3

The Declaration not only declares that State actors should refrain from engaging in violence against women, but also asserts that States should take affirmative measures to prevent and punish violence committed by public and private actors alike and establish support networks to care for victims of gender-based violence.4 This resolution is not legally binding, but it does set forth international standards and best practices. In the next paragraphs some examples are laid down where countries do not exactly live up to this declaration.


Unthinkable in The Netherlands, but a woman is not ‘recognized as a full person before the court’ in Yemen, to quote a Freedom House report. A woman’s testimony needs to be supported by another testimony before it has any value. In cases of libel, adultery, sodomy or theft, a woman cannot testify at all.5


In Ecuador, abortion is prohibited, except for the ‘idiots’ and the ‘demented’, and where the life and health of the mother is in danger. A physician, or anyone, who performs an abortion with a woman’s consent is subject to imprisonment for two to five years. A woman who induces her own abortion can be jailed for one to five years.6

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, a woman who wants to start a trial needs to have a statement of two men which allows her to do so. This has to do with the culture that a woman is dependent on her father, husband or male guardian. Saudi Arabia is still the only country which doesn’t allow women to vote.7

However, there is now a progressive crown prince. To make the country more attractive to tourists and foreign investors, he has eased the norms on women’s rights. In 2013 there were protests to achieve this, but they were unsuccessful. Since last year, women are allowed to drive cars, thanks to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is easier for them to travel, get medical care or go to college.

In Saudi Arabia, justice is administered by a system of religious courts which interpret Islamic Sharia law. The judges have complete discretion on sentences, except where Sharia outlines the sentence.

In the famous Qatif girl case from 2006, a 19-year-old reported to the police that she was gang-raped by seven men, but she was sentenced to 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a man who was not family. She had gone to retrieve her picture from a male high school friend, as she had just married and didn’t want her friend to have her picture anymore. When they were alone, two other men took them to a secluded area, and with seven men in total, raped both the girl and the student. The prosecutor asked for the death penalty for all seven men, but four men only received between one and five prison years, in addition to 80 to 1000 lashes. In 2007, this punishment was doubled due to the media attention. King Abdullah officially pardoned the girl and the student in 2007 for the public good. The pardon did not show any lack of confidence in the justice system however.


After the December 16, 2012 gang rape case in Delhi, where four men raped and murdered a 23-year-old girl, the Indian government enacted a very strict law on crimes against women. This has not deterred people from committing violence against women. In most cases, police act with complete insensitivity making women suffer a second time with their apathy and tendency to abuse power.

In the past couple of decades, education has enhanced the mobility and visibility of women in Indian society. But it’s just a small development. The emancipation of women from tradition and patriarchy is a long-time struggle.


The 2011 Constitution guarantees equal protection and enjoyment of its laws for both men and women. The legal marriage age changed from 15 to 18 years of age, and women are no longer required to have a male guardian approve their marriage. The criminal code has taken strides against acts of gender based violence, cracking down on non-partner sexual assault and repealing the rape marriage law, which allowed a rapist to evade punishment by marrying his victim.

However, some legislative gaps persist with disparities between the laws on the books and in practice. Some protections afforded under the 2004 Moudawana are left open to interference by gaps in the legislation, notably the prohibition on early and forced marriage which may be permitted through judicial waiver. While non-partner sexual assault is effectively addressed, marital rape is still unrecognized. Sexual harassment in public spaces is largely unchecked, with the current law defining harassment only in terms of employer-employee exchanges.8

Long way to go

It remains hard to compare legislation from countries all over the world, as each country has its own history, religion and culture. The belief that women are mothers and should take care of the house and children is embedded in a lot of religions and cultures. Will there ever be a unitary view on the role of women, or is this an Utopia? How realistic is it that all countries create completely gender equal legislation?

Annemieke Maatje


1. Gavin Haines, ‘Mapped: The best (and worst) countries for gender equality’ The Telegraph 4 november 2017, laatst geraadpleegd 9 maart 2018.
2. Redactie buitenland, ‘Emancipatie/VN: gelijkheid van vrouwen in Arabische wereld is vaak facade’ Trouw 6 december 2006, laatst geraadpleegd 9 maart 2018.

4. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, G.A. res. 48/104, 48 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 217, U.N. Doc. A/48/49 (1993), available at art 4.
5. Article 45 (21) of the 1992 Evidence Law
6. Angelo Franco, ‘The Problem of Women’s Rights and Politics in Ecuador’ Highbrow Magazine, laatst bekeken 9 maart 2018.


7. Nos redactie, ‘Meer dan 100.000 Saudische vrouwen solliciteren op ban bij douane’ NOS 1 februari, laatst bekeken 9 maart 2018.
8. Leila Hanafi en Danielle Hites, ‘Women’s Rights in Morocco: Balancing Domestic and International Law’ Atlantic Council, laatst bekeken op 9 maart 2018.


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