Of the many things we take for granted, such as weekends, an eight-hour work day and female students being allowed into universities, it escapes the majority of people that somewhere in history a group of people had to push relentlessly for them to become the norm. With women’s rights specifically, that effort continues in different forms to this very day.
While January is usually the month of new resolutions and clean slates, December is for reflecting on and celebrating the achievements and advancements of the last 12 months. As we close the books for 2018, we felt it necessary to put down in ink the remarkable victories of women across the world — from the US to Spain, Morocco and the Gulf states — and their journey toward their rightful place in the global community at large.
The ushering of the female movement may seem sudden to most, but women have been making strides across the world, building up momentum to reach unprecedented heights. Every year we rode the wave, but the wave is bigger today.
The year has been filled with leaps in activism, achievements, rebellions and advocacy to bring attention to the issues facing women every day. Women have broken the glass ceiling in every field and sphere, be it social, political, economic and even scientific.
This year was an important one for women in politics. Ethiopia is now led by its first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde (for those keeping count, there are now 21 females currently serving as head of state or head of government). Spain’s new Cabinet has the highest number of female ministers in the country’s history, with 11 women and only six men.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern became the first elected leader to go on maternity leave, proving to the world that you can be both a leader and a mother. In Ireland, thousands took to the streets to campaign against the draconian abortion ban, and in May finally voted to repeal it, allowing women to decide what is best for their own bodies.
The momentum was also carried over into American politics. Some 255 women ran for office during the midterm elections, the most in the country’s history. Not only did women make history with their numbers, but also with their diversity. Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan’s 13th District, and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar became the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, at the age of 29, became the youngest woman elected to Congress. Sharice Davids became the first Native American woman to be elected. The gains in seats were fueled, to some degree, by the high-profile sexual assault allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. While his confirmation to the Supreme Court was a strong blow to campaigners against all forms of violence and abuse, the historic victories of these women are testament to women’s strength, resilience and support of one another, despite the hurdles.
Women’s advancements echoed even further in the sciences, where the Nobel Prize in Physics was jointly awarded to a woman, Donna Strickland, for the first time in 55 years, while biochemical engineer Frances Arnold became only the fifth woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry since its inception 117 years ago. Never before had women won the Nobel Prize in both these categories in the same year. This year also marked the first time an Iraqi woman, Nadia Murad, won the Nobel Peace Prize thanks to her efforts toward ending the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. Murad, who was a victim of war crimes by Daesh, used her personal experience to campaign for this important cause.
Another well-deserved win for women came as Sheikha Bodour Al-Qasimi was named as the next Vice President of the International Publishers Association, making her the first Arab woman and second ever woman to hold a leadership position in the association.
Even in Hollywood, the #MeToo movement continued to bring down household names and put them in front of judges in an effort to bring justice to the industry. Bill Cosby was sentenced to prison for sexual assault, while Harvey Weinstein, the film mogul, is awaiting trial. The movement in Hollywood has also brought attention to the disparity in pay between male and female actors. It has also been a year of remarkable triumphs, with Nadine Labaki nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language picture — the first ever nod for the Lebanese director and the second for her country.
In the workforce, more and more companies are beginning to re-examine deeply rooted, sexist structures thanks to the bravery of women who took the courageous decision to speak up against sexual harassment.
While women from minority groups pushed the envelope in Western societies, their counterparts also played significant roles in bringing the winds of change to their respective countries of origin. Halfway across the globe in the Middle East and North Africa, women have been taking significant steps toward full emancipation, and are succeeding against all odds. From Morocco to the UAE, women gracefully moved from strength to strength on all fronts.
Violence against women is one of the universal issues the world faces today, with one in three women being victims of some form of abuse in their lifetime. In the Arab world, 37 percent of women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime (with indicators that the percentage might even be higher). Fortunately, the past few months have brought many positive legislative and policy advancements on this front.
In 2018, Morocco passed a law recognizing violence against women as a form of gender-based discrimination, making it the ninth country in the region to have adequate laws to curb domestic violence, following the likes of Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan and Bahrain.
In addition, Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon repealed their rape-marriage exoneration laws, following similar moves in past years by Morocco and Egypt. These colonial-era relics had allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victims, further aggravating the trauma they had already inflicted.
If 2018 was the year women took to the driving seat, 2019 promises that women are here to stay.
Asma I. Abdulmalik & Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
Perhaps the most radical and bold move in the region, however, came from Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who in August announced his intention to make equal inheritance for men and women the law, meaning Tunisia would be the first country in the Arab world to work toward instating equal inheritance. In doing so, it aims to improve the financial inclusion of Tunisian women and potentially allow them to obtain more property.
Across the Red Sea in the Gulf states, Saudi women started the year as spectators at a soccer game, something they had not been able to do for decades. Just a few months later, the Kingdom’s historic decision to remove the driving ban for women was welcomed across the country, signaling a new and bright chapter in its history. This key step empowers Saudi women in multiple ways, allowing them to now move freely and independently, as well as join the workforce in larger numbers.
Next door, the UAE Cabinet in April approved the issuance of legislation to ensure equal pay for men and women working in the country. The law is in line with the government’s objective to support women’s role in the national development process, and as part of the National Strategy for the Empowerment of Emirati Women launched by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairperson of the General Women’s Union. Ending the year with a bang, the country also issued new directives to increase the participation of women in its Federal National Council to 50 percent. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, referred to the decision as a “great leap forward in cementing the legislative and parliamentary role of women in our nation’s development.” Since women represent half the society, he believes they should be similarly represented in the FNC.
If 2018 was the year women took to the driving seat, 2019 promises that women are here to stay. Especially in the Gulf states, the way for women appears to be one way only, and that is forward. That being said, while we’ve come a long way, there is still much to be done. There are still women being paid less than men for doing the same job, and there are still women forced into marriages and out of work. We long for the day when all these triumphs are news no more.
We end the year applauding the women who did not take no for an answer, who rejected the status quo, who stood tall and found their voices, and asserted to the rest of the world that the future is indeed female.
• Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @AsmaIMalik
• Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif