Despite hopes that women would be among the prime beneficiaries of the Arab Spring, poll results released Tuesday said that sexual harassment, high rates of female genital mutilation and a surge in violence have made Egypt the Arab world’s worst country in which to be a woman.
Discriminatory laws and a spike in human trafficking also contributed to Egypt's place at the bottom of a ranking of 22 Arab states in the Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of gender experts. The poll was intended to provide a snapshot of the state of women's rights in the Arab world three years after the Arab Spring began. Iraq ranked second-worst after Egypt, followed by Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.
Comoros, an Indian Ocean archipelago nation where women hold 20 percent of ministerial positions and where wives generally keep land or the home after divorce, came out on top, followed by Oman, Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar.
Survey questions were based on provisions of the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which 19 Arab states have signed or ratified.
The poll assessed violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society and attitudes toward a woman's role in politics and the economy.
Egypt scored badly in almost all categories.
Women played a central role in the country's revolution, but activists said the rising influence of Islamists, culminating in the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi as president, was a major setback for women's rights.
Morsi was toppled in a military takeover in July after mass protests against his rule, but hopes for greater freedoms have been tempered by the daily dangers facing women on the street, experts said.
In April, a U.N. report on women said 99.3 percent of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment in Egypt, a situation some analysts say reflects a general rise in violence in Egyptian society over the past half-decade.
Human Rights Watch reported that 91 women were raped or sexually assaulted in public in Tahrir Square in June as anti-Morsi protests heated up.
"The social acceptability of everyday sexual harassment affects every woman in Egypt regardless of age, professional or socio-economic background, marriage status, dress or behavior," said Noora Flinkman, communications manager at HarassMap, a Cairo-based rights group that campaigns against harassment.
"It limits women's participation in public life. It affects their safety and security, their sense of worth, self-confidence and health."
Respondents also cited high rates of forced marriage and trafficking.
"There are whole villages on the outskirts of Cairo and elsewhere where the bulk of economic activity is based on trafficking in women and forced marriages," said Zahra Radwan, Middle East and North Africa program officer for the Global Fund for Women, a U.S.-based rights group.
Female genital mutilation is endemic in Egypt, where 91 percent of women and girls – 27.2 million in all – are subjected to such procedures, according to UNICEF. Only Djibouti has a higher rate, with 93 percent of women and girls affected.
The poll results said Comoros is leading the way on women's rights in the Arab world.
Women in Comoros are not under pressure to give birth to boys over girls, according to the poll results. Contraception is widely accepted and supported by state-run education campaigns, and property is usually awarded to women after divorce or separation, experts said.