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Sexism in North Africa

Three Muslim women wearing pink and white head coverings.
Three Muslim Women



Colonialism, statehood, authoritarianism, and sexism have led to discriminatory laws in the Middle East and North Africa. Some male guardians like personal status laws because it allows them to prevent unwanted marriages, protect their family's reputation, avoid taboos, and shelter women from society. However, women are extorted, punished, degraded, and exploited.[1] Muslim men justify personal status laws because of Quran 4:34. The verse says, "Men are qawammun [protectors and maintainers of] women, according to what God has favored some over others, and according to what they spend from their wealth”.[2] Other men and scholars disagree and believe both sexes are equal in the Quran.[3]

The Quran with a red and gold cover
A copy of the Quran

Some historians believe Islam improved women’s status in society. According to Isma’il al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi (1986), "[Before Islam,] a woman was regarded by her parents as a threat to family honor and hence worthy of burial alive at infancy. As an adult, she was a sex object that could be bought, sold, and inherited. From this position of inferiority and legal incapacity, Islam raised women to a position of influence and prestige in family and society.”[4]


Scholars point to verses 4:1 and 3:195 in the Quran. The former states, "Reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created of like nature his mate, from them scattered countless men and women. Fear Allah, through whom you demand your mutual rights and reverence the wombs (that bore you), for Allah ever watches over you".[5] The latter says, “Never will I waste the work of a worker among you, whether male or female, the one of you being from the other.” [6]


Dr. Jamal Badawi, an Islamic Canadian, writes, "The husband is responsible for the maintenance, protection, and overall leadership of the family within the framework of consultation and kindness. The mutuality and complementarity of husband and wife does not mean 'subservience' by either party to the other" in Gender Equality in Islam. According to the Quran, women can earn money and own property.[7] 


Despite the Quran’s teachings, women’s rights are restricted in North Africa. According to personal status laws, Algerian, Libyan, Moroccan, and Tunisian women do not need permission to leave their residence.[8] However, Egyptian women need a male guardian’s, or wali's, consent. Some women remain in abusive households because they are terrified they will lose financial resources or custody of their children. If women flee, their male guardians and law enforcement officers can force them to return home. Women can only rent an apartment or hotel room in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco with a Wali. However, some lodgings serve foreign women in Egypt and Morocco.[9]


Women can acquire a passport without their guardian's consent in Egypt (since 2000), Libya, Morocco (since 2004), and Tunisia (since 2017). Algerians must be nineteen or older to obtain a passport without their guardian's permission.[10] Egyptian, Libyan, Moroccan, and Tunisian women can freely travel abroad. On the other hand, some Algerian women cannot travel abroad without their guardian's consent, or a travel ban threat. Egyptian, Libyan, and Tunisian mothers can apply for their kids' passports and travel with them.[11]




Each country has different laws. Algerian husbands can divorce their wives without providing a reason. However, women must appeal to Algeria’s courts to obtain a divorce (p. 26).[12] Divorced women lose pre-marriage and earned assets.[13] Fathers are automatically their child’s legal representative.[14] Algerian Property owners rarely rent apartments and homes to single and unmarried women, according to the Chairperson of SOS Women in Distress organization.[15]


If an Algerian man or woman injures their spouse, the perpetrator can be sentenced to one year to life in jail. The penalty for sexual harassment is one to two years in prison. Women can use contraception, but conservative groups challenge their rights. Educational and financial investments, as well as political initiatives, decreased Algeria’s maternal mortality rate. In 1998, the rate was 179/100,000 live births. Two decades later, the rate was 112/100,000 live births.[16]




According to Egypt’s Personal Status Law, women can only move or make money if their husband agrees. [17] When a woman is not obedient, she breaks the law and gives up her right to nafaqa.[18] Nafaqa is defined as "the obligation on husbands to provide their wives with spousal maintenance (food, clothing, shelter, and other living expenses) during marriage.”[19]. Single women and public figures also face restrictions. An Egyptian and Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man for fear of being charged with adultery. A court charged Salma al-Shimy, a model and influencer, with publishing suggestive videos and disregarding traditional norms through shared posts. Consequently, she received a two-year prison sentence and a fine of EGP 100,000.[20] Women cannot defend themselves well in court because men’s testimonies are seen as more believable.[21]


An Egyptian man can face a jail sentence of 15 years to life if they are convicted of rape. An NCW study recorded 1.5 million reports of domestic violence every year. The number is higher because police convinced victims to drop charges. Cairo provides free family planning resources, and the country’s fertility rate decreased between 2014 and 2021. In 2014, Egypt’s fertility rate was 3.5 births. Seven years later, the fertility rate was 2.8 births.[22]


Some Egyptian women wear Hijabs, and others do not. The Hijab became popular in Egypt during the 1970s, and the Muslim Brotherhood supported the garment because it was anti-western. After President Morsi lost power, the hijab became less popular. Public restaurants and pools banned women from wearing a hijab or burkini.[23] After a woman was murdered by a suitor, a debate broke out against hijabs. A preacher recommended that women "cover [their] face with a basket".[24] Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, commented that the woman was not a rebel. However, the religious leader said that she disobeyed Allah. The deceased woman's university edited a hijab onto her photo, also sparking outrage.[25]




Libyan women cannot pass on their Libyan nationality to their children, marry foreign men without governmental permission, work without their husband’s consent, or be intimate with men whom they have not married. [26] If a Libyan woman is intimate with a man she is not married to, the penalty is five years in prison and flogging. If a man harms a woman (wife or relative) due to their suspicion of cheating, a court can give them a shorter sentence. The Tripoli Internal Security Agency, a branch of Tripoli’s Government of National Unity, mandated that solo women travelers had to fill out paperwork about their travel history before they could depart the country. However, this action violates Libyan law.[27] Some female government employees avoid traveling because they do not have a male guardian and want to keep their travel justifications confidential.[28]



Moudawana (2004) is Morocco’s family code.[29] According to Moroccan law, fathers are a child’s primary guardian, and men can inherit twice as much as daughters and female relatives.[30] Even though Rabat prohibits domestic violence, victims receive inadequate care, and women's shelters are underfunded. Victims of sexual assault avoid reporting the crime for fear of being charged with extramarital intimacy. If a Moroccan woman commits adultery, she is sentenced to a year or two in jail.[31] 


If a man sexually harasses a woman in public, they are sentenced to six months in prison. The punishment for rape and sexual assault are 5-20 years and six months to five years in prison, respectively.[32] Morocco’s Supreme Judicial Court, Prosecutor General’s Office, and Ministries of Health, Youth, and Women address gender-based violence cases. Victims can also receive shelter, advice, legal counsel, and resources from NGOs. Moroccan women have access to contraception and sexual/reproductive health resources.[33] Abortion is only legal in cases of medical emergencies and sexual assault.[34] Victims must gain permission from spouses and doctors. Disobeying the law leads to a two-to-five-year prison sentence.[35]



Tunisia’s constitution claims that men and women are legally equal. Tunisian law describes violence against women as “any restriction denying women equality in the civil, political, economic, social, or cultural domains".[36] Incest, rape, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination are illegal.[37] However, Tunisia follows Islamic law according to Article 5. At the end of 2022, President Saied revoked gender parity legislation. Consequently, twenty-five out of 161 elected representatives are women.[38] Wearing a hijab was popular around the 2011 Arab Spring because it was a symbol of rebellion and anti-secularism. However, the Tunisian government's economic and political failures made the head covering unpopular.[39]

International Law

Personal Status Laws violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 12 states:

1. Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.

2. Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.

3. The above-mentioned rights shall not be subject to any restrictions except those which are provided by law, are necessary to protect national security, public order (ordre public), public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others and are consistent with the other rights recognized in the present Covenant.

4. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.[40]

Such legislation also violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Arab Charter on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESCR), and the Maputo Protocol.[41]


[1] Human Rights Watch ‘Trapped: How Male Guardianship Policies Restrict Women’s Travel and Mobility in the Middle East and North Africa’ (18 July 2023)

[2] Human Rights Watch (n 1); Quran 4:34

[3] Ibid.

[4] Isma’il R. al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi. ‘The Cultural Atlas of Islam’; WhyIslam ‘Status of Women in Islam ‘(n.d.) Ohio University. ; Muslim Women’s League ‘Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia (September 1995); R.A. Nicholson ‘A Literary History of the Arabs’ (1966), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; W. Robertson Smith ‘Kinship & Marriage in Early Arabia’ London, Adam and Charles Black (1903).

[5] Quran 4:1; Why Islam (n 4)

[6] Quran 3:195; Why Islam (n 4)

[7] Quran 2:178; 4:45, 92-93; Why Islam (n 4)

[8] Human Rights Watch (n 1)

[9] Human Rights Watch (n 1)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Human Rights Watch ‘World Report 2024: Events of 2023’ (2024), Human Rights Watch. 26

[13] US Department of State. ‘Algeria 2022 Human Rights Report’ (2023).

[14] Human Rights Watch (n 11)

[15] Human Rights Watch (n 1)

[16] US Department of State  ‘Algeria 2022 Human Rights Report’ (2023) United States Department of State.

[17] Human Rights Watch (n 11), 194

[18] Ibid.

[19] Human Rights Watch (n 1)

[20] Ibid.

[21] US Department of State ‘Egypt 2022 Human Rights Report’ (2023).

[22] US Department of State (n 18)

[23] Madgi Abdelhadi. “Islamic Veil: Why Fewer Women in North Africa are Wearing it’ (19 July 2022).

[24] Abdelhadi (n 16)

[25] Ibid.

[26] Human Rights Watch (n 11), 395

[27] Ibid.

[28] US Department of State. “Libya 2022 Human Rights Report” (2023) United States Department of State.

[29] Human Rights Watch (n 11), 431

[30] Ibid, 431-2

[31] Ibid, 432

[32] US Department of State ‘Morocco 2022 Human Rights Report” (2023). United States Department of State.

[33] US Department of State (n 25)

[34] Human Rights Watch (n 11), 432

[35] Ibid.

[36] US Department of State ‘Tunisia 2022 Human Rights Report” (2023) United States Department of State.  

[37] US Department of State (n 29)

[38] Human Rights Watch (n11), 628

[39] Abdelhadi (n 16)

[40] Human Rights Watch (n 1); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR)

[41] Human Rights Watch (n 1)


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