Female cops in Iraq? Arab women are seizing freedom.

News from the Middle East isn't all bleak.

Does it ever seem to you that the news from the Middle East is always bleak?

Well, take heart. From Iraq, where the United States sought to plant seeds of democracy, there is evidence of some budding.

The good news is that Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds have been trying to resolve tough procedural issues over oil rights and shares of seats in parliament, not with guns and bombs in the streets, but in parliament itself. Despite some glitches, the aim is to enable a landmark national election to go forward in January. Whether or not they make that deadline, this is (fragile) democracy in action.

But even more significant news – a major step for women – went largely unnoticed outside Iraq. Fifty women graduated alongside male classmates as senior officers in the national police force. In next year's class there will be 100 of them. The jobs are among the highest-paying in Iraq. The majority of the women in this year's class finished law school. There have been some women in lower police ranks, but they have not until now been eligible for the elite officers' corps.

Although the world's attention has latterly moved from Iraq to Afghanistan, this new recognition of women in the male-dominated Arab world is important. As Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist with long experience in the region, said: "Transform Iraq and it will impact the whole Arab-Muslim world. Change Afghanistan and you just change Afghanistan."

Many scholars and economists, both Arab and non-Arab, have reasoned that the political and economic repression of women is one of the significant reasons for the backwardness of the region. Successive reports by the United Nations have deplored the fact that half of Arab women can neither read nor write. Clearly, society as a whole suffers when half of its productive potential is stifled.

Because of their oil wealth, the so-called Gulf states have experienced unprecedented development in recent years. A survey by the New York-based Freedom House, which monitors freedom around the world, suggests that female citizens there have profited from recent government decisions to rely less on foreign, imported labor.

In Kuwait, women now have the same political rights as men. They can vote and run for office in parliamentary elections. Bahrain has appointed its first female judges. In Saudi Arabia, women can now study law, obtain their own identification cards, and check into hotels alone. But Freedom House concludes that Saudi women are still "among the most restricted in the world."

Despite the wealth of the Gulf states, "progress is stymied by the lack of democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and freedom of association and assembly."

Women face difficulties because deeply entrenched societal norms, combined with conservative interpretations of Islamic law, relegate them to subordinate status.

Women in the region are significantly underrepresented in senior positions in politics and the private sector, and in some countries they are completely absent from the judiciary. They are disadvantaged in laws that regulate marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other aspects of family life.

Family laws in most of the region declare that the husband is head of the family, give the husband power over his wife's right to work and travel, and in some instances specifically require the wife to obey her husband.

In an epilogue to its 2004 Arab Human Development report, the UN declared:

"Formidable obstacles stand in the way of a society of freedom and good governance in Arab countries. But at the end of this difficult journey, there lies a noble goal, worthy of the hardships endured by those who seek it.

"The time has come to make up for the missed opportunities of the past. It is to be hoped that the Arab people will not again fail to take this historic road leading to its appropriate place in a better, fairer and freer world … in whose benefits it will share."

Iraq has just taken such a step down that road.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.

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