Abolishing these seven laws will make the world better for women

A video made by Loujain al-Hathloul shows her driving towards the United Arab Emirates-Saudi Arabia border before her arrest.

A video made by Loujain al-Hathloul shows her driving towards the United Arab Emirates-Saudi Arabia border before her arrest. Photo: AP

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN's Beijing Declaration, when some 189 countries pledged to repeal all laws that discriminate against women.

Needless to say, these signatory states have yet to achieve that lofty goal. To remind leaders of their obligations, human rights organisation Equality Now has released a report detailing discriminatory laws across the globe, and urging readers to contact the various heads of state in protest.

In the spirit of Equality Now's initiative, and to mark this year's International Women's Day, I have selected just seven global laws that adversely affect women. Some feature in the Equality Now report but a few do not, which goes to show the depths to which women's inequality is entrenched. This list is by no means comprehensive but selected to show how each region in the world targets women to one extent or another.

Abolishing these seven laws will drastically improve the lives of women.


1. Iran's Dress Code

Iran's penal code dictates that women who appear in public without prescribed Islamic dress (hijab) risk either a short prison sentence or a fine. Iranian women have been resisting the oppression of compulsory hijab in various ways, including through the popular Facebook group My Stealthy Freedom, where they upload pictures of themselves openly defying the law.

Since there is no corresponding law imposing dress codes on men, this law is itself discriminatory. Further, it enshrines in law the tendency for women to be judged by how they dress, and of course, it oppresses women by forcing them to adhere to a religious obligation they may not necessarily agree with.

As well as subjecting women to the same laws as men, which in itself creates a fairer society, abolishing this law will grant women more freedom and control over their bodies.

2. Saudi Arabia's Ban on Women Driving

One of the most infamous anti-women laws in the world is not even a law at all. That's right, there is no law in Saudi Arabia that specifically prohibits women from driving. There is, however, a government imposed ban on granting licenses to women.

The driving ban oppresses women in more ways than you might think. Not only is it discriminatory to deny licenses on the basis of gender, the prohibition on women driving contributes to women's social isolation. As highlighted to brutal effect in the first Saudi Arabian film by a female director, Wadjda, without the freedom to drive, the ability to move freely, whether for work or to visit friends and family, is severely restricted.

In other words, it's yet another way women are confined to the home, which further entrenches the idea that women belong in the home. How will abolishing this law help women?

Two words: freedom and independence. Which probably explains why the ruling monarchy is so reluctant to overturn this infantilising ban.

3. Criminalisation of Abortion in Australia

Incredibly, many Australians are unaware that abortion is actually a crime in many states. Only Tasmania and Victoria have removed abortion from the criminal code; all other Australian women seeking terminations must rely on an exemption in the law granting doctors the right to perform an abortion if the doctor regards it "necessary" for the woman's physical and/or mental health.

This places the control of women's bodies in someone else's hands, a direct contravention of the right to bodily autonomy. If women can't control their own bodies, they cannot control their lives. Bodily autonomy is a cornerstone of women's liberation and it is a fundamental human right.

Decriminalising abortion will restore abortion to its rightful place as a medical rather than criminal issue. This will not only protect women -and their doctors- from possible prosecution, it will challenge the increasingly vocal pro-life movement by removing much of the stigma associated with abortion, safeguarding women from stealthy attempts to further restrict their access to abortion through measures such as last year's failed personhood bill in NSW.

4. Texas Abortion Law

Australia's pro-life movement models itself on its successful counterpart in the US. The gains of the anti-abortion activists have come to fruition in draconian laws such as that passed in Texas last year, which restricts abortion access by banning the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy and, among other measures, requires abortion providers have "admitting privileges" at the local hospital, an impossibility given so many providers have to be flown in from other states.

These requirements are so ludicrous, 13 clinics had to close as soon as the law was passed. This, of course, means many women, particularly low-income women, cannot access safe, legal abortions.

Reproductive autonomy puts women in control of their own destiny. It makes women safer and more financially independent. Laws such as this add to the abortion stigma and lead to appalling interpretations of the law that have seen women charged and jailed for having miscarriages and refusing cesareans.

5. Uganda's "Miniskirt Law"

That this law was only introduced last year shows how easily women's rights can regress.

Dubbed the "miniskirt law" by local media, Uganda's Anti-Pornography law, rather than specifically outlawing miniskirts, bans "indecent dressing."

Let's face it, whenever people talk about "indecent dress," they almost invariably mean clothes worn by women. Even in cultures that have dress codes for both men and women, such as many Muslim-majority countries, not only is it just women's dress that is aggressively policed, but the rules as to what constitutes indecent is far more restrictive for women. Uganda's law, for instance, has seen politicians call for the imprisonment of any woman wearing a skirt "above the knee".

Again, wherever there are official dress codes for women, women get judged more harshly by what they wear. This is how we ended up in a global society where "modest" clothing is a sign of a respectable or "good" woman, and so-called "immodest" or "indecent" clothing is supposedly only worn by women of lesser moral value.

Uganda's miniskirt law, which essentially enshrines misogyny, had immediate consequences for women, with angry mobs physically attacking and stripping mini-skirted women in public. Striking down this law will make women safer and disavow these rampaging mobs of the curious notion that forcibly stripping women is an appropriate way to "punish" them for not wearing enough clothing.

6. Guatemala Legal Age of Marriage

In this Catholic-majority Central American country, the legal age for marriage is 14. Not only is this appallingly low in itself but, according to this New York Times photo essay, it "seems to be more of a suggestion", with "underage brides everywhere".

Child marriage is endemic all over the world and its victims are overwhelming girls. Often married off to much older men, it leaves them vulnerable to abuse, often deprives them of an education, and frequently traps them in a life of poverty with some of Guatemala's young brides left to fend for themselves- and their young children. This brutal cycle repeats itself in the next generation.

When girls aren't marrying and reproducing at such a young age, they are more likely to get an education, to be able to work and to have financial independence. Child marriage has been a key means of oppressing women for so long because it all but ensures their continued dependency on men.

7. Israeli Divorce Law

Its much-hyped status as the "only Western-style democracy in the Middle East" means Israel often gets away with transgressions that would be considered unacceptable in other Western nations. Many people are unaware (or don't care), for example, that Palestinian spouses of Israeli-Arab citizens are forbidden from getting Israeli citizenship.

But it's not just non-Jews that suffer legal discrimination.

Marriages and divorces between Jewish citizens fall under rabbinical law and, as is usually the case when it comes to religiously-regulated societies, this means women suffer.

Basically, divorces are only granted when the husband agrees to one. A challenge to this law back in 1995 -the year of the Beijing Declaration- failed with the all-male judges (women are not permitted to serve in these courts) deciding not to force a husband to grant a divorce to his estranged wife of six years.

Abolishing this law will remove the control of women's lives from the jurisdiction of men. Or, in the case of one Jewish Israeli woman, from the jurisdiction of her dead husband's family. Yes, 13 years after her husband's death, one Israeli woman is currently being denied the right to remarry because her in-laws refuse to conduct a religious "separation ceremony."