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Step by step for Middle East women

As women gain access to education, jobs, and voting, they'll demand more rights.

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A government's selection of a woman to oversee female education would hardly make headlines in many countries. But this is a first in Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most restrictive places for women. As experience in the region shows, even such a minor step can shift the political sands toward more equal opportunity for the sexes.

Steady but small steps toward women's rights and freedoms are necessary in a culture with a strong history of laws and Islamic practices that are patriarchal and define social roles. Sadly, women may still require a male's permission to marry, divorce, or work; domestic violence is a serious problem.

But the Middle East is not the same place for women that it was even five years ago.

That at least is the conclusion of a study released last week by Freedom House, a Washington-based group which tracks liberty's advance (or retreat) around the globe. From 2004 through last year, all six countries in the study advanced women's rights, making "small but notable gains" in political, economic, and legal rights.

Of the countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates), Kuwait and the UAE made the most progress. In Kuwait, for instance, women voted and ran for the first time in local and national elections in 2006. (Recent regional elections in next-door Iraq required 30 percent of candidates be women.)

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