WASHINGTON (AFP) - Womens rights have inched forward in the Middle East, but gender inequality remains the norm in the region and in some countries the situation has taken a turn for the worse, says a US study. The Middle East remains the most repressive region when it comes to womens rights but we have noticed some modest gains which have led to a cautious optimism in the fields of education, labour participation and vote participation, said Sanja Kelly, author of the report. Researchers in 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa conducted hundreds of interviews with women to evaluate what progress, if any, womens rights had made. The report, published last week by US democracy watchdog Freedom House, found that Algeria, Kuwait and Jordan had taken large steps forward in improving womens rights. In contrast however, Iraq, the Palestinian Territories and Yemen had fallen behind. Women in Tunisia enjoy the greatest freedoms of any women in the region, followed by their counterparts in Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon, the study found. In Kuwait, women now have the same political rights as men, and four women were elected to parliament in May for the first time in the countrys history. But on average, only 28 percent of Middle Eastern women work or were economically active, the lowest rate in the world, even if some countries such as Qatar had much better rates. More than four in 10 women in Qatar worked in 2007 compared with 36 percent seven years earlier, and similar gains were seen in Algeria and Libya. There are more women entrepreneurs, more women doctors, more women PhDs, and more women in universities, than ever before, said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, which supports and monitors democracy and human rights. However, substantial roadblocks remain for women pursuing careers. For while in Saudi Arabia, women can earn law degrees, they are barred from appearing in court on behalf of their clients, she noted. A 2005 reform in Algeria improved womens autonomy in the family and lifted a family code that had recognized women as guardians of kin and tradition rather than rather than autonomous individuals. But Muslim family law continues to govern anything related the family: marriage, divorce, child guardianship, inheritance, Kelly told AFP. In most countries throughout the region, a woman needs permission from her guardian, in most case her father, to get married, she said. When it comes to divorce, a man in most of these countries can obtain a divorce just by proclaiming verbally three times: 'I divorce you. For a woman its extremely challenging to separate from her husband, Kelly said. And yet nearly half of marriages end in divorce in the United Arab Emirates, 40 percent in Egypt, 38 percent in Qatar and three in 10 in Tunisia. Meanwhile, the biggest problem women face in the Middle East is domestic violence, the report says. What really sets the Middle East apart is the lack of laws that protect women from abuse by their husbands, Kelly told AFP. If you go to the police, theyll turn you away, she said. Jordan and Tunisia are the only two countries in the region to have criminalized domestic violence, while the UAE and Bahrain have opened the first shelters for abused women. Honour crimes, where a woman or girl is killed because it is felt that she brought dishonour on her family, have seen a worrying rise in the Palestinian territories and Iraq, the report says. A new specialized tribunal for cases involving honour crimes was established in 2009 in Jordan, making the kingdom only the second country to do so in the region after Tunisia. But in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, in part because of the widespread violence and insecure conditions, the numbers are going up, said Kelly. Its a huge concern.