Title: The Bleak Reality of Women’s Rights in the Middle East and How far the Arab Spring Must Go —
Though the Arab Spring offers great promise for helping women gain equitable human rights in the Middle East, there is still tremendous work to be done on this account. Unfortunately, recent liberal political movements have even sparked backlash from conservative regimes causing them to be increasingly stringent and overbearing on women rather than helping to resolve the problem. Despite the positive media attention, there is still prevalent oppression of women at different levels throughout the Middle East. We will examine several of the most fundamental ways in which women are systematically discriminated against. These categories include (1) lack of personal autonomy; (2) limited participation in society; and (3) disparate access to education.
Commonly in the Middle East, women’s personal autonomy is severely limited due to deeply entrenched patriarchal family systems. For example, in most Middle East nations, it is exceedingly difficult for a woman to file for divorce, polygamy is often legal and socially acceptable, and there are even laws that condone “honor killings” for transgressions of perceived improper conduct. For example, in Turkey, according to the Prime Ministry’s Human Rights Directorate, in Istanbul alone there was one honor killing every week and UNICEF estimates that as much as two thirds of all killings in the Palestinian territories were honor killings.
In Egypt, often considered one of the more liberal countries in the Middle East, UNICEF found that from 1997 to 2007, 96 percent of women between 15 and 49 have experienced female genital mutilation. In Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, and Oman female genital mutilation is also an issue.
And in Afghanistan the government has even gone so far as to pass a law permitting Shia men to deny their wives sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands’ sexual demands. In much of the Middle East women can be married off by their parents at very young ages and without consent. As a result, the New York times reports that “officials are alarmed by what they describe as a worsening epidemic of suicides, particularly among young women tormented by being forced to marry too young, to someone they do not love.”
This patriarchal system of guardianship against women extends beyond marital relations to almost every aspect of life. In the Human Rights Watch’s 50-page report called “ “Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship,” we find that Saudi women often must obtain permission from a guardian (a father, husband, or even a son) to work, travel, study, marry, or even access health care. Unfortunately such restrictions against personal autonomy are prevalent throughout much of the Arab world. The Human Rights Watch report provides an illustrative example stating, “Fatma A., a 40-year-old [woman] cannot board a plane without written permission from her son, her legal guardian. “My son is 23 years old and has to come all the way from the Eastern Province to give me permission to leave the country.”
From the above examples and statistics, we can see that is literally true that women are essentially treated as minors and are denied the basic autonomy to control their bodies and even the entire substance of their lives.
Literacy is one of the most fundamental indicators of a person’s education. As Frederick Douglass, the great American social reformer and statesman who escaped slavery, once wrote, “once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Without literacy, a person is denied the basic opportunity to be an informed and versed participant in society. As such, literacy within population demographics is a key indicator as to whether a country is providing the vital educational opportunities for people to harness and apply their intellect and personhood in order to meaningfully engage society. In the words of President Clinton “literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and responsibility.”
Unfortunately, in the Middle East, the statistics of literacy amongst women are very poor. Women over 15 years-old have an illiteracy rate 42 percent when compared to men at 22 percent.
In Morocco, Egypt, and Syria, women’s illiteracy rates are 64, 56, and 40 percent, respectively. Further, in communities where there is a basic offering of education for women, the Arab Human Development Report from 2002 still holds that “the most worrying aspect of the crisis in education is education’s inability to provide the requirements for the development of Arab societies.”
Participation in Society:
According to the United Nations Arab Human Development report, “Arab women’s capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms [. . . .] In some countries with elected national assemblies, women are still denied the right to vote or hold office. And one in every two Arab women can neither read nor write.”
In the Freedom House’s 2010 report Freedom in the World whichsurveyed the state of women’s political rights and civil liberties globally, the Middle East/Northern Africa (MENA) region came-in dead last. Concerning employment, in the Population Reference Bureau’s report “Empowering Woman, Developing Society,” we find that only 20 percent of women 15 and older are an active part of the labor force in the Middle East/Northern Africa region. This is the lowest ratio of any region in the world. Further, of that 20 percent of women participating in the labor force, the majority are employed as manual labor in the agricultural sector with little prospects of significant job mobility.
What these reports and others like them consistently find is that gender discrimination in the Middle East is often codified in law, family law or civil codes, ethics and mores. Beyond having their personal lives severely limited as discussed in the section above entitled “Personal Autonomy,” here we see that women also have limited opportunity to participate in civil society as a whole. Systematic discrimination that prevents women from working, driving, voting, holding public office or even being admitted to a hospital are all examples of how women are blocked from being full participants in society.
The results of Egypt’s 2000 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) provide insights into families’ preferences for investing in their children’s education. Women with children ages 6 to 15 were asked, “If parents have one son and one daughter and can send only one child to the university, which child should they send?” While 53 percent of the women said that the decision should depend on the children’s capabilities, 39 percent said that the son should go to the university, compared with only 8 percent who said that the daughter should go. The survey also found that mothers of children who had never attended school were more likely to cite the cost of education as a reason for not educating their daughters than for not educating their sons.11
However, the situation in the region is slowly changing. Women activists, who generally come from the educated segments of society, are challenging the status quo; demanding equality in the family and society; and calling for women’s economic, political, and social empowerment. The trend’s intensity varies by country but is visible even in relatively conservative nations. In addition to facing political pressure for reform, countries are dealing with economic changes that are creating an impetus for women to become more active outside the home. As the region’s cost of living rises rapidly, families are increasingly forced to depend on the additional income that female family members can provide.
The most worrying aspect of the crisis in education is education’s inability to provide the requirements for the development of Arab societies,” according to the 2002 Arab Human Development Report.
Last week, our Facebook page was attacked by spammers who tried to post lots of messages in support of Bashar Assad, president of Syria. The attack, orchestrated by the Assad government, was a crude attempt to change the international discourse about the recent government led brutality. The attack failed. Very quickly, the page from which they called to spam FreeMiddleEast, as well as other human rights groups and news networks was removed by facebook.
Still, we did not delete their spam. You can simply look at our previous Facebook post and see all the pro-Assad comments.
A few thoughts come to mind:
1. It is impressive that in a short space of time, FreeMiddleEast.com has become significant enough that the Syrian government chose to attack it. Their targets were specific and carefully chosen. In some weird way, this attack has proven that FreeMiddleEast.com is a success story.
2. FreeMiddleEast.com believes in free speech. However, we are completely opposed to spam. Therefore, we would like to ask you, our fans: How do you think we should monitor activity on our Facebook page? Should we allow all speech or should we filter out offensive comments or spam?
3. We might be doing well, but the fact that Bashar Assad is still in power, killing his own people, reminds us of the urgency of our cause. Please get your friends to join us in our battle!
For the last 45 years the Assad run dictatorship of Syria has ruled Syria with an iron clad grip. The discriminatory policies and actions embraced by this dictatorship are one of the driving forces behind the continuing multi-faceted apartheid in the Arab world. A striking example is the recent uprisings and protests against the Assad regime. Up until mid July, the 2011 protests have resulted in over 1400 civilian deaths (Arabia MSN, 2011). Recently, 100’s more have been murdered in the city of Hama and the port city of Latakia.
The policies and decisions taken against Syrian minorities and ethnic groups have brought the injustices of the regime to light. It is well documented that Kurds are persecuted in Turkey. Less well know is that the Kurds are vehemently discriminated against in Syria as well. Syria has an “Arabization policy” which restricts Kurds in the practice of their customs. The Kurdish language, holidays, marriage and right to organization are all effected by these restrictions. In 1962 the Syrian government initially stripped citizenship or denied citizenship to over one hundred thousand Kurds (HRW, 1996). This effectively left these Kurds stateless with no claim to another nationality. This discriminatory measure was echoed through the Assad regime in 2008 with decree 49 which dispossessed Kurds of their lands in the claimed “Arab Belt” (KurdWatch.org, 2010). This policy bolsters the government backed discrimination against minorities and non-Syrian populations.
The Palestinian population of Syria is another group adversely effected by the prejudiced policies of the Assad dictatorship. Not only are they restricted in their entrepreneurial choices, housing and religious freedoms but they are prohibited from being granted Syrian citizenship and are forced to remain “stateless.” Despite the regime’s attempts to legitimize these actions this policy is one of racism and a form of cultural segregation. The fact that Syrian leadership has set criteria for this group to claim citizenship not only obstructs their path to freedom it bars them from their basic right to equal dignity. As the Assad family throne gets handed down the negative treatment of Palestinians and other groups has only increased from the dictatorship’s harsh policies. The Syrian government chooses to perpetuate the status of “refugee” for these people instead of offering them a path to better their lives. Palestinians are not only refused citizenship the Syrian regime prohibits these “non-Syrians” from being autonomous leaving them completely un-governed. (UNHCR, 2008)
Apartheid is alive and well in the Arab World and particularly in Syria. Many are now calling for the Syrian dictatorship to be brought to justice. The purpose of the Arab spring is to encourage the blossoming of clear and peaceful democracy upon nations which have suffered from despotic regimes. The efforts of the Syrian people to overthrow the Assad regime should be welcomed and supported by all those who wish to see justice, freedom and peace in the Middle East.
Michael Haddad, Guest Contributer.
KurdWatch.org. (2010, August 10). Kurdistan report: decree 49 — dispossession of the Kurdish population?. Retrieved from https://www.newroz.com/en/kurdistan/346239/report-decree-49-dispossession-kurdish-population
HRW. (1996). Syria: the silenced Kurds. Human Rights Watch, 8(4). Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/1996/Syria.htm
Arabia MSN. (2011). Syrian army readies operations near iraq border: report. Retrieved from http://arabia.msn.com/News/MiddleEast/youm7/2011/July/7588658.aspx
UNHCR, UN Refugee agency. (2008, December 19). Campaign to change unfair citizenship law continues. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/category,COI,IWPR,,SYR,4959de2a1e,0.html
Hamas was founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Mahmoud Zahhar with the aim of destroying the state of Israel, all the while establishing the creation of an Islamic state throughout the region. Despite the fact that it is commonly viewed as a terrorist organization by many countries around the world, Hamas exists as a political party that has been governing the Gaza strip since 2006, after winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian Authority elections against Fatah.
As a result of this democratic election process Hamas now has a legitimate mandate to govern as they see fit. This initially resulted in an escalation of violence with Israel, including rocket attacks fired into Israeli territory. Human Rights Watch explains that these rocket attacks deliberately targeted innocent civilians. There have also been suicide bombings in the region which have been attributed to Hamas’ military wing, the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades. These are just some of many human rights abuses which Hamas has been criticized and accused of.
Other criticisms have been reserved for the ways in which the Hamas administration governs its own citizens. Their rules are based on imposing a strict Islamic code which must be adhered to. As with any religious extremists, they actually twist the real meaning of their religion to suit their own agenda. This religious extremism has resulted in infringements of personal rights and freedoms throughout certain sections of society within Gaza.
An example of Hamas’ widespread condemnation is seen in the treatment of female citizens. The extreme governing of women ranges from being forced into compulsory wearing of the hijab, to more shocking policies such as the enforced removal of a widowed mother from her children; a son when he reaches nine years of age and a daughter at age eleven. Since its original inception, this law has been reconstructed, now allowing a woman to keep her children under the condition that she does not remarry. Whilst this might be an improvement, it still represents a government that forces their will upon its citizens. This is based on their strict adherence to Islamic Sharia law, under which women are treated differently to men. The insistence of a dress code for women is just one example of this.
Along with its strict religious conservatism, Hamas even went to the extent of ordering men to cover up on beaches. This measure was part of Hamas’ “virtue campaign,” which included instructing their citizens on what kind of music they could play as well as banning the act dancing altogether. The Religious Affairs Ministry was established to oversee this program of censorship.
It is quite apparent that there is no separation between religion and government in Gaza. As a result, Hamas’ strict and religious extremism has resulted in a reduction of liberties for many people, including secularists. However, while the examples given previously are frustrating for those involved, there are certain human rights abuses which are far more serious in Gaza. For one, homosexuality is illegal under Sharia law. In 2005, Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, the senior leader of Hamas, described gay people as being “a minority of perverts and the mentally and morally sick.”
As can be expected after reading such a statement, gay people have no equality under Hamas’ government. In fact they have no rights at all, as their relationships are not even recognized. There is no allowance for them in law, for example in terms of adoption, and there exist no anti-discrimination laws in place to protect them. More over, it is their government alone which seeks to discriminate against them. The punishment for homosexuality in Gaza is severe, with men potentially having to spend ten years in jail as a result of their sexuality.
Hamas has had to install a large security and police presence in Gaza in order to enforce their strict moral code. This has understandably resulted in a climate of fear amongst the population. These forces essentially have a free reign to stamp out any behavior which they deem to violate this code. Descriptions of arrests, detentions, and torture have emerged from Gaza, despite the fact that the media have been banned from reporting on such issues.
The Western world has a duty to monitor activity in Gaza to ensure that the human rights abuses already witnessed are not allowed to continue.
The recent wave of unrest has brought to surface many misconceptions that people have about the Middle East. Here are the misconceptions and their true answers::
1. The Middle East is bound to remain without freedoms forever
When discussing the recent wave of revolts, many commentators spoke with cynicism, arguing that there cannot be freedom in the Middle East. However, many people forget that the Middle East was once the location of the most advanced cultures in the world. With time, brutal dictators have taken power. If we all stand up against their oppression, then freedom can indeed be brought to the Middle East.
2. In the Middle East, a good dictator is the most you can ask for
A good dictator does not bring freedom. He might bring calm. He might bring prosperity. He might even bring happiness to some. However, he will never bring freedom. The populations of the Middle East have the right to the same freedom as those in the West. On the other hand, there is a legitimate concern that the rush to freedom will be twisted into repressive radical dictatorships . However, if new democracies are built slowly and carefully, they will be a vast improvement on the current crop of Arab dictators.
3. Israel is the cause of all the Middle East problems
Israel has absolutely nothing to do with the very serious issues affecting other Middle Eastern countries. While Israel has been used as a pawn for dictators to keep power, the issues affecting the daily lives of Middle Eastern people is of far greater importance. These issues include: poverty, freedom and human rights. By focusing on Israel, the world is telling dictators: as long as we can use Israel as a scapegoat, we will not pay attention to the horrible atrocities which you are committing against your own people. It is high time that we concerned ourselves with the plight of the Sudanese of Darfur, the women in Iran, Kurds, Copts amongst many others who are paid lip service by world institutions.
4. The Western World has always helped the Middle East advance towards freedom
If you look at a map of the Middle East, you will see that most countries have straight lines as their borders. There is a simple reason for that: European bureaucrats drew these borders. The Middle Eastern mess is partly due to artificially made states that do not represent cultural or geographical continuity. Today, the Kurds, a proud people, still do not have their own homeland. And, while Libya is the focus of the Obama administration, it ignores the cry for freedom in Syria, Iran and many other Middle Eastern countries.
5. The UN is an advocate of human rights in the Middle East
The UN is one of the most important international bodies ever created. It is hard to know how many conflicts were averted due to the international cooperation which it has fostered. However, the UN has been high jacked by those who do not hold world peace as a priority. The UN Human Rights Council has become a farce. It is run by some of the greatest abusers of human rights. If freedom is to come to the Middle East, the United Nations must also change. It must once again be a force that holds dictators accountable, rather than being the plaything of oil barons and their customers.
As the world celebrated International Women’s Day, the U.N. again showed itself to be out of touch on Women’s Rights.
On March 4th 2011, Iran officially becomes a member of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women! This comes only a few days after the international outrage over Libya’s membership of the U.N. Human Rights Council and the suspension of that membership.
Unfortunately, this is yet another example of how the U.N. is off track. Instead of fighting for human rights, it fights for the national interest of powerful OIL rich nations. Instead of condemning Iran for its human rights record, it encourages its behaviour by giving it tacit approval and even certification.
We began the New Year, just a few short weeks ago, with a brutal terrorist attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt. 21 people were killed and 79 injured when a car bomb exploded outside the church.
Systemic Discrimination for Centuries
While much of the world was seen condemning the perpetrators and expressing support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a deeper look at this situation shows that the Egyptian Coptic community has been systematically discriminated against for centuries. President Mubarak was quoted by the L.A. Times, “This act of terrorism shook the country’s conscience, shocked our feelings and hurt the hearts of Muslim and Coptic Egyptians,” he said in an emergency address to the nation. “The blood of their martyrs in the land of Alexandria mixed to tell us all that all Egypt is the target and that blind terrorism does not differentiate between a Copt and a Muslim.”
The Copts are the largest minority in Egypt with around 5% of the population however they still need special approval before being able to carry out even basic renovations on their churches. In the past this approval was granted by the president himself. Today it is granted by the regional governor. Some people point to this change as an example of shifting policy towards the Copts but this is nothing more than a bureaucratic change. They still need special permission before any work is done on their churches and such approval is never required for work done on mosques.
Recent attacks against Coptic Christians
In order to better assess the situation in which the Copts are living let’s take a look at some recent events that prove a strong history of discrimination against this group of people. 20 Copts were killed in a confrontation in late 2000, early 2001 when a personal dispute between two individuals escalated into a confrontation between Muslims and Christians. (“Egyptian court orders clashes retrial”. BBC News. July 30, 2001)
In 2006, an 80-year-old man was killed and 6 others were wounded when a Muslim man wielding machetes attacked three churches in Alexandria. “What is worrying me is not the attack itself, but the insistence of the Egyptian security to cloud the truth,” said Youssef Saidhum, editor of Watani, a weekly Coptic newspaper. “It does not only upset Copts, but it sends a message to the attackers, regardless of their ideology, that the government is either afraid of them or supports them, so they get stronger and bolder.” (NY Times. April 14, 2006)
In May 2010 the Wall Street Journal reported waves of attacks by Muslim mobs on Coptic Christians. The police would not help other than forcing the Coptic Christians into superficial reconciliation after the violence was over. (Zaki, Moheb. May 18, 2010. “Egypt’s Persecuted Christians”)
In Marsa Matrouh, a main Egyptian tourist city and getaway resort for many Europeans, a mob of 3,000 Muslims attacked the city’s Coptic population. 400 Copts were forced to barricade themselves in a church while the mob destroyed 18 homes, 23 shops and 16 cars. This is reminiscent of the pogroms of Eastern Europe against the Jews in the early 20th century.
Human Trafficking against Coptic Girls
In addition to all of the attacks there is widespread human trafficking against Coptic girls who are abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and sexually exploited by Muslim men. United States Congressmen have complained about this fact to the Egyptian government but no appropriate measures have been taken. (Abrams, Joseph. April 21, 2010. “House Members Press White House to Confront Egypt on Forced Marriages.” foxnews.com)
Decline in Coptic population not associated with migration
In 1897 the Egyptian population was made up of 13.2% Copts. Today that number has decreased to 5.7%. There is no external reason which can explain the decline of this population.
If President Mubarak is serious about fighting terrorism he must fight for equal rights and equal standing of the Copts in his country. As long as discrimination exists against the Copts there will be recurring violence against them led by fundamentalists. It is the responsibility of the leaders who have let this atmosphere of hate foster to turn this situation around.