Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Women, Development and Terrorism in the Middle East

Egyptians protest violence against women
A central problem preventing political, social and economic development in Muslim majority countries of the Middle East is the treatment of women.  The inability of women to realize their personal social and political potential represents the “800 pound gorilla in the room,” to use an American colloquialism.  Sadly, this situation, which is only infrequently dealt with in the Middle East, raises an important question:  How can there be any positive change in the region when over 50% of the populace is marginalized economically, socially, politically and culturally?

During the past year, women’s status in the Middle East has taken on a new dimension.  Women have been in the forefront of the news and highlighted by the horrific gender politics of terrorist organizations like the so-called “Islamic State” (known by its Arabic acronym Dacsh).   

The abduction of Yazidi, Christian and Kurdish women by this organization and the creation of a wide network of sex trafficking and slavery has raised the question: is there a relationship between efforts of terrorist groups (including the radical Islamist Boko Haram in Nigeria) to justify sex slavery and rape through Islamic doctrine and patriarchal values, institutions and practices in the Middle East?  Do those variables represent a causal link to the deterioration of women’s conditions that we are seeing in many parts of the Middle East?

Before the spread of terrorist movements in North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and the reassertion of such groups in Iraq, women’s interests were actually harmed by the onset of what was initially deemed the “Arab Spring.” A central reason for the decline in women’s status is their misfortune to have been identified with now deposed secular dictatorships such as Saddam Husayn’s Bacthist regime in Iraq. 

These authoritarian regimes’ support for women’s rights had little or nothing to do with the dictators’ personal inclinations (e.g., Saddam’s personal gender politics were despicable).  Authoritarian regimes’ support for women’s rights had everything to do with these regimes’ desire to present a “modern” face to the West to offset the criticism there and at the United Nations and elsewhere of their repressive policies.  It likewise was part of a shrewd and cynical strategy of using the “gender card” against Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. 
According to secular one party regimes, if Islamists were allowed to take power by being given the right to participate in national elections, they might come to power, impose authoritarian rule (the “one election” phenomenon) as well as circumscribe women’s rights.  Thus Saddam’s General Federation of Iraqi Women, led by Manal Yunis, and Asma al-Asad’s work on behalf of Syrian women through her personal foundation, constituted elaborate charades, intended to promote the one party state’s political agenda, not about bring real progress to the women of Iraq or Syria.
Arrest of women in "blue bra" that caused international outrage
As the events in Maydan al-Tahrir during the Arab Spring demonstrated with many female demonstrators subject to rapes and sexual molestation, major problems face women who try to assert themselves in the public sphere.  The attitudes of the Egyptian men who accosted women highlights a core lacunae in Muslim majority countries of the Middle East, namely the lack of a gender-based curriculum that is seriously integrated into any of the region’s educational  systems.  

If we add to the efforts of terrorist movements to restrict women’s access to employment, education, health care, and to the public sector generally, the problems women now face as a result of their identification with deposed secular autocratic regimes, then we see that a major problem which faces the Middle East - gender inequality - has only gotten worst.  What are some of the ways change needs to be introduced to improve the status of women?

Education A review of secondary school curricula in most Middle Eastern countries indicates that either the issues of gender relations and women’s rights are totally ignored or women’s role in society and the public sphere is defined through selected references to religion which call for a restriction of such access.  Religious references are really patriarchal norms couched in pseudo-religious terms. Further, to the extent that women are discussed, they are conceptualized as largely limited to their role as mothers and as responsible for the functioning of the family.   

Among Muslim majority states, only Turkey, Tunisia and Lebanon have really confronted gender issues in their school curriculum in any significant manner.  Thus it is little wonder that women in the Middle East are largely invisible and, as such, are not only subject to marginalization but worse. A key need is to thoroughly revise existing curricula to address the absence of women as a subject of value in what male and female youth study in Middle East primary and secondary school education systems.
Strengthening Personal Status Laws and Women’s’ Rights Since the ouster of secular dictatorships, there have been major efforts to circumscribe women’s rights.  An example is the effort to eliminate protections under Iraq’s progressive Personal Status Law of 1959 (passed under the regime of Gen cAbd al-Karim Qasim).  The Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which was established by the US Coalitional Provisional Authority (US occupation administration) in July 2003, sought to repeal this law in December of that year through Law 137.  

Fortunately, multiple groups, such as the extensive Iraqi blogosphere, women’s organizations, secular civil society associations and the Iraqi Communist Party, organized massive street demonstrations.  The law was withdrawn when CPA Administrator L. Paul Bremer saw the disruption it was causing.  As a number of Iraqi women said to me after the event, “Iraqi men can’t agree on anything, except repressing us!”

The extent to which gender has became more politicized, after the Arab uprisings have, aside from Tunisia, largely failed, can be seen in retrogressive efforts to place women under the control of their husbands, fathers or male relatives.  In Iraq, this attempt can be seen in the so-called Jacfari Personal Status Law that former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to implement prior to the April 2014 national parliament elections. ( 

This Jacfari Personal Status Law was a blatant attempt by al-Maliki to win the votes of lower middle class and lower class males by seeking to curtail women’s rights, such as lowering the age of marriage from 18 to 9 years old (!) and basically requiring women to seek permission from their husbands or male relatives in making any and all important decisions, from engaging in travel to seeking employment .

In Egypt during the Arab uprisings, female protesters – secular and Islamists – were not only mistreated during demonstrations but thrown in prison as well, where some women were subject to unnecessary and demeaning “virginity tests.”  This behavior by the police and security forces became an impediment to women reporting sexual crimes because they feared the police almost as much as the men who had attacked them.   

To his credit, Egypt’s military ruler cAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi condemned rape and sexual abuse during the demonstrations.  Nevertheless, there has been little effort by his government to address the legal and structural conditions that still condemn Egyptian women to second class status (   

Indeed, sexual repression as a form of control of women has increased according to a report by the International Federation of Human Rights since the military seized power in Egypt in June 2013. In Turkey, which was once thought to be one of the most progressive Muslim majority nation-states in the Middle East, women have been told by President Recip Tayyep Erdogan to stay at home and “have babies.” ( 
Even in Tunisia where former Francophile president Habib Bourguiba gave women the right to family planning and to organize civil society organizations and play a major role in state institutions in the late 1950s, the al-Nahda Party tried, following its electoral victory in 2012 to redefine women in the draft of the new Tunisian constitution as no longer “equal” but rather “complementary” to men.

Of course, Islamists have tried to paper over the policies that result in the repression of women by couching these policies in a “religious” veneer.  Unfortunately, many Western analysts take these Islamists at their word, rather than seeing such arguments as a form of politicized and “invented” religion.  In light of the complete delegitimization of secular (mostly Pan Arab) nationalism, Islamists have benefited from the political vacuum which was created after the collapse of authoritarian rule during the Arab uprisings.

Reappropriating Islam Contra the arguments offered by (almost entirely) male Islamists that Islam restricts women’s access to the public sphere and the need for them to be placed under “male guardianship," I would argue that such patriarchal politics finds its roots in tribal norms rather than in Islam.  Put differently, such controls trace their origins back to tribal not religious norms. 

It is well know that the Prophet Muhammad placed great emphasis on improving the social conditions of women in the Hijaz during the rise and spread of Islam in the 7th century CE. Indeed, the first convert to Islam was a woman – his first wife Khadija – who was a successful merchant and 15 years his elder.  As recent research has shown, there have been studies indicating that women played a much more extensive role in early Islam, including that of roving preachers.  It was much later in the Abbasid Empire that women’s role in society began to be circumscribed using "religious" arguments to legitimate their repression.

No one should blame Islam for the horrors bestowed on women by the Islamic State.  However, the efforts of post-Arab Spring political elites to manipulate women within the context of a larger effort of these leaders to manipulate sectarian identities can certainly be seen as being influenced by the larger process of the marginalization and general disdain for women by most states in the Middle East.  

Even in Iraq, which is undergoing an effort by its prime minister, Haydar al-Abadi, to root out corruption by reducing the number of government posts – many of which are occupied by individuals who doing nothing more than collect paychecks – it was extremely disturbing to see that, among the 1/3 of ministries that he proposes to eliminate was the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. 
Women, who constitute more than 60% of the Iraqi population often received no education during the 1990s.  Given that many have lost husbands or male family members due to the sectarian violence that rocked the country from late 2003 until 2008, Iraqi women – both Arab and Kurds - need more, not less government support.

In a perverse way, the suppression of women’s rights has been posited as a form of “cultural authenticity” which is part of an effort to “combat” Western cultural imperialism.  Put differently, returning Muslim women to their “true” place in Islam - namely the private sphere - becomes a last step in shedding the “artificiality” of repressive Western regimes, dubbed “crusader apostate” regimes by the Dacsh and other terrorist organizations. 

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has insisted that women have the right to vote, and that – contrary to some local notables who say Islam prevents women from working – women not only have this right to jobs but must contribute to the public sphere. Ayatollah al-Sistani has also indicated that women have the same rights to education and health care as men.  Clearly, this demonstrates that powerful clerics do not necessarily make claims that Islam precludes women from the public sphere. 

Muslim male clerics must make more forceful arguments that women should be given equality in political and legal rights and access to all social services.  They must lay bare the biases of a patriarchal culture that ends up damaging itself by excluding women.

Organization The key to women’s rights is their ability to control organizations through which they can assert their self-defined rights and needs.  In few Muslim majority nations of the Middle East do women truly control the organizations that supposedly act in their name.  Until this situation changes, women will continue to depend on male patriarchs and rulers for their rights or lack thereof. 
Turning again to Iraq, Saddam Husayn offered women employment in not only the state bureaucracy but in public sector factories.  He promulgated sexual harassment laws in the 1970s before the term was even au courant in advanced industrialized Western societies.  He forced illiterate women to learn to read and write (and I witnessed this process in remote rural villages during the 1980s where even elderly women were studying in state-run illiteracy centers).

Following the disastrous defeat during the January 1991 Gulf War and the near overthrow of his regime during the March 1991 Intifada, Saddam forced women back into the household.  They lost their jobs as the economy collapsed, they no longer attended school and their husbands and male relatives now controlled their behavior. Saddam took away their rights in an effort to increase male support for his now shaky hold on power.  What’s given freely by the state can likewise easily be taken away.   

This maxim is clearly demonstrated by the dramatic change in women's status (they constituted a majority of physicians in Baghdad when I first arrived in May and June of 1980) from having plentiful employment and educational opportunities in the 1970s and early 1980s to being relegated to the household during the 1990s and even after 2003.

Case studies: Tunisian women In Tunisia, the organization of women under the Habib Bourguiba regime paid off when they were able to mount extensive street demonstrations against the new al-Nahda government under then Prime Minister Rashid al-Ghannushi (Rachid Ghannouchi) by organizations such as The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD),and the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD), two leading women’s organizations that fought against efforts by Islamists within and outside al-Nahda to circumscribe their rights (.

The Tunisian Women’s Association, a grassroots organization founded after the Arab uprisings, has also been key in advocating for women's rights.  This organization has been active in presenting materials on torture and sexual abuse of prisoners to the Truth and Reconciliation which is run  by a Tunisian women activist, Sihem Bensedrine (

Significantly, a  number of Islamist women in Tunisia working from a progressive perspective have attempted to reinterpret Islam in ways that promote women's rights.  These women writers and activists, who include Amel Grami, Olfa Youssef, Latifa Lakhdhar and Ikbal Gharbi, have advocated for women’s rights in the post-Bin Ali era.  What the Tunisian case demonstrates is not that women have overcome all the challenges they face, but that being organized has given them a key tool to fight back against efforts to circumscribe their rights.

Case studies: the women of Rojava Perhaps no other community of women in the Middle East enjoys as much freedom as the women of Rojava (the Kurds who live in the area that was formally northeastern Syria). Having suffered mightily under Syrian Bacthist rule, the Rojava Kurds were, like their Turkish counterparts, forbidden to use their language, were subject to extensive land confiscation by the Asad regime, and discouraged from giving their children Kurdish names.

Flag of Afrin Canton
Strongly influenced by the 30 year guerrilla war waged by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the main political party representing the Rojava Kurds, the People's Democratic Party (PYD), as well as the less powerful Kurdish National Council (KNC), have established a system of autonomous self-rule based on the Swiss canton system of government.  The PYD and KNC have organized 3 cantons, one of which, Afrin, is run by a women prime minister, Hevi Ibrahim Mustefa.  They also have organized TEV-DEM which is an inclusive coalition that rules the Rojava autonomous region.

According to its constitution, the administration of the de facto autonomous region is committed to international human rights as embodied in international law. The Rojava Kurdish administration emphasizes equal rights for women and a ban on polygamy. Because the region is ethnically diverse, religious freedom and equality is guaranteed to all ethnic groups including Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, Arabs, and Armenians.  Capital punishment and torture are also banned.  Reports from minorities living among the Rojava Kurds indicate they are  highly satisfied at how they are treated.

Women units of the armed militia, the YPJ (Women's Defense Units), have played a key role in preventing the Dacsh from expanding its area into Kurdish inhabited areas along the Syrian-Turkish border.  The strength of these units, whose losses almost approximate those of their male counterpart, the YPG, indicates that Rojava Kurdish women have been critical to Kurdish victories at Kobani, and elsewhere, where the Dacsh lost thousands of fighters.

Women and fighting terrorism  If the Middle East is going to see any meaningful progress, women must escape the shackles in which they presently bound.  While educated women from the upper middle and upper classes in many countries of the Middle East experience little state control over their lives, middle and lower class women, as well as women workers and peasants are still decidedly second-class citizens.
YPJ Commander Jiyan, near Ayn 'Issa, Raqqa, July 1, 2015
Tunisian women demonstrate the need for women to become organized so that they can define their own interests, set their own agendas and fight for their rights only when the (male dominated) state allows them to do so.  The women of the Rojava semi-autonomous region have gone several steps further.  Not only do they have organizations through which to pursue their rights, but they are a core component of the nascent Kurdish state which is being built on the ashes of former Syrian Bacth Party rule.

When women have power and can assert themselves, men do not take them for granted and see them merely as "property," or commodities, designed to serve their physical and emotional needs. Indeed, this has been the manner in which  Dacsh has attempted to legitimate their seizure and treatment of women.  In their view, women are property, not human beings and, if they're not Muslim, then they become the "spoils of war."

Women's rights constitute a core component in the fight against terrorism in the region.  Youth come to fight for Dacsh because they receive money, a sense of belonging which they usually lack in the areas from which they come, but also sexual pleasure in the form of the extensive system of sex slavery implemented by the tyrant (and rapist), "Caliph Ibrahim."

Thus the struggle against terrorism in the Middle East - including radical extremism, violence and brutality - begins with women achieving equal status with men, and forcing men to rethink and restructure their patriarchal norms and behavior patterns in the process. What many males in the Middle East and elsewhere view as a peripheral issue is actually at the core of bettering not only the region but all societies.


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