Women Are the Real Victims of the Arab Spring

December 19, 2013 1:39 am 0 comments

More than 700,000 protesters gather in Al-Assy Square in Hama, Syria on July 22, 2001. Photo: Syriana2011.

The Arab Spring, with the rising tide of hope for democracy and change it ushered in, has turned to autumn. For women it has become an Arab Winter, dark and cold and growing more perilous by the day. And nowhere is the situation worse than it is in the country where hopes for democracy and freedom were the highest: Egypt.

Such are the findings of a new Thomson Reuters Foundation poll, which showed that women are worse off today in all the “Arab Spring” countries than they were previously. Moreover, throughout the Arab region, violence against women, sexual abuse, and political oppression remain generally the worst in the world.

These findings are tragic, not only for what they reveal about the plight of women in the region, but for what they tell us about the future of the “Arab Spring” countries. “Despite hopes that women would be one [sic] of the prime beneficiaries of the Arab Spring,” note the Reuters report’s authors, “they have instead been some of the biggest losers, as the revolts have brought conflict, instability, displacement and a rise in Islamist groups in many parts of the region.”

The poll questioned more than 300 “gender experts” in all the 21 Arab League member states plus Syria (which lost its membership in 2011) during August and September. In drawing their conclusions, researchers “assessed violence against women, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society, and attitudes towards a woman’s role in politics and the economy.”

That Saudi Arabia did not come out as the worst of the list was surprising to many, but so was the fact that Iraq ranked as the second-worst – a long distance from where those supporting the removal of Saddam Hussein from power expected the country to be today.

Egypt’s numbers are the most telling, however, exposing not just the rise in power of Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, but how very inevitable this result was from the start – and certainly once Hosni Mubarak was displaced. This, after all, is the country where a shocking 91 percent of all women are victims of genital mutilation, a practice clearly endemic (especially in rural areas) even under Mubarak’s so-called secular reign. Since the rise of Islamist factions, however, the situation has become even grimmer, the poll indicates, with rising rates of trafficking and forced marriage.

“There are whole villages on the outskirts of Cairo and elsewhere where the bulk of economic activity is based on trafficking in women and forced marriages,” Zahra Radwan, Middle East and North Africa Program officer for the Global Fund for Women, told Reuters.

That outcome might have been expected, given the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government that followed Mubarak’s fall. It was the Brotherhood that opposed a UN declaration on women’s rights that would allow women to travel and use contraception, arguing that such a move, which “contradicts established principles of Islam,” would essentially destroy society. (Russia, Iran, and the Vatican also opposed the measure.)

How bad are things in Egypt and Iraq? As No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, they are worse, evidently, even than Saudi Arabia, which is notorious for its abysmal record in its treatment of women. That ranking alone is shocking: but it also provides an insight for Westerners into the undercurrent and power of Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism in those Arab Spring countries, and the decreasing likelihood that democracy will take hold in the next decade. In fact, not only do these two countries pose greater threats to women’s lives than even Somalia and Sudan, but the poll finds that the Saudis are beginning to make small strides towards opening doors to women. Saudi women, for instance, will have the right to vote in municipal elections for the first time in 2015; they recently were granted the right to practice law; and thanks to forceful activism, the right to drive may also soon be within their reach.

Indeed, listed as the survey’s third worst country for women, Saudi Arabia scored “better than many other Arab states when it came to access to education and healthcare, reproductive rights and gender violence,” according to the poll’s authors. But even more important was their observation that thousands of younger Saudis who had traveled abroad were returning “with very different ideas about their relative places in the world.”

Contrast this development with Syria, which follows Saudi Arabia as the fourth worst country for Arab women. Here, too, Westerners once hoped for a new, democratic, progressive state to rise in place of Bashar al-Assad’s cruel dictatorship. “Many Syrian women worry about the influence of militant Islamists who have taken control of some rebel-held areas,” Reuters reports. Young girls in refugee camps also suffer, the researchers found, where even 12-year-olds have been forced into marriage.

The report also describes a “spike in honor killings” in Syria, rising to about 300 a year, though it is unclear whether that number is a significant change from previous years. A 2007 article in the Christian Science Monitor put the number at 200 to 300 annually.

In Libya, too, where the world once held so much hope for a free and democratic future, women now face kidnappings along with random arrest, rape, and physical abuse, Reuters found. It is worth noting, however, that the physical abuse numbers may result from a rise in the reporting of such events, rather than from an increase in incidents.

The sad thing is that much of this violence could have been anticipated – and at least in part prevented. Certainly it was naïve to believe that the majority of the women who fought for Mubarak’s removal were any more westernized than the majority of the men. With an illiteracy rate of 35 percent (45 percent of women), in a country where two-thirds of women between the ages of 15-49 support the practice of genital mutilation, the proverbial writing was clearly on the wall.

But far more disturbing is the picture that this paints for the future, particularly with a new Egyptian constitution that, for all its lip service to democracy, holds sharia law supreme. If Saudi women are advancing, it is thanks to a new willingness by their government to support (western) education. But such opportunities may be lost to Egypt’s women, and increasingly, to their sisters in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and even the Palestinian Territories (which scored a miserable 15 out of 22 in the Thomson Reuters study).

The inevitable result will not only be a deterioration of women’s rights in these countries, but too, a growing Islamic conservatism as the curtains surrounding the windows to the West – and to the Enlightenment – begin to close. As they do, the threats will continue to grow stronger, not just to Egyptian women’s lives, but to our own.

Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.