Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Jewish actor Jonah Hill revealed on Wednesday morning that he had officiated the wedding of good friend and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. The “War Dogs” actor, 32, was a guest on Sirius XM’s The Howard Stern Show when the conversation turned to Levine’s July 2014 wedding to Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo. Hill said that after he was asked to officiate the nuptials, he started getting worried about the type of speech he was going to deliver. “I’m writing all these things, and then I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Music Jewish Indie Rocker Dedicates New ‘Refugee’ Track to Grandfather Who Fled Nazi Persecution

    Jewish Indie Rocker Dedicates New ‘Refugee’ Track to Grandfather Who Fled Nazi Persecution

    Jewish indie singer Ezra Furman released a song on Wednesday that he said was dedicated to his grandfather, who escaped Nazi persecution. Furman told the website Consequence of Sound that the new track, called “The Refugee,” is his “first song entirely concerned with my Jewish background and present, a song dedicated to my grandfather who fled the Nazis, as well as to all of the refugees desperate for a home today.” He added, “May all the wanderers find the homes they seek, and […]

    Read more →