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Women's Rights and the Dilemma of Arab SpringAhmed Shaath for Salem-News.com
Many reform movements with liberal platforms are spreading their message of a secular society...
(SALEM) - One can’t help but notice how vocal many groups have become in the Middle East lately. It is hard not to notice that the Arab Spring has given many groups the courage to come out in public and demand with strength what they believe is right for them. From far left to extreme right, movements are becoming more vocal, less tolerant and less obedient to current laws. Anyone in the centre will tell you that society will definitely be torn apart from all this pulling and pushing right and left. After all, these societies are still newcomers to the democratic process and will need to evolve their goals, constitutions and mentalities to support these freedoms without abuse.
Morocco, for instance, has been the center of such recent liberal movements along with Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt. There is a persistent danger of these views being portrayed as mainstream while in reality they are most probably still a fractional minority. How could they possibly be a majority when the Islamic movements opposing them have swept to power in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia and the Islamist strongholds are the hotbeds of unrest in conservative Syria and Yemen?
Many reform movements with liberal platforms are spreading their message of a secular society where religion is confined between the person and his god only and all citizens have equal rights regardless of sex, race or religion.
Feminist movements have become the most vocal and have the most exposure to younger citizens in demanding equality and reforms supporting women into greater roles in society. While some of them have gone extreme left urging women to remove their veils while ridiculing them by calling their choice of clothes primitive and outdated. The female body again is at the center of many debates and discussions. While a centrist will tend to find a solution acceptable to all, many feminist groups unprecedentedly are now calling for legalizing abortions, and sex outside marriage, taboos merely a few years ago. Yet no feminists have publicly gone against the “mahr” or money paid by the man to the woman at the time of marriage as the “mahr” still is romantically viewed as an Islamic token of love even the most liberal feminists do not dare to declare they want to see it disappear. Campaigning against “mahr” will alienate them from their target groups – the young educated girls who are normally less feministic than their college or married peers.
Thus there seems to be a void in the middle in these societies. Somehow they have become polarized and people have immediately fallen into either yes or no. These opinionated societies will become more extreme if people do not realize the fact that many of these movements have some legitimate concerns and valid objections buried underneath the unfamiliar and maybe radical positions. Most people will support the argument against marrying one’s rape attacker which can hardly be considered as a valid reason to escape prison for such a hideous crime. Yet, his law is increasingly under pressure in Jordan and Morocco.
In western nations you get to picket and demonstrate for whatever you like, as long as it is peaceful and doesn’t hinder security, passage or trespasses on other’s rights. But there is a catch here. While you can be vocal in your opinion on drugs, for instance, you will still be subject to the current laws on drugs despite of your opinion or demands. To change the laws the entire population of the city, province or country will have to vote on it. Getting the issue up for a vote requires a minimum signature count to exhibit legitimate support and save on costs.
If the MENA countries were to incorporate such a system, the truth on these movements strength would be exposed. In Jordan, repealing article 308 does not stand a chance without interference by royal decree or a high court to reverse it. Yes again, there are some valid arguments on this issue from both camps, but it seems nothing will change by a popular referendum. In Morocco, a similar motion against article 490 will probably need to go through similar undemocratic methods. As the MENA governments are sensitive and weak in the wake of the popular revolutions annulling such laws by decree may not necessarily reflect the will of the people, but rather the government’s inability or unwillingness to upset people no matter what they stand for.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had to publicly state it will not force Hijab nor even demand it from female public employees. The Hijab-Niqab is merely a piece of clothe at the end of the day just like a hat or a skirt. Since when were governments free to interfere in one’s choice of dress? How can France and many other countries enshrine laws to force women to remove this cloth regardless of the woman’s wish or choice while a Muslim country is bullied into treating all women alike regardless of Hijab or not to guarantee her wish or choice is respected? The Muslim brotherhood played it safe. After all the flawed mentality is the west’s against hijab, not Egypt.
Since we will not expect a popular vote on these issues any change in the laws will amount to a minority opinion forced against the majority. That’s why it is quite early to expect any real change very soon. Another aspect to these liberal movements is that many of them have clearly crossed legal lines. There is a huge difference between campaigning to repeal a certain law and inciting people to mass-break it. The first is free speech and the latter is a felony crime. Asking people to defy the law and break it is not freedom it is purely anarchy.
The matter gets supersized and complex because foreign NGOs are involved and backed by their influential governments. Accepting financial contributions from overseas by many women’s groups is against the law as these amounts are undisclosed to local governments and serve only to manipulate the agendas of these organizations.
In one instance I had personally exposed, huge foreign aid was dumped onto a certain women’s charity supporting a liberal female candidate for parliament, amounting to nothing less than direct illegal foreign interference in local affairs, manipulating votes, corrupting recipients and buying loyalties. Totally illegal. Both sides knew it was illegal and went to great lengths disguising their crime, accruing even more criminal activity along the way. Nobody even noticed the foreign money flooding the candidate. This is one flawed way a minority opinion gets imposed on the majority.
I find it particularly intriguing that the USAID spent millions of American’s tax dollars on Arab women while they run 60% divorce rates and 39% births to single mothers and most importantly the fact that a woman is raped every 7 minutes in the USA. According to United States Department of Justice document Criminal Victimization in the United States, there were overall 191,670 victims of rape or sexual assault reported in 2005 and now 1 of 6 U.S. women have experienced rape. Now those are only the reported crimes, while thousands more got raped by friends, relatives, managers or at parties or while being drunk and never report them. Honestly now who should be assisting the other in protecting their women from crime? What do those figures tell you about men’s respect for women’s rights in the west? There must be more than human rights or equality as the driving force behind these millions of dollars quietly flooding the Middle East unnoticed.
These challenges are quite enormous facing the liberal feminist movement and will prevent it from picking up steam anytime soon. Strategies that were successful (debatable) with western women are not necessarily suitable in MENA. Most NGOs operating in the MENA are not sensitive enough to the local traditions and culture, not yet Islamic law and family values. All these factors are viewed by them as hindrance to women’s rights not society’s way of protecting women. The entire women’s rights issue is in the Middle East is being hijacked into a wrong direction. Yes, totally agreed, many laws need to be amended and many others need to be introduced, but the proposed ones are not the solution as the American numbers above vividly tell us. If we follow their lead, we know the outcome already; more divorce, more abortions and more unhappy people. Local culture-sensitive solutions are required and only social dialogue, not gender wars will ensure a smooth and respectable way forward.
Ahmed Shaath is a Palestinian media consultant, writer and human rights activist. He currently provides management & strategy consultancy to various international media outlets. He authored an article-compilation book in 1999 by Dar El-fata El-Araby titled “Fight like a man, make peace like an Angel”.
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