Creative Destruction

April 6, 2006

Women’s Rights In The Middle East

Filed under: International Politics — Ampersand @ 12:02 am

Interesting-sounding panel discussion of women’s rights in the Mid East. I thought this point – about the attraction of patriarchy in dictatorships – was well-made:

Darwish placed the blame on the patriarchy of the Middle East.

“In the Middle East, men struggle with little freedoms because they, too, are oppressed by the dictatorship,” she said. “Women are the one aspect of control in their life, so inside the home, the men rule.”

Narrowing the discussion to Muslim women, Darwish said, “A woman in the Middle East must answer to everyone, and her honor and purity is the business of her family, her neighbors, and sometimes, even the virtue police.”

At the same time, I’m not sure if I entirely agreed with this:

Darwish said the solution to human rights abuses toward women in the Middle East is democratization and that it will be impossible to improve women’s stations without proper democratic institutions.

Do “democratic institutions” include things like a civic commitment to equal treatment of the sexes, protections for minorities against dictatorship by the majority, and a safe civil society for dissent? It seems to me that these freedoms may be more essential than mere Democracy – and may be preconditions for a successful liberal democracy. Women in Iraq and Afghanistan have the vote (in theory), but in many areas can’t walk the streets with bare faces without fear of violent reprisal; freedom to vote doesn’t guarantee freedom in any substantive sense. Democracy is one element of freedom, but it’s not the only element, and maybe not even the most essential element.

The conflict between democracy and women’s fundamental human rights is a topic I’ve blogged on several times already, generally in the context of Iraq (1 2 3 4 5 ). Women’s liberty in Iraq, already in decline under Hussain, have sharply plummeted since the U.S. invasion. The ability to vote for religious fanatics who are determined to end women’s freedoms is not freedom in any meaningful sense, and ought not be celebrated as freedom.

Unusually for panels with this subject matter, Israel wasn’t ignored:

Panelist and NYU politics professor Hani Zubida discussed Israeli women’s rights from a socio-political perspective.

“The notion of equality [in Israel] is a double-edged sword — women can no longer say that they are being discriminated against, because they were given this equality with suffrage and ability to join the army,” Zubida said. “However, there is disenfranchisement of Israeli women through the mechanism of the army — the military as a social construct does not accept women as equal.”

I’m glad they didn’t ignore Israel, although there’s no doubt that Israeli women are far better situated than most (all?) of their counterparts in the Mid-East. Zubida’s point – that formal legal equality can be used to dismiss other legitimate concerns (“you’ve got the vote, so what are you complaining about?”) – is one that in theory I agree with. But I wish the article had given more detail about Zubida’s argument; the quote from her really isn’t enough to know what specific problems she’s talking about.

The question of liberty versus democracy is relevant to Palestine, as well. I favor independence for the occupied territories as an independent Palestine, but I do so without much enthusiasm, largely because I suspect that a Palestinian state, while democratic, would nonetheless be hugely oppressive to Palestinian women and Palestinian queers. From the BBC:

A number of gay Palestinian men are risking their lives to cross the border into Israel, claiming they feel safer among Israelis than their own people. […]

In practice, Palestinian gays end up being placed under virtual house arrest because of the fear that they may be potential suicide bombers. […] However, many Palestinian gays say they would still rather live under house arrest in Israel, where homosexuality is not considered a crime, than at home.

In a way, U.S. leftists regarding Palestine are in a similar position as U.S. right-wingers regarding Iraq; in both cases, the Americans are advocating the creation of a new government that will virtually certainly be brutally oppressive to both women and queers. And both groups tend to sweep this fact under the rug.

(Incidentally, gaymiddleeast.com seems to be a good source of news stories about queer rights throughout the middle east).

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11 Comments »

  1. you raised a lot of good points in that. very well done entry. major props.
    emma

    Comment by emmadonovan — April 6, 2006 @ 12:06 am | Reply

  2. Do “democratic institutions” include things like a civic commitment to equal treatment of the sexes, protections for minorities against dictatorship by the majority, and a safe civil society for dissent? It seems to me that these freedoms may be more essential than mere Democracy – and may be preconditions for a successful liberal democracy.

    Hard to see how, frankly. The countries that (I presume) you would consider succesful liberal democracies (Sweden, Denmark, and the like) didn’t start out with those things. It seems from my reading of history that you usually start out with a fairly autocratic system in which some democratic reforms are introduced (often because one already-strong faction in society sees democracy as a way to cement its advantages) – and those reforms gain credibility and strength over time, eventually leading to the nice outcomes you prefer.

    Do you have any examples of countries that started out with protection for minorities, women’s equality, and a dissent-friendly political country, but a non-democratic political system, and then gain the democracy later?

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2006 @ 12:55 am | Reply

  3. For “political country”, please read “political culture”. And then take away my keyboard and tell me stop posting for a while.

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2006 @ 12:56 am | Reply

  4. Do you have any examples of countries that started out with protection for minorities, women’s equality, and a dissent-friendly political culture, but a non-democratic political system, and then gain the democracy later?

    Ha ha… I keep drawn to talking about my country. Finland gained independence during december 6th 1917, but as a fairly autonomous (but hardly democratic)Grand Duchy under Russian rule, had women’s suffrage in 1906. Women’s equality? Check (well, at least partial)

    Dissent-friendly? Well, the nobility, the clergy, the peasantry and workers (the four castes at the time) did not see eye-to eye, so one could say yes.

    Protection for minorities? What minorities… Well, one could say GLBT, but then again, no country had GLBT-friendly policies that early, so they had to come later.

    And it is my understanding and experience that Nordic countries have had good situation for women for quite a while, being meritocratic and all.

    Long story made short: If you bring democracy to a culture that is barbaric and misogynist (pardon my cultural nonrelativism), the people are going to vote like that. The stranglehold of Arab imperialism must be broken and Islam must become more secularized.

    Easier said than done, though.

    Comment by tuomas — April 6, 2006 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  5. I am somewhat curious about the statement:

    “However, there is disenfranchisement of Israeli women through the mechanism of the army — the military as a social construct does not accept women as equal.”

    But all in all, this was a good post, Amp. I especially liked the part:

    In a way, U.S. leftists regarding Palestine are in a similar position as U.S. right-wingers regarding Iraq; in both cases, the Americans are advocating the creation of a new government that will virtually certainly be brutally oppressive to both women and queers. And both groups tend to sweep this fact under the rug.

    Quite fair-minded, and an apt comparison.

    Comment by tuomas — April 6, 2006 @ 10:59 am | Reply

  6. Tuomas, what would have happened to a Finn (of any social class) who stood up in 1915 and said “the Tsar is a tyrant! We should govern ourselves on autonomous people’s collectives, instead of listening to what some uncultured Russian says!” ?

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2006 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  7. 1915, you say? Shorter answer:

    Nothing.

    Comment by tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 2:57 am | Reply

  8. Well, I actually wrote 1920 because I like round numbers, before it occurred to me that the answer would have been “the tsar is dead, friend – what are you talking about?”

    Really nothing? What if they had taken steps to actually make their dissent real?

    Comment by Robert — April 7, 2006 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

  9. Robert, the dissent was real. No need for hypotheticals. (for example: Eugen Schaumann, an ultranationalist Finn, murdered General-governor Bobrikoff in broad daylight by gunshot in 1905, and the nationalist movement was speaking about independence before that(and had been for a long time). Tsar Nikolai II was somewhat weak ruler, and 1915 was during the WW1 with Russia (and it’s demoralized army) fighting Germany, with the communists on the rise.

    The independence didn’t just happen, and during the revolution Finns seized the opportunity to make it real(yes, there was a civil war: between the communist-supporting [and supported] reds, consisting of workers and tenant farmers, who favored joining the USSR, and the nationalistic whites, consisting of landowners and craftsmen [supported by Germany]. Whites won, unlike in Russia).

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

  10. Thus I very much doubt that Russians would have lifted a finger in a situation you described, considering the situation and history of autonomy and nationalism.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 7, 2006 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  11. Curse you, Tuomas, for your empirical evidence which undermines my position! I’m sorry I ever invited you to blog!

    😛

    Comment by Robert — April 7, 2006 @ 1:17 pm | Reply


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