On International Women's Day, Some Advice to Incumbent Governments
As events unfold in the Middle East, a key indicator of the prospects for post-authoritarian regimes will be how new governments opt to address the status of women going forward. The rights afforded to women in a society are intrinsically reliable indicators of both economic prosperity and of social cohesion and sustainable development.
Eminent Middle East historian Bernard Lewis recalled in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post (February 25) the insightful words of Turkish writer Namik Kemal from around 1880: “We fell behind the West because of the way we treat our women. By the way we treat our women we deprive ourselves of the talents and services of half the population. And we submit the early education of the other half to ignorant and downtrodden mothers.” (hat tip to Terry Glavin for the JP article).
Lewis points out that at the time, the Muslim world had already been asking for over a century, “What went wrong? Why did we fall behind the West?” Yet still today, a quick scan of the world reveals a striking overlap between countries where the treatment of women and girls is dismal, and where violence, political instability and underdevelopment is most pronounced: consider present-day Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan or Yemen as just a handful of examples.
In other countries, oil wealth has brought a temporary boost that has allowed wealth to increase despite the continued suppression of women’s rights, such as in Saudi Arabia. Yet when the oil runs out, the consequences of the lethargic pace of political reform, economies with little diversification, and populations that have had grossly skewed access to education, health and other services, will come home to roost.
More than 130 years ago, Kemal surmised what would later be proven by mounds of evidence from scholarly research: that empowering women and girls is perhaps the most promising strategy for economic, social and political development. In particular, creating equal education opportunities for women and girls yields huge payoffs. The World Bank, for instance, recognizes “that there is no investment more effective for achieving development goals than educating girls”.
Thus, even if states cannot be convinced to strengthen women’s rights because it is the right thing to do on ethical grounds, they should be convinced by the promise of increased national wealth and political stability. And it should also be painfully obvious that if you hinder the potential contributions to society of half of the population, you also hinder all of a society’s broader human development ambitions.
But these truisms have consistently been lost on the leaders of most governments in the Muslim world. In many cases, rather than following the trend of achieving gains in the status of women, there is a steady slide backwards. For instance, in 2009, violence against women in Pakistan rose by 13%, according to Pakistan’s Aurat Foundation. In that single year in Pakistan, 1,384 women were murdered, 928 were raped, 683 committed suicide, and 604 were killed in honour crimes. And these are only the reported crimes. It is believed that most rapes and honour killings go unreported.
Rather than focusing on strategies to bring women into public life, too many governments are obsessed instead with maintaining control over women, inventing endless ways to restrict and subdue women’s freedoms, usually under the guise of promoting morality. For instance, Iran’s science minister, Kamran Daneshjou, does not worry himself with policy issues such as how to get more women into the sciences or improve the quality of science education. He is, rather, preoccupied with calling for stricter gender segregation at Iran’s universities. A typical ploy of Islamists, he uses the “western influence” accusation as a distraction from the real intent of keeping women hostage to the extremist ideology of the state: "The problem is our universities were built based on western values ... that are not compatible with our Iranian-Islamic values,” he told an Iranian newspaper in February.
The news roundup in any given month reveals not only the stagnant state of government efforts to improve women’s status, but displays the particularly barbaric acts that continue to be perpetrated against women with impunity. Incidents of torture, sexual assault and murder frequently occur within institutionalized processes, at the behest of a court, village council, jirga, or other political entity. In February, for instance, a 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Hena Begum, died after receiving 80 lashes. She was accused of having an affair with her married cousin. The public lashing was ordered by her village council, in the district of Shariatpur, and was carried out a day after she was viciously beaten by the cousin’s relatives. Her father was further fined for her “crimes”. Only two months earlier, another woman died in Bangladesh after she was publicly caned. It is not known whether the men involved in the alleged affairs were punished in any way.
The tacit acceptance by the state of what is too often the sadistic treatment of women has no doubt played a part in the putting so many Muslim governments on shaky ground. Regressive policy and practice towards women’s rights has done an enormous disservice to Muslim populations hungry for freedoms, social progress and for accountable governance, and has now rendered their governments so very vulnerable to being toppled.
As new governments come into power in the Middle East, whether or not they seriously commit to protecting and advancing the basic rights of women and girls will determine the impact they do or do not make in reforming and rebuilding the broken states they inherit. Ignoring the status of women in their societies will be at their peril.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.