North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Friday, February 18, 2011

Will the status of women be part of needed reforms in the Middle East?

Protests continue in Iran, Algeria,Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Algeria, and have spread now to Libya. In the latter three countries - Yemen, Bahrain and Libya - there have been new deaths and sharp reprisals in just the past two days. Scattered among all these protests, one sees glimpses of women participating, from those dressed in modern Western garb and hairstyles in Egypt and Algeria, to those clad in burkhas in Bahrain and Iran. But will political reforms - even if successful - address more than just the conditions that led to entrenched autocratic rulers?

Modern young Egyptian women in protests

On Wednesday, Michelle Bachelet, the Executive Director of UN Women (Formerly UNIFEM), spoke up in a timely way regarding the status of women around the world. "Women are in a particularly vulnerable position. They are overrepresented among the poor and among those who lack access to basic social services, and are underrepresented and under paid in the labour market. The lack of social protection is a social liability that undermines economic performance and nurtures political and institutional instability." (

Egyptian Coptic Christian women protest

If we use just the brief words above to establish even basic criteria, we'd have:
1) The % of women in poverty compared to the national population
2a&b) The % differential in equal pay for equal work, as well as access to the formal labor market itself
3a&b) The % with access to basic social services - health and education being two

Egyptian Muslim women protest

Another less defined but critical criteria might be security - from harassment and violence, to equal access to freedoms enjoyed by their male counterparts. A recognized, accomplished (and controversial) scholar on the Middle East, Daniel Pipes, spells out a somber picture of Arab women regarding this criteria.

In most Arab countries, the Shari'a, or Islamic law, defines the rules of traditional social behavior. Under the law, women are accorded a role inferior to that of men, and are therefore discriminated against with regard to personal rights and freedoms. Pipes explains: "In the Islamic view...female sexuality is thought of as being so powerful that it constitutes a real danger to society." Therefore, unrestrained females constitute "the most dangerous challenge facing males trying to carry out God's commands." In combination, females' "desires and their irresistible attractiveness give women a power over men which rivals God's."

Conservative Bahraini women protest

"Left to themselves," Pipes continues, "men might well fall victim to women and abandon God," resulting in civil disorder among believers. In traditional thought, Pipes notes, women pose an internal threat to Islamic society similar to the external one represented by the infidel. Therefore, traditionally, the Arab woman marries at a young age to a man of her father's choice. A husband is entitled to divorce any time, even against his wife's will, by merely declaring verbally that this is his intention.

From another source ( we read, ["Although the image of the egalitarian woman is slowly developing within some more secular Arab states, it remains largely confined to urban centers and upper-class circles. Ritual sexual mutilation of females is still common in rural areas of Egypt, Libya, Oman and Yemen. Furthermore, laws that restrict women's rights remain in force in almost all Arab countries. In Syria, a husband can prevent his wife from leaving the country. In Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Yemen, married women must have their husbands' written permission to travel abroad, and they may be prevented from doing so for any reason. In Saudi Arabia, women must obtain written permission from their closest male relative to leave the country or travel on public transportation between different parts of the kingdom.

According to the UN, "utilization of Arab women's capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms. In some countries with elected national assemblies, women are still denied the right to vote or hold office. And one in every two Arab women can neither read nor write."

Libyan woman protests Khadafi's decades-long rule

In a Saudi Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. In Kuwait, the male population is allowed to vote, while women are still disenfranchised. Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all have laws stating that a woman's inheritance must be less than that of her male siblings (usually about half the size). Moroccan law excuses the murder or injury of a wife who is caught in the act of committing adultery; yet women are punished for harming their husbands under the same circumstances.

Wife-beating is a relatively common practice in Arab countries, and abused women have little recourse. As the State Department has noted regarding Jordan (and most of the Arab world): "Wife beating is technically grounds for divorce, but the husband may seek to demonstrate that he has authority from the Koran to correct an irreligious or disobedient wife by striking her."

In Saudi Arabia, restrictions against women are among the most extreme in the Arab world. Saudi women may not marry non-Saudis without government permission (which is rarely given); are forbidden to drive motor vehicles or bicycles; may not use public facilities when men are present; and are forced to sit in the backs of public buses, segregated from men. At Riyadh's King Saud University, professors lecture to rooms of men while women watch via closed-circuit television from distant all-female classrooms.

"[Islamic] Advice columns" in the Saudi Arabian press recommend strict disciplining of women as part of a proper marriage. Women must cover their entire body and face in public, and those who do not are subject to physical harassment from the Saudi religious police, known as the Mutaaw'in.

Arab regimes find different ways to deal with the international pressure to improve women's rights. They often prefer to introduce mild improvements in women's status rather than to enacting radical reforms that might contradict their ideology and antagonize conservative elements in the country.]

If there were ever reasons to support the overwhelming, quick transition of power from a secular autocratic ruler in Egypt to something yet to be defined, it may be that there is space for Egyptian women to set a new standard in a reformed Arab government for respect and equality. Egyptian women have had the benefit of living in a "secular" state, have relatively high educational levels and skills compared to most other Arab nations, the ruling class has extensive contact with Western social norms as well as the reputation for moderation that another moderate Muslim nation enjoys - Turkey.

Traditional rural Turkish women - illiteracy remains a formidable challenge.

So is Turkey a model for women's equality in a Muslim society? A NATO member, and an aspiring member of the European Union, Turkey's social gender equality was the focus in 2006 of EU's Commissioner of Employment and Social Affairs at the time, Vladimir Spidla. During his visit to Ankara that year, Spidla recognised Turkey's "huge progress" in legislative areas affecting women's right, but said that women in that country still faced serious problems in terms of discrimination, domestic violence, lack of access to education and illiteracy. He also said that Turkey was still struggling to stem the practice of "honour killings" (the killing of women by relatives for allegedly disgracing the family).

Turkish norms in the cities are more fluid - modern and secular, or religious yet tolerant

Stressing that equal opportunity was a "priority for the EU," Spidla noted that the percentage of women in employment was some 24% of Turkey's total work force: the EU average is 57%. And that at the time, only 18% of Turkish women aged 18 to 24 were in education whereas the EU average is 61%.

While Pipes paints a dark picture, and Turkey might be seen as one of the brighter spots in the Muslim world thereby offering a near term goal, the political crisis reaching across all Arab nations offers a real opportunity for these populations to address one of their most glaring shortfalls.

Turkey's women's volleyball team


Teatree said...

Another article following this theme was posted on Facebook.

Sarah said...

It's so easy to forget that women around the world deal with this every single day when we're so safe here. Thanks. This was a good highlight of the entire uprising in the Middle East.