By Evin Cheikosman:
The revolutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have opened many doors that have been locked for centuries; and one of those doors leads into the topic of women’s rights. If we take a moment to reflect on the uprisings that have taken place this past year and the numerous acts of dissent that we have witnessed across the Middle Eastern region, we will realize the numerous instances wherein women have played a contributory role in their nations’ most momentous events. In addition, amidst the ethno-religious battles and anti-regime protests, the media has progressed towards portraying these “female revolutionaries” as great heroes and prime engineers for change.
The evidence for this progress in women’s rights in the Middle East, of which I will list here, can be found throughout many news sources. According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric, Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh appointed 30 women to the Shoura Council, an advisory quasi-parliament where they now represent 20% of the previously all-male body. In addition this past October, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia allowed the first women in the kingdom to practice law and to own as well as run their own law firms. Let’s now turn to Jordan, where just recently Jordan’s parliament passed a law that allows Jordanian women married to foreigners to pass on their nationality to their children. Let’s not forget about Kuwait where women earned the right to vote for the first time in 2005. As you can see, women in the Middle East are really making headway, would you agree?
Granted all the above and more is true; however, I cannot help but point out that many women in the Middle East and North Africa are still facing some of the worst kinds of abuse, oppression, and subordination that you would think would be nonexistent in this day and age. Here is a quick list of what I am referring to:
- According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation expert survey, it is the third-worst country to be a woman out of 22 Arab States.
- Female unemployment is nearly 36% compared with only 6% for the men.
- Just two days ago two women were forced to face terrorism charges for disobeying the country’s ban on female drivers.
- It is the only country, except for the Vatican City, where women are not allowed to vote.
- As in nearby Qatar, women aren’t able to pass on citizenship to their children. Those born to Kuwaiti mothers get the same benefits as Kuwaiti citizens only up until they’re 21.
- In January, Egyptian groups reported at least 19 cases of mob sexual assaults (Human Rights Watch-HRW).
- In June and July, women’s rights groups confirmed 186 sexual attacks on women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square over one week (HRW).
- There is no law criminalizing domestic violence specifically (HRW).
- Other forms of violence against women, including child marriage and female genital mutilation continued to take place in some areas, despite laws prohibiting them (HRW).
- From July 2013 to June 2014, at least 852 people were executed according to UN investigator Ahmed Shaheed.
- Girls as young as nine can be married off.
- “Nonconsensual sexual relations in marriage” are allowed under the law.
- A woman trying to leave an abusive marriage must prove “a significant risk of bodily harm.”
- A woman seeking a divorce on the grounds of domestic violence must prove that the violence is “intolerable.”
The list of countries and odd anti-female laws can go on but, for the sake of not wanting to write a book, I will stop here.
Just because a few laws are passed in favor of equal rights and a handful of imams criticize the “brutality” against women does not mean that women’s rights in the Middle East are making real headway or that any of these laws are actually being carried out. There needs to be a larger lobby for women, and these women need to take this opportunity where there is a dissemblance of order spreading across the region to make their case known to the world.
This is where I would like to bring up a particular moment in history that the women of the MENA have failed to take control of: the raping, kidnapping, trafficking, and killing of Yazidi women by Islamic State (IS) militants.
The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking minority who follow an ancient faith rooted in Zoroastrianism and thus are labeled by IS militants as “devil worshippers,” because of their unorthodox blend of beliefs and practices. In August the IS overran Yazidi villages in the area of Mount Sinjar in Iraq, terrorizing the Yazidi community. It was the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that came in and rescued the Yazidi people seeking refuge in the barren hills nearby Mount Sinjar. This is a huge humanitarian crisis involving women and I have yet to hear of any of the women across the Middle East rising up in protest of these inhumane crimes against the Yazidi women. Where are the Egyptian women? Where are the Jordanian women? Why aren’t there any fellow Arab females revolting or starting a revolution of their own? Shouldn’t the persecution and forced sexual slavery of Yazidi women be the spark the lights up an all-out revolution for greater women’s rights in the Middle East? What if these acts were committed by the IS on Saudi women, would the rest of the female population in this region rise up? Is it because Yazidi’s are a minority and not of the same religious faith that the atrocities being committed against them are somewhat validated? Just watching these events unfold and reading the stories of 12 year old Yazidi girls who have managed to escape marriage from IS militants twice their age, and then finding very little evidence of women activists in MENA fighting for these Yazidi girls makes me wonder how the international community could even take seriously the pleas for women’s rights by Arab women themselves. This whole situation is just baffling to me.
And what of these female “role models” that Glamour magazine calls “the power princess of women’s rights”, like Saudi Princess Ameera al-Taweel who, despite her numerous pledges to empower the women of her country, has done very little? She speaks of foundations, scholarships, and projects that she is taking part in in places like Africa, but where was she when the most inhumane crisis on women in the 21st century was and still is being committed in her backyard? Are the Yazidi women not a worthy enough initiative for her? Granted, she has done her fair share of good works but this time in women’s history is so momentous, it is somewhat contradictory to preach all these things that women can do and all the things that she is doing to empower them to progress in Saudi society, but then do nothing about an issue such as this. This brings into question the sincerity of the advocacy work of women like Queen Rania of Jordan as well. There is so much potential to make a huge wave for change but these “role-models” are not taking the reins and the women of MENA are not coming together to do anything for their fellow sisters in the Yazidi community.
An opportune moment is basically being left to waste.
I would like to say thank you to the Peshmerga, the YPG, the YPJ, the PKK, and all the fearless Kurds who are putting their lives on the line to protect not only their own people, but the lives of the Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, women, children, and even the Arabs who have supported the oppressive policies that their governments have placed on the Kurds for centuries.
And a special thank you to the Kurdish women who have taken up arms against the Islamic State. THEY are the role models for women today everywhere, but especially across the MENA region. It is the independent female Kurdish fighters and the women fighters of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) that are redefining gender equality in MENA. Granted gender equality in the Arab world is a new and somewhat frightening idea for the general populous, but as one YPJ fighter explained: military forces are no longer the monopoly of men; the YPJ proves that women can be fighters as well as protect themselves and their nation. It does not matter your religious denomination or current situation, like the women of the YPJ, there is no excuse to not fight, revolt, and protest for societal cases or political issues as a woman. There is so much untapped potential within all women across MENA who are intelligent and talented enough to speak out. They need to stop waiting for the MEN in power to decide when to give them equal rights. As we begin a new year, oppressed and exploited women in MENA and across the globe should work together and for each other to turn this idea of the “untouchable male pedestal” on its head.
Here I would like to end with a brief list of women in MENA who are and who have been doing something for their sisters, mothers, daughters, nieces, cousins, aunts, and grandmothers of every religion, color, and rank:
Moushira Mahmoud Khattab
Samira Salih al-Nuaimi
…Add to the list as you wish
Evin Cheikosman is a Kurd living in Los Angeles, CA, A recent graduate in International Politics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, she has studied abroad in Berlin, Germany and will soon be traveling to Zhuhai, China on a teaching assignment. Thereafter she will be pursuing a masters degree in foreign affairs. During her free time, Evin posts facts and opinions concerning Kurdish politics on her blog: Minority Politico