In 1799, the French artist Vivant Denon, accompanying a team of scientists traveling to Egypt with Napoleon (who excused his invasion with the logic that he was bringing democracy to the Arabs) was touring some ancient sites along the upper Nile when he came across an 8-year-old girl in severe pain. Writing in his journal, Denon noted that “a cut, inflicted with equal brutality and cruelty, has deprived her of the means of satisfying the most pressing want, and occasioned the most horrible convulsions.” Denon was referring, of course, to female genital mutilation. The Frenchman quickly pulled out a knife and performed a counter-operation, by which he “was able to save the life of this unfortunate little creature.”
On another occasion, Denon (who went on to become the first director of the Louvre) encountered a bleeding, recently blinded woman carrying an infant in the desert outside Alexandria. She was begging for food and water. As the French stopped to offer aid, a man galloped up, claiming to be her husband, and demanded that they leave her alone. “She has lost her honor,’” the man shouted, according to Denon. “She has wounded mine, this child is my shame, it is the son of guilt!” The horrified French artist watched as the man then drew a dagger, stabbed the women and hurled the infant to the ground, killing it as well. Denon asked his Egyptian guides whether the man was not liable under the law for murder, and was informed that the man was within his rights, although the actual murder was frowned upon, and that after 40 days of wandering, the woman would have been eligible for charitable services.
The French in 1800 were among the first Westerners to visit and write about the lives of modern Arabs in Egypt. Besides the great pyramids, what struck them most forcibly was the abominable treatment of women. And while the archaeological treasure has been studied and secured, 200 years later, unfortunately, much remains the same with respect to women’s rights.
Ninety percent of Egyptian women are genitally mutilated, according to aid worker estimates. Although the practice was officially outlawed in 2007, gynecologists can still legally perform it “for health reasons.” Egyptian women can vote; they are a significant part of the workforce, and there were women in the recently disbanded Egyptian cabinet. But Egyptian women are not allowed to travel abroad without the permission of their husbands; they have difficulty initiating divorce; and they can’t become judges.
As Egyptians rise up to demonstrate for their civil rights, the world watches with bated breath, wondering what man (for surely it will be a man) will succeed Mubarak, and whether he will be moderate — that is, “friendly to Israel and Western ideas and mores” — or a fundamentalist, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose strict interpretation of the Quran and anti-Western political and cultural bias would turn the delicate global balance upside down.
What no one is talking about, though, is how deeply dangerous this time is for Egyptian women. The influence of extreme Islam has been growing there in recent years, so that for a bare-headed female to walk the streets of Cairo, even the tourist areas near the Egyptian Museum where I worked in 2004 on my book about the French in Egypt, is to invite menacing looks and muttered obscenities from men on the street.
Whatever happens in Egypt, there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s pink. Despite the years of discussion around our “War on Terror,” we have not focused on the fact that misogyny is a fundamental pillar on which radical Islam is based. Women’s freedom is what the al-Qaeda jihadis, as much as the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, most revile about the West. Women living in these parts of the world are severely discriminated against in ways that would be considered human rights violations if the same abuses were applied specifically to racial or ethnic groups.
While women in the West, and many Asian nations, have begun to move toward gender equality in the past century, the Islamic fundamentalist regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran, some African nations, and especially the Taliban, have moved backward, with great violence and repression that harms millions of women and feeds jihadi fervor against the West. The influence of the Islamist/fundamentalist attitude toward women has spread to neighboring countries, and into countries in Europe where migration is occurring.
To varying degrees, women in Islamist regimes are forced to wear blankets over their heads, marry in childhood, are denied education, denied freedom of movement, have little or no control over their finances, cannot divorce. Their most basic desires are thwarted at every turn: those who dare choose their own lovers are routinely murdered in so-called “honor killings.” Rape victims may be forced to marry their attackers.
These horrific examples should make it ever more obvious to the world that subjugating females is the driving force behind Islamist rage. It was there in 9/11 attacker Mohammed Atta’s will, in which he demanded that no pregnant woman be allowed to come near his grave; it’s there in the acid attacks on pretty girls who dare say no to their men in Pakistan; it’s there in the stoning sentences for “adulterers” in Iran and Somalia; it’s there in the prohibition on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia; it’s there in the black blankets millions of women think — know — they must throw over their heads whenever they dare step outside their homes.
With so much evidence piled up that the status of women in the West is what radical Islamist fighters revile most about us, the only question left is why haven’t the Western countries made support of women a fundamental element of the diplomatic, military and political response?
The issue gets very little discussion in the foreign policy community. Five years ago, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) deemed it appropriate to convene a roundtable on “Arab Women and the Future of the Middle East.” Afterward, a not-for-attribution summary report was produced for the foreign policy community containing the views and suggestions voiced at the April 14, 2005, roundtable. The first three recommendations were:
• American foreign policy should be consistent: The United States must apply human rights standards uniformly in its relations with all the countries of the region;
• When dealing with officials of Middle East countries, U.S. officials should always remind them of their obligations to respect human rights and women’s rights enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
• The State Department should expand the section concerning women’s rights in its annual report.
The United States has had three female secretaries of state in the last 15 years, yet the human rights of women remain unaddressed, and the above recommendations have never been implemented.
In March 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed on MSNBC and asked what the Obama administration was doing for women’s rights globally. She mentioned three fronts: health care, which affects the infant mortality rate; food security; and climate change. While these certainly help all people, they do not remotely rise to the level of a real response to the abuses women specifically face simple because they are female.
For years, our governments have treated outrageous depredations against women as quaint cultural customs. Only the French have officially rejected the burqa, and for that faced international criticism about “racism.”
Of course womanhood is not a “race,” and that may be the problem. If blacks or Jews were consistently mistreated the way women are from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, and in many of the nations in between, the United Nations, the Europeans and the people of the United States wouldn’t stand for it, and our elected representatives would be holding hearings, issuing sanctions, putting the issue front and center every single day.
In Egypt in 1899, a male judge named Qassem Amin caused an uproar when he penned a book titled “The Liberation of Women,” arguing that improving the status of women would help Egypt develop. Amin blamed Egypt’s falling under European power, despite centuries of ancient learning and civilization, on the low social and educational standing of Egyptian women.
A century on, women remain severely discriminated against in Egypt and throughout the region, especially in extremist regimes in the Gulf States and under the Taliban. The reversals women face after revolutions in these areas are horrific. The case of Iran is well known. In Iraq, so recently secular under the dictator, millions of women have now donned the black blanket out of sheer fear and have seen their mobility decrease.
The effort to keep women segregated is at the heart of the regional cultural bias against women, and it is true that it is an old tradition. When Napoleon invaded Cairo, the Egyptians barely resisted at first. They only revolted when Napoleon ordered his soldiers to break down the many doors in Cairo streets and alleys that kept neighborhoods walled off and women safely incarcerated in their communities.
But Islamist efforts to keep women segregated in these modern times have reached ridiculous levels. Iraqis whisper that extremists have even shot storekeepers for stowing “male and female vegetables” (cucumbers and tomatoes apparently) together. An Egyptian cleric in 2009 decreed that men and women may only work together in offices if the women have breast-fed the men. That cleric was forced to retract the decree, and was fired, then reinstated. But the decree was reiterated by another cleric in Saudi Arabia.
Increased limitation on female mobility is a hallmark of Islamic resurgence, and this should be recognized as a backlash against the model of increasing women’s rights elsewhere. “Women’s liberation movements in the Muslim world were viewed as Western contaminations aimed at the destruction of Islam from within,” wrote Lamia Rustum Shahedah, in Arab Studies Quarterly, in an article about the theoretical bases of Islamic fundamentalist attitudes toward women. “Accordingly, all resurgents allotted the female status a major part of their corpus, the most radical stipulating complete segregation of women to the home environment. Thus, men will direct the Islamic society while women sustain, nurture, and propagate the family, the nucleus of society.”
We in the West should reconsider our own definition of the boundary between a cultural trait and a human rights violation, as it pertains to women. An extremist takeover of Egypt will be a disaster for Egyptian women, who must hope that the future will be better for their daughters than for them, and that whatever new society is being formed takes into account the universal — not just Western — human rights of women. The world and moderates among the Egyptian people must keep the human rights of women front and center in the discourse as they watch Cairo, and other Arab nations, transform themselves.
Nina Burleigh, who has lived and worked in Italy, France and the Middle East, is the author of, most recently, “Unholy Business” (Harper Collins, 2008), about an archaeological forgery trial under way in Israel.
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