There is much about the Middle East that needs changing. It was always a matter of time, for example, before the people would rise up and demand freedom. But we have yet to see the leaders of the uprisings make a forceful case to address one of the most serious problems in the region: the routine abuse, harassment and even the brutalization of women.
The subject gained attention when CBS correspondent Lara Logan was hospitalized following a “sustained sexual assault and beating” while covering celebrations of the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Back then, some blame-the-victim observers said perhaps women should not cover such events, or maybe Logan was not dressed appropriately.
The incident brought to mind a mind-boggling conversation I had years ago while working in Cairo. My Egyptian colleague, normally a forward-looking man, insisted that a woman who doesn’t dress modestly has only herself to blame if men rape her. I had not heard that outrageous argument in decades, and my Egyptian friend had never heard the view that nothing excuses rape. He ultimately agreed, leading me to conclude that a determined education campaign might change attitudes, at least among part of the population.
For now, reformers have not made the cause of women’s rights prominent in their demands because the attitudes that cause the problem are endemic in the population, not just in the regimes they seek to change. But if progressive leaders want to improve life for everyone, women’s rights should figure at the top of their agenda. Many throughout the region fervently hope conditions for women will improve.
How women dress, incidentally, has absolutely nothing to do with the problem. Studies in Egypt have shown that the overwhelming majority of Egyptian women have been harassed, and most of them were wearing Islamic headscarves at the time of the abuse. But sexual harassment is the least of it.
Even in the New Egypt, we hear reports of women being arrested, tortured and subjected to “virginity exams” in view of soldiers. The region is rife with honor killings of the victims of sexual crimes. Genital mutilation continues and, to different degrees, discrimination against women is the order of the day in every single Arab country.
Women are in for “special” treatment in every situation. When a team of New York Times journalists was detained in Libya, the woman photographer among them was repeatedly groped by her captors. And we still don’t know the fate of Eman al-Obeidy, the Libyan woman who managed to tell foreign reporters she had been raped by 15 men while in custody, even as she struggled with security forces who pulled a black hood over her head and drove her away.
In Saudi Arabia, women have been told yet again that they will not be allowed to vote in upcoming municipal elections. It’s no wonder. They are still banned from driving, working, or traveling without a man’s permission. The mere suggestion of such rules would cause women to riot in other countries.
In the desert kingdom, courageous women inspired by actions in neighboring nations, have joined to form the Saudi Women’s Revolution. They demand equality and are asking the rest of the world to support them.
The Arab Middle East — and Egypt in particular — act as a beacon that guides customs and beliefs in other Muslim countries, where mistreatment can reach horrifying, infuriating depths.
A few days ago, in Bangladesh, a 14-year-old girl named Hena was beaten and raped. As a result, she was accused and found guilty of adultery by the village Imam, who issued a fatwa, a religious ruling sentencing her to 100 lashes for her transgression, whatever that was.
Hena managed to withstand 70 lashes before collapsing and requiring hospitalization. She died of her injuries. An autopsy, incredibly, ruled her death a suicide.
Attitudes toward women have become infected by the social and political stagnation that the region now wants to shed. A spotlight on women’s rights, at this moment, could have a powerful impact throughout the Muslim world.
Women are part of the movement that overthrew regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, and many of their male comrades-in-revolution share the urgency of their plight. Demands for democracy and efforts to institute liberal reforms should include a special focus on women. Democracy advocates, enlisting the support of moderate Muslims, could improve hundreds of millions of lives and move their countries forward by insisting, not a moment too soon, on full rights for women.