Markers of Reform in the Middle East
AEI Newsletter

One way to measure the progress of reform in the Middle East is to analyze the status of women. In most Middle Eastern countries, women have fewer rights than men; in countries governed by extremist Islamic regimes, women are subject to severe human rights abuses. On October 10, AEI hosted eight women from the Middle East to speak about their experiences, the situation of women in their countries, and prospects for further reform.

Wafa Sultan
Wafa Sultan

Keynote speaker Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-American psychiatrist who became well-known for her vigorous denunciation of Islamic extremism on the Al Jazeera television network, began her remarks by discussing a Palestinian woman who, in 2003, strangled her daughter to protect her family’s “honor”--the daughter had been raped by her own brothers. Sultan also discussed the 2002 incident in Saudi Arabia in which students at a girls’ school were prevented from fleeing a burning dormitory by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice because they were not wearing the obligatory headscarf and abaya. “What
vice were they preventing?” asked Sultan. “What virtue were they promoting?”

These incidents are symptoms of a “backward” culture, according to Sultan. The sharia law which governs extremist Islamic countries grants men complete control over their female relatives. Sharia imposes a particular burden on young women, who are, as Sultan said, “convinced that their bodies are temples where the honor of their families abides.”

Sultan praised women who have emerged to speak out against these injustices. She argued that women’s liberation should be an official priority of Western policies on the Middle East. “Countries like Saudi Arabia should understand that they cannot be allied with the United States when their women suffer human rights abuses on a daily basis,” she said. Human rights for women in the Middle East are essential to pursuing reform.

The first of two panels addressed social and religious reforms. Libyan journalist Sawsan Hanish stressed the importance of enlisting Islamic religious leaders to condemn violence against women. Amel Grami, a scholar at the University of Manouba in Tunisia, spoke about Islamic feminism. New readings of the Quran and Hadith see gender justice in the texts. The Islamic feminist movement is important, she said, because only faithful Muslims can make headway against sharia; secular intellectuals do not have the credibility to change the culture.

Rasha Shokr, an Egyptian journalist, spoke about how blogging gave her a window to express herself freely for the first time. She discussed the trajectories of liberty and repression in twentieth-century Egypt, which, seventy-five years ago, was one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East. Lebanese activist Mireille Chidiac-El Hajj described her sister May Chidiac’s survival of a car bomb after the latter’s advocacy of freedom for Lebanon.

The second panel addressed women’s political rights. Ruthie Blum of the Jerusalem Post described how advanced women’s rights are in Israel and spoke of the honor accorded to women in Jewish culture. Mariam Memarsadeghi of Freedom House addressed repression in Iran, arguing that the lack of liberty there is a direct result of the Islamic revolution of 1979. Pascale Warda, former Iraqi minister for displacement and migration, described the strides women have made in the creation of the new Iraqi government, but expressed concern over the reduction of the number of women in parliament.

Two of the panelists who had planned on speaking at the conference were kept from doing so by their governments. The Saudi Arabian government banned Waheja al Huwaider from traveling to the conference. In Egypt, authorities trumped up charges against Gameela Ismail, spokeswoman for the El Ghad Party and wife of jailed party leader Ayman Nour, which prevented her from traveling to Washington.

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