Arab Women in Revolution: Reports from the Ground

Part: 6

Human Rights Groups Blur Issues of Women Rights

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Women's rights groups are criticizing Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, for neglecting women's rights violations in an apparent rush to defend political Islam.

(WOMENSENEWS)-- Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down that country's Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling.

And while "moderate Islamist" leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control.

In this context, the support given by Kenneth Roth, head of the major U.S. organization Human Rights Watch, to Islamist parties is disturbing to say the least and shows a wider problem in the attitude of the human rights movement toward political Islam.

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In his group's 2012 World Report, Roth wrote: "It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name," but he failed to call for the most basic guarantee of rights--the separation of religion from the state.

His essay only once mentions the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities, almost in passing: "Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up."

Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate.

Roth's essay is just the latest example of a crisis within the human rights movement, some of whose leaders have treated political Islamists as partners and been willing to downplay systematic violence and discrimination against women, gays and religious minorities.

Marieme Helie-Lucas is founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, the 20-year advocacy group with headquarters in London, Dakar, Senegal and Lahore, Pakistan. She suggested a group response to Roth.

Over a period of three weeks, with several women writing and others offering suggestions, we produced an Open Letter to Roth, which serves as a critique of his essay, signed by 17 global women's human rights groups. Our letter is accompanied by a petition.

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Mr. Roth's dismissal of women's rights violations in Tunisia is regrettable, but it is symptomatic of a greater problem. Around the world, women's rights are seen as an appendage to human rights--not one of their central elements. This is why Human Rights Watch, an organization that claims to "expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable," can overlook women in effort to consider the "bigger picture."

I do not suggest that HRW does not take the violation of women's rights into consideration when evaluating states. On the contrary, HRW brings to light many women's issues around the world, such as sexual violence, reproductive freedom, and sex trafficking. However, Mr. Roth's essay shows that violating the rights of women does not disqualify a state from the organization's good graces. In times of rapid change (especially in Arab Spring nations, where relationships to western norms have yet to crystalize), HRW is prone to issue a "pass" on women's rights. This would not happen if HRW truly believed, as Hillary Clinton once said, that "women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights."

Excellent article by Ms. Tax! The Islamists in many parts of the world are becoming emboldened by such support as that by Mr. Roth. I hope women, including at the Centre for Secular Space, can be more effective than women have been with Amnesty International in such situations.


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