Mona Eltahawy

Our New Allies Violate Women’s Human Rights

By Mona Eltahawy
WEnews correspondent

In forging an anti-terrorism alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the United States has sided with three nations that may not be as brutal as the Taliban in Afghanistan but which routinely violate the human rights of women.

(WOMENSENEWS)–Imagine a country where a woman who is raped must produce four witnesses to the crime or else be locked up in jail as an adulteress.

How about a country where a woman cannot drive and must obtain written permission from a male relative to travel.

Imagine a country where a woman cannot pass on her nationality to her children and where the girls among those children face terrible odds of having their genitals mutilated by age 7.

Afghanistan, you’re thinking. Surely it’s the Taliban that have done these terrible things to their women. That medieval regime’s unconscionable treatment of its women is well documented.

But it is not Afghanistan that is home to these indignities against women. Instead, it is Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt–three of the United States’ best friends in the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent.

As Operation Enduring Freedom unfolds, it is imperative to remember that women in those countries, not just in Afghanistan, suffer rights violations. One need only refer to the U.S. Department of State’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2000 on each of these nations. Each report has a section on women–none of them makes for pleasant reading.

Let’s start with my country, Egypt. I am married to an American who has started the process of applying for my citizenship in this country. I cannot do the same for my husband in Egypt. When we have children, I will not be able to pass on my Egyptian citizenship to them. While Egyptian legislation is largely based on a form of Napoleonic law, issues pertaining to women and the family–such as marriage, divorce and child custody–are governed by religious law, Islamic or Christian, as the case may be.

In Egypt Domestic Violence a Major Problem, Also ‘Honor’ Killings

According to the State Department report, in Egypt, “domestic violence against women is a significant problem.” A national study conducted in 1995 found that one out of three women who has ever been married has been beaten at least once during marriage.

Spousal abuse is grounds for a divorce, but the law requires the plaintiff to produce eyewitnesses. The U.S. human rights report goes on to say that perpetrators of so-called honor killings–a man murdering a female for her perceived lack of chastity–“generally receive lighter punishments than those convicted in other cases of murder.”

Regarding female genital mutilation, a practice that involves removing part or all of the clitoris along with other parts of the genitalia, “a study conducted during the year estimates the percentage of women who have ever been married who have undergone female genital mutilation at 97 percent.”

The Egyptian Health Ministry outlawed the practice in 1996 but it remains prevalent among both Muslims and Christians.

The section on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia does not make for better reading. The best-known violation of Saudi women’s rights is the prohibition from their driving a vehicle.

But the State Department report lists more rights violations. The report says that physical spousal abuse and violence against women “appear to be common problems” in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi man may prevent his wife and any child or unmarried adult daughter from obtaining an exit visa to depart the country.

Women in Saudi Arabia “have few political or social rights and are not treated as equal members of society.” The State Department report says, “Women must enter city buses by separate rear entrances and sit in specially designated sections,” and that they “risk arrest by the religious police for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative.”

Saudi Woman May Not Be Admitted to Hospital Without Male’s Consent

Furthermore, women are not admitted to a hospital for medical treatment without the consent of a male relative, the report goes on to say. Of the three countries highlighted for their treatment of women, the State Department report on human rights heaps the most criticism on Pakistan–the newest U.S. friend and possibly the most important because of its long border with Afghanistan and its equally long hand in Afghanistan’s internal political situation. Pakistan and the United States were also friends during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when both trained radical Afghan fighters in Pakistan.

Again, violence against women is a problem. Human rights groups estimate that anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of women are victims of domestic violence at the hands of their husbands, in-laws or other relatives, according to the State Department.

A particularly disturbing phenomenon is what has come to be known as “kitchen stove deaths,” in which a married woman is killed by relatives over dowry disputes or a suspicion of illicit sexual relationships. Dowry refers to the gifts and cash the family of the bride gives to the family of the bridegroom. Those relatives then blame an exploding stove for the woman’s death. During 2000, 593 burn cases were recorded in Lahore newspapers, the report said.

“Rape is an extensive problem,” the State Department report on Pakistan continues. It quotes estimates by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that “at least eight women, five of them minors, are raped every day, and more than two-thirds of those are gang-raped.”

Which brings us to the horrific reports of women who have been jailed on grounds of adultery because they could not produce witnesses to their rape. It is against the law to have sex outside of marriage in Pakistan. According to a police official quoted in the report, in most rape cases women are pressured to drop the charges because of the threat of adultery or fornication charges against them if they cannot prove the lack of consent.

One-Third of Women Jailed in Three Pakistani Cities Await Adultery Trial

In 1998, about one-third of the women in jails in Lahore, Peshawar and Mardan were awaiting trial for adultery, according to the State Department report.

A Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Women in Pakistan criticized laws relating to extramarital sex and recommended that they be repealed.

The State Department referred to the commission’s work in its report and included this summary:

“The commission charged that the laws on adultery and rape have been subject to widespread misuse, with 95 percent of the women accused of adultery being found innocent either in the court of first instance or on appeal. However, the commission pointed out that, by that time, the woman may have spent months in jail, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the police, and seen her reputation destroyed.”

When I worked as the editor of a women’s issues section in an English-language weekly newspaper in Egypt a few years ago, many of the brave feminists and human rights activists I spoke to complained that they where hampered by an unwillingness to re-examine traditional views regarding women’s roles.

As Egypt, and many other countries in the developing world, grapple with the difficulties of modernization and globalization, traditional views on women and the family become even more sacrosanct, as if those traditions that kept women “in their place” were the last safe haven against a world that is changing too fast.

By adhering to long-held attitudes on women’s roles, governments in the countries I have mentioned mistakenly believe they can appease the more conservative elements in the population. But they must remember that they cannot develop a society while half of its members are ignored.

As we hope that Afghanistan’s future hails a better life for its women, let us wish the same for the women of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Mona Eltahawy is a free-lance journalist who lives in Seattle. She has reported on the Middle East for Reuters, the Guardian and U.S. News and World Report.

For more information:

Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan:

U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2000:

Raining Bombs Does Little to Grow Women’s Autonomy

By Kalpana Sharma
WEnews commentator

A writer for The Hindu, India’s national newspaper, writes that this is a war among men–Taliban, Northern Alliance, Bush and Blair–and that women’s needs for food, medical care, and full citizenship appear to be lost in the hostilities.

(WOMENSENEWS)–A war by men.

By the time this appears in your e-mail or is posted on the Women’s Enews site, that pile of rubble that is Afghanistan might have been pulverized into a finer mound of rubble by the relentless shower of American and British bombs.

In a war in which there can be no winners, and many losers, women and those who care about women should pause for a minute and ask themselves: What will be the future of those faceless women occasionally seen on television screens?

If and when this war ends, who will speak for the women of Afghanistan?

In all the hours of news footage and the acres of news print devoted to Afghanistan, there is little about women.

Playing the leading roles in the current theater of war within Afghanistan are men–Taliban or Northern Alliance alike. The Bush and Blair Brigade also consists mostly of men. Both sides speak the language of war.

But what of the men, women and children who are the recipients of an endless spiral of violence? People who had no role in the events of Sept. 11, and for whom there is little in the foreseeable future that presages peace.

For several years before the current crisis enveloped all of us, an appeal on the fate of women in Afghanistan has been circulated by e-mail. It would turn up with great regularity; its contents told us what we had already heard about the terrible depredations that women in Afghanistan had to bear under the Taliban.

One of the groups spearheading the struggle for women’s rights in that country is the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, known as RAWA. Now, when we see darkened screens and flickering lights to indicate that a country is being pounded virtually out of existence, it is instructive to visit the RAWA Web site.

Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan Have Been Fighting for 25 Years

The women behind this organization launched their fight for women’s rights long before the Taliban appeared on the horizon. Founded in 1977, it campaigned for these rights even as their country was convulsed with violent struggles between different groups, ending in the Soviet occupation in December 1979. This did not stop these brave women.

Even when a number of them were arrested and their leader, Meena, was murdered, allegedly by KGB agents in Pakistan in 1987, they persisted. The revolutionary women’s association worked with women in Afghanistan as well as the millions in the refugee camps across the border in Pakistan. They ran schools, created jobs for women, ran a hospital and counseled their traumatized and displaced sisters.

The advent of the Taliban brought in a whole new dimension to their struggle. They could not operate freely in Afghanistan anymore as women were forced to wear the burqa and were banned from most jobs. Despite this, they found ways to continue to work among Afghan women. Their Web site has a slide show that is not meant for the fainthearted. It gives you an unedited view of life as it was in Afghanistan.

But the important point that the organization makes is that those opposing the Taliban are not much better in their attitude toward women. Nor do they respect human rights. While the revolutionary women’s organization has emphasized its commitment to democracy and secularism, it points out that none of the groups fighting to displace the Taliban have any commitment to these values. In other words, the chances that women might be better off if the Taliban are replaced with another group is not at all a given in Afghanistan.

Women, Children Constitute 75 Percent of Refugees

The 20 years of conflict that have preceded the current war have already taken a huge toll on the health–both physical and mental–of Afghan women living in the country and in refugee camps outside. According to a 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women and children constitute 75 percent of the refugee population, which numbered 2.7 million in 1996. In addition, an estimated 1.2 million were internally displaced (that is, they were refugees within Afghanistan) at the end of 1996. In other words, close to 4 million Afghans were refugees inside or outside their country in 1996.

The study surveyed 160 women, of whom half lived in Kabul and the other half in Pakistani refugee camps. It opens up a small window into their lives. The majority of the women said that their mental and physical health had deteriorated during the two years they had lived in Kabul after the Taliban took over. A high 42 percent were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, 97 percent suffered from depression, and 86 percent exhibited anxiety symptoms.

More than half these women were employed before the Taliban took over on Sept. 26, 1996. After that, only one-third held on to their jobs. In the pre-Taliban days, 70 percent of the teachers in Kabul, 50 percent of the civil servants and 40 percent of the physicians were women.

All this changed almost overnight with the Taliban’s ban on women working outside their homes. The loss of income had a direct impact on health and nutrition levels in many families.

Worse still, in September 1997 the government stopped women’s access to health services in Kabul. Only one “poorly equipped clinic” was available to women, the study said. Following the intervention of the Red Cross, around 20 percent of the beds in hospitals were kept for women.

The study found that a large number of women refugees streaming into Pakistan mentioned the absence of medical care as one of the important reasons for leaving their country.

It is important that we know such facts. It is essential that we understand the conditions in which the majority of women lived. But it is also crucial that we realize that the future for the most vulnerable and abused in Afghan society, the women, is not at all guaranteed by a rain of bombs, by political machinations that bring about a change of government, or by painting Islam as being anti-women.

Afghan women were part of a Muslim society where they had rights. They were deprived of their democratic rights when the Soviets took over. They were deprived of their rights as women when the Taliban took over. Will they get their rights as human beings some day in the future?

Kalpana Sharma is deputy editor of The Hindu, a prominent English-language newspaper.