(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.

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.

Group Response

This debate has a long history. The modern human rights movement began during the Cold War with a focus on political and civil rights violations committed by states.

During the 1990s, women’s rights activists all over the world–including Americans like Rhonda Copelon and Charlotte Bunch–fought to transform this focus and build a movement. They battled to give equal weight to economic, social and sexual rights and to target violence against women and crimes committed by “non-state actors”– militias, paramilitary groups, religious fundamentalists, even fathers, brothers and husbands.

At the 1994 Vienna Conference on Human Rights, activists rallied a groundswell of support for the idea that women’s rights are human rights.

In response, powerful organizations such Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch set up gender units.

But that does not mean that everyone in these organizations fully grasped the new analysis.

Refocusing on State Abuse

When 9/11 came along, some fell back into focusing on state abuses. During the Cold War, the normative human rights subject had been an Eastern European writer in prison; now it became an accused jihadi in Guantanamo. Inevitably, people defending accused jihadis tend to see them simply as victims and do not look hard at fundamentalist ideas and practices for fear of complicating the issue.

Even before 9/11, there were human rights scandals involving terror, Islamic fundamentalism and gender.

During the Algerian civil war, both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch vigorously defended the rights of Islamists attacked by the state, but paid comparatively little attention to the rights of women, intellectuals, and civilians who were terrorized, raped and killed by these same Islamists. And a major scandal erupted in Amnesty International in February, 2010, when Gita Sahgal, head of their gender unit, was suspended after she publicly expressed concern about the group’s close alliance with Cageprisoners, an advocacy group for pro-jihadi prisoners.

For a number of women’s rights activists, Sahgal’s suspension was the last straw, showing the extent to which universality–the idea that everyone’s human rights are equally important–had been eroded by treating jihadis as campaigning partners. The affair was a media disaster for Amnesty; a global support petition for Sahgal drew 1,500 signatures; and a year later, a group of women’s human rights defenders formed a new think tank, the Centre for Secular Space, headed by Sahgal. Its goals are to fight fundamentalism, strengthen secular voices, and promote universality in human rights.

The Centre for Secular Space, based in London and New York, was just one of many organizations involved in drafting the Open Letter, including groups based in Bangladesh, Canada, France, Italy, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Senegal, Serbia, and the U.K.

Like the campaign to support Sahgal, the Open Letter to Kenneth Roth has broken the unspoken taboo against public criticism of human rights organizations by people who have been their partners. As such, it is bound to be controversial. But women cannot defend universality without challenging taboos.

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Meredith Tax has been a writer and political activist since the late 1960s. An historian, novelist, and essayist, she was a member of Bread and Roses in Boston and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union; founding co-chair of the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse (CARASA); founding chair of the International PEN Women Writers Committee; and President of Women’s WORLD, a global free speech network of feminist writers. She is currently U.S. director of the Centre for Secular Space. She blogs at www.meredithtax.org.

For more information:

Open Letter to Kenneth Roth:

Petition to Support Separation Between Religion and State:

Kenneth Roth’s essay, “Time to Abandon Autocrats and Embrace Rights”:

Impact of “war on terror” on women’s rights: