Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Gender Gap: What President Bush, American Feminists, and American Muslims Haven't Done for the Women of the Middle East

The Bush administration and its supporters are claiming credit for the advancement of women's rights in Muslim countries. Last Tuesday, at a White House ceremony to mark International Women's Day, First Lady Laura Bush told an audience of Arab and Muslim women that her husband had made their cause a "global policy priority" and cited an impressive list of achievements won by American military actions. She noted that the Taliban no longer oppresses women in Afghanistan and has been replaced by a government with three female ministers, along with a new constitution that is "one of the most progressive documents on women's rights in the Muslim world." She also cited high female voter turnout in the Afghani, Palestinian, and Iraqi elections, and the fact that a third of Iraq's elected parliament members are women. Both the First Lady and another speaker at the event, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stressed the administration's desire to spread these gains across the region through the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative. Rice told the audience, "As you stand for your rights and for your liberty, America stands with you." Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger summed up the impact of White House policy on Middle Eastern women with this observation: "After the fall of Saddam and the election of January 30, it is harder than it was for authoritarian regimes to force their women into the shadows."

Perhaps it is harder to force women into the shadows; but it's still not actually hard. Women remain marginalized and oppressed by many of the Middle East's secular and Islamist governments alike--including both America's allies and its opponents--and it's not clear what exactly the White House intends to do about it. Even in the two countries where the U.S. exerts direct military authority, the cause of women is advancing in some ways but regressing in others. In Afghanistan, human rights organizations report that rape, sex trafficking, and extra-judicial "honor killings" remain prevalent in rural areas, in part because the central government is too weak to exert much control outside Kabul. In Iraq, the security situation has effectively barred many women from leaving their homes to go to school or work. Furthermore, some newly elected Iraqi Islamist parties are pressing to repeal the relatively liberal personal status law for women that has been on the books since 1959. They want to replace it with a version of Islamic law that would take away women's inheritance rights and skew divorce law to favor men. These setbacks are the downside of political destabilization brought about by American hard power. The trouble is, American soft power is weak and inconsistent on the issue of Middle Eastern women--at a time when soft power is precisely what is needed to mitigate the negative side-effects of an aggressive foreign policy.


The inconsistency begins at the top. President Bush has declared that "No society can advance with only half of its talent and energy--and that demands the full participation of women." But he also said, in his last State of the Union address, that he does not seek to impose Western culture on new and fledgling democracies: "Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens, and reflect their own cultures." So what should the United States do when entrenched cultural forces call for the curtailment of women's rights?

During the year ending in June 2004 when the Coalition Provisional Authority ruled Iraq, Americans largely acquiesced to a strengthening of Islamist control over women and families. In one fateful decision, the army discontinued the pre-war system of food rations and begin distributing food to Iraqis through mosques. Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi feminist who is CEO of Women for Women International, was in Baghdad at the time. In a phone conversation, she described to me what happened next:

We were talking with women who were saying, During Saddam's time we would go to the store [for food]. ... Now we had to go to the mosque, had to cover from head to toe, and we had to fight with men for the food because we were forced to the back of the mosque. When I asked the general who was giving us the briefing, I asked him, 'Are you considering the impact you are having on women?' ... He did not understand the word gender.

While Islamists began to consolidate power and influence, some women's rights activists lobbied the U.S. government for a measure of affirmative action--initially, by asking CPA chief Paul Bremer to give women special consideration as he selected the Iraqi Governing Council. Though women are a majority of the country's population, only three were nominated by Bremer to serve on the 25-member Governing Council. Moreover, only one woman served among the country's 25 ministers, no women participated in the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law, and out of hundreds of judges appointed by the CPA to serve in the country's court system, only 15 were women. When later confronted by women's groups with the suggestion that 40 percent of parliament seats be reserved for women--similar quotas have been established in 80 countries worldwide--Bremer initially refused ("out of a Republican ideology," Salbi alleges). A de facto parliamentary quota was eventually put in place by the CPA-appointed NGO tasked with setting the rules for Iraq's election: Each party had to list one woman for every two men among its candidates, thereby guaranteeing a one-third women's presence in any parliament. But the American role in this victory for women, now touted by Laura Bush, wasn't exactly enthusiastic from the start.

The Bush administration's apparent discomfort with the notion of affirmative action for Middle Eastern women is unfortunate in light of its stated commitment to advance their rights. There's a broad consensus among Arab feminists that quotas for women in the political arena are crucial in any attempt to offset the overwhelming cultural pressure against women's advancement. Consider the following percentages of women in the parliaments of Arab countries where the government is secular and America has some influence: Palestine, 7 percent; Jordan, 5.5 percent; Egypt, 2.9 percent; Oman, 2.4 percent; Lebanon, 2.3 percent; Yemen, 0.3 percent. Conspicuously missing from the list is Saudi Arabia, where the percentage is, of course, zero; recent municipal elections barred women from voting--let alone running for office.

Bush supporters have defended U.S. policies by noting that the most conservative voices in Iraq on women's issues include some female Islamist politicians, as documented by a front-page story in last week's Wall Street Journal. But a central explanation for this odd state of affairs is inconvenient for Bush backers: The fact that secular governments routinely disenfranchise women from power is often the reason that politically ambitious women resort to Islamist parties for a piece of the action.


American soft power, of course, is more than just the policies of the U.S. government. Grassroots movements play a vital role as well. Yet here too, Middle Eastern women have too often been let down. Some of the largest American feminist organizations opposed the Iraq war, which was their prerogative, but did so in part by whitewashing Saddam Hussein's record on women's issues. The fall 2003 edition of the National Organization for Women's NOW National Times, in a piece called Iraq: A Step Backwards for Women, had this to say about Saddam's rule: "Prior to the 2003 invasion, women comprised more than 20% of the Iraqi workforce, holding a wide range of technical, professional, and governmental positions, including a full fifth of the country's parliamentary seats."

Say what you will about the Iraq war and its aftermath, it's hard to deny that Saddam's departure in and of itself was good news for the country's women. In his final years, the dictator had ordered prostitutes to be beheaded. His security services had raped and tortured female relatives of Iraqi opposition activists and sent videotapes of the sex acts to their families. Thus it was unconscionable of NOW chief Kim Gandy to draw moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and Bush in an antiwar protest called "Code Pink: Women's Pre-Emptive Strike for Peace." Gandy said: "The real terrorism is the Bush administration's disregard for international law and destruction of civil liberties at home. This has become an issue of one dictator versus another." Of course, there are feminists who take a more constructive position. Feminist Majority leader Eleanor Smeal (also a supporter of the Code Pink rally) was among the first American activists to identify Taliban atrocities against women in Afghanistan. In December 2001, she called upon Bush to "construct a foreign policy as if women mattered."

Yet somehow, voices like Smeal's were largely absent last fall when the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative tasked American NGOs with training Iraqi women for public life. Perhaps the Bush administration is to blame, or perhaps the feminist establishment decided to wash its hands of Iraq policy in an election year, or perhaps a little bit of both. In any case, a major recipient of a $10 million grant package for Iraqi women's programs was the Independent Women's Forum--a right-wing group originally formed to counter feminists who opposed Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. Among other campaigns, the Forum had lobbied in opposition to the Violence Against Women Act. How well the organization has been doing on the ground in Iraq is unclear. What is clear is that the talent and resources of the mainstream American feminist movement have, for the most part, not been put to constructive use on behalf of Iraqi women.

Nor have America's most prominent Muslim organizations been particularly vocal on the empowerment of women in the Middle East. Part of the reason may be the funding some of these groups are widely reported to receive from conservative clerical endowments in the Gulf states. Thus the Council on American Islamic Relations, allegedly a recipient of Saudi funding, has been aggressive in advocating the right of women to wear a headscarf in the American workplace and outspoken on Israel's occupation of Palestine--but, as far as I can tell, silent on the exclusion of women from elections in Saudi Arabia or the struggle for women's suffrage in Kuwait. The content of Al Zaitounah, a biweekly pro-Hamas newspaper from the Islamic Association for Palestine in Chicago, has been lacking in introspection on the challenges women face in Islamic societies. In an article last year, the newspaper quoted the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement as saying, "The woman has not been dignified in any civilization or any religion as she has been dignified in Islam."


Having invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has arguably set in motion a wave of political change that stands to weaken authoritarian rule in numerous other countries. In this respect, setbacks for women in Afghanistan and Iraq that stem from weakened central authority, physical insecurity, and a rise of Islamist political influence may be a harbinger of things to come in many places. Which is why it's so important for American politicians and grassroots movements across the spectrum to shed their ideological baggage and formulate coherent stances on the use of soft power to advance Arab and Muslim women.

There are some encouraging signs that this process has already begun. The National Council of Women's Organizations weighed in with a statement on women's rights in Iraq on February 25. Other groups with a global reach, like Women for Women International, have been active and influential on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, and across Africa and Asia for years. This afternoon at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in New York City, in a move of symbolic importance, the Progressive Muslim Union will publicly break with a Muslim tradition of long standing that denies women the right to lead mixed-gender prayer services. The leader of the Friday prayer, who will also deliver the afternoon's sermon, is Amina Wadud, an African-American Muslim theologian from Virginia Commonwealth University. A New York mosque refused to host the event, claiming it would be incompatible with Islamic law. Wadud, who has already drawn coverage on the satellite network Al Arabiya, says she has received numerous death threats in the past few weeks. At a recent lecture in Toronto, she was accused by one Muslim man of being a "CIA agent." He apparently had no idea of the gap that often divides the U.S. government from American grassroots movements. This disconnect is intolerable at a time when American policy stands to affect millions of Muslim women--for better or for worse, and whether the U.S. manages to formulate a coherent strategy or not.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on March 18, 2005.

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