Middle East Gender Gap
Joseph Braude has an interesting piece in New Republic Online arguing that the Bush Administration’s actions have not lived up to its rhetoric on advancing women’s rights in the Middle East. He advocates imposing affirmative action for women on the new governments of Aghanistan and Iraq.
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 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.
Braude’s point that American soft power is critical to advancing this issue is well taken. Still, I am not sold on the need for such a heavyhanded approach. If we try to Westernize the Arab world all at once, we are doomed to fail. Women’s equality is anathema to devout Muslims. By focusing on instilling basic democratic values first, we improve our chances of success immeasurably. Let’s not have the perfect become the enemy of the good.