We cannot understand a story unless we understand the big picture; and vice-versa, the big picture often tells us a lot about individual stories. As I was growing up, I felt the true meaning of politics on my skin, firsthand. I grew up hoping that the many UN General Assembly or Security Council resolutions would make a difference for Palestinian rights and that the words of Carter, Reagan, George Bush Sr., and Clinton would make a difference. I grew up feeling the weight of their empty words and the disconnection between outside perceptions of the Middle East, the day-to-day realities of Arab peoples and the untold history of the region.
I learned that although I did not think my nationality or religion mattered, political events made them matter.
Why is this relevant when discussing women in the Middle East? Any discussion regarding women or gender issues in the Middle East, or their emancipation and freedom, cannot be separated from the history or the politics of this complex and troubled region.
Politics cannot be separated from what is going on in the lives of the men, women and children in those areas plagued by war, violence, poverty and lack of democracy. There are blatant economic and strategic interests and those that require a weak, divided and unstable Middle East, thus making democracy or the rights of women an impossible achievement to fight for or hope for. Women are expected to lead their battles at home or in their societies when war and conflict engulfs them, and where discrimination is a problem for entire societies, let alone women. Although women’s issues and rights are fundamental and must be resolved, the political turmoil in the Arab countries, has become a priority, forcing women to focus on the public rather than the personal. This injustice has caused resentment towards all those responsible: from the conservative and chauvinistic Arab male to the West and its hypocritical values, which it maintains for itself but does not guarantee for others.
How the Middle East has been divided
The Arab people have bigger problems to think about. Think of the maps at the beginning of the unjust invasion and destruction of Iraq. Everybody knew about the color-coded maps: Shiites in the south, Sunnis in the middle and the Kurds, in the north. And let’s talk about the maps of Palestine, from the infamous areas A, B, and C to the many hundreds of miles of illegal Apartheid walls (euphemistically called fences) and the illegal settlements being called neighborhoods. Those very maps, well planned by Apartheid Israel, have divided Palestinian lands and fragmented the Palestinian identity. An identity that has been shredded into pieces literally with multiple Palestinian identities of the people of the West Bank, from Hebron to Ramallah and Nablus, and to the now distant, isolated and blockaded, Ghetto Gaza.
Since the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided Arab lands into spheres of influence after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI, and to this day, the Middle East and its inhabitants have always been treated with disregard. Millions of people have been played with, as if they were pieces on a chessboard. The people have been divided into many states, and in places where the majority was of one religion; power was given to those of the minority religion. This was true for Syria, where the minority Shiite ruled over the majority Sunni, and in Iraq where the Sunni minority ruled over the Shiite majority. This was ok while the West backed this, until they decided that Iraq and Syria were going to be destabilized and divided into even more mini-states, along religious or ethnic lines, which no longer mattered until they made it matter again.
Apartheid Israel has taught the West how to manage things this way, because the West allowed for a minority Zionist Jewish people to dominate over a majority Muslim people, and allowed for the expulsion of the majority Palestinian Muslim and Christian population in 1948. This continued with the blessing of the West to do the same in 1967, and allowed for the division of Palestine into the separate areas of Gaza and the West Bank. This of course disrupted the lives of people, separating them from family and friends, and not allowing free movement between the two territories: two territories and two people, which is in fact, one nation. Israel was successful in fragmenting the Palestinian identity, fueling anger and resentment which turned from resentment against the State of Israel against one other. Israel was able to achieve this by privileging one group and criminalizing the other, by not recognizing the basic rights of 1.8 million people and labeling them as terrorists; and by isolating them, like Israel has done with Gaza.
The Apartheid Israeli strategy was employed in Iraq and is becoming the reality in Syria. What if the same was done in New York? British journalist and Middle East expert Robert Fisk writes “imagine the colored fun the New York Times could have with Brooklyn, Harlem, the East River, black, white, brown, Italian, Catholic, Jew, Wasp”. Fisk says, such a map would never be published because it would be racist.
The Great War for Civilization
Unfortunately for the Arab people, the Middle East is a strategic area where The Great War for Civilization and the conquest of the Middle East is taking place, as Robert Fisk says in his book with this exact title. This Great War for the destruction and re-building of the Middle East is the biggest threat and concern for the peoples of the Arab world, and it is for this reason that solving the bigger problem, the external one - the one about double standards, injustice and betrayal - is more important than anything else, even more important than focusing on gender issues in the Arab world.
German philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote that the so-called “clash of civilizations” is a disguise for the concrete material interests of the West. Long before G. W. Bush came to power, the US found political Islam to be a convenient partner during each stage of the empire-building project in the Middle East. In the 1950s the enemy was not only Moscow, but also the Third World’s emerging nationalists: from Jamal Abd Al Nasser in Egypt to Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran.
The United States and the United Kingdom used an Islamic movement against Nasser and in Iran a CIA coup in 1953 installed a puppet government, which helped bring about the 1979 revolution. Later in the same decade, the US began to use the Islamic bloc led by the Saudis as a counterpoint to the nationalist left that was spreading from Egypt to Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Tunisia. Between the 1950s and 1970s members of the national elite, motivated by the drive for modernization, came to power and concentrated on central planning, industrialization and the more efficient use of human resources. These governments expanded health services and education to reach women in various social sectors, and were concerned about enrolling women in general production.
During this period, many Arab women gained important entitlements such as free general education. Their participation in the job market expanded, especially in the public sector, and they obtained health and social insurance. This period witnessed new legislation, which granted women their rights. Women were also appointed as ministers, and model women in various practical and scientific fields were honored by the State as a way for the latter to show its support for new roles for women in the public sphere. Although one may say that there is still more to be done for the emancipation of women, it is the West with its secret campaigns and wars that made this a much more difficult task.
The US forged an alliance with Saudi Arabia, intent on using its foreign policy arm, Wahhabi fundamentalism; a cult-like tribal ideology, which would become the basis and backbone of the Islamic terror groups we know today, from Al-Qaida to Isis, the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. The US joined with King Saud in pursuit of an ideological bloc that would counter the Arab world’s drive for freedom and democracy. The US succeeded with some Arab leaders but not with others. After the defeat of the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, King Faisal used oil as a weapon for the first time, creating an oil crisis in the 1970s. For this reason King Faisal was assassinated, and this becomes in fact a turning point in the history of the Middle East. By the 1990s,with the end of the cold war, some strategists argued that Islamism - a political creed of the 19th century and a militant ideology that the US and Israel encouraged and supported - was a new threat, the new “ism” replacing communism as America’s global opponent. CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour wrote that this went hand-in-hand with the spreading of American evangelical fundamentalism and Zionist fundamentalism.
With the Americans acting for religious-cultural reasons, as well as their long time support for the non-democratic forces in the Middle East -including the Islamists - the Muslims embraced the new creed and did the same. The clash between civilizations was not only predicted by foreign policy makers in the United States, but was a desired outcome, for the new world order that was to come after the end of the cold war and the fall of the Berlin wall. The end of the bipolar world, which maintained some kind of balance, and which had several Arab states under Soviet influence, came to an end with the triumph of the US hegemon, that could now run the show without competitors but with the need of an enemy. That enemy was going to be political Islam, with all its complexities and permutations, with its diversity and vastness, with its many peoples and nations, which were suddenly going to be placed under one name and one banner. The new enemy, and the future wars were going to be along ethnic/religious lines, a clash of civilizations that was not only predicted, it was a perfectly planned strategy and well documented and expressed in the famous book by policy maker Samuel Huntington in his book “The Clash of Civilizations”.
How have women been affected?
These policies, and the big games, the bigger story, have had direct consequences on women, especially because it did not and still does not leave much energy or space, let alone hope, for internal questions or women’s battles. How can women fight for empowerment when they have to fight to survive, or feed their children and worry about clean water? How can the literacy programs or training of advocates for women’s rights proposed years back change the lives of women if they are living under an occupation and if there is poverty or high unemployment? How can women think about their rights when their countries are threatened by war and there are wars in neighboring countries? How can women of the Middle East do anything substantial to change their status if they are living in countries that are either dictatorships or semi-authoritarian with the blessing of outside forces? How can men be normal in these circumstances?
By promoting women’s rights in the Middle East you would surely also be contributing to democratization for the Arab world, but it is definitely not through war that the West was going to liberate them. That was the slogan of President George W. Bush when he invaded Iraq for its supposed weapons of mass destruction, democratization through war. How many women and young girls have had to die in Iraq to gain these rights and be liberated? How were the other Arab countries and peoples supposed to interpret these actions? From the injustices in Palestine to the injustices in Iraq, the West is now reaping exactly what it has sowed. They made the Arab nations implode by using doublespeak that has caused confusion, misunderstanding, and disillusionment.
While the “liberation” of Arab women was high up on the West’s alleged agenda, the eradication of totalitarian structures and authoritarianism was not a priority, apparently. In fact, practically every country in the Middle East is now in a worse place for all its citizens, let alone women. How can women be free if their countries are not free? The US Government made the promotion of women’s rights and the empowerment of women a central element of its campaign to modernize and democratize the Middle East, when it began this whole restructuring of the Arab world, with the invasion of Iraq. But what kind of Iraq do we have now? Is it a more democratic and free Iraq that is safe for the people and safe for women? The forces that the United States had encouraged all along, and that it had been supporting and nurturing for decades, have now emerged glorious in Iraq as well as in the rest of the Arab world very much at the expense of all the people of the Middle East and of the women in particular.
It is not surprising if Iraqi women say things were better under Saddam’s regime. Iraqi women had achieved significant progress in education and employment and social and welfare services were enshrined in legislation. Women were granted equal pay and had maternity leave. Women were protected from harassment in the work place, even though they were not protected from rape if it was Saddam Hussein’s son that was involved. Their situation began to deteriorate and emancipation suffered serious setbacks primarily as a result of the first Gulf war and the 13 years of UN economic sanctions that followed. However, nobody knew what was yet to come. Nobody knew it was going to get a lot worse. Nobody knew that after 9/11, the world would change, that that attack would be considered an act of war and that it would ignite the third world war: the perpetual war, the war on terror. The terrible attacks on New York and Washington D.C., which should have forced the US and their allies to eradicate the same groups they had been supporting, gave them the green light to attack those countries instead. It served as a justification for the war on Afghanistan, as well as the subsequent war on Iraq, and for the promotion of the terrifying and mysterious new found enemy: the ism that was there all along, the Islamism which had nothing to do with religion but everything to do with the Wahhabi ideology that the US nurtured for decades.
The Taliban and their Wahhabi ideology that had been thriving in Afghanistan were bombed together with the rest of the population. But rather than being defeated they were being exported to Iraq first, and then later, to Syria. After years of meddling with Arab affairs, the Western secret services had successfully created, financed, trained and harbored them in Afghanistan, facilitating the development and growth of Al-Qaida which would be neatly replaced by the Islamic state, both in Iraq as well as in Syria; in the two most secular Arab states of the Middle East, oddly enough.
The Islamic State
It is one of the strangest creatures ever created. The Islamic State apparently wants to force all humanity to believe in its vision of a religious and social utopia existing in the first days of Islam. Women are to be treated as chattels, forbidden to leave the house unless, they are accompanied by a male relative. People deemed to be pagans can be bought and sold as slaves. Punishments such as beheadings, amputations and flogging become the norm. All those not pledging allegiance to the caliphate are declared enemies. Clearly a place such as this, is a dystopia, whether it were from the first days of Islam or from the first days of the Old Testament.
The rest of the world has watched with fascinated horror as the Islamic State terror groups imposed their rule over a vast area in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, inhabited by six million people. Highly publicized atrocities or acts of destruction, such as burning people to death, decapitating prisoners and destroying the remains of ancient cities, are deliberately staged as demonstrations of strength and acts of defiance. For a movement whose tenets are supposedly drawn from the religious norms of the 7th century, Isis has a very modern and manipulative approach to dominating the media. Although they look like primitive men dressed in robes with long ungroomed beards, and living in poor bombed out places, they are in fact very modern with their branded head bands, belts, and flags.
They seem to know how to advertise and promote a product, an idea, and an ideology, which through a good show of power and pride will attract even more recruits from the streets of desperate men. They are modern especially in their tactics and show of violence. They seem to have learned well from modern warfare and modern use of technology. The only problem is that their acts seem to be in direct contradiction to everything they supposedly stand for, “a proud return to an honorable Islamic past”. A past which they seem to want to obliterate, by destroying ancient monuments of their own historical past, something an enemy would do. Isis fighters do not simply kill, but they seek to humiliate, as well as dishonor the bodies of their victims. This too, a learned behavior, a replica of what many have had to endure, in the prisons of Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and in Guantanamo, as well as in the Apartheid Israeli prisons. The dehumanization approach clearly aims at the destruction of the body as a manifestation of a collectivity to be obliterated, with the purpose of rendering what was once a human person into an animal.
The Islamic State is a place where men drown themselves with cologne to hide the odor of forbidden cigarettes, where taxi drivers or motorists usually play the Islamic State’s radio station, since music can get a driver 10 lashes, where women must be entirely covered, in black, and in flat-soled shoes, and where shops must close during Muslim prayers. There is no safe way out.
The once colorful and cosmopolitan cities of Iraq and Syria have been transformed. If in the 40s, 50s and 60s women were wearing mini skirts, high heels and makeup, and wore bikinis to the beach - as well as going to the theatre and concerts in Jerusalem, Baghdad and Damascus looking like they could have been American or European - they are now covered head to toe in black. It is time to stop reciting what the terrorists say, that this is a return of some proud historical Islamic way of life. This is something new, the new “ism” that the West designed to suit its own plan. It is a plan that makes sense to the US, Iran, Turkey, Apartheid Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is not a plan that suits the interests of the population of the Middle east. What Islam is this? Life in Iraq and Syria is now a replica of what existed in Afghanistan, and that is a life of folly where men harvest poppy and then sell opium while at the same time declaring themselves to be men of faith. That is a mafia of mercenaries that harbors terrorists, sells drugs and oil to the West. It is a dark cartoon creation of “Islam” that suits the interests of the West and Apartheid Israel.
Women have become doubly victimized, first by Isis and then by the political game that is being played in the Middle East. The current presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has subjected women to horrific abuse and enslavement.
The clash of civilizations designed by the great powers and which aimed at dividing the peoples of the Middle East has not only achieved that, but it has forced the people, whether Sunni or Shiite, to submit to Isis. There is absolutely no protection for anyone, not for the men, not for the women.
The new “ism” created by the same West that purports to be fighting it through more violence and war, is the most threatening of isms for the Arabs, and for Arab women. It is more dangerous for the Arabs than it is for the rest of the world.
Author - Rania Hammad
Rania Hammad was adjunct professor of International Relations at St. John's University from 2003 until 2010, amongst other things, she is the author of “The Other Israeli Voices” and "Palestine in my Heart".