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David Cameron, the British PM, is in Saudi Arabia, otherwise known as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Despite this, Cameron is seeking to ‘strengthen co-operations’ between Britain and the Kingdom. Cameron took this important opportunity to ignore Saudi Arabia’s own repressive rule, as well as its involvement in the crushing of public dissent in nearby Bahrain, and instead lambast Russia for its own co-operation with Syria:
I would urge the Russians and the Russian Government, even at this late stage, to look very carefully at why it keeps doing what it’s looking to do on Syria.
“This is appalling bloodshed, appalling murder on the streets of Syria. The whole Arab League has come together and said it’s unacceptable and others need to listen to that and act on that at the UN. Britain stands ready to do that”.
Considering how brutal much of the ‘whole Arab League’ has been to their own people during the Arab Spring, I’m not sure how much of a position they are in to cast judgement on Syria. Not to condone the Assad regimes handling of the crisis, but surely Cameron can see how hollow his statements are considering where he is saying them?
The situation in Syria is getting evermore chaotic. Today’s Guardian reports that the United Nations is warning that the country is headed towards a full-blown civil war. Whilst the protestors vow to never give up until the regime is overthrown, one question we must all ask is, what will become of the minorities if the Assad regime does fall?
It’s a rather ironic fact that minorities tend to get more protection in despotic regimes than in democratic ones. That’s not to say Syrian protestors should be denied the chance at political freedom, but if the will of the people topples Assad, what will happen to the Alwaites, the religious minority Assad belongs to? Will a revenge attack against them be the price of freedom?
Syria’s hopeless democracy dream
The conflicting stories surrounding the case of Syrian teenager Zainab al-Hosni epitomise the confusion inherent in that country’s six-month-old uprising. Seemingly certain at times to topple the Assad regime, and at others, to strengthen it, the situation has reached a point where it is almost impossible to predict the outcome
Believed to have been tortured and beheaded by the government, the teenager made a surprising appearance on Syrian television late last week. Family confirmed it was indeed al-Hosni although they expressed doubts as to whether the images where captured before or after her alleged killing.
Meanwhile, Syrian officials, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald, have ‘sought to score a propaganda coup’ with her appearance, where she claimed to have run away from home because of physical abuse at the hands of her brothers.
Who is telling the truth? Even for those of us with family in Syria, it is virtually impossible to determine what is actually happening. Talking to those inside by telephone can be dangerous, with even Assad supporters conceding phone tapping is widespread and endemic. With travel restricted by roadblocks and safety fears, many turn to state television for news.
Authorities, aided by a compliant media, have local residents claiming anti-government protestors are ‘troublemakers and terrorists’ bent on bringing chaos and Islamism to the secular state. Rumours of weapons smuggled in from Salafists groups in Saudi Arabia are rife. Meanwhile, opposition groups accuse authorities of detaining and torturing family members of activists operating from abroad.
The protests, which two months ago were spread across the country, have largely flagged. However, that’s not to say the uprising is quashed, yet.
Recently, The New York Times reported that the flashpoint city of Homs, in the country’s southwest, had descended into a civil war-like state with both sides carrying out ‘targeted killings’ and ‘rival security checkpoints’ resulting in a ‘hardening of sectarian sentiments’. For Syrians themselves, the prospect of a full-blown civil war comes as no surprise, particularly one starting in Homs.
Homs, in the country’s south, is a microcosm of the nation. A Sunni majority town, it is also home to several minority groups including Christians and Alawites.
The latter is the Shia offshoot sect to which Assad and most of his cabinet belong. The animosity between Sunnis and Alawites goes back centuries and has only been exacerbated by the strong-armed rule of the Assad family, beginning in 1970 with Bashar’s father, Hafez.
So despised were the Alawites that many Sunnis refused to accept them as true Muslims. With the Syrian constitution mandating that only a Muslim could be president, it took religious decrees by prominent clerics, declaring Alawites part of the Shia creed, to allow the elder Assad to take power.
Unlike the largely homgoneous populations of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syria is, like Iraq, fiercely sectarian. Under the stifling Assad regime, which allowed no room for dissent, they have managed to live together, perhaps artificially, more or less at peace.
There have been occasional outbreaks of dissent such as the Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising in the city of Hama in 1982. The elder Assad’s ruthless response left more than 20,000 dead.
The current regime’s increasingly violent response to the protests is fuelling resentment towards the Alawites, who fear reprisals on an unprecedented scale should the revolution succeed. As Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, remarked, they are a ‘reviled minority … and if they lose power, if they succumb to popular revolution, they will be hanging from the lamp posts’.
Homs is now the scene of midnight gun battles, armed revolutionaries and assassinations, reinforcing fears that a post Assad Syria is more likely to sink into civil war rather than sail into democracy.
A few months ago, Assad looked to be all but gone. That brought mixed feelings to those of us who dare to dream of a free Middle East, and who had feverently hoped Assad would make good on his promises of reform.
Those who desire (and are willing to die for) democracy surely deserve democracy. But in a country as sectarian as Syria, the reality may not match the dream. Like neighbouring Iraq which continues to suffer tit for tat attacks, the foreseeable future of Syria, with or without Assad, looks grim.
The United States is no stranger to unintentional irony. The Star Spangled Banner, with its proud ‘land of the free’ proclamations, was adopted as national anthem in 1931, even as segregation and lynchings abounded, and Jim Crow was the law of the land.
Last Monday, Americans celebrated Independence Day, secure in the knowledge of their place as the world’s greatest bastion of freedom and democracy. But the familiar Fourth of July spectacle once again masks a barely concealed hypocrisy, evident in the way the rights of two groups, long the victims of discrimination, are currently faring in America’s legal system.
For the gay community, the long march towards equality continues. The latest, and many say most important, victory came three weeks ago, when New York legalised same sex marriage. As civil rights attorney Evan Wolfson told CBS News, “Now that we’ve made it here, we’ll make it everywhere”.
For millions of American women, however, there is not much to celebrate as their right to bodily autonomy comes under greater threat than ever.
Anti-abortion activists have for some time realised their likelihood of overturning Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision which legalised abortion in 1973, was slim. In recent years, they have, instead, set about undermining the ruling in such a way as it make it all but meaningless in practical terms.
This tactic is working. In 2010, the New York Times reported that by June of that year, at least eleven states had passed laws regulating and restricting abortion. These include forcing women to undergo and view an ultrasound before an abortion can proceed, the intention being that once a woman ‘knows’ what she is aborting she will naturally change her mind. This leads one to wonder just what the law-makers believe these women think they are pregnant with.
Other measures include the current push to defund Planned Parenthood, the national women’s health clinic. Despite a Senate vote in April blocking its federal defunding, some states including, Indiana and Tennessee, are passing bills to strip the organisation of funds on a state level. According to Planned Parenthood’s own records abortion only makes up 3% of its total services. Others include routine pap smears, STI checks and birth control advice. This targeting of Planned Parenthood is less an attack on abortion, and more a full-scale assault on American women’s health and reproductive rights.
Last year, Mississippi passed a law barring insurance companies from covering abortions, whilst Oklahoma now requires doctors to answer 38 questions about each abortion they perform, including the reasons for the abortion, a seemingly clear violation of the right to bodily autonomy and privacy.
Some states, including Kansas, have just one abortion clinic servicing the entire state. With a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, it makes for a time consuming and expensive trip, which many simply cannot afford. This, presumably, is entirely the point. Roe v Wade is fast becoming an empty statute granting ‘rights’ that women have no means to exercise.
It doesn’t end there. A recent article in The Guardian revealed some American women who miscarry are being charged with murder. One of them was 15 years old at the time and faces life in prison if convicted.
All these factors combine to make America, in the words of feminist blogger Melissa McEwan, “a scary place to be a woman.”
What is ironic, however, is that the push of the anti-abortion movement to grant ‘personhood’ at the moment of conception (a battle they appear to be slowly winning), ignores the fact that, historically, abortion in the early stages of pregnancy was never seriously challenged. The absence of any serious taboo is evident given the late 19th century’s plethora of newspaper advertisements appealing to women to act before the ‘quickening’, it being generally accepted that the ‘soul’ entered the body at around eight weeks into the pregnancy.
Abortion’s status as a religious and moral issue, and the general distaste with which it is viewed, was not created until abortion was legalised. Far from progressing in a straight line, the rights of American women are in danger of regressing to pre-19th century standards.
All of which goes to show, that despite our tendency to believe that each generation lives better than the last, society rarely progress in a straight line on any issue. Whilst the hard-earned victories of the gay community deserve to be celebrated, it is ironic that they come even as the hard-earned victories of feminists are being obliterated.
This op ed (written by yours truly) was published in the Herald a little while ago (Oct 20 last year to be exact), but it’s still relevant as ever so I’m giving it another run.
A 12-year-old Thai girl is held as a sex slave in a brothel catering to Western tourists. A Kurdish teenager is buried alive by her father because she talked to boys. A middle-aged mother in Iran is awaiting execution for adultery. An American porn actress is slapped and spat on by her co-stars.
Despite a World Economic Forum report claiming the gender gap is narrowing, these true stories suggest a different scenario.
Forty years after the publication of The Female Eunuch, it seems the global rights of women are in as perilous a state as ever. And though this erosion of rights manifests itself in different ways, its underlying cause is the same.
The US Department of State says human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, second only to the drug trade. Although it includes forced male labour, the primary targets are women bound for sexual servitude. Of the estimated 820,000 people trafficked each year, 80 per cent are women and girls.
Meanwhile, a 10-month investigation into honour killings by Robert Fisk of The Independent in Britain uncovered a minimum of 5000 such murders each year, and some women’s groups put the figure closer to 20,000. And they are on the rise. Once confined to the Middle East and the subcontinent, these crimes have spread to Europe, Russia and North America.
In Saudi Arabia, the muttawa, or religious police, search the streets for women to beat in public. The women’s crimes? A naked ankle or a wisp of hair that has escaped from beneath their veils.
In nearby Iran, despite an international outcry, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is still awaiting execution for adultery. She is also serving time for killing her husband. That crime got her 10 years.
In the US, the internet has given rise to brutal, hardcore ”gonzo” pornography, which the academic and author of Pornland, Gail Dines, says systematically “degrades and debases women”.
The young female ”stars” are routinely slapped, choked and verbally abused. She warns that these popular films, easily accessed by boys as young as 11, are raising our young men to hate women.
And in the lucky country, Collingwood’s grand final celebrations were marred by yet another accusation of sexual assault. As usual, the pundits were out to lay blame . . . on the victim.
With everyone gleefully pointing the finger, it seems this girl committed the unforgivable crime of behaving as though she were free. Does simply going out for a night on the town forfeit a woman’s right to say no?
Apparently it does. In July, an American female college student lost a court case against the makers of a trashy reality show, Girls Gone Wild. She was videotaped dancing in a bar and when asked to remove her top, she repeatedly refused. So someone else removed it for her. Despite clearly saying ”no” on camera, the jury decided the fact that she was at the bar meant she gave “implied consent”.
What is causing this erosion of women’s rights is no mystery. It is, in fact, blatantly obvious. The cause is the way men view women – specifically, their abject and widespread failure to separate women from sex.
Women are told to cover up to avoid the gaze of men. Warned that the mere sight of their skin can cause uncontrollable desire, for which the man cannot be blamed, they are not to walk alone at night, not drink too much, not stay out too late, not be in the company of men to whom they are not related.
The message is clear: should you fail to heed these warnings, whatever happens to you is your fault. And the punishment is severe.
Women’s freedom is constricted, they are denied education, jobs, respect, and even killed because far too many men view them primarily as sexual objects.
Whether that object is concealed beneath a burqa or exposed before a camera, the reason is the same – she is the physical embodiment of sex and, as such, is not worthy of a life independent of it.
And herein lies the ultimate paradox: having reduced women to mere sex objects, these same men then despise women for having sex. Will this merry-go-round never end?
Not that I expect anyone to still be checking this site after I went into self-imposed lock-down mode but the time has come for me to come out of internet hibernation.
Like much of the world, I have been glued to what’s been happening on the streets of Egypt. I don’t have many words at this stage but wanted to share my favourite video (so far) coming out of the what will probably go down as the greatest protest the Arab world has ever known.
Whoever said the Arabs don’t want or deserve democracy has just been proven wrong.