Independence for Middle Eastern Women and Their Quagmire

Irish Republican Army volunteer, Mairead Farrell, who was shot dead by the UK’s Special Air Service in Gibraltar in 1988, once said, "I’m oppressed as a woman, but I’m also oppressed because I’m Irish . . . We can’t successfully end our oppression as women until we first end the oppression of our country."

Recently, First Lady Laura Bush met with Palestinian women in Jericho to discuss women’s rights. How many of these women must have felt as the late Mairead Farrell did, I wondered?

In neighboring Jordan, the First Lady said, “"Human rights require the rights of women."

And the First Lady is correct, but human rights require that everyone have basic rights, including men and children. That’s not exactly happening in much of the Arab World and especially in the Israeli Occupied Territories. Consider the following excerpt from former Israeli Staff Sergeant Liran Ron Furer’s 2003 book, “Checkpoint Syndrome:”

Today, I feel confident saying that even the most senior ranks –” the brigade commander, the battalion commander – are aware of the power that soldiers have in this situation and what they do with it. How could a commander not be aware of it when the more crazy and tough his soldiers are, the quieter his sector is?

From the beating of a mentally-ill 16-year-old for amusement to urinating on the head of a man for smiling, his book is filled with disturbing events that he himself partook in. It wasn’t until he completed his three years of service that he realized how sick it all was.

The point here is to illustrate that a Palestinian mother or wife is going to ache when she hears of these incidents happening to her son, husband, or father. The last thing on her mind is going to be women’s rights.

Having said that, there is no doubt that women are the rocks of Palestinian society. Mothers hold a precious place for their tenacity and in keeping families strong during the Occupation. Women haven’t done so bad historically either. Consider that the top spokesperson is Hanan Ashrawi and one of the the most revered revolutionaries is Leila Khaled. Queen Rania of Jordan, a Palestinian, is often referred to as the new Princess Diana for her tireless efforts in charity. Palestinian women also did well in the December elections, winning 51 seats in Thursday’s elections, 32 of them winning their place outright without having to claim a seat reserved for women by Palestinian law.

Clearly, more work on women’s issues needs to be done throughout the Arab World (particularly in the Gulf region) but it’s puzzling that the human rights records of our allies generally gets only a slap on the wrist. On May 16th, a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced three reformers to lengthy prison terms for circulating a petition that called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in their country.

And last week, Human Rights Watch lambasted the Egyptian government when police and supporters of the ruling party attacked scores of pro-reform demonstrators and journalists.

When Agence-France Presse asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about it, she replied that she hadn’t seen the reports. However, “now, they are taking steps forward. Not everything moves at the same speed, and there are going to be different speeds in the Middle East.”

And she’s right, but the Egyptian government has been putting down these pro-reform demonstrations for a very long time. The recent conciliatory rhetoric by the Egyptian president just doesn’t jive with the facts on the ground.

The reality is that progress has been held back for a long time to the people in the Middle East, largely because despotic regimes are maintained for US interests. This has inevitably held back feminist movements in the Arab World.

And so I reflect back on a memorable lecture during my years at Michigan State University. It was given by a Palestinian female professor. She was discussing the historically important role of women in Palestinian society and how they were among the first in the Third World to demand equal rights.

An American student then asked politely, "Well, do they have equal rights now?"

The professor quietly responded that if Palestinian men don’t even have the most basic of human rights, how effective did people expect the feminist movement to be?

And this is the quagmire that many women are facing in the general Arab World.