What’s at Stake for Women after the Unrest

Romina Boccia
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Posted: Mar 01, 2011 12:01 AM

When CBS reporter Lara Logan was assaulted by a group of men while reporting on the ground in Egypt, a group of Egyptian women reportedly helped save her from the attackers. Women of the West need to return that favor and help raise awareness of the continuing hardships that women face globally, but especially in the Middle East and Africa.

The sad fact is too many women around the world are regularly subjected to discrimination, abuse, and violence, because they are living in societies that fail to respect women's individual rights.

I don’t mean the kind of discrimination that feminist groups in Western nations like the United States and Europe tend to highlight. Lamentations about the lower proportion of women executives in Fortune 100 companies or the gender “wage gap” pale when compared with the fundamental lack of rights and violence that confront women in the Middle East and Africa.

In fact, employment differences between men and women in America and Europe are largely explained by the different choices and preferences exhibited by the sexes. In contrast, women in many other regions are subject to widespread discrimination because of deep-seated misogyny and traditional perceptions of the role of women in society.

In Iran, women can be stoned for adultery. In Bahrain, women are still not allowed to drive or vote. Women who are raped, resist an arranged marriage, or bring shame upon the family in some other way are often subject to “honor killings” by family members.

“Honor killings” and violence against women motivated by Islamic fundamentalism are not restricted to the Middle East and Africa. As fundamentalist Muslims immigrate to Europe and the United States, they often continue to abuse female family members in their new homes.

Growing up in Germany, I experienced this violence firsthand. When my mother married and had a child with a Turkish Muslim, he attempted to force her to completely subordinate herself to his will. Her resistance led to intense domestic violence, and when she escaped to a women’s shelter, he kidnapped her and nearly stabbed her to death. Her story is just one among many. A United Nations study estimated that there are 5,000 “honor killings” every year.

How to change such a massive, intractable problem? Unfortunately, our efforts to try to reform other nations and to inculcate an environment that will breed greater prosperity and progress (thereby leading to greater respect for women) have not only resulted in wasted resources, but have also frequently back-fired, aggravating the very problems they were meant to address.

Foreign aid oftentimes props up predatory regimes, as examples from Ethiopia and Egypt demonstrate. Similarly, development efforts targeting women and girls in developing countries can be seen as a threat to the traditional culture (especially if they fail to include men in the process), exacerbating incidents of domestic and community violence.

Yet we should not give up on playing a positive role in advancing women’s rights across the globe. One way is to consistently raise public awareness to the plight of women in these countries and to support policies and leaders that make strides toward institutionalizing protections for women.

Instead of relying on governments to promote women’s rights around the world, individual Americans should support organizations that are on the ground and that work with local leaders to begin the slow process of making change.

Moreover, there is an undeniable link between economic freedom and civil rights, including women’s rights. We should make the often-overlooked moral case for systems that respect property rights and encourage market-based exchanges. In addition to encouraging prosperity, freer and more open systems of governance promise to lead to social change that will benefit women.

Whether the current unrest in the Middle East and Africa will play out to the benefit or harm of the women in these regions depends on whether the post-protest regimes will grant their citizens economic and political freedoms, or whether they will perpetuate fundamentalist Islamic rule. We should be aware of just how much women have at stake in these events, and strive to speak out for policies that give them the best chance at long-term gains.