Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is by Christina Asquith, a journalist who has covered women’s rights in the Middle East for ten years and the author of Sisters in War: A Story of Love, Family and Survival in the New Iraq.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) atrocities against women have provoked worldwide outrage, generating increased support for U.S. action in the region and hundreds of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since August. Yet for all this indignation, similar abuses against women, including child marriage, legalized marital rape, and domestic abuse, occur in countries across the Middle East, often without legal consequences.
With or without ISIS, defense of women’s rights in the region has long been weak. Domestic violence was legal in Saudi Arabia until 2013 and in Lebanon until this year. In Turkey, rates of domestic violence are two to three times higher than in either the United States or Europe, and increasing. In Saudi Arabia, women accused of adultery are still stoned to death in public settings, and as recently as 2011, a Saudi woman was executed on charges of “sorcery.”
Furthermore, crimes committed against women, such as rape, not only go unpunished, but are also frequently blamed on the victims. This belief that a woman bears responsibility for her rape often results in an “honor crime,” in which the victim’s family kills her to restore their honor. Thousands of honor crimes are estimated to occur each year in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
ISIS’s atrocities against women are not so unique in a region that ranks at the bottom of indices that measure women’s political empowerment, property rights, and economic freedoms. In January 2014—six months before the arrival of ISIS in Mosul—the Iraqi government pushed forth legislation known as the Jaafari Personal Status Law that would allow child marriage, facilitate polygamy, and restrict women’s rights in matters of inheritance and parenting after divorce. In Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden from driving, must be accompanied by a male chaperone, and are required to wear a full facial covering in public.
Until the United States directly addresses this violence and inequality, women in the Middle East will continue to be oppressed and brutalized, and the misogyny underlying ISIS’s actions will not change. Along these lines, there is much the West can do, such as include trained gender advisors in military missions, fund female police training and recruitment, support the inclusion of women in peace negotiations, and pressure allies such as Saudi Arabia to support the advancement of women.
To begin, the United States should regularly communicate with women’s advocates when developing their military policies in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. When the United States sends military and political advisors to conflict zones, for example Iraq and Afghanistan, it should also include those trained in women’s issues and sexual violence, according to Michelle Barsa at the Institute for Inclusive Security. Though the U.S. military does not currently deploy gender advisors, such positions do exist in other militaries, for example, Sweden’s.
Women are also critical in the fight against domestic violence; in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States witnessed higher rates of reporting of domestic violence, better treatment of victims, and stronger efforts to prosecute offenders by integrating women into the police force. Yet in many countries, women are largely left out of security forces that respond to such crimes. In 2014, the United States appropriated $25 million for recruiting, retaining, and training of women in the Afghan security forces. The same steps could be taken throughout the Middle East and in Pakistan, where the United States also funds security forces and less than 1 percent of the police force is women.
Women should be included at the negotiating table in peace processes and post-conflict scenarios. Negotiating teams that include women are far more likely to prioritize issues related to protection measures for women, such as ending sexual violence, while all-male teams tend to overlook those issues. The United Nations can support this effort by appointing more women as special representatives and envoys and expanding women’s role in peacekeeping operations, particularly among military observers.
Women’s involvement in negotiations is also beneficial in creating long-lasting stability. Peace processes that include women tend to be more stable and resilient than those where women are absent. In Syria, for example, women are leading the cease-fire negotiations in the Damascus suburbs and elsewhere. By taking advantage of the perception that they are less threatening, women are able to move more freely across borders, access restricted spaces, and engage with parties to the conflict that would not otherwise be available to men. Yet despite all they have to offer, a UN review of twenty-one major peace processes since 1992 found that women comprised less than 8 percent of the delegates to talks and less than 3 percent of agreement signatories. Those numbers are not only unacceptable; they represent a missed opportunity.
Though ISIS’s recent atrocities have generated a tidal wave of media attention, the problems of gender inequality and violence against women are not new to the Middle East. It is time for the United States to address this issue head on and take concrete steps to empower women in the region. Only when women hold positions of power and influence is it possible to imagine a Middle East in which violence against women is not just exclusive to extremist groups—it is nonexistent.