Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Misogyny - in the UK or Saudi Arabia - has no excuse

 The more things change, the more they stay the same. Uprisings are sweeping through the Middle East, constitutions are being rewritten and free elections are taking place. After decades of oppression, Arab societies are finally beginning to champion the rights of the individual. But for half the population, women, real change often remains a mirage.

Statistics may show more women enrolling in higher education and increasingly breaking into the workforce. The future is theirs, they are promised. The reality, however, can be quite different.
From the preposterous to the tragic, recent news reports have put in stark context the social attitudes that women are subjected to in this day and age.

Saudi clerics last week caused a media storm when they claimed that if women were given the right to drive, Saudi Arabia would see a "surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce." That is one heavy burden for Saudi women to carry.

The absurdity of the statement is self-evident and barely needs a response; nonsensical ramblings have no place in modern society. It is also an insult to the many Arab societies that have yet to descend into debauched anarchy because women have taken to the roads.

Ironically, the statements do serve a very important purpose: they highlight the narrow-mindedness and misogyny that women still face on a daily basis in many Middle Eastern societies.

All the rights in the world are meaningless if they are not backed by genuine tolerance and respect. How can women even begin to break the so-called glass ceiling in the workplace when such backwards thinking still prevails? And when the day comes, as it surely must, when Saudi women are finally allowed to drive, it is likely to be a bittersweet victory. What sort of harassment and prejudice will they still face on the roads? Legislation is one thing, realities on the ground quite another.

These attitudes are in no way limited to the Middle East of course. A report released last week showed that nearly 3,000 so-called " honour" attacks were recorded by police in the UK last year, an average of eight attacks per day against British women of Middle Eastern or Asian origin.

As most assaults go unreported, police and women's groups fear that these attacks - which range from beatings and acid attacks to murder - are just the tip of the iceberg.

Worryingly, the Arab revolutions, in themselves unquestionably long overdue, are in some places promoting at best chauvinistic, and at worst criminal, behaviour among some of the demonstrators.
Amid the euphoria of the scenes in Tahrir Square over the last 10 months, stories of the mistreatment of women have gone against the spirit of change. In February, the CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a mob in Tahrir Square while covering the downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

And in the last few weeks, a video doing the rounds shows a group of Salafists, whose party has won 20 per cent of the vote in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections, attacking a woman for the crime of daring to disagree with their views. While it must be pointed out that the majority of men reject this behaviour, many women continue to be harassed on the streets.

In a brutally frank post, one Egyptian women had this to say on her blog: "My father and mother spent years of sweat, tears and hard-earned cash on educating me into an emancipated woman so that one day I become a walking piece of meat on the street."

The truth is that those who blame religion miss the point: "honour" killings and the like masquerade in the name of religion to perpetrate acts that violate the basic principles of Islam and other religions.
The year 2011 will forever be remembered for the rights of Arabs as individuals, and the demand for a life of dignity and aspiration. Every woman, whether in a niqab or a business suit, deserves those rights too.