disappointed? yes. surprised? no.

The cover latest issue of The Economist features a white-garbed man and little boy, standing forlornly (or ominously, depending on your p.o.v.) beneath the headline “WAKING FROM ITS SLEEP: A 14-Page* Special Report on the Arab World.”  There are several interesting articles, and also a short blurb on the countries that constitute what is known as “the Arab World”: a kindness extended to those of us who may have forgotten exactly where Bahrain is, and ignored** the existence of Oman entirely.

The feature’s articles look at both the internal and external politics that govern Arabic countries; the resentment towards pushy Western powers; the rifts between various Islamic sects.  However, it fails to address one issue that is glaringly obvious, and gravely important: the treatment of women in these societies.

Women specifically are barely mentioned in these articles, except to note in passing that the growing Salafist sect is unfriendly to “liberal” causes like “female emancipation” (14).  WOW, I didn’t know that gender equality was such a radical, liberal idea!  I thought it was more like a BASIC HUMAN RIGHT.  Us CRAZY liberals, what will we think of next?  We’ll be wanting to let gay people get married, or something!  But wait–if two men are married, how can one partner subjugate the other?  IT JUST WON’T WORK, LIBERAL PEOPLE!

It’s a tricky issue, I’ll grant you.  Most regimes in the Arabic world are illegitimate and authoritarian, and have only a rickety grasp over their populace.  They are plagued by religious extremists, and harangued by secular groups–who present a much smaller threat, as they are trying to work w/i the system.  Often–as in Saudi Arabia–it is easier for the regimes to let the religious groups operate unimpeded, lest they target the government.

I know you’ve heard it all before, so I won’t go into detail about the appalling circumstances many women live under: forced marriages, honor killings, FGM, &c. &c.  There is no mention of the so-called “lost women,” a term coined to encompass those who die b/c they are denied the access to health care their male counterparts enjoy.  B/c they are less valued.  B/c they are viewed as lower creatures.  The Economist is not only doing Arabic women a huge disservice by turning a blind eye (as a prominent publication, they could do a lot to bring the issue to the forefront), it is letting down its readers by failing to emphasize the gravity of the situation.  It is sending a strong signal that women’s issues are not global issues.  They are not important in the grand scheme of things.  They don’t figure in the “Arabic world.”  Yet, how can countries claim to be “awakened” if half their populations remain marginalized?

That said, The Economist isn’t v. optimistic about the outcome in the Middle East.  They despair over the “ultra-conservative” Arabs choosing democracy of their own volition, and seem to think that the best we can hope for is that the Americans can mollify the Palestinians to the point that they’ll stop being a cause for others to rally around.  They clearly don’t envision freedom for Arab peoples–men or women.  And depressingly, I can’t find any compelling reason to disagree.

P.S. I actually began this entry over a week ago, but then I became distracted and wandered off to Seattle, v. irresponsibly leaving this piece in its nascent stages.

*I am pleased here to note that The Economist follows the “only write out numbers under ten” rule, rather than that silly business about going all the way up to 100.

**Here I am reviving the old use of the verb, meaning “to be unaware of something,” as English sorely lacks a suitable replacement.

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4 thoughts on “disappointed? yes. surprised? no.

  1. The cause of women’s rights in the Arab and well, entire Muslim world would be cause for an article itself. Many, many articles in fact. I need to see this issue of the Economist in question, but I agree that it is a glaring omission to not mention women at all.

    I still think your analysis is kind of off–I don’t think we’ve ever agreed on this completely :P. Maybe I’m just a moral relativist. A more interesting analysis, though, would be WHY aren’t groups like the Salafis or Wahabis friendly toward women?

    In Afghanistan (yes, I know Afghanistan is not the Arab world), at least, the reason why women’s rights groups and teachers are so hated is because they were the first groups that were infiltrated by the Communists in the late ’70’s. Then the Communist leadership in Afghanistan went completely insane–somewhere between Pol Pot and Josef Stalin. Again, the supporters of the Communist puppet state were women’s movements, many Tajiks, and teachers unions. So once the hated Communists were driven out of Afghanistan in the late ’80’s, and after 1 million dead + millions more forced from their homes, there was a pretty strong backlash against the former Communist supporters.

    In short, I think the answer is a lot more complicated than, “women are not viewed as human beings,” “women are less than men,” etc. etc. Maybe ask: who are the ones supporting the women’s rights movements in the Arab world? Why do they have an interest? What is the goal of the Salafis, politically? (In Algeria, they have a good cause to be pissed off–they were elected into office, then the government canceled the results!).

    I have something to say about arranged marriages though–they’re smart. In romantic style marriages, everything’s all lovey-dovey for the first 5 years or so. After that point, you see the same look on every man’s face: “I’ve married the devil.” They can’t stand each other after that–all the things that used to bind them together are forgotten, and the things they DON’T have in common are pushing them apart. Now, in an arranged marriage, the couple can’t stand each other from the get-go. So basically, they’ve just saved 5 years! 😛

  2. Mr. B,
    I think the “women are lower creatures” statement was to point out that was what the Economist was /implying/; that is, women’s plight doesn’t merit the notice of the world at large. Still, I have to say, I think that women /are/ less valued, and have been for a long time, and will probably continue to be, not just in Arab societies, but in the entire world. It’s just more blatant in countries like Afghanistan.
    Speaking of which, I find your example w/ the Communists to be misleading. Firstly, it’s not widely applicable; Saudi Arabia (one of the worst offenders, to my mind) never came under Communist rule! You seem to think that women’s rights advocates necessarily have a hidden agenda (beyond the hating of the men). Perhaps we should stop trying to help those women who are suffering; perhaps we should also stop providing famine relief, and aid for natural-disaster victims, and medicines for AIDS and TB. It’s only fair, right?
    I will say, though, that I don’t totally disagree w/ you about arranged marriages. I have no quibble w/ a couple entering into such a contract willingly, which is why I used the adjective “forced,” to differentiate consensual ceremonies from weddings that are, well, FORCED.

  3. Yes, I think just like a tin pot dictator–if ever there’s unrest, it must be due to outside agitators. 😉 I brought up the example of the Commies because it gave some more background on why the Taliban and other Afghans seem to downright hate women and their schools. The Commies didn’t invade every country, but I was trying to make the point that there is probably some underlying social current that we aren’t seeing. In short, yes, I DO actually look for hidden agendas in things…haha. Actually, I’m more interested in the history and background of these things because history has that annoying tendency to repeat itself. I’m less activist, more book-wormy.

    I really do think that we *should* keep our hands out of countries’ internal affairs and maybe even make a policy of not supporting any foreign political or activist movements. I’m tired of seeing the big gringo hand appear where it really shouldn’t be (e.g., in Saudi Arabia: Look how our former military presence there totally shattered the regime’s legitimacy, which the likes of Bin Laden quickly took up as a war cry).

    I admit I’m not so well-read on the plights of women, but I’m a hopeful person. A lot of the problems that exist across the Arab countries do not exist in *every* Arab country. They’re getting better: they’re starting to realize that they can’t keep 50% of their population in the shadows and expect to remain competitive in the coming century. You should look up King Abdullah University of Science and Technology–I hope that is a sign of things to come for the Saudis. Yes, the school teaches women in mixed company 😉

    I think you know me too well at this point. As Sun Tzu said, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of 100 battles.” I’m going to go READ, and come back with a COMPLETELY WILD worldview that you’ll be utterly unprepared for. Just wait…

    Actually, my inner nihilist has been begging to say this: It doesn’t matter. 😉 🙂 Keep writing! I love this stuff.

  4. “Women specifically are barely mentioned in these articles, except to note in passing that the growing Salafist sect is unfriendly to “liberal” causes like “female emancipation” (14). WOW, I didn’t know that gender equality was such a radical, liberal idea! I thought it was more like a BASIC HUMAN RIGHT. Us CRAZY liberals, what will we think of next? We’ll be wanting to let gay people get married, or something! But wait–if two men are married, how can one partner subjugate the other? IT JUST WON’T WORK, LIBERAL PEOPLE!”
    hahaha well said!

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