How Can Women Face Recent Events in the Middle East?

 

Evelyne Accad
Evelyne Accad

 

By Evelyne Accad

 

 

 

 

 

Political and Social Context:

Recent years have seen dramatic changes in the Arab world, the MENA region. 9/11 was followed by the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by American forces, the fall of Saddam Hussein, Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006, and the citizen revolts in Arab countries against their tyrant leaders. Most recently, however, we have witnessed the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, with its succession of horrors: beheadings, wiping out whole villages, forcing minorities to convert or pay a tax or be killed, forcing women into sexual slavery, threatening them with excision, circumcising uncircumcised men, mass killings of opponents by the thousands, burying alive children, women and old people in mass graves, starving to death remaining populations, destroying millennial cultural heritage such as temples, churches, mosques and other traces of ancient civilizations.  This is probably the worst nightmare the Middle East could ever have imagined.

According to John Gray, ISIS, or The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, resembles transnational criminal cartels operating in our globalized 21st century: bank robberies, seizure of oil wells, extortions, oppression of women and minorities. It is also a violent millenarian cult, a totalitarian state and a terrorist network, a modern version of barbarism emerging from states shattered by Western interventions.  This self-declared Islamic caliphate is being supported not only in the Middle East by the gangs that declared it, but also by the Taliban in Pakistan and by Boko Haram in Africa. “The West is responsible for creating the anarchy in which ISIS is able to pursue its hideous experiment in state-building. To leave the Yazidi’s and other persecuted groups defenseless in the face of an imminent threat of genocidal massacre would be a crime as bad as any perpetrated in the course of earlier interventions.”[1]

 

The 2011 uprisings, often referred to as the « Arab Spring » for their novelty and the hope that they seemed to bring with their demands for more democracy, freedom and justice for the people, for the fall of tyrannical regimes and the corruption that plagues our societies, became in the process uncontrollable storms and hurricanes. A rise in all kinds of fanaticisms followed, like the return to Sharia law (Islamic law–disastrous for women), the persecution of minorities, the return of religious wars, the infiltration of Al-Qaida and Salafist movements in secular groups that were protesting democratically; in short, the chaos of Iraq has repeated itself in the surrounding countries–a nightmare we must unfortunately face.  What has become of women in the aftermath of these steady “spring showers” transformed into relentless “thunderstorms”?  What was their role in these revolts and what is their place now? Is there any light on the horizon that for a short moment seemed to shine with hope? What are they communicating to us through their struggles and demands? Can we envision other means of escape from the crises we face? Can we transform the monsters that have emerged back into decent citizens? Can the blood being shed and its cycles of vengeance be turned into rivers of spring water that the region needs so badly?

 

The Personal is Political:

I was a witness and participant in one of the hopeful movements in the summer of 2011 when I visited a friend of mine, a leading feminist and activist in Tunisia, Amel Ben Aba. I went along with her to her meetings and one day we went to the theater to see « Neither Allah, nor Master », a film by Nadia El Fani, one of Tunisia’s most innovative filmmakers.[2]  Before the screening could get underway, we were attacked by Islamists who forced their way into the theater with batons and tear gas to prevent us from watching the show.  They managed to break down the doors and smash windows and even injure the director of the theater, but did not succeed in intimidating the audience that blocked them by creating a human wall. I admired the attitude of the spectators who tried to calm the Islamists and get them to view the film and discuss it, in vain. My friend Amel was remarkable, trying to talk to those fanatics who refused to listen or shake hands with her since women are considered impure! The filmmaker, a lesbian and avowed agnostic, dealt in her bold documentary with issues of freedom of expression.

It took the police one hour after the start of the attack to dislodge them and allow the film to start. I learned that a year later, this theater was forced to close its doors; it is a shame because it was one of the few places in Tunisia where we could see cutting edge shows and films. We did not know that summer that these events were significant in light of the rapid spread of Islamic movements; we naively thought they were just small clouds passing over an otherwise sunny springtime.

In all these revolts, but to a lesser extent in Libya and now in Syria, women took on remarkable roles as they participated actively in organizing marches and citizens’ movements; they even came forward as electoral candidates. Nawal el Saadawi, aged 80, participated in the sit-in of Tahrir Square in Egypt, a place of peaceful resistance, where the movement was born.  A few years before that, she had even run as a presidential candidate, trying to break up the hegemony of Mubarak’s single party and to change the system. El Saadawi, considered the “Simone de Beauvoir” of the Arab world, was the first to reveal the deplorable conditions that women faced. See in particular the books that made ​​her famous, written in Arabic, translated into several languages: « Al Mar’ah Wal Gins « (« Women and Sexuality ») which denounces female circumcision, which she experienced personally, polygamy, the veil, repudiation, and all kinds of abuse suffered by women in our countries; and « Al Mar’ah Inda Niktat el Sifir » (« Women at Point Zero ») which tells the tragic story of a woman in Egypt, calling into question the whole of society. Her books were banned and censored, and in the seventies, El Saadawi, a doctor, was driven out of her work in Egypt with the Ministry of Health.  She found refuge in Lebanon, where her books were reprinted and became bestsellers.  And yet, there she was during those uprisings, full of hope, risking her life once more (there were attempts on her life right in the middle of Tahrir Square) to bring about necessary changes to our wounded world.

I have often visited the feminists got to know in the 80’s. Thanks to a Fulbright fellowship, I spent a year in Tunisia and was able to attend the awareness meetings they organized at the Tahar Haddad Club.  At that time, the bilingual magazine, “Nissa” (“Women”) was born.  It was part of the awakening of an entire movement of women living their daily lives.  I spoke of these reported encounters and discoveries in one of my books « Wounding Words: A Woman’s Journal in Tunisia (Blessures des Mots: Journal de Tunisie) » published in Paris by Côté femmes, Collection Prémices, June 1993.

Among the extraordinary women I met there were: Rachida Ennaifer, President of the Association of Journalists of the Arab World – an incredible job for a woman, positioned as head of a group composed primarily of men; and Sihem Bensedrine, recognized for her courageous positions against a corrupt, failing and tyrannical state which had forced her into prison, house arrest and finally exile, from which she returned the summer I visited, in order to participate in what she believed to be a profound renewal of her country; Amel Ben Aba, pioneer feminist, teacher, philosopher and journalist, imprisoned under Bourguiba for having disclosed the mining conditions in the South, and many other wonderful women described in my book.

The Moroccan feminist, Fatima Mernissi had come to lead a writing workshop several years before, the results of which were two collections of essays: « Tunisiennes en devenir (Becoming Tunisian Women)” (1992) in which Amel published an article entitled « Clore pour éclore,” about the need for women to talk among themselves before going forth into the world. Mernissi published in « Women and Civil Society in the Maghreb » during the 80s.  She participated in the development of the screenplay and film preparation of “Tanitez Moi” in ‘92 as well as the film « My Heart is Witness » about Arab women – a film by Louise Carré in Canada which received the “Vues d’Afrique” award. There were also the articles in the weekly newspaper « The Maghreb » under the column « Femmes en 83 et 84 (Women in 1983 and ’84) » and a few articles in the journal “Nissa” that the women created in Tunisia.

My novel, « Blessures des Mots » was adapted into a play and performed in the theater Tahar Haddad in the middle of the Medina by the women about whom and for whom it had been written. I was able to attend the play and participate in it during the ‘90’s and in 2000; it was entitled, “Les filles de Tahar Haddad (The daughters of Tahar Haddad)” in honor of the liberator of women whose books and thoughts inspired President Bourguiba’s reforms that were so crucial in the advancement of Tunisian women. Of particular interest was his new Personal Status Code, so far removed in spirit from the shari’a law the Islamists are trying to put into place in Tunisia right now, such as changing the Constitution to say that women are complementary to men instead of equal, which is how it is stated now.

But even in these more recent liberation movements, mistakenly referred to as « spring », there were frightful reports of women being raped, arrested, and imprisoned. The reports were quickly stifled by the media too preoccupied with military interventions and wars, factors considered more important than women’s rights in any given country.

Women who participated in the protests, particularly in Egypt, were arrested and subjected to virginity tests to prove their « good behavior ».  When found “non-virgin”, their reputations were blackened and they were labeled as “loose women”. They were persecuted and ostracized, “The Honor » of their movement called into question. In Tunisia, the notion of « mut’a » marriage (meaning ‘for « pleasure », the man’s pleasure, that is), was reintroduced; this form of religiously sanction casual sex leaves a woman at the mercy of the man, sexually, physically, morally, and socially – effectively erasing the reforms of Bourguiba. His reforms had eliminated polygamy.[3] The Islamists suspended other women’s rights thanks to their reinterpretation of the Personal Status Code. (As Rachida Ennaifer pointed out, the laws were not changed to introduce the mut’a but it is a practice that has been revived and is rapidly spreading). Women from many of the Muslim countries have gone to offer themselves in “Jihad al Nikah” marriages (which is more like prostitution) to support the combatants in Syria and Iraq for the new self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, thus gain Paradise in the afterlife. Even women from Malaysia are flooding in to offer themselves to the combatants and it is becoming a real problem for the Malaysian government, according to my brother who lives there part of the time.

 

 

 

Sexual Violence on the Rise along with Terror :

 

Sexual violence against women has been on the rise since the 2011 uprising in Egypt where hundreds of women protesters were attacked with impunity during the fall of Hosni Mubarak, then under the military junta and again during protests against President Morsi. 250 cases of sexual violence against women were reported between November 2012 and January 2014. The same pattern was seen and reported: tens of men surrounding the victims, tearing off their clothes, groping their bodies, some raped by multiple perpetrators, often armed with sticks, blades and other weapons.[4] As of March 2014, not a single perpetrator had been brought to justice.

The self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, IS/Daesh uses carefully orchestrated violence and terror to instill fear in its enemies and obedience in the communities it conquers. One could compare the movement to Jacobin Terror, the early Soviet period and the systemic slaughter practiced by the Khmer Rouge. It is also engaged in state building more ambitious than al-Qaida of which it is an offshoot; IS/Daesh has captured about a third of Syria and a quarter of Iraq, constructing a state using methods like those found in totalitarian regimes. Violent apocalyptic cults such as this one can be found in many times and places, like late medieval and early modern Europe. Millenarian movements, some of them violent, flourished in medieval times, when they aimed at cleansing the church and society from corruption. They imposed mass baptism, expelled or executed those who would not convert and led women into polygamy. [5]

According to Jeremy Armstrong[6], heavily armed women from the Turkish PKK have gone into Iraq to tackle the Jihadists. They are searching for 3,000 women captured by IS/Daesh to be sold as sex slaves, forced into marriage or shot if they do not convert to Islam. They aim to help push the IS/Daesh fighters out of the North of Iraq. They are the fear of Jihadists who believe that if killed by a woman in battle, they will not go to Paradise. Other women from the Kurdish region (Erbil and the Sinjar mountains where thousands of Yazidis were trapped and left starving and dying of thirst) have joined them to fight the insurgents under US air cover.

A battalion of Kurdish women fighters, the 2nd Peshmerga (meaning the ones who meet death) Battalion are prepared to meet IS/Daesh with their AK-47s; hundreds of mothers, sisters and daughters have joined and taken up arms to protect Iraq’s Kurdish population, much to IS/Daesh horror. Kurdistan[7] is one of the rare Muslim countries where women are allowed to serve in the military and in combat roles. IS/Daesh, which denies women their basic rights, is going to have a hell of a time with these fighters. What an irony if they were to meet their defeat at the hands of the women they are trying to subjugate and abuse.

 

Sexual Motivations and Attraction to the New Cult:

 

The young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombing, dismembering, beheading, burying alive, selling, abusing and raping women, may justify their violence with religious rhetoric but religious fervor is not what motivates them. Many lack religious literacy and can be regarded as religiously ignorant since “a well-established religious identity would actually protect against violent radicalization.” For more evidence, read the books of psychiatrist Marc Sageman, political scientist Robert Pape, Islamist expert Olivier Roy, anthropologist Scott Atran, who have all studied the lives and backgrounds of hundreds of these young men (and yes, they are usually men); they all agree that Islam is not to blame for their behavior. What inspires the most dangerous terrorists is not the Qur’an or religious teachings, it is the thrilling cause that IS/Daesh has become in their eyes and a call for action that promises glory, esteem in the eyes of friends, eternal respect and recognition in the wider world. The young men are usually bored, underemployed or unemployed looking for glory and thrill, and above all for a new identity. [8]

We could also look at it as a perverse release of deep sexual frustration combined with a tribal urge for male bonding in war-like situations. But what of the women who go there to give themselves sexually to the combatants?

They are told they will serve the Islamic revolution, help establish a militant Islamic utopia, bear children for it and go straight to Heaven thanks to their devotion, especially if they blow themselves up in suicide attacks. In 2005 Iraq was rocked by a series of suicide bombings carried out by women. The bombings, which amounted to a breaking of an al Qaeda taboo, were the brainchild of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the mentor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS/Daesh. One of the women bombers was a Western recruit – 38-year-old Belgian Muriel Degauque, from the rust-belt city of Charleroi near the French border. On November 9, 2005, she blew herself up attacking an Iraqi police post in the town of Baqubah.[9]

 

Other motivations have come from witnessing the killing of Palestinians at the hands of a cruel Israeli regime that has been merciless and expansionist against all international laws. Seeing the destruction of homes, olive and orange trees uprooted, children buried under rubble, all without any significant protest from the Western community, has fanaticized many of the young people and led them to join the regime of terror we are now witnessing.

In a recent article, my friend Nadera Shelhoub Kevorkian, has eloquently stated: “Childhood experience in Palestine is characterized by constant anxiety, the loss of homes, the fear for safety even in children’s bedrooms … Israel is aware of the power each Palestinian child possesses by virtue of their mere existence and they need to keep children under constant threat of disappearing… Palestinian children are viewed as security threats and therefore thrust outside the accepted and established human rights framework…Evicting the natives and targeting them at such an early stage in life serves to further the demonization, criminalization, incarceration, and killing of Palestinians, denying them the right to resist their own oppression… During the attack on Gaza, the dead bodies of children became contested politicized objects… the Israeli state sanctioned these actions, transforming children into approved tools to further the eliminatory regime of dispossession in Palestine… Palestinian children have already created their own kind of resistance. Even in the rubble, subjected to vicious shelling… children find a way to draw their home… they find new ways to live, to play, to bring back the sun and create life… Israel targets and kills Palestinian children, not just because they pose a threat as ‘future terrorists,’ but because they are the builders of the next generation. … This requires immediate political intervention, ensuring that these crimes against humanity… can no longer be committed by Israel and supported by the International community.” [10]

 

Conclusion:

 

Despite all these setbacks, women do not seem to have lost hope and they’ve continued to fight. Movements calling for greater democracy and human rights have spread to other countries including Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, where a remarkable woman, Tawakkul Karma, raised her voice in protest against the injustices and lack of human rights in her country.  She distinguished herself in a battle so amazing (especially in her demands for radical transformation of Islamist movements), that she won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011.

My friend Tracy Chamoun[11] — woman of letters (author of several  important books), woman of action, daughter of the  late Dany Chamoun who was assassinated with his wife and children in their sleep — has courageously come back to Lebanon to run for political office; she has founded her own political party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Lebanon. She has produced a plan to save Lebanon, from ecological solutions to restructuring Lebanese politics; it can be found in her remarkable book, Le sang de la paix. If her ideas are applied and if given the chance, Tracy Chamoun could transform Lebanon and the region. “No one has analyzed Lebanese politics with as much subtlety and depth,” said Georges Corm, an expert in the area.[12] Why is she not given the chance to bring about those necessary changes? Why is the world, and my part of the world in particular, deaf to such redeeming voice? Why are men so afraid of women that they will not allow them to save it before it is too late?

 

It is as if the voices of power and of weapons were stronger than those of democracy and human rights; we are currently witnessing a return to the traditions, barbarism and Islamic laws so damaging to women and people in general.  The recently established Libyan regime proclaimed Sharia as state law to be implemented as soon as it got into power.  (This proclamation was barely mentioned by the media, which have been too preoccupied with showing the good side of this revolution, preferring to ignore the warning signs of danger to women and all people). Ennahda, the Islamist movement that took power in Tunisia, is not far from doing the same as Egypt has done, where the army controls the country and is itself subject to the Islamists.[13] In Syria, Al-Qaeda and the Salafists have infiltrated the democratic and pacifist movements of opposition and struggle against the Syrian regime still in place, shuffling the cards and making this Syrian situation inextricable. Where armed elements are unleashed in a country, the presence of peace, harmony and women’s voices are muted. Chaos, anarchy and violence take over and settle in force, which is what is happening now.

When religious fundamentalism, militarism and nationalism feed the myth of masculinity, women’s freedom disappears. Iraq is a good example: there are more than one million widows, prostitution is booming, and refugee women from Syria and Iraq who have come to surrounding countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt) are  often selling their bodies to be able to feed their families… Iraq is in a state of total disintegration after the fall of the regime and its occupation by American forces, with armed struggles between different ethnic and religious groups, acts of terrorism sowing fear and fragmenting the country even more, opposition between certain factions to the codes given by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, subjecting them to the veil, even in non-religious schools. And now Syria is following this chaos. The politico-religious movements are almost always detrimental to the interests of women. When people are constantly subjected to abuse, war, violence, bombs, terrorism and terrible atrocities, how can they believe in the future and a brighter tomorrow? The youth are without hope and women are giving birth to cannon fodder.

We are faced with the threat of violence, barbarism and terror rarely found with such intensity and the capability to throw the whole world into total chaos. Can we continue to search for peaceful solutions? Have we not gone too far already into the disintegration of our planet through abuse and violence? Is there some light of hope on the horizon? Are the battalions of Kurdish women mentioned in this article the only signs of possible improvement for women? Their only way to regain dignity and freedom? What happens after the fight is over? Are we to witness other forms of abuse and oppression just like what happened to women across the globe after various revolutions were won? How can women teach their comrades-in-arms that they are not objects to be consumed but companions to be loved, cherished and respected?

If the world is to survive the present frightening chaos, it will have to be through a transformation of the basic contract between men and women. Relations will need to be based on equal sharing and tenderness, for the equilibrium of our world is at stake. My hope is for  Lebanon to give us a chance (the song from the Beatles resonates in me: “give peace a chance”), through Tracy Chamoun and others following in her footsteps. I hope and pray this will happen before it is too late.

 

[1] John Gray, The Guardian, Tuesday 26 August 2014

[2] considered the Tunisian Agnès Varda.

[3] It must be noted here that polygamy involves two or more official wives while mut’a is an arrangement for men who spend long period of time away from their official wife or wives and need a « legal » sexual woman.

[4] Agence France Presse, CAIRO: Readmore:  http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Apr-16/253537-sexual-violence-against-egypt-women-goes-unpunished-report.ashx#ixzz3BR19rLgi
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

 

[5]  John Gray, The Guardian, Tuesday 26 August 2014

 

[6] Jeremy Armstrong, The New York Post, Aug 19, 2014.

[7] Not a country in itself but a people with its own language, sunni by religion, they are spread over Turkey, Syria and Iran. They were promised a country after world war II but it never saw the light and they are struggling for their autonomy and have been massacred in many cruel instances.  They are now fighting for their survival in front of IS/Daesh.

 

[8] Mehdi Hasan, « What the Jihadists who bought ‘Islam for Dummies tell us about Radicalisation » blog Posted: 21/08/2014 10:04 BST Updated: 21/08/2014 17:59 BST

 

[9] Jamie Dettmer, « The Bride of ISIS revealed, » World News, 9/3/2014.

[10] Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, “The constant presence of death in the lives of Palestinian children,” Aug 22, 2014, http://mondoweiss.net/2014/08/presence-palestinian-children.html

 

[11] Tracy Chamoun is a Lebanese author and political activist, one of two surviving children of Dany Chamoun, the former leader of the National Liberal Party and commander of the Tigers militia, and the granddaughter of former President Camille Chamoun. She has founded the Dany Chamoun Foundation, (Dany was assassinated together with his second wife and two young sons a crime attributed to the Lebanese Forces militia headed by Samir Geagea’). In 1991, Tracy wrote her first book  “Au Nom du Pere” a non-fiction story about growing up in the war and culminating in her immediate family’s assassination. It was published in France in 1991. The book made the French bestseller list, and received two awards, one of them for best non-fiction work in 1992, « The Prix Verite ». In 1993 to 1995, she returned to live in Lebanon where she was involved in the process of the highly politicized murder trial of her family’s assassination. In 1993, She completed a second book; a novel entitled Amare, published in France. Her novel was on the bestseller list for L’Express.  It has since been revised and expanded from the original version, and has now been published for the first time in the USA. Amare´, draws on Tracy’s experiences of trauma resolution.  But rather than focusing on any of the political issues surrounding war and violence, Amare´ finds its story in the deep emotional scars that can be created by war. It describes the path to healing that must be taken by those whose lives have been damaged by political violence. Tracy has been a commentator on peace in the Middle East, has lectured publicly on the topic in Europe, Lebanon and the United States, and is a strong advocate for tolerance, and coexistence. Her latest book Le Sang de la Paix (Paris: Lattès, 2012, available also in Arabic) offers a plan for solving many of Lebanon’s problems from ecological solutions to political reforms.

.

 

[12] Georges Corm is a Lebanese Economist and Historian. He is an economic consultant to international organizations and professor at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. He studied at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (1958-1961), and served as Finance Minister from Dec 1998 to Oct 2000 in the government of Salim El Hoss. His books have been translated into several languages and include: Le Nouveau Gouvernement du Monde (Idéologies, Structures, Contre-Pouvoirs) (La Découverte, 2010) L’Europe et le Mythe de l’Occident (La Construction d’une Histoire) (La Découverte, 2009) Histoire du Moyen-Orient (De l’Antiquité à nos jours) (La Découverte/Poche, 2007) Le Proche-Orient éclaté (1956–2012) (Gallimard/Histoire) Orient-Occident, la fracture imaginaire (La découverte, 2002 et 2004) L’Europe et l’Orient : de la balkanisation à la libanisation. Histoire d’une modernité inaccomplie (La découverte, 1998,2001 et 2003) Histoire du pluralisme religieux dans le bassin méditerranéen (Geuthner, 1998) Le Nouveau Désordre économique mondial (La découverte, 1993) La Mue (roman, 1989) Le Moyen-Orient (Flammarion/dominos, 1994) La Question religieuse au XXI<super>e</super> siècle. Géopolitique et crise de la post-modernité (La découverte, 2006) Le nouveau gouvernement du monde – Idéologies, structures, contre-pouvoirs (La découverte, 2010)

 

[13] Even if the two countries are not similar in their present situation and the army might never take over in Tunisia as it did in Egypt, the two countries share some resemblances in their struggles and avant-garde movements.

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