Arab literature is full of stories about daring, resourceful, and triumphant women. Just look at the classic 1001 Arabian Nights and its story of Princess Parizade, who cleverly succeeded where her two brothers had failed in overcoming deadly obstacles to win her prize. Or Morgiana, the slave girl in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, who saved Ali Baba on more than one occasion and eventually killed his worst enemy. Or, perhaps the most famous of them all, Scheherazade, whose quick mind and storytelling ability kept her alive for 1,001 nights and beyond, and spared countless other women.
Perhaps that’s the way some Arab governments want it, considering the way they treat women today: They prefer to keep their women enshrined and enslaved in the pages of fiction.
In Saudi Arabia, clerics are railing against the renewed prospect of women driving. So-called scholars conducted “scientific” reports claiming that allowing women to take the wheel would lead to a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce. Oh, and an end to virginity, too. A Saudi woman pulled aside for driving along Jeddah’s beach promenade earlier this year is appealing a flogging sentence she’ll face by Dec. 12 in spite of an apparent royal pardon.
In Egypt, even as we witnessed that country coming together for recent parliamentary elections, women were subject to beatings and detention for standing alongside male demonstrators. Egyptian security forces hauled off women encamped with male protesters for “virginity tests.” The women faced detention and threats of charges of prostitution. Imagine that happening at one of the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Whenever I read about presumptive political leaders promising drastic—democratic, even—change to the status quo, their pledge usually relates to freedom of expression, civil liberty, and political freedom … for men. The United States made Iraq’s fledgling government promise that women and other minorities would at least be minimally represented in parliament. But most of the women had little voice and were expected to vote according to the instructions of the men in their party. The issue of women’s rights was never considered a high priority. It would come later, if at all. And then, when the Iraqi constitution was put together, its framers decided that sharia would deal with aspects relating to the family, such as divorce and child custody. Religious men would make the decisions. Women would have little say.
Repressive Arab regimes have no compunction about using sexual violence as a weapon to cow women and keep them off the streets and at home, where presumably they won’t make trouble for their husbands. It’s almost expected behavior from these regimes. It isn’t, though, from Western organizations that more often than not condemn this kind of behavior.
Yet in the wake of the attacks on female foreign journalists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Reporters Without Borders last month warned news organizations about sending female journalists into the square because of the harassment many were enduring. “It is more dangerous for a woman than a man to cover the demonstrations in Tahrir Square,” the group said in a statement. “That is the reality, and the media must face it. It is the first time that there have been repeated sexual assaults against women reporters in the same place.” Although it didn’t say outright that women shouldn’t go, the group, knowingly or not, took the regime’s side in trying to keep women away.
Let me make a small point here.
Attacks on female journalists are nothing new. Neither I nor any of my female friends who have worked as foreign correspondents have escaped unscathed. I don’t know a female war reporter who hasn’t been sexually harassed, molested, or worse—whether in a war zone, at a funeral, or in her own kitchen fending off a local staff member. But we’ve soldiered on, determined not to be deterred by a male culture in those parts of the world trying to keep women down.
As an Australian of Lebanese heritage, I was constantly asked by Iraqis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, and others why my father allowed me to do this job, since I wasn’t married at the time. They’d tut-tut, shake their heads, and mutter about how my father had clearly failed in his duty.
But it was about more than trying to put me in a box. It was about trying to shame me into feeling I shouldn’t be there. The same sort of shame a virginity test is supposed to bring on a woman to send her back behind closed doors, never to protest again. It’s the shame that men use to justify “honor killings,” trial rapes, and other galling crimes.
As good as its intentions may have been, Reporters Without Borders did a disservice to both female journalists and the women (and men) they write about.
I have no doubt that, eventually, the fight for women’s rights in those parts of the world will triumph, just as those Arab heroines did in those ancient tales. Courageous people, such as Egyptian activist Mona Eltahawy, who had both of her arms broken by riot police last week, are unbowed and are determined to chip away at the institutions that deploy weapons of sexual violence to maintain their hold on power.
In the meantime, we don’t need voices from the outside serving as enablers.
This article appears in the December 10, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.