Women in the Arab (Muslim) World and American Policy

So this is just a reminder of why I am a crappy blogger. Everyone has already commented on Mona Eltahawy’s compelling read in Foreign Policy, “Why Do They Hate Us?” — about the status of women in the Arab world. And here I am, when everyone has already moved on, writing a post about yesterday’s news. But be that as it may. The lede is straight-forward:

Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women.

But if the argument is straight-forward, the tone is uncompromising and brutal. It is an extended screed, and it is easy to see why it has set so many readers on edge. Many Arabs are already quite concerned about how their part of the world is viewed in the West, and Elthawy’s essays comes uncomfortably close to echoing bigoted attacks on Islam generally. She even, broaches the issue of Mohammed’s child bride and pedophilia.

I can see where her critics are coming from on this score. I imagine her defense would be that she is not writing about the Arab world holistically, but is rather focusing on the status of women, and indeed, there, any fair assessment is likely to look quite negative — at least from a Western perspective. But that is the interesting thing, isn’t it? She’s not some sort of right-wing Islamophobe. And she’s not even a radical feminist of European descent. She is, after all, talking of her own ethnicity. I am not sure this should matter. Do we really want to argue that only people of the proper ethnicity are allowed to speak out about abuses in their own communities? If Eltahawy says something that others would consider racist, must she get more latitude either because of her ethnicity, or even more touchy, because she’s a sexual assault survivor at the hands of Egyptian authorities? I don’t know. Hard issue.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the substance of the piece. And while it lacks any clear policy prescriptions, it seems to be a call for some sort of action. This does not need to mean military action, much less regime change imposed from outside. Imposing our values by force is not the sole possible response. What I think is more central is the idea that the issue of the status of women could/should be more central in our foreign policy toward the region.

[As an aside, Eltahawy is writing about the Arab world, but I can't help but think some of the arguments are also applicable to the broader Muslim world -- Somalia, Iran, and Afghanistan at least.]

In a sense, this echoes the human rights debate from the Cold War. The debate was always more complex than the notion of a dichotomous split because “realists” and “idealists.” The “idealist” argument was always that a human right focus, done right, would also serve core national security interests. And indeed, Reagan’s foreign policy as much as anything else reflects an attempt to leverage human right into strategic benefits. This has always been controversial. Many human rights activists bridle at this sort of utilitarian approach, seeing it, essentially as corrupting a noble instinct for human betterment into a crude tool of statecraft.

The challenge of making women’s right more central is multifold.

First, as many critics of the piece have noted, it is not as if women in the region have no agency. Now, I am not sure I wholly buy this particular line of argumentation. Voting and other political involvement often requires making tradeoffs and choices. I think it is true that women in the Arab world have not acted in a way that would demonstrate that their concern over women’s right is paramount — rejection of authoritarianism, corruption, and concern over economic stagnation may trump. But it isn’t clear that women in the region would not prefer, all else equal, a dramatic reshaping of gender relations. Furthermore, look, I hate to essentially pathologize millions of people, but there is a battered spouse dynamic going on here, both literally and figuratively. The idea of genuine gender equality is so far removed from the lives of Arab women that the idea of making it a core political demand is virtually unthinkable, or more accurately, too easy to dismiss as fuzzy headed dreaming. Recall, that early opposition to slavery was often framed in term of improving the condition of slaves rather than abolition.  The kind of society Eltahawy describes is likely to generate calls for limited reform first, both as a practical matter and as a reflection of a certain failure of imagination.

Second, it is not clear how enhancing the importance of women’s right in our dealings with the region cuts in relation to our other strategic interests. This is not a debate about ends, but about strategy. I think the empirical literature suggests we’d be better off if the Arab/Muslim world treated its women better. It would be better for economic development, for the development of civil society, for the development of democratic institutions, and so on. And while we may disagree about the absolute power of democracy to prevent conflict, there is no question that, on the whole, we tend to have better, more stable, more productive relations with well-established democracies. But the question is, how to do you get there? How hard do you push? What sort of linkages — both positive and negative — do you put on the table?

From my perspective, I have few objections to increasing the centrality of women’s issues, at least rhetorically and diplomatically. Why? Because in the final analysis I think that whatever tensions this causes are relatively inconsequential. But I don’t say this because I doubt that Arab regimes would respond with hostility to our efforts to link women’s right to other issues, but rather because my view generally is that we should have dramatically reduced ties to the region. Will the Saudis get pissed if we start hammering away on women’s right? Yes, absolutely. But I really don’t much care because I see our engagement with Saudi Arabia was largely a strategic burden rather than a benefit. We can, in short, afford a more robust stance.

But saying we can afford such a stance is not the same as saying such an approach would be productive. It may not noticeably hurt U.S. interests, but it is not clear how it might help, not is it clear that it would affect conditions for women on the ground.

Third, it is not wholly clear to me that stressing women’s rights rhetorically is enough. If you buy into the argument — and I acknowledge, Eltahawy has critics, though most seem focused on issues of implied policy recommendation or tone/presentation matters — then shouldn’t we be doing more? Ultimately, the treatment of women in much of the Arab/Muslim world is, indeed, so appalling by Western standards that we come up against a Responsibility to Protect issue. Having failed to accord women minimal human rights, have some of these regimes lost their right to govern?

I’ve grappled with this issue in the case of Afghanistan, where I noted, that the threat to women posed by the Taliban was the “strongest case” for the Afghan War. I fear that as forward leaning as making a case of a women’s rights foreign policy focus may seem now, in a generation or two, we’re more likely to be condemned for our inaction. Some of what we see is just so incredibly appalling — direct attacks on women’s literacy, systematic sexual abuse, child marriage (aka child rape), and so on.

While I share the instinct for self-determination and anti-interventionism, I am not willing to place myself in denial about the consequences of this stance. And hence, I find myself torn. But this is a useful debate to have. I just hope we continue to focus on the issue itself rather than being dragged down a rabbit hole of debating graphic design or the logic of political correctness.

Leave a Reply