Not a Wave, a Tsunami!—Part 9

Afghan women and girls protest in front of the Ministry of Education in Kabul on March 26, 2022, demanding that high schools be reopened for girls. (AFP/File)

Today we’ll look at the situation for women in three more predominantly Muslim countries. Of these, Tunisia has passed the most progressive laws, Saudi Arabia has lifted some restrictions on women, and Afghanistan continues to make women’s lives hell on earth.

Tunisia

It’s one thing to have good laws on the books but quite another to enforce them.

In 1956 Tunisia enacted the Personal Status Code, which banned polygamy, made the bride’s consent a requirement for marriage and gave women equal rights to divorce. This was a real break with Islamic law. When it comes to inheritance, though, in Tunisian law male heirs still get twice as much as female. Worse yet, sometimes male relatives cheat them and the women get nothing at all.

The 2017 Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women is generally ignored by the police and judiciary. “According to a survey from the Ministry of Women, at least 47 percent of women experienced domestic violence in their lifetime. These numbers have only increased with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic… in 2020 alone there were seven times more gender-based violence cases compared to previous years.”

Tunisia legalized abortion in 1973, but services—legal or not—are nearly impossible to access, unless you can afford to pay for them privately. As a result, per authors Irene Maffi and Malika Affes, “Tunisia’s recent and ongoing dramatic economic crisis has further impoverished the public health sector, in which staff, equipment, and medication were already insufficient before the [2011] revolution…more than 1,000 babies are abandoned every year by unmarried mothers…illegal practices and corruption in medical institutions [have become] more frequent…contracted doctors working in public medical facilities… redirect patients to their private offices to obtain…contraceptive and abortion care…”

Saudi Arabia

Some positive changes have come about in Saudi Arabia as a result of pressure from Saudi feminists and the government’s desire to attract international investment and tourism.

In the past, a male guardian could control a woman’s life from birth to death. The guardian was any male relative—father, brother, husband, cousin, or even her son. The law changed in 2019, when an adult woman could apply for her own passport and travel without a man’s permission. Note, however, that she still must have a male guardian. And the guardian can sidestep the law, through a legal provision called taghayyub, meaning that the woman is “absent.” Al Jazeera reports that “Guardians can still file a police complaint that their female relatives are ‘absent’, which would lead to their arrest and possible detention in [a woman’s shelter.]” And these so-called shelters are run like prisons.

In 2021 another law allowed a single, divorced, or widowed woman to live independently. “An adult woman has the right to choose where to live. A woman’s guardian can report her only if he has evidence proving she committed a crime.”

These new laws aren’t worth much. Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that she still can’t marry, leave home, or leave a domestic violence shelter, juvenile detention center, or prison without the consent of her guardian. They also report that “Women who attempt to flee an abusive spouse or family can be arrested and returned to their families. If they flee or are referred to shelters, they are not allowed to leave unless they reconcile with family members or accept an arranged marriage.”

HRS adds that “Saudi Arabia’s National Family Protection Program estimates that 35 percent of Saudi Woman have experienced violence, yet… of the 1,059 cases referred to Saudi courts in 2017 involving violence against women, only 59 were for domestic violence.” Only thirty-five percent? Since the estimate is coming from a Saudi government agency, I’m dubious.

Also, although a woman’s consent is legally sufficient to receive medical care, hospitals in fact often require the guardian’s permission to treat her.

Saudi women are now allowed to drive cars, but the feminists who campaigned for this right have been imprisoned, tortured, and sexually harassed. “The women’s rights advocates Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassimah al-Sadah, and Samar Badawi are banned from travel and under suspended prison sentences, allowing the authorities to return them to prison for any perceived criminal activity including women’s rights activism. In 2021, Human Rights Watch reported on credible accounts of torture by Saudi prison authorities of several women’s rights activists in 2018, including al-Hathloul, with electric shocks, beatings, whippings, and sexual harassment.”

Don’t expect the international community to help—not when the kingdom is the world’s second largest oil producer. In 2024, the UN Commission on the Status of Women appointed a new chair of gender equality and women’s rights. The person they appointed? Saudi ambassador (male, of course) Abdulaziz bin Mohammed Al-Wasil.

Afghanistan

As I mentioned earlier in this series, in Afghanistan the Taliban announced that they’re going to stone women for adultery. Girls may not receive an education beyond primary school—if they even get that. Over 20% of Afghan women are illiterate. Women’s employment is also heavily restricted.

Even worse, the majority of women accept their oppression, at least according to what they say when asked by researchers. A UNICEF study, summarized in a 2012 article by the Population Reference Bureau, contends that “Overall, 92 percent of women in Afghanistan feel that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife for at least one of these reasons: going out without telling the husband, neglecting the children, arguing with the husband, refusing sex, and burning the food…. Sixty-three percent of Afghan women feel a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife if she wears inappropriate clothing.

“Women’s acceptance of wife beating in Afghanistan is much higher than in other countries in the region: 54 percent in India; 36 percent in Bangladesh; and 23 percent in Nepal.

“Women’s level of education clearly has an effect on attitudes toward domestic violence…. In India, 62 percent of women with no education accept domestic violence compared with 31 percent of those with secondary education or higher. In Afghanistan, 82 percent of all women have no education.”

How accurate are these statistics from the Population Reference Bureau? Hard to say, but in any case, a patriarchal—or any hierarchical—system can’t succeed without the cooperation of the oppressed demographic. How much choice, though, do these women really have about whether to buy into the system?

Despite the indoctrination, a significant fraction of Afghan women—likely those who have received some education—no longer accept their subordinate status. Yet neither they nor their more subservient sisters will be allowed to speak at the UN meeting on Afghanistan in Doha on June 30 and July 1.

Just yesterday (June 27, 2024) Fawzia Koofi, former member of the Afghanistan parliament, wrote in the Guardian: “Since it became clear that the Taliban will be the only Afghan voices at the table and women’s rights will not officially be on the agency at the UN meeting…I have received thousands of messages from women inside and outside the country expressing their deep despair, shock and disappointment.”

That the official purpose of the meeting, according to U.N. political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo, is to “focus on engagement [with the Taliban government] going forward, along with sessions on private sector business and counter-narcotics.”

The key word here is business. According to the Fraser Institute, Afghanistan is estimated to have upwards of $1 trillion in mineral resources, including rare-earth elements and the metal lithium. Lithium is a key ingredient in batteries in electric and hybrid vehicles. Its price rose more than 400 percent in 2021, and demand could grow 4,000% by 2040. “…a classified Pentagon memo called Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

So once again the UN betrays women, as it did in Saudi Arabia, and for the same reason.

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In the next—and last—post in this series, let’s talk about how these systems maintain themselves, and what we can do to change things.

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