10/18/2022, 11.00
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Equality remains a mirage amid concessions rather than rights for women in the Middle East

by Dario Salvi

The Mahsa Amini affair raises the issue of the role and freedoms of women in the region and in the Muslim - Shiite and Sunni - world.Tehran's recent entry into the UN body for the protection of women, thanks to favorable vote of Western governments, has been passed over in silence. In the Saudi kingdom "success" stories conceal daily tales of violations and humiliation. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - Weeks of protest in Iran following the death of the young Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police who had stopped her because she was not wearing the hijab properly, have rekindled the theme of the women's issue in the Middle East and the Islamic world, both Shia and Sunni.

If the female universe is leading the battle cry against the compulsory veil and for freedom and rights in the Islamic Republic, looking at Saudi Arabia (and the other Gulf nations) the issue of equality is still a distant goal.

This is in spite of the many proclamations of the Arab leaderships and the frequent newspaper articles extolling certain marginal aspects or stories that, in reality, conceal daily practices of patriarchy, subjugation and segregation.

Moreover practices that, in the most extreme cases or in situations of particular exploitation as is the case with female migrant workers, include harassment, violence and humiliation. 

Tehran and the UN

Mahsa's death and Tehran's harsh repression, invoked by the supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by the president, the ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, are now daily news stories.

Since mid-September, following the killing of the young woman of Kurdish origin, the entire country has been criss-crossed by massive protest demonstrations led by women and spread - in addition to the capital - to areas where ethnic minorities live: from the Kurds in the north-west, to the Beluchis in the south on the border with Pakistan.

The toll of the repression unleashed by the police and security forces, linked to the political-religious leadership, has left more than 240 people dead, 32 of them minors, thousands arrested.

Tehran, which rejects the accusation of violent death for the 22-year-old Kurdish woman, claims that external agents and Western governments who want to foment chaos and destabilise the state are behind the demonstrations.

In reality, the photos and videos that manage to overcome the censorship and network blockade imposed by the ayatollahs' regime reveal spontaneous, mostly peaceful demonstrations with a strong symbolic character, such as the cutting of hair or the burning of the veil considered a symbol of oppression. 

Amid the din of violence and repression, the news of the Islamic Republic's entry in March into the UN Commission on the Status of Women, with a four-year mandate and thanks to the votes of some Western governments, has been strikingly passed over in silence.

This is a UN body, based in Geneva, whose "exclusive" task is to "promote gender equality and the emancipation of women". A number of Iranian activists and intellectuals abroad have intervened on the issue, putting the spotlight on the actual usefulness of such organisations.

Mariam Memarsadeghi, a member of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, told Fox News, "When democracies turn a blind eye to how the U.N. mechanisms like the Commission on the Status of Women have been usurped by a regime [in Iran] that prides itself on humiliating girls and women on a daily basis, that kills girls and women for showing some strands of hair, that legalizes inequality and propagates the idea of women’s subordination through its totalitarian regulation of social life, its schools system and media, those democracies denigrate themselves". 

The latest example concerns climbing champion Elnaz Rekabi who, at the Asian Games in South Korea, competed by refusing to wear a veil in solidarity with the women of her country.

The sportswoman has already been arrested, taken to the embassy in Seoul and her trail has been lost, while relatives and friends are trying - in vain - to contact her. Stories of ordinary repression in the Iranian theocracy where women make up more than half the population and are among the most educated in the entire Middle East, with a literacy rate of more than 80% and more than 60% are part of the university student body.

However, under Islamic law they have fewer rights than men in divorce matters and lose custody of their children when older than seven, they need permission to travel abroad, their testimony is worth half that of men, they vote and drive but cannot become judges or run for president. And Raisi's rise marked a tightening of restrictions, with bans on entering some banks or offices, and greater powers given to the notorious morality police. 

Riyadh and cosmetic reforms

From Shiite Iran to the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, the condition always remains one of inferiority in spite of the much vaunted reforms, especially from Riyadh. Recently, the Wahhabi kingdom cancelled the male guardian requirement for pilgrimages to Mecca and sanctioned equality in the so-called 'blood price'.

These days, newspapers are reporting two stories that would confirm the growing degree of women's emancipation and freedom in the Arab world, as opposed to the repression in Tehran. The GulfNews portal calls a 'milestone' the achievement of Amal bint Faisal, the first female jockey to have received a licence to compete in horse races 'having passed the entrance examination'.

The conservative Saudi daily Arab News extols the opening of a 'women-only' restaurant in Gaza, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit and willpower of Reham Hamouda: 'It was a dream,' he says, 'and it has become reality. The business guarantees financial independence for me and the other workers in the restaurant. Who are of course all women'.

The restaurant business, she continues, represents an 'acceptable way' to emancipation and within it 'women from all walks of life and ages come in'. With a view, always and in any case, of strict separation of the sexes so that they can 'take off their veils... which makes them extremely happy'. 

Chronicles that are not enough to erase a daily reality that remains marked by repression, even violent repression: in August, the Saudi authorities sentenced Salma al-Shehab, a doctoral student in Leeds who had returned to her country of origin for a short holiday, to 34 years 'for a tweet'. Her 'guilt' is that she called for further reforms and more freedoms and rights.

Abuses and violations that become outright humiliations when it comes to female migrant workers from South Asia, South-East Asia or Africa. In Kenya, the footage of a compatriot, a migrant in Riyadh, who was forced by the family that offered her employment to breast-feed two puppies has gone viral. In the video one can distinctly hear the crying and moaning of the woman, desperate for her condition. 'She left her husband and children in Kenya two months after giving birth,' points out Francis Atwoli, general secretary of the trade unions (Cotu).

"When [the Saudi family] found out, the employer forced her to breastfeed the puppies." 'Our girls,' the union leader adds, 'are subjected to indirect slavery and their dignity is trampled on.' And widening the field to the rest of the Middle East (and North Africa, Mena) the situation does not seem to improve: World Bank estimates report that at least 35% of women have suffered domestic violence, in Egypt 62% of men (and 49% of women) are in favour of honour killing; in Lebanon the father has almost absolute authority over his daughters and, in the event of divorce, the woman loses custody of the children. 


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