Barry Rubin in the Jerusalem Post reports on the sorry state of women's rights in the Islamic world — a condition made possible and reinforced by Sharia laws mandating gender (as well as religious) inequality. (Thanks to EPG.)
Thirteen years ago, in 1991, US soldiers arrived in Saudi Arabia to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi aggression and annexation. Among the American forces were women who drove vehicles. Perhaps inspired by this presence, several dozen Saudi women later held a demonstration in which they drove cars illegally.
Women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. Despite a recent, highly-publicized statement by a Saudi prince saying this situation would change soon there is no sign whatsoever of the law being altered. Indeed, in July 2003 a powerful Saudi businessman and writer submitted his regular column to a leading Saudi newspaper, Ukaz, forseeing a future when women would have equal rights in his country.
After first being rejected the article was finally published. It stirred up a great deal of controversy and reaction ranging from death threats to support. Western media sources hailed it as an example of the increasingly open debate in the kingdom. A few days later the writer's column was dropped from the newspaper.
What makes this especially remarkable is the fact that the writer's father was the founder of the newspaper and the writer himself a major stockholder in it.
Within the last few days top state-appointed Saudi clerics have strongly criticized the presence of women at an international development conference being held in the country. Many observers conclude that this official decision is going to make it almost impossible to increase women's rights in the kingdom even if the regime there wanted to do that.
Some Arab governments do recognize that inequality for women is one of the main reasons for their slow pace of social progress and lagging economic development – though there are many others. But look what has happened – or rather hasn't – even in these cases.
After the Iraqi army was driven from Kuwait in 1991, its monarch promised women rights. Consequently, in May 1999 – the time gap says something about the pace of change in the region – he issued a decree giving women the right to vote and run for office in the next Kuwaiti elections.
While Kuwait is the most democratic country in the Gulf, arguably in the whole Arab world, voting rights are strictly limited. Of two million people living in the country only 800,000 are Kuwaiti citizens, and of these just 112,000 males can vote.
In July 1999 the elections saw the victory of more liberals than ever before, holding about 16 of the 50 seats. Supporters of women's suffrage confidently predicted parliament would endorse the ruler's plan. Islamist members, however, passionately opposed the idea, with wide popular support.
"Those women who are calling for political rights have reached menopause and need someone to remind them of God," said one. When the most popular version of the women's voting rights legislation came up for the vote, the elected members rejected it by a 32 to 15 margin.
This was supposedly to be only a temporary setback. The government suggested it would resubmit the bill in 2000. A liberal parliamentarian remarked, "One thing I know for sure: In 2003 women will have their political rights."
But he was wrong. Kuwaiti women still don't have the right to vote or run for office.
Also in 1999 the Jordanian government proposed canceling article 340 of the Penal Code, which said that killing a wife or female relative engaged in adultery was not a crime. Even after the king endorsed the change a poll showed about two-thirds of his subjects against the cancellation.
The most recent development is perhaps the most shocking of all. The US-supervised Iraqi Governing Council Decision No. 137 called for replacing that country's civil law with Islamic law. After protests from women's and other groups, the decision was reportedly withdrawn. Still, one wonders what will happen when Iraqis can vote on this issue.
OF COURSE, it is possible to point to progress on women's rights in the Arab world. Women now vote in Qatar, they are elected in small numbers to many parliaments, and they have an increasing role in business and rising levels of education. Saudi Arabia is not typical.
Yet the amount of progress and the pace of change is still remarkably slow. If Iran is also considered, the situation becomes even worse.
But in Egypt a survey shows that one-third of women have been beaten by their husbands, female circumcision continues to be practiced, and a husband who kills a wife involved in adultery would only receive a three-year sentence.
With rising Islamist influence – or at least regime efforts to appease such groups – the clock in many places seems to be running backwards.
By no means do all women support a basic change in their status, and even those who do are often not exactly "progressive" on other issues.
Experts estimate that Kuwaiti women are even more conservative than the men and, given the chance, would vote for parties that would deny them the vote.
Clearly, women have emerged as a major constituency favoring democracy and a moderate regime in Iran. This has not yet happened in the Arab world. The appeal of traditional viewpoints, radical Arab nationalism, and Islamism have attracted far more women than have liberal ideas. Whether or not their voices are heard on the side of reform will be one of the main factors determining whether the Arab world remains socially stagnant and politically authoritarian.