By Mohammed Bella
Rabat – Issues such as gender inequality are pervasive in the MENA region. From Tangier, Tunis, Cairo, Beirut and beyond, there is an alarming increase in various forms of discrimination against women, ranging from domestic abuse to sexual assault.
Although Morocco has ratified all provisions in the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), subaltern women continue to be marginalized and oppressed by prevalent patriarchal practices. The problem arises when regulations to strengthen gender equality are written into laws but not applied in practice.
One unfortunate reality of patriarchal attitudes is that they teach women to remain silent about the abuse they suffer at the hands of their partners. For example, in 2016, a controversial segment aired on the day-time program Sabahiyat, on the Moroccan channel 2M, that appeared to normalize domestic violence. The segment offered abused women advice on concealing bruises resulting from domestic violence with make-up. “We hope this make-up tutorial will help you carry on with your daily lives,” the host said. “We know that after the beating this part is still sensitive, so don’t press on fresh bruises.”
At the same time, media outlets that present a platform for women to air their grievances do exist. “My husband beats me every single day,” a woman told ASWAT, a Moroccan radio program that gives a voice to a vast number of women that are subjected to domestic violence daily.
On one hand, there are numerous Moroccan women helping others to liberate themselves from the shackles of patriarchy. But on the other hand, there exist Moroccan women who add fuel to the fire. This point is best demonstrated by women who have a predisposition to normalize violence, such as Emanbint El Hawat, a singer that “voices her voice” with songs contending that men abusing women is a sign of love. Her songs include controversial lyrics like “If she tastes his beatings, she’ll never forget his love… his abuse is a sign of jealousy and passion. A slap fixes the mood.”
The Moroccan singer tried to defend herself in an interview but made matters far worse. “I am not supporting violence or men who severely beat or scar women, no. I am for the ‘sweet beating’ the kind that reflects love.”
Sexual assault is becoming a dominant trend in Moroccan society. Recent cases include the savage attack on a defenseless 24-year-old woman on a bus in Casablanca. The young woman, who has learning difficulties according to the police, was sexually assaulted by a gang of youths. They were captured on video molesting, grabbing and insulting the weeping young woman.
Tunisia is progressive when it comes to women’s rights compared to other countries in the MENA. Still, change is needed to put an end to patriarchal norms and ensuing discriminatory practices. Violence is commonly experienced through marital relations as is evident from the statistic that “the intimate partner is the author of physical violence in 47.2% cases, of psychological violence in 68.5% of cases, of sexual violence in 78.2% of cases, and of economic violence in 77.9% of cases.” (Gender Equity and Violence Prevention for Women in Tunisia)
In addition, women remain subject to social inequality and discrimination after divorce, as children can be prohibited from living with their mothers if they remarry. Another ongoing issue in Tunisia is the domestic violence rate, which states that 1 in 5 Tunisian women are victims of domestic abuse. Male dominance is also evident in the political sphere, where women struggle with limited representation. For instance, in 2014, women had only 49 out of 217 seats in the Constituent Assembly.
However, a recent sign of progress regarding women’s issues in Tunisia was the enactment of a law that protects women from gender-based violence. This new law, approved by the Tunisian parliament on July 26, 2017, aims at preventing all forms of violence against women whether it is physical, psychological, moral, sexual or economic in nature.
Women in Egypt are continuously subjected to gender inequality, humiliation, and violence. Since 2013, more than 2,000 women have been imprisoned and 92 have been killed by the dictatorial regime. Women face intimidation, harassment, abuse, and rape at the hands of the state’s security apparatus. Female detainees were subjected to violating procedures known as virginity tests by the military. “I was going through a nervous breakdown at that moment,” Salwa Hosseini, a 20-year-old hairdresser told CNN. “There was no one standing during the test, except for a woman and the male doctor. But several soldiers were standing behind us watching the backside of the bed…They wanted to make us feel that we do not have dignity.”
The same dictatorial regime murders civilians that demonstrate peacefully in Egyptian streets. For instance, during a demonstration in 2015, an activist named Shaimaa El Sabbagh was shot dead by the police. She was carrying flowers and chanting “Bread, freedom and social justice,” alongside fellow protestors. They were marching toward Tahrir Square to lay memorial wreaths to commemorate the anniversary of the revolution.
Another example of this disastrous dictatorship is the story of the Egyptian female protester who was violently dragged, beaten, and stomped on by the military. The young woman had her veil pulled up over her head by Egyptian soldiers, exposing her blue bra. Such stories prove that women’s rights are shamelessly violated in the MENA region, which is why it comes as no surprise that the 2013 Thomson Reuters Foundation Survey listed Egypt as the worst country for gender equality in the Arab world nowadays.
Women face discrimination under the personal status law in Lebanon. The law strips them of the right to pass their nationality on to children born abroad. It is especially controversial because the same law allows Lebanese men to pass their nationality on to their children. Christine Chamoun, Lebanese human rights activist and program officer for the Open Society Women’s Rights Program, wrote, “I would not be able to pass on my Lebanese nationality to my future children—not because I no longer live in Lebanon, but because I am a woman…all of the women I met with talked about the pain, humiliation, and anger they felt towards the Lebanese authorities and society for treating them and their children like second-class citizens.”
In the summer of 2017 however, Lebanon took an overdue step forward by repealing Article 522 of the penal code. It was a marriage law that exonerated rapists to avoid prosecution if they married their victims. In other words, Article 522 allowed Lebanese men to rape women, and then marry them. Therefore, Lebanese women were forced “by law” to marry their attackers. Today, there are no precise records of the number of victims who married their rapists. Zena was one of many Lebanese women that married their rapists under this cruel law. Zena was raped by her father’s friend. He broke into the house and raped her. The family didn’t object when the judge declared that Zena, who was covered in bruises, would marry her rapist. Zena did not have a voice to object the judge as she was rendered silent.
The cases of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon barely scratch the surface of women’s rights violations in the MENA. While it seems that women’s issues are being addressed, a closer look reveals that they are often disregarded and even breached. However, when talking about women’s issues in the MENA people must avoid thinking in terms of broad-sweeping generalizations and gross misrepresentations that reinforce stereotypes of Middle Eastern men as misogynists who oppress, enslave, and subjugate their women.
Instead, we must closely inspect how women’s issues in the MENA are used in agendas to serve interests. For example, Arab leaders and public figures that give hypocritical speeches that are much ado about nothing. They only promote tokenistic rhetoric to appease their critics at home and in the west. There is a long way to go when it comes to gender inequality; it is a global social justice movement and we must remind ourselves that change will not come overnight. It is a process. Arab societies should make an effort to move beyond symbolic gestures such as marching on International Women’s Day, and be ready to effect meaningful change.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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