Our guest blogger is Elizabeth Marcus, an intern with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress.The Middle East is undergoing dramatic political transformation. Despite the prominent role women have played in organizing these popular movements, the treatment of women in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, raises serious concern about the future of democracy and human rights in the region. A central issue is the use of rape by both government and non-state forces as an attempt to silence opposition forces. In the context of patriarchal religious societies, rape and sexual violence holds unique potential as a horrific tool of political repression, and its use has been widespread as an attempt to stunt the growth of the Arab Spring.
Women agitating for political change in these countries face the ever-present threat of sexual abuse and the societal stigma that results from sexual violence in highly patriarchal societies. Unlike physical violence, rape and other forms of sexual violence can permanently damage a woman’s reputation and status within her community. Not only is she considered unfit for marriage but rape causes profound humiliation to the male members of her family and, potentially, her community.
Rape was used excessively during Moammar Qaddafi’s attempt to remain in power in Libya. Towards the end of his struggle, his regime ordered soldiers to go into villages and rape the female adults and children, some as young as 8 years old, in front of family members. Condoms and Viagra were found in pockets of dead Qaddafi soldiers. Benghazi journalists reported seeing the ground littered with Viagra after troops had been through.
Rhetoric related to women and sexual violence always comes back to ideas of honor, which is held in the highest regard within Islamic societies. Raping a woman strips the woman, her family, and her community of “honor.” Qaddafi understood this dynamic and used it as a tool to prevent women from organizing opposition to his regime.
Despite Egypt’s notorious reputation for sexual harassment and violence against women, female activists have been at the forefront of efforts to change Egypt’s political system from the very beginning. Perhaps predictably, Egyptian women have also faced sexual violence as they seek to effect political change.
On March 9, 2011, just under a month after President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, protesters returned to Tahrir Square to express frustration with the slow pace of reforms. The Egyptian military broke up the demonstration and arrested demonstrators, including at least 18 women. These women were beaten, charged with prostitution, and forced to submit to “virginity checks.” When confronted, a senior general said, “The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine… these were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square.” In a patriarchal religious society in which female sexuality is heavily policed, accusations of promiscuity serve to damage the reputations of female protesters.
By casting protesting women as “not like your daughter or mine” and subjecting them to sexual violence, Egyptian authorities delegitimize their political voices in a social context that does not consider women attempting to access the public-justice system to be “respectable.”
The Norwegian Nobel Committee in October announced it would award a Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakkul Karman, a female Yemeni activist involved in ongoing protests against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Yemen, women celebrated Karman’s peace prize — but were caught off guard when they were systematically sought out and brutally attacked by regime supporters. Forty women were attacked in Taez as they marched and celebrated in support of Karman. “We were attacked by regime thugs with empty bottles and stones,” an organizer said on condition of anonymity. Karman’s Nobel prize has made her the face of the revolt against President Saleh. Yemeni women have, in her words, transformed “from their traditional role as victims, into leaders playing a major role in the revolution.”
As these transformations continue to unfold, it is unclear what the role of women will be in the newly formed societies. However, early stages of the revolutions have not fared well in women’s rights, and international actors can do little but stand by and hope that during and after these social and political uprisings, vulnerable demographics are protected.
Download the issue brief “Rape and the Arab Spring: The Dark Side of the Popular Uprisings in the Middle East” [PDF]