Editor’s Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women’s Enews or NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In forging an anti-terrorism alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the United States has sided with three nations that may not be as brutal as the Taliban in Afghanistan but which routinely violate the human rights of women.

Imagine a country where a woman who is raped must produce four witnesses to the crime or else be locked up in jail as an adulteress.

How about a country where a woman cannot drive and must obtain written permission from a male relative to travel.

Imagine a country where a woman cannot pass on her nationality to her children and where the girls among those children face terrible odds of having their genitals mutilated by age 7.

Afghanistan, you’re thinking. Surely it’s the Taliban that have done these terrible things to their women. That medieval regime’s unconscionable treatment of its women is well documented.

But it is not Afghanistan that is home to these indignities against women. Instead, it is Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt--three of the United States’ best friends in the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent.

As Operation Enduring Freedom unfolds, it is imperative to remember that women in those countries, not just in Afghanistan, suffer rights violations. One need only refer to the U.S. Department of State’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2000 on each of these nations. Each report has a section on women — none of them makes for pleasant reading.

Let’s start with my country, Egypt. I am married to an American who has started the process of applying for my citizenship in this country. I cannot do the same for my husband in Egypt. When we have children, I will not be able to pass on my Egyptian citizenship to them. While Egyptian legislation is largely based on a form of Napoleonic law, issues pertaining to women and the family — such as marriage, divorce and child custody — are governed by religious law, Islamic or Christian, as the case may be.

In Egypt Domestic Violence a Major Problem, Also ‘Honor’ Killings

According to the State Department report, in Egypt, “domestic violence against women is a significant problem.” A national study conducted in 1995 found that one out of three women who has ever been married has been beaten at least once during marriage.

Spousal abuse is grounds for a divorce, but the law requires the plaintiff to produce eyewitnesses. The U.S. human rights report goes on to say that perpetrators of so-called honor killings — a man murdering a female for her perceived lack of chastity — “generally receive lighter punishments than those convicted in other cases of murder.”

Regarding female genital mutilation, a practice that involves removing part or all of the clitoris along with other parts of the genitalia, “a study conducted during the year estimates the percentage of women who have ever been married who have undergone female genital mutilation at 97 percent.”

The Egyptian Health Ministry outlawed the practice in 1996 but it remains prevalent among both Muslims and Christians.

The section on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia does not make for better reading. The best-known violation of Saudi women’s rights is the prohibition from their driving a vehicle.

But the State Department report lists more rights violations. The report says that physical spousal abuse and violence against women “appear to be common problems” in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi man may prevent his wife and any child or unmarried adult daughter from obtaining an exit visa to depart the country.

Women in Saudi Arabia “have few political or social rights and are not treated as equal members of society.” The State Department report says, “Women must enter city buses by separate rear entrances and sit in specially designated sections,” and that they “risk arrest by the religious police for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative.”

Saudi Woman May Not Be Admitted to Hospital Without Male’s Consent
Furthermore, women are not admitted to a hospital for medical treatment without the consent of a male relative, the report goes on to say. Of the three countries highlighted for their treatment of women, the State Department report on human rights heaps the most criticism on Pakistan — the newest U.S. friend and possibly the most important because of its long border with Afghanistan and its equally long hand in Afghanistan’s internal political situation. Pakistan and the United States were also friends during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when both trained radical Afghan fighters in Pakistan.

Again, violence against women is a problem. Human rights groups estimate that anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of women are victims of domestic violence at the hands of their husbands, in-laws or other relatives, according to the State Department.

A particularly disturbing phenomenon is what has come to be known as “kitchen stove deaths,” in which a married woman is killed by relatives over dowry disputes or a suspicion of illicit sexual relationships. Dowry refers to the gifts and cash the family of the bride gives to the family of the bridegroom. Those relatives then blame an exploding stove for the woman’s death. During 2000, 593 burn cases were recorded in Lahore newspapers, the report said.

“Rape is an extensive problem,” the State Department report on Pakistan continues. It quotes estimates by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that “at least eight women, five of them minors, are raped every day, and more than two-thirds of those are gang-raped.”

Which brings us to the horrific reports of women who have been jailed on grounds of adultery because they could not produce witnesses to their rape. It is against the law to have sex outside of marriage in Pakistan. According to a police official quoted in the report, in most rape cases women are pressured to drop the charges because of the threat of adultery or fornication charges against them if they cannot prove the lack of consent.

One-Third of Women Jailed in Three Pakistani Cities Await Adultery Trial

In 1998, about one-third of the women in jails in Lahore, Peshawar and Mardan were awaiting trial for adultery, according to the State Department report.

A Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry for Women in Pakistan criticized laws relating to extramarital sex and recommended that they be repealed.

The State Department referred to the commission’s work in its report and included this summary:

“The commission charged that the laws on adultery and rape have been subject to widespread misuse, with 95 percent of the women accused of adultery being found innocent either in the court of first instance or on appeal. However, the commission pointed out that, by that time, the woman may have spent months in jail, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the police, and seen her reputation destroyed.”

When I worked as the editor of a women’s issues section in an English-language weekly newspaper in Egypt a few years ago, many of the brave feminists and human rights activists I spoke to complained that they where hampered by an unwillingness to re-examine traditional views regarding women’s roles.

As Egypt, and many other countries in the developing world, grapple with the difficulties of modernization and globalization, traditional views on women and the family become even more sacrosanct, as if those traditions that kept women “in their place” were the last safe haven against a world that is changing too fast.

By adhering to long-held attitudes on women’s roles, governments in the countries I have mentioned mistakenly believe they can appease the more conservative elements in the population. But they must remember that they cannot develop a society while half of its members are ignored.

As we hope that Afghanistan’s future hails a better life for its women, let us wish the same for the women of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. 

Our New Allies Violate Women's Human Rights

A Special Report from Women's eNews

Article reprinted with permission from Women’s eNews.

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