Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Honour, Politics, and Women in the Middle East:
a survey of Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran
Luiza Kulchetscki


            I think we can all agree that women are underrepresented politically in almost every area of the world. This is particularly true in regions in the Middle East, where not only are women a small part of the political arena, but have little to no status in almost all other aspects of society. The women in these regions have, for decades, pursued opportunities to have their voices heard, yet have been met with extreme authoritarian and patriarchal resistance. The graph below illustrates this reality, showing how the Middle East is one of the areas in the world with the lowest percentages of female political involvement.

            (a) Map taken from Women Stats Projects, scaled to 2010.

            Perhaps we can also agree, as do most scholars, that when women do become more closely involved in the political process, societies benefit in important ways. Some authors have claimed that one of the best ways to improve economic, social, and political stability in a nation is precisely by investing in women, promoting their participation, and focusing on issues that they are concerned about. In other words, how societies treat their women can be reflexive of how well that society functions. 
            In examining how women are treated in the Middle East, one of the most extreme acts of mistreatment is known as the so-called honour killings—the murder of women for suspected deviation from sexual norms imposed by that society. The range of potential deviations is wide, often involving, but not limited to, infidelity in marriage, premarital sex, victimization of rape, etc. The killing of the perpetrator of sexual misconduct presumably restores the family to its untarnished honour. The sad reality is that year after year these socially accepted killings continue to go largely unreported, uninvestigated, and unpunished. There is no reason to believe that these killings are going down, not even with the wave of democratization that has come with recent events and changes in government.

            (b) Map taken from Women Stats Projects, scaled to 2009

            Yet if women’s participation in society helps to create a healthier, better functioning society, one that ideally yields lower levels of crime, does the level of female involvement in the political process influence the rates of honour killings? Perhaps it would make a difference in the occurrences of these murders of honour if more women in these areas had a greater voice in how they are treated. If on one hand there are women being killed, and on the other hand there are women fighting to be in a position where they can make a difference, can women themselves have an impact on women and how they are treated? If so, is involvement in politics one of those ways?
            An extensive survey of four different countries in the Middle East that have been known for their ongoing practice of honour killings, and have also been known to be more liberal in governmental policies than others in the region, reveals that the answer to this puzzle is inconclusive. This is largely due to the lack of reliable data. While the numbers remain uncertain and limited, the table below summarizes what little information was available for the four countries comprising the past fifteen years.

Seats in office held by women
Average reported honour killings in a year
13 (2000-2007) to 1 (2008-2013)
24,500 to 40,000, but now large decline with strict barriers to funding.
52 in 1997, but no current data.
avg. of 15 throughout
3000 to approximately 1246
34 (2000-2003) to 15 (2011)
45 (2000-2007) to 80 (2008-2013)
84,000, but only 420 public benefit organizations.
1086 (2001-2006) to 396 (2007) to 138 (2010)
9 (2000-2003) to 12 (2004-2007) to 13 (2008-2013)
2500, but large decline today due to gov. restrictions.
no available data
            These numbers are ambiguous. While they represent an attempt to understand the relation between women in politics and women who are victims of murder, and whether the political empowerment of women has had an impact on the rates of honour killings, the relationship between these variables remains hard to prove given the available information. At first glance, the table seems to indicate that the number of women in politics is increasing (except for Egypt, where elections are to be held in April of 2013), honour killings seem to be decreasing, while functioning NGOs are on a steady decline, we should consider the nature of the data.
            First, honour killings are considered a “family” matter and are not often reported to the police, making it difficult to assess patterns of growth or decline over time. Specialists believe that in each of the countries studied the real numbers of honour killings is at least twice the amount reported, if not more. Also, the decline in numbers over the years can be attributed to the fact that the passing of legislation that ensures greater punishment to murderers has led families to pressure women into committing suicide in the name of honour, thus freeing themselves of the lawful consequences but still cleaning their family name.
            Second, while the number of women in upper level legislations is readily accessible, it is more difficult to find precise numbers of women in city councils and lower legislative houses to get a full picture of the true extent of female politicians in government. Women who do hold seats in upper houses are so few in numbers, that it seems unlikely that such a small percentage of women can bring about significant changes in male dominated authoritarian systems.
            Finally, the column of NGOs, viewed here as an extended and indirect form of political participation of which women can be a part, can also be misleading, as the numbers represent the total amount of NGOs in each country, whether they concern women’s issues or not. Thus, it should be noted that only a small fraction of all NGOs are directly related to female empowerment and physical protection. New government imposed barriers to entry and to funding has not only led to a steady decline in the number of functioning NGOs in the area, but also to tremendous backlash from the people involved locally and from the international community, where much of the funding comes from. This fight for the continuation of NGOs reflects their efficiency over the years in bringing the media and the international community’s attention to issues such as human rights and law enforcement, and have helped to bring concerns such as honour killings and other crimes against women to the political agenda of their local governments.
            In areas like Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran, where extreme traditions and patriarchy continue to prevail, it is difficult to measure the impact of direct female involvement in politics in the improvement of women’s security and lifestyle. Yet the ongoing collaboration of women who rally together in political movements, and who are able to take part of organizations such as NGOs seems to be a more efficient method to promote nonviolence, greater equality, and the basic right to live, given the current circumstances.



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