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Second class citizens — or worse

Director of HRW Kenneth Roth discusses the oppression of women in the Middle East

by Jeremy Arbid

The subjugation of women — often unwitnessed, overlooked or otherwise ignored — is today’s greatest challenge facing equality among the genders in the Middle East, says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW). In Beirut, presenting the organization’s annual global report on human rights practices, Roth spoke with Executive about women’s rights in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the severe oppression of women occurring in those countries.

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria

“The ideological suppression of women,” says Roth, in areas under the control of ISIS, namely Syria and Iraq, defines the now familiar barbarity central to the jihadist group. While much of the attention on ISIS, for Western media, has focused on its execution of prisoners, it is ISIS’ treatment of women — albeit underreported — which underlines its rights violations. 

Among its most acute atrocities, Roth explains, is the group’s treatment of Yazidi women — a Kurdish sect traditionally concentrated in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh. In HRW’s 2015 World Report, Roth wrote that ISIS “militants have enslaved, forcibly married, and raped Yazidi women and girls.” In 2014, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an advocacy group, reported documented cases of Yazidi and Syrian women kidnapped into slavery. The organization said it also has evidence of Yazidi women sold into marriage to ISIS fighters for $1,000 each. Roth adds that ‘marriage’ under ISIS is really a “euphemism for forced rape,” and that it epitomizes ISIS’ utter disregard for women as human beings.

Coming upon an abandoned ISIS military checkpoint, Iraqi Special Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga found two women naked and chained who had been raped multiple times, The New York Times reported in August. To supplement its insatiable domineering appetite, ISIS — in Al-Bab, a city in the Aleppo province of northern Syria — has set up a so called marriage bureau to wed single women and widows to the jihadist group’s fighters. “They’re really almost just treated like chattel and handed out to fighters as sort of the prizes of war,” Roth says.

ISIS, in defending its actions, has referred to the Quran to justify its kidnapping, subjugation and forced rape of Yazidi women. In ISIS’ fourth issue of Dabiq, its English language online magazine, the group notes that “women could be enslaved” and that upon their capture “the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State.” The maliciousness of the jihadist group is not unique, Roth says, adding that “in many ways it harkens back to the Taliban era in Afghanistan or to some of the abuses in Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia

“Under King Abdullah, there seemed to be some commitment to improving the rights of women. I say some because he operated very slowly, very incrementally,” Roth explains. While women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are undoubtedly not favorable, a slow moving effort towards granting more rights to women has begun in the last few years. 

Listing the improvements, Roth explains that not too long ago, in 2011, the late king declared women would be able to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, as well as be eligible for appointment to the Shura Council — 30 women were appointed in 2013. There has also, he says, been a gradual increase in the professions that are available to women.

Saudi statistics on its labor force demonstrate the kingdom’s inclusion of local women. While certain types of professions might still be off limits to Saudi women, their access to the labor force has increased markedly in the past five years. Of the total Saudi female population 20 percent were employed or actively looking for jobs in 2014, according to Saudi Arabia’s Central Department of Statistics and Information 2014 labor force survey. But in 2009 that figure stood at only 12 percent: in five years the number of economically active Saudi women has increased by over 1.1 million. 

The statistics portray just one angle of Saudi Arabia’s incremental approach towards female inclusion in the labor force. An advisor to the Saudi Ministry of Labor described proposed policies to The New York Times in November to promote female labor force participation — the building of childcare facilities nearer to places of work and the creation of jobs in the industries of healthcare, manufacturing and information technology — which, if implemented, could further open the door to the labor market for Saudi women.

While Roth acknowledges this as a positive development, he counters with what he describes as the main obstacle for Saudi women willing to work: the archaic guardianship law. Under the law, the most basic decisions in a woman’s life cannot be made without the consent of her male guardian. This lack of agency, Roth says, makes it very difficult for Saudi women to operate in modern society. Were a woman to find gainful employment in the kingdom, she must still obtain permission to show up for the job and she still cannot drive herself, he adds. 

Roth also points out that the change that began under Abdullah is not certain to continue. His organization has no idea where King Salman stands on women’s rights. “We still have a blank slate on this, and he himself is old and incapacitated, so it’s just not clear how much he is going to be able to push things forward.” Some reticently voice their concern. The recent appointment by Salman of Muhammad Bin Nayef as deputy crown prince and second in line to the throne is troubling news for women and human rights advocates, an anonymous letter to the new king published in Politico points out. And Roth agrees; under Abdullah, Bin Nayef served as minister of the interior where he orchestrated the detainment of female drivers, impounding their vehicles. In one rare case, two female drivers were referred to a court established to try terrorism cases — not for driving, but for speaking about the incident on social media. Bin Nayef, says Roth, has “given no indication that he is going to pursue or let alone build upon King Abdullah’s willingness to countenance a slight opening for the rights of women.”


For Roth, female genital mutilation (FGM) remains one of Egypt’s most destructive women’s rights violations, and the practice is considered as a form of torture under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. According to UNICEF, an estimated 125 million women around the world have undergone the procedure. The practice of FGM in Egypt remains high — 91 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49, which represents 27.2 million Egyptian women — have been subjected to cutting of external female genitalia, including partial or total removal of the clitoris, according to a 2013 UNICEF report. FGM was banned by the Egyptian government in 2008 — yet implementation of the law has not been a priority. But years of activism and education by Egyptian civil society, Roth says, may be dispelling the cultural taboo of questioning FGM leading Egyptians to think of it as a widespread problem of public health and human rights abuse.

In January 2015 — in the first instance Egypt has applied the law — a doctor was convicted of manslaughter for performing FGM on a 13 year old girl, forced by her father to undergo the procedure, who died soon after. The doctor received a two year prison sentence, the maximum allowed under the law, while the father received three months of house arrest. In response to the girl’s death, local activists launched the Kamla campaign aiming to eliminate the practice of FGM under the slogan “Our daughters are complete. Why do we want them to be incomplete?”

While Roth does highlight the significance of the conviction, he also clarifies with context — several years of internal turmoil and struggle have intensified what was an existing problem: the sexual harassment of women in public. HRW reported in July 2013 that 91 women were raped or sexually assaulted during protests against then President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir Square that June. Similarly, a graphic YouTube video, first posted in June 2014 but believed to be dated much earlier, depicted a woman stripped naked, assaulted and dragged through the middle of Tahrir Square as she attempted to escape a large group of male assailants. The public harassment of women on the streets of Egypt, Roth points out, is “indicative of a broader disregard for women and the treatment of them not only as second class citizens but people who can be freely abused.” Indeed, statistics from UN Women put it bluntly — 99.3 percent of Egyptian women and girls surveyed in 2013 said they’ve been subjected to one form of sexual harassment or another. 

A tough future

Though there have been occasional and modest steps towards equality between the genders, the unrest raging across the region makes significant achievements and improvements for women’s rights difficult. “Women,” says Roth, “continue to suffer severe repression in most countries of the Middle East. There are major countervailing pressures and a lot of the big steps towards basic equality and women’s rights have not been taken by many of the governments in the region.” Where they can, women are fighting back.

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Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy Arbid is an energy and public affairs analyst specializing in Lebanon’s oil and gas industry. He was formerly a journalist covering economics and government policy for Executive Magazine in Beirut. His experience includes roles as a policy specialist in Chicago and with the United Nations in Geneva. Jeremy holds a Master's in Public Administration from the American University of Beirut and a Bachelor's in Political Science from Hamline University.

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