Analysis |

In Arab World, Women's Fight for Equal Rights Is Being Won on the Battlefield

If you’re female and want to be treated fairly in Arab society, be prepared to pick up a gun, wear fatigues and shoot the enemy.

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Laila Sterk, 22, a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighter, posing for a photograph in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasaka, Syria, February 26, 2017.
Laila Sterk, 22, a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighter, posing for a photograph in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasaka, Syria, February 26, 2017.Credit: RODI SAID/REUTERS

Iraq’s first female tribal leader won much respect after she left her job to join anti-Islamic State forces in the Salah al-Din district of northwestern Iraq. Most of the photographs of Umayyah Naji Jabara show her smiling while holding a Kalashnikov rifle. But she was felled by an ISIS sniper’s bullet in June 2014.

On the day she died, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi sent a condolence letter to her family and the entire Salah al-Din district. “Such are the women of Iraq everywhere, and at all times,” columnist Ahmad al-Abbasi wrote in a lengthy and eloquent eulogy, describing her noble qualities, bravery and courage. He also called on men to emulate her character and deeds.

Jabara was not the only woman to join the fight against the Salafi jihadist group. A Kurdish battalion called the Defense Unit of Kurdish Women – which fights ISIS and has scored some impressive achievements alongside its male compatriots – was established in Syria’s Kurdish enclave. Women joined militias fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, and many of them belong to mixed-gender units in the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is made up of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and others in Syria. They are not satisfied with performing only “traditional” female roles – logistical matters or raising and educating the fighters’ children – but also carrying out combat missions. Some have been killed in battle.

Nasrin Abdullah, a spokeswoman for the Kurdish Protection Units (YPJ), told Kurdish news agency Firat that women established a military academy in their district for women to learn how to fight, as well as feminist theory and world feminist history.

More than 23,500 women have been killed in battle, according to a report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The Syrian regime, meanwhile, has imprisoned over 7,500 women for political activity and rebel forces have imprisoned 920.

Self-fulfillment through ISIS

ISIS has also discovered the power of women, recruiting female volunteers to serve as “morality police” in the areas it controls. ISIS women caused a stir on social media when they described their wonderful lives in ISIS-controlled areas and about “self-fulfillment” – the ability to contribute something significant – and life among ISIS men.

These women excelled at recruiting women from the West, and training Muslim (and non-Muslim) women to be proper wives for their husbands.

A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighter poses in northern Deir al-Zor province, Syria February 21, 2017.
A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) female fighter adjusts a mortar in northern Deir al-Zor province ahead of an offensive against Islamic State militants, Syria February 21, 2017.
A woman removes a Niqab she was wearing in her village after Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of it, on the outskirts of Manbij city, Aleppo province, Syria June 9, 2016.

Moreover, ISIS founded female battalions calling themselves the Al-Khansaa Brigade – named for the pre-Islamic female poet who converted to Islam and sent her sons to war, where they were killed.

The brigade, which enforces religious observance among women in Iraq and Syria, revealed itself to be brutally murderous as it devised horrible instruments of torture to punish allegedly deviant women whose only sin was not wearing their hijab correctly or be caught laughing out loud.

Islamic State views the role of these women as important and as part of their eternal mission to raise fighters and stand by them so they will be able to wage war effectively.

However, the military activity of ISIS women, rebel groups or the Kurdish forces is perceived as a marginal alliance. Many criticize their integration into the fighting ranks as propaganda that’s meant to demonstrate equal rights or secularism, in order to “curry favor” with the West. As Nasrin Abdullah admits, “The goal of our struggle is not only to be free of ISIS, but also to liberate ourselves from the male mentality that lingers in our society.”

Jabara, that icon of wartime heroism, was proof of the gap that exists between public or military activity and status. She lost in the 2013 election to head the Salah al-Din regional council: Although she had yet to become a war hero, she was still a well-known public figure, but that failed to help her. And while there are 83 women in the 328-member Iraqi parliament, only 22 of them were elected without relying on the quota system that guarantees 25-percent female representation.

Egyptian women involved in the Arab Spring have already learned about the gap between political participation and being involved on the battlefield. Their work against the Egyptian regime played a significant role in the national struggle. Then, too, the names of women who went out to demonstrate, run makeshift clinics, send communications and maintain Facebook pages were prominent in Tahrir Square and its environs. However, they were also the ones to suffer at the hands of thugs, who attacked them physically and sexually as part of their campaign against the demonstrators. The order for policewomen to check the virginity of women in custody – on the grounds that they would not later make false rape complaints – was especially hard to forget.

At the end of the struggle, and after Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi was elected president, women won 87 of 596 parliamentary seats in the ensuing election. While it is the most women to serve in the Egyptian parliament, it still only constitutes 15 percent of all seats.

Local customs prevail

In the West, women’s rights have become the standard benchmark over the past five years for evaluating the democratic success of the Arab Spring. Ostensibly, this is an appropriate – and at least measurable – criterion. However, it is also a misleading and distorted reality, because the registries showing the rate of women’s participation in politics cannot prove the extent of their influence in practice.

Even in countries like Iraq or the Kurdish enclave, in which women’s participation in the military is no longer considered shocking, men remain in political control.

Last Wednesday’s International Women’s Day was marked in most Islamic countries. Tens of thousands of words filled the Arab press and media; conventions and conferences were held, and even entertainment shows were devoted to the status of women and the need for remedial legislation. One Lebanese artist printed on his T-shirt: “Because the woman is the company’s talented engineer, she deserves laws to protect her.”

In contrast, the cartoonist in the Jordanian newspaper Al-Rad drew a frightened face of a woman, her mouth being held shut by the hands of men and women – in other words, all of Arab society oppresses women.

But even these attitudes are guilty of generalizing because when Arab states are compared to each other, significant gaps are found between, say, Tunisia and Egypt, Lebanon and Sudan, and certainly between Saudi Arabia and neighboring United Arab Emirates.

If there is a common space in which the Arab woman enjoys unconditional admiration, it is the battlefield, which does not distinguish between male and female blood – and on condition that the women meet male criteria, carry weapons, wear fatigues and kill the enemy.

A decade ago, female Saudi writer Wajeha al-Huwaider published an article in which she attacked the exploitation of women in Arab states. The focus of the article was the horrific crime in which U.S. soldier Lynndie England tied up Iraqi inmates in the Abu Ghraib prison and treated them like dogs. Huwaider was outraged by the incident, but used it to teach Arab men a lesson.

Lynndie England holding a dog's leash around the neck of a naked Iraqi man at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Lynndie England holding a dog's leash around the neck of a naked Iraqi man at the Abu Ghraib prison.Credit: REUTERS

“The picture of Lynndie dragging the poor Iraqi is a reality that has become the image of the Arab woman turned upside down, since the humiliated person this time is the Arab man, and the woman is the one controlling him in all parts of his life and according to the order of the higher authority,” she wrote. “True, this is a shameful, painful and unnatural scene. Unfortunately, though, Arab men feel this kind of oppression, and hear the voices of humiliation only when they are treated the way they treat their women. It is as if they are half persons, with no feelings or dignity.”

Much has changed since Huwaider’s article was published, but much more awaits repair.