Across the Middle East, Every Day Is Women's Day

Saudi women struggle for equality, even if they now sit behind the wheel ■ In Iran, a woman defied the dress code and sparked a social media campaign ■ And schoolbooks in Turkey declare a woman's only place is at home

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Women gather to mark International Women's Day in Diyarbakir, southwestern Turkey, on March 8, 2018.
Women gather to mark International Women's Day in Diyarbakir, southwestern Turkey, on March 8, 2018.Credit: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
מצעד נשים בטורקיה ביום האשה הבינ"לCredit: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP

The policeman who violently shoved Maryam Shariatmadari, a 32-year-old computer science student at Amirkabir University in Tehran, has already been immortalized in colorful posters and viral YouTube videos. He and she have become symbols of the women’s revolution in Iran.

The video showed him shoving Shariatmadari, who had dared to remove her hijab and wave it like a flag. Then he hit her. People around her sheltered her until she was put in a car and taken to a hospital. But she never reached it. Police stopped the car some distance from the scene of the incident and jailed her in Tehran. She received no medical treatment and wasn’t allowed to see a lawyer. Only on Wednesday, two weeks after her arrest, was she released on bail of $5,000. She will apparently be charged with violating the law against encouraging immorality or prostitution. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in jail – the same sentence given brothel owners.

Iranian women’s battle against the hijab is now being waged mainly on social media under the hashtags “Daughters of Revolution Street,” one of Tehran’s main drags, and “What would I have done had I been there.” Men and women use the latter to describe how they would have acted had they been present when police were harassing female demonstrators.

These Twitter accounts, which feature scathing criticism of the regime’s policy, create an alternative public square. Participants try to encourage public activity against the regime and provoke a response from Western governments, who have so far remained mute.

Human rights in general and women’s rights in particular aren’t high priorities for European leaders, much less America’s president. Iran’s nuclear program, missiles, involvement in Syria and support for terror are what could lead to sanctions on it, not its wholesale executions or arrests of anti-hijab activists.

Iran’s female protesters didn’t wait for International Women’s Day. For them, every day is a good day to protest and fight for liberation from political tyranny.

To Iranian women, International Women’s Day seems like a Western story, one for women whose rights are assured, or whose struggle is at least protected by law – unlike Iranians, who risk their freedom and their lives in this battle. True, Iranian women can drive cars and work in most professions, but their legal status, inheritance rights and right to get a passport or divorce are far from the Western norm.

Nevertheless, it’s the hijab that has become the focus of the struggle rather than these basic rights, just as Saudi women focused on getting the right to drive rather than abolishing the need for a male guardian’s permission to study or work in most professions.

The result is that when the Iranian regime makes a symbolic concession toward easing its control over women, without any constitutional changes, the West sees this as a sign of progress and goodwill, a step toward democracy and enlightenment. That’s why Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman earned lavish praise from Western leaders for announcing that the ban on women driving would end in June, even though women’s position in Saudi Arabia remains worse than in most other Muslim countries.

Just last year, Saudi women were permitted to work as paralegals, and the fact that they’re allowed to work in women’s clothing stores was considered an achievement and a hallmark of liberalism. When Saudi women were recently allowed to attend games in soccer stadiums and even do a few army jobs, the kingdom and its Western friends celebrated the crown prince’s amazing openness. But the fact that a Saudi woman married to a non-Saudi can’t confer Saudi citizenship on her children, or that she loses her rights if she’s divorced, isn’t even discussed at meetings between senior Western and Saudi officials.

Woman in a driving lesson, Saudi Arabia, March 8, 2018Credit: Amer Hilabi (AFP)

In Turkey, the picture is different. Not that women’s status there is an epitome of liberalism, far from it. In 2017, 409 women were murdered by male relatives, up from 328 in 2016. Those aren’t official statistics, since the government doesn’t publish that data; it comes from women’s organizations which track such murders and organize demonstrations against domestic violence.

The latest took place in Ankara this week and was violently dispersed by the police, who arrested at least 15 women. Turkey has barred all demonstrations under emergency regulations enacted following the failed coup in July 2016.

But unlike in Iran and Saudi Arabia, in Turkey, the fight is over substance, not symbols.

Women in Tehran, March 8, 2018Credit: Atta Kenare (AFP)

Although Turkey is the world leader in the number of companies which have signed the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles, women constitute only 28 percent of the work force. It committed to women’s equality under its accession negotiations with the European Union, yet women have trouble divorcing even if their husbands abuse them. To discourage women from seeking divorce, courts require divorcing couples to go to arbitration and limit child support to 10 years.

The Turkish cabinet contains only one woman. Women constitute roughly half of all university faculty and students, yet only three of Turkey’s 11 universities have a female rector, while some don’t even have any female professors. The situation is similar in parliament, the senior diplomatic corps and on corporate boards.

Women in Reformist rally in Tehran, 2016Credit: Reuters

“A women’s place is in the home and her job is to obey her husband,” says a Turkish textbook on the life of the prophet Mohammed. When Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz was asked to remove this book from the schools, he responded that the class in question is optional, so any parents whose children take it want them there. But the government did shut down an internet dating site for men seeking second wives.

The difference between Turkey and Iran or Saudi Arabia is that while Turkey is no model democracy, it does at least have free elections and portrays itself as committed to international conventions. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, is an absolute monarchy with no democratic processes.

Turkey also defines itself as a secular state, even if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aspires to intensify its religious character (though not to give more power to religious institutions) and has a unique interpretation of such democratic essentials as freedom of expression and the separation of powers. But women’s status isn’t wonderful even in Turkey’s secular bastions.

Women's Day rally in Ankara, March 8, 2018Credit: Burhan Ozbilici (AP)

Iran is a combination of the Turkish and Saudi systems. Yet there, women have proven their political power; their votes were decisive in electing both former President Mohammad Khatami and current President Hassan Rohani. These differences don’t disturb Westerners who assert that religion alone is what determines women’s status rather than the system of government. If this were true, women’s status would be identical in all Muslim countries.

Instead, Tunisia gives extensive rights, Morocco has given them more rights than the norm in Islamic countries, and in Syria before the civil war, women had a respectable place in both the ruling Baath party and the government. In Turkey and Pakistan, women have even been prime ministers.

Despite discrimination against women in most Arab countries, most also have constitutions asserting that women’s status is equal to men’s. The real differences are in how these are applied, and in practices based on religious custom. That’s why women’s struggle to improve their status is so important. By their very activity, they prove this battle can succeed, because it is fundamentally political rather than anti-religious.

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