Ranking violence against Arab women feeds tired stereotypes

International women’s day in Egypt. Al Jazeera English

The release of a Thomson Reuters poll on women’s rights in the Arab world has been greeted with incredulity by many in Egypt, the country that ranked at the very bottom. When polls such as this emerge, we should think about what we are actually measuring when we produce them and the potentially counterproductive consequences they can have.

Responding to the poll, some Egyptians and other Arabs on social media questioned how Saudi Arabia, a country that forbids women from driving and where women must ask permission from fathers, husbands or even brothers, to work, travel or open a bank account, is deemed to have a better record in the ranking than Egypt.

Other Egyptians appreciated the wake-up call. Women in Egypt, particularly those taking part in political protests, have faced sexual harassment and abuse at alarming rates since the downfall of the former president, Hosni Mubarak. Alleged examples of abuse have included reports of “virginity tests” performed by the military. There have also been gang rapes by unknown assailants.

Comoros was ranked the best Arab League country for women’s rights, followed by Oman, Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar. But questions need to be asked about which women and which rights were measured by this poll.

Comoros is classified as “low” in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. It has a life expectancy at birth of 61.5, a maternal mortality rate of 280 per 100,000 live births and mean years of schooling of 2.8 years. Oman and Qatar are monarchical dictatorships, whilst Kuwait denies rights to a whole group of residents called “Bidoun” (“without”). Jordan has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the region.

The rankings appear to be based primarily on levels of violence against women. According to one article, Egypt did poorly in all categories, but experts who were polled highlighted sexual harassment, trafficking and forced marriages as particular problems. Syria and Iraq, which also polled poorly, reported high levels of violence against women, trafficking, rape, forced marriage and early marriage.

Same old stereotypes

Polls like this tend to support a longstanding narrative in the West about the “plight” of Arab and Muslim women, who are cast as victims of Arab or Muslim patriarchy.

This brand of male dominance is assumed to be a particularly pernicious form of patriarchy that not only relegates women to second-class citizens but sanctions violence against women in the name of culture and religion. Such assumptions about the barbarity of Muslim men and the powerlessness of Muslim women have operated to legitimise Western intervention in Muslim countries, from the colonisation of Egypt and Algeria in the 19th century, to the invasions and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st century.

Postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak has characterised this legitimising narrative as “white men saving brown women from brown men”. Within such narratives, gender, race and sexuality intersect to construct a specific geography of power in which women’s rights (and polls about women’s rights) in non-Western countries cannot exist as a universal category but become resignified as a marker of difference and inferiority between the West and the Muslim world.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, such narratives have been reproduced and much attention has been given to the perils the movement has posed for women’s rights. Of particular concern is the strengthening of political Islamist groups throughout the region over the past few years.

While women’s rights and women’s rights activists have certainly faced new challenges in the wake of the Arab Spring, the way the situation has been viewed in the West often reflects a historical narrative about the cultural predisposition of Arabs and Muslims to violate women’s rights. It also operates to revalidate dictatorships and throw into question the wisdom of trying to democratise the Arab world.

Indeed, one has to ask why so little attention was previously given by Western media and commentators to the negative impact of dictatorships on women’s rights? The wives of dictators, such as Asma Assad and Suzanne Mubarak, were celebrated in Western media, as agents of enlightenment and women’s empowerment within their societies. While this was going on, their husbands clamped down on freedom of association, including the freedoms of women to express themselves and advocate for political as well as social reforms.

The most significant thing that this poll does not tell us about women’s rights or women in the Arab world is the unprecedented resistance of Arab women to violence and other violations of their rights. From Morocco to Bahrain, women have not only participated in political protests in their droves, but they have also organised, often with the support of Arab men, campaigns to raise awareness of and to denounce violence against women.

In Egypt, young women such as Samira Ibrahim and Yasmine El-Baramawy have broken societal taboos by speaking publicly about their experiences of sexual abuse. Arab women are challenging the top-down model of the “first lady feminism” of former and current dictatorships and creating bottom-up demands for dignity and justice for women and men.