On the day after Inauguration Day, millions of women marched on Washington, starting what would become known as the “Women’s March” movement. The motivation behind the movement is basically that since Donald Trump is in the White House, women across the nation are in a state of dire peril, outraged at this demonstration of Americans’ misogyny. (Just what exactly they are concerned about you can find by looking at their “unity principles” from the Women’s March official website.)
But while hordes of women stormed the capitol in vulgar pussy hats lamenting the alleged rule of the patriarchy, in the Middle East most women have not even tasted what many here consider to be basic freedoms. Unlike in the US, the inequality they suffer is grounded in legal structures. In comparative perspective, the outrage demonstrated in the Women’s Marches seems gravely misplaced. The “problems” in America at which the movement is incensed are mere specters of the very real issues which exist for women on the other side of the world.
While the Women’s Movement bewails the state of reproductive freedom in America, the legislature in Iran considers a bill which would outlaw all birth control and vasectomies. Even worse, in many Middle Eastern countries, the law criminalizes any sexual activity outside of marriage—the penalty for which, in some countries, may be death. In some areas, these laws are used to imprison girls who have been raped, or may allow alleged rapists to “avoid prosecution through marrying their victims.” Homosexual activity is illegal in almost all the Middle Eastern countries, and may be punishable by death in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
While the Women’s Movement laments that America inhibits women’s right “to live full and healthy lives, free of all forms of violence against [their] bodies,” more than 200 million women and girls living in the Middle East and North Africa have suffered from female genital mutilation. And in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, spousal rape is not illegal. In Kuwait, and Palestine, the law does not prohibit domestic abuse and sexual harassment. Sharia law in Jordan may allow for girls down to 15 to be married, despite the country’s legal marrying age of 18. Similarly, in Afghanistan, young girls are often forced to marry older men, and widows may be forced to marry male relatives.
While the Women’s Movement marches in order to “have the power to control [their] bodies and be free from gender norms, expectations and stereotypes,” women in the Middle East are bound by stereotypes and norms enforced by law. Some areas, such as Iran, have mandatory hijab laws, with “guidance patrols” roving public areas and streets to ensure enforcement. Last year, two Moroccan women were arrested for wearing short skirts in public. One Saudi Arabian woman who posted on Twitter a photo of herself hijab-less in the street was arrested for “violation of general morals.” Iranian women may be arrested for riding bicycles, and are banned from watching sports considered too “masculine.” In Gaza, women may be punished by “morality police” for riding motorcycles or smoking in public.
In many of these countries, “honor” killings are still a problem. According to the Honour Based Violence Awareness network, the Middle East has a “high recorded level of honor-based violence,” with many areas having legal codes which allow for reduced sentences for offenders in “honor” crimes.
While the Women’s Movement complains about the “gender wage gap” and discrimination, in many Middle Eastern countries, women’s participation in the workforce lags behind global standards. In Oman and Turkey, for example, approximately two thirds of women do not participate in the labor force. Turkey’s current prime minister, Recep Erdogan, has said that equality of the sexes is “against nature” and in May 2016 called working women “deficient” and “half-people.”
The religious Islamic law in Iran may prohibit women from working for wages without the consent of their father or husband. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, at many universities there are certain fields which women are forbidden from studying, such as engineering and technology-related areas, and in Kuwait there is government-enforced gender segregation at educational institutions.
While the Women’s Movement believes that America is rank with misogyny, in the Middle East women are treated as inferior beings by the letter of the law. In places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, under Sharia law a woman’s testimony is considered to be worth only half of a man’s, and women may only access the court through a male representative. Also, in many Middle Eastern countries, the laws governing divorce, child custody, and inheritance are discriminatory against women. In Iran, punishments for women may be more severe for the same crime, and women have a lower age of responsibility.
These are just a few of the many legal inequities women face in the Middle East. This is what true oppression of women looks like…not the fact that Donald Trump is in the White House; not the failure to provide free birth control. Those are not problems which merit outrage on the scale we have seen with the Women’s March. In America we do not have legal structures which blatantly defy the essential equality of the sexes, or even worse, which reward mistreatment of women. We do not enforce a religious code which allows for the execution of fornicators and homosexuals. The misogyny, and “gender stereotypes,” etc. the movement complains of are mere phantoms of evil when compared with the “moral police” and honor killings that take place on the other side of the world. As editor Marc LiVecche has aptly noted, as Christians, we have a responsibility to care for our neighbors—both locally and globally.
The problems of sexism and misogynist perceptions of women still exist in America, but they do not have established legal structures supporting them. In the Middle East, societal perceptions of women are just the tip of the iceberg. Not only do women experience oppression and blatant discrimination from their society, their families, and their religions, but they are also considered fundamentally unequal by the law.
And that is the problem which truly merits our outrage.
Alexandra Nieuwsma graduated summa cum laude from Westmont College with a B.A. in Political Science. She currently works as a research assistant for Senior Fellow and George P. Schultz Distinguished Scholar Abraham Sofaer at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Alexandra was named the Outstanding Senior 2017 in Westmont’s Political Science department. She is also a member of Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society, and Pi Sigma Alpha National Honor society. When she’s not researching or writing, Alexandra enjoys playing the harp and composing music.
Photo Credit: Iranian woman warned over slack dressing in April 2007. By Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, via Flickr.