NOTE: The content of this entry has been originally published on HumanRightsTV EVOLVE: http://evolve.humanrightstv.com/voice-tunisia/2011/when-will-they-stop-calling-gender-other-issue
“Lately, I’ve been thinking of men in powerful positions, abusing their power over women in less powerful positions’, says Sally Kohn, a political commentator and the founder of the Movement Vision Lab think tank. ‘What makes it ok? Asks Kohn in her 12 minutes slide show published on her Movement Vision Lab’s channel on YouTube, ‘What makes these men think they can so wilfully, so blatantly, violate these women’s boundaries, these girls boundaries, what makes them think it is ok?”
Kohn then exposes the embroiling of sexual violence with political power, territorial struggle, racial and ethnic discrimination, and finally the oppression of individual rights by the state. Kohn is right in her assumptions, the history of patriarchy was not only based on the belief that men are superior to women, but more specifically on the belief in the dominance of the western white male cultural prototype, which accompanied the unfolding of modern history. It is a dominance which, in its primeval recourse to violence and territorial dominance, harvested ideologies based on sacred dualities. They were those sacred dualities that most of the time justified the control over and the violence against the less powerful or against the monitories: we can think of the duality of white vs. black and the history of violence against coloured minorities. We can think of monotheism and its opposition to other forms of theism and all the bloodshed in the name of the sacred that resulted from this duality. We can think of logic vs. spirituality, and how, in the name of spreading science and enlightenment and wiping out ignorance, whole civilisations were wiped out and human beings were abducted to be examined in laboratories or displayed in cages for public entertainment. And of course, we can think of the duality of male vs. female, the duality which stands at the heart of all dualities, for in all dualities, the dominated, the disgraceful and the weak are often represented with feminine features in the literature of the powerful. Was not superstition regarded for so long as part of women’s lore, when logic was tagged as a mark of male excellence? Was it not in the colonial literature that the dark skinned and the inhabitants of the jungle were portrayed as docile female subjects when they were not the savage barbarians? Was not the female body regarded as the locus of evil and the habitat of the devil?
In their brilliant book, Patriarchy Resistance and Democracy’s Future, Carol Gilligan and David Richards trace the consolidation of modern times patriarchy back to the prime days of the Roman Empire. It does not mean that patriarchy had not existed before that of course, but it was the Roman Empire that authorised legal discrimination against women, and especially legitimised violence committed in the name honour more systematically than any other civilisation had done according to both writers, in a way that inspired the legal practices of western nations over the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. The influence of such laws such as Lex Julia passed by Augustus and aiming at fortifying the institution of the Roman family by limiting adultery, enthused the Christian Eurocentric culture and continued to do to this day though in very implicit forms. It is owing to the concept of Honour that individuals could be maintained in a state of continuous fervour and ready to kill when it comes to protecting family’s honour (located in the chastity of the female body), or the sanctity of national boundaries, but which does not ironically respect ‘women’s boundaries’ to use Kohn’s words. It was also thanks to the notion of honour that the strict codes of morality could be controlled and checked by the central figure in the family (the father) and that in the state (the emperor), and that the state could be called in to punish a woman gone loose. Gilligan and Richards conclude their book by wondering about the future of democracy, which had so far failed in totally protecting the sanctity of individual freedom while succeeding in solidifying the borders of state and corporate domination.
The objective of my reference to patriarchy in western culture is not to draw attention to the similarities with the situation in the Arab world, although similarities exist, but to point another crucial issue: as revolts are sweeping over many Arab countries, what are the chances of the Arab Muslim world to establish democracies that challenge and overcome the social, ethnic, religious and gender inequities that have for so long threatened the stability of several of these countries? And will these countries in transition toward democracies acknowledge the interlacing of the gender issue with their socio-economic stagnation?
When it comes to discussing what may facilitate change in the Arab countries, gender is often swept under the carpet and given little attention in the media and in political debates. As the Arab world is probably standing at the threshold of a big transition, issues of tribalism and sectarianism are brought to the light and discussed heatedly. However, premature marriage is not debated as the Yemeni are protesting for freedom, Saudi women protests to be allowed to drive are being regarded as an issue that is separate from the demands for human rights and individual dignity that citizens in their country have recently demanded, the demand for equal rights for women in Egypt is not given as much attention as the attention given to the clashes between Muslims and Copts, although many a woman die in Egypt and elsewhere victims to crimes of honour. I am giving these few examples to show that although media may tackle the question of women’s rights, very few commentators inside the Arab world would analyse it as part of the problems in their countries, or question whether the new changes will seriously bring a brighter future for women.
What makes the situation even more complicated, is that while these societies that have been long deprived of individual freedom and human rights, have also been dominated by dictators who did not openly reject democracy, (Tunisia and Egypt are democratic republics according to their constitutions), even though they made individual freedom a matter of state under the guise of protecting national security sometimes, and keeping the order of morality some other times. What makes us certain today that this will not happen again, especially that when it comes to women, the majority regards gender inequity as a minor issue and is ready to remain silent about the oppression of half of its population, a portion of society that is bigger than any other minority?
A few weeks ago, there was a report on the CNN about the virginity tests conducted on the female protesters in the Tahrir square, with the pretext that authorities did not want the women that were arrested to accuse them of raping them. The procedure in itself did not upset me as much as the following statement by a general in the army did: “The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs).”The fact that these women entered the banned zone of political protests made them a target for the authorities’ hostility. The claim that moral/religious codes were breached (drinking, sleeping with strangers), was enough to make the sanctity of their bodies violable.
All over the world, sexual abuse, or accusations of moral indecency, are the most common ways of oppressing women. Often, they are very much interrelated, for accusations of moral indecency alone can justify sexual violence. There was another story about female protesters in Egypt being sexually harassed by male citizens, and while in the first story the aggressor is the state, in the second, they are citizens, who, like in the first instance, found it justifiable that they could molest the female protesters because they broke an established order. The two stories underline basically the same doctrine: breaking the order set by a phallocentric authority and threatening its dominance justifies the assault over ‘women’s boundaries’. That these protesters were asking for equal civil rights for all citizens and for the rejection of discriminatory laws based on ethnicity, religion or gender, makes their personal boundaries a matter not of their own. Sexual violence is the perfect instrument through which a dominant culture can put those women transgressing conventions back to where they belong. It is believed that the state instils the forms and the tools of oppression from the cultural and social texture of the nation it governs, so that if a society is governed by discrimination against a certain group, the state’s oppression is going to target that group more than the others, and if a society is patriarchal, the state will also show a biased attitude against women. However, I believe the opposite is also true, for this is a two-way coercion: the violations of the state can justify the violations carried out by individuals against others as these two stories show, and women have to face and challenge a multi-layered oppression before vanquishing gender discrimination.
Another important problem is the laxity in the engagement of political parties when they deal with the question of gender. In the discourse of political parties in Tunisia for instance, women are present. Always. Although they differ in the ways they approach the matter of gender in the country, they all agree that ‘they are not going to abolish the code of personal status.’ You may ask, what is in the code that makes them all agree upon preserving it? It is true the code is a unique text of its type in the whole Arab world, as it was inspired by civil laws more than by Islamic chariaa. But What I personally think is that political parties are trying to pertain to the popularity (or notoriety) of the code, and not to its efficiency. We have barely heard, since the times of Habib Bourguiba, -the man who implemented the C.P.S- of anything like asking women to participate in crucial decisions related to gender on a mass scale, and several social commentators are wondering whether a text with a similar magnitude could be regarded as a victory for women if it did not consult those who were concerned. Post revolution political debates are still extensions of an old political discourse that tried to define the Tunisian woman as the liberal westernised prototype, and they seem to forget about the richness and variety of the social backgrounds and the aspirations of women. Rural women in Tunisia for instance are largely ignored, even though they represent a very large portion of the female population, and even though their predicaments are really serious: they work sometimes twice as long as men and gain smaller wages, they are the main supporters of their families and they do not have control over their wages. Despite that, they are invisible, and media and politics seem not to notice them at all. They are part of a dying culture, but they, very much like their female offspring who will or will not continue to live in the rural parts, and like their sisters in the rest of the region, are alive and they need above everything an independent engagement that goes beyond flirting with the values of the patriarchal society and state.