Hugo Slim wrote in 2003: To make the case for civilian identity in war requires that we are able to expose the fallacy of a singular and absolutist view of human identity that recognizes a person as only one thing at any given time.*
Whilst Slim was referring to the targeting of civilians in war, this statement rings particularly true of the role of women in the current crisis in Syria and recent attack on Gaza. The media reports the daily death tolls, never failing to mention ‘…many of whom were women and children’. These mentions, usually at the end of a piece, risk conflating the helplessness of children with that of women. It is frustrating because whilst women have special protection needs under conditions of conflict, listed by the UN as including the threat of physical and sexual violence, and lack of opportunity to participate in the peace process, they are far from passive victims. It does not further the cause of rights for women when the media sets a one-dimensional of women’s role in conflict.
There is no doubt that women’s rights are potentially at risk as a result of the upheaval in the Middle East. In recent months, for example there have been demonstrations in Egypt calling for the instatement of Islamic law. These demands, whilst vague, could potentially have a negative effect on women’s rights. In Syria, increasingly there are reports of Jihadist movements (foreign or indigenous) fighting against the regime and concern has been expressed that if they were to come to power, women’s rights would be altered for the worse.
There is much to be said about this issue, but here I make three points in regard to the myriad contradictions to be found in the role of women in the Arab Spring, and the Middle East more generally. First, those who observe the current upheavals in the Middle East should never make the mistake of believing women are in general powerless there. As an intermittent resident of the region, I believe that in some aspects of social life, women command more power than their Western counterparts. For example: the matriarch of the family and older women in general command great respect in Middle Eastern society. It is important therefore that Middle Eastern women are not represented as victims in every social context. A more nuanced understanding of their role in society needs to be explored and cultivated, particularly under conditions of conflict.
Second, Islam and the veil are not the only part of the story. Whilst there have been some incredibly dispiriting stories about women’s rights from Iran of late it should be noted that the Islamic Republic actually affords women far more rights than many other Middle Eastern states and this needs greater recognition. In Syria where the state allows women to dress as they please, society remains conservative and women’s social and legal rights across ALL religions are often strictly proscribed.
Third and finally, in my view, it is desperately important that the Western media ensure that women’s actions throughout the Arab Spring are well reported to avoid the blanket phrase noted above which inhibit perceptions of women’s agency. The recent story reported by the BBC, about women in Syria who are choosing to unveil online is an excellent example of the courage and determination of Middle Eastern women. But, there are many more stories to be told about the brave engagement of women and men in the Middle East who are engaging with the Arab Spring and the regional conflicts in dynamic and creative ways.
Vanessa Newby, Human Protection Hub
*Slim, Hugo (2003) ‘Why Protect Civilians? Innocence, Immunity and Emnity in War’. International Affairs 79(3):481-501. p.498
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