Did Soviet Influence Improve Women's Rights in the Middle East?

Did Soviet Influence Improve Women's Rights in the Middle East?

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

I'd like to know if my impression is correct: that women in the Middle East enjoyed substantially better rights and respect around the 50s-70s than they did before and after, owing largely to the power of secular dictators supported by the USSR, and thus influenced by their seemingly egalitarian ideology? I recall seeing documentaries where Egyptian women in the 60s were wearing pretty much western clothing, down to the swimwear, which is unthinkable in today's Egypt.

The main counter point I can think of is that women in Iran also seemed to have it better before the Islamic revolution, and the Shah's anti-communist regime was backed by the USA. So perhaps it was something in the zeitgeist of the time which was a mix of various liberal and socialist influences?

This article gives a taste of the contrast:

Why is it that men did not harass Egyptian women when they wore short skirts but that sexual harassment has increased against women in head scarves? When ultraconservative doctrine dehumanizes women, reducing them to objects, it legitimizes acts of sexual aggression against them.

I would like someone who is familiar with the subject matter to explain what the reality was, preferably citing something to justify their analysis.

I think it did. It appears that women had more rights in socialist South Yemen, which declined after the unification with North Yemen.

I too would like to hear from a domain expert. My shallow understanding is that it had nothing to do with Soviet influence, but rather the phenomenon known as Islamic revival that lead to increased social/religious conservatism in the Islamic world, from the 70's onwards.

You cite the example of Iran as a counterexample to Soviet progressive influence. I argue that it was more or less a worldwide zeitgeist of social liberalisation during the first half of the 20th century, caused by modernisation, experienced by middle eastern countries like Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and so forth. But the advent of the latest episode of Islamic revival, marked by major events like the 1970s energy crisis and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, reversed many of those effects, and introduced things like increased sharia laws, religious observance (e.g. hajj), and rejection of foreign ideologies like Socialism and Capitalism, since Islamism presented itself as an alternative to these.

Women in Afghanistan: the back story

Afghanistan has a tumultuous recent past. In the last three decades, the country has been occupied by communist Soviet troops and US-led international forces, and in the years in between has been ruled by militant groups and the infamous oppressive Islamic Taliban.

Throughout the changing political landscape of Afghanistan in the last fifty years, women's rights have been exploited by different groups for political gain, sometimes being improved but often being abused.

'Afghan women were the ones who lost most from the war and militarisation.'
Horia Mosadiq

Horia Mosadiq was a young girl when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Now Horia works at Amnesty as our Afghanistan Researcher. Listen to the audio clip below to hear Horia's overview of thirty years of complex and fraught history, and the impact that occupation and militarisation has had on the women and girls living in Afghanistan.

Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa

This is a chapter of the forthcoming e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication later this month.

In the last years of 19th century, three women would be born who would become trailblazers for their societies and a symbol of their husband&rsquos modernization drive. They were Latife Uşakizâde -- the future wife of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk of Turkey Soraya Tarzi, the future queen of Afghanistan&rsquos Amanullah Khan, and Nimtaj Ayromlu, the future queen of Iran&rsquos Reza Shah Pahlavi. They became trailblazers not because of their personal achievements &ndash though Latife was a Paris and London trained lawyer, and Soraya spoke several languages and received an honorary degree from Oxford University &ndash but because of what they chose not to wear &ndash the veil.

Dressed in Western fashion, they accompanied their husbands to official ceremonies and to predominantly male public events. They sat, conversed, shook hands with men who were not their mahram (explained later). For tens of centuries, women had not conducted themselves in this manner in Muslim countries. With their actions, they blurred the strict barrier between the male and female domains in their society that had secluded women. They paved the way for their countrywomen to demand more rights and opportunities. And, they succeeded &ndash partially. In 1929, the Afghan constitution enshrined equal rights for women and men. In Turkey women gained the right to vote in 1934. And in Iran, women gained access to universities and became ministers and ambassadors. Over time, however, women would face a backlash and some of these gains would either fully or partially be reversed or are in the process of regressing.

Why was the unveiled appearance of these women so significant? What has been the track record of women&rsquos rights movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region? And, how do MENA women compare today with their peers elsewhere? This short paper elaborates on the various phases of women&rsquos quest for rights and equality in the MENA region and compares their struggles and gains of in the West.

Birth of women&rsquos movements

Until the 19th century, women across the world enjoyed by and large far fewer rights than men, though the way their inequality manifested itself differed from country to country. With few exceptional periods and few exceptional women, women were generally excluded from the domains of power throughout history, were relegated to be second class citizens, and were subservient to men. Slowly, women began to organize themselves to advocate seriously for greater rights. In Europe, these movements coincided with broader citizens&rsquo demand for voice and participation in government, which led to a series of republican revolts of 1848 and shook European monarchies. Even though the revolts failed, they launched the discourse about citizens&rsquo rights, using neutral terms, though largely still envisioning only men. When decades later constitutions were drafted, women pushed for inclusion in the concept of citizen and the right to vote. In the United States, similar women&rsquos movements took place. Though the US had a constitution and its wording was intended to be genderless and all encompassing, it was in effect written with white male property owners in mind. Other groups had to fight step by step to be included in the definition of citizen. The Seneca Falls Women&rsquos Convention of 1848 is widely referred to as a critical turning point for the women&rsquos movement in North America, which led to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 to give women the right to vote.

These events naturally influenced the developments in the MENA. Additionally, faced with a decaying Ottoman Empire in the second half of the 19th century, thinkers and scholars across MENA began a process of introspection and soul-searching about the roots of their societies&rsquo stagnation while the West had seen considerable technological progress and economic growth. A contributing factor to this self-examination was Charles Darwin&rsquos book On the Origin of Species (1859) that had widely shaken up the intellectual thought worldwide in two ways. It discredited the creation theory, thus undermining religious teachings and establishments which had a stronghold on people&rsquos lives. This was like wind in the sails of secular intellectuals, who had often been at odds with organized religions &ndash certainly the Abrahamic religions. And, secondly, it demonstrated that the natural course of events was that weakness of any kind would ultimately lead to extinction.

Muslim thinkers found a great deal of analogy between Darwin&rsquos naturalistic theories and the plight of their communities. Leading among such intellectuals was the Egyptian Qasim Amin. He saw the condition of the Muslim woman as one of the fundamental causes for backwardness. In his 1899 Tahrir al mara'a (The Liberation of Women), he wrote that women were the backbone of the society and associated the causes for Egyptian underdevelopment to women&rsquos lack of education, to the veiling and to their subservience to men. Joining hands with emerging women&rsquos associations, he began to advocate that elevating the status of women in Muslim societies was a nationalistic necessity and duty. "If Egyptians did not modernize along European lines and if they were 'unable to compete successfully in the struggle for survival they would be eliminated,&rdquo he argued. He blamed the oppression of women on traditions rather than Islam and used Quranic texts to claim that women&rsquos rights were supported in Islam.

Muslim vs. Western Women&rsquos Rights and Constraints

But, how did Muslim women fare against the Western woman, when women throughout the world had few rights? Some scholars, like Timur Kuran of Duke University, suggest that Muslim women were in fact relatively better off, and had more economic rights than their peers in the Western Judeo-Christian societies or the Eastern Hindu-Buddhist-Taoist cultures.

Muslim women were entitled to inherit, albeit half of a man&rsquos share. Such rights were irrevocable and spelled out in the Quran. They could not be changed at will. In most Western societies men, and above all first-born males, would inherit the entire estate as the institution of primogeniture dictated. Women inherited only when there were no other direct male heirs.

Muslim women were also entitled to full independence from the husband or any male relative in the management of their wealth and finance. Furthermore, they signed contracts in their own name, and their property and earnings remained entirely theirs, with no need to share it with others if they so wished. The husband was responsible for the care of family, even paying his wife an allowance for being a wife (nafaqa) though in exchange for full obedience, and a quasi-wage (ojrat-ol-mesl) for any household work performed. The wife was not necessarily obligated to allocate her time or labor to the household. In such a case, the husband was required to arrange for someone to do the household work. The husband was to provide in principle for the same style of living as the wife had been used to in her father&rsquos home. i.e. if she came from a well-to-do background, the husband had to make sure that he furnished her a similar lifestyle. By way of a prenuptial agreement, women would also be assured to receive a predetermined divorce settlement. In case the husband would go bankrupt, the nuptial commitment to the wife would be considered the most senior debt, i.e. she would be paid first from the liquidation of the estate before other creditors could be paid. Such economic provisions were intended to prevent that a husband take his wife for granted. They ensured that she be adequately and financially taken care of in the husband&rsquos household, and be sufficiently empowered to care for herself.

The provisions were particularly important considering the institution of polygamy, whereby the husband could take multiple wives, if he could provide for all his wives equally, and could divorce them with ease. This was the flip side of the economic rights that Muslim women enjoyed, which disempowered them. The husband&rsquos unilateral right to divorce and the right to custody of children were ultimately forcing women into submission. Women&rsquos rights to initiate a divorce was considerably constrained or non-existent when the husband provided financially, performed his marital duties, and produced an offspring. When the wife wanted a divorce, she had to relinquish the right to the prenuptial financial settlement &ndash a khol&rsquoa divorce. But, even this was not easy because the husband had to give his consent. Hence, while the Muslim woman had enviable economic rights as an individual, the unequal right of divorce within the marriage exposed her to an ever-present risk of repudiation, and the subsequent loss of her children.

For the Western woman, beyond the difficulty to inherit, as discussed above, she would essentially lose any ownership of any property upon marriage it would become the husband&rsquos property. They, too, had to be obedient to the husband, but in a different context than their Muslim counterparts. What strengthened their bargaining power within the marriage was first that polygamy was not permitted and that both sides had the same rights -- or no rights, to be precise -- to divorce. If divorce became necessary, it was a difficult and lengthy process for both, and had to be based on guilt or breach of marriage (such as adultery). The children would typically stay with the mother. In some denominations, divorced people were excommunicated and not permitted to marry again in the church, which de facto meant that they were shunned in the society.

A far more binding constraint on the Muslim woman to engage in the public sphere has been the concept of &lsquomahram.&rsquo A mahram is a relative with whom marriage/sexual relations would be illegal and forbidden (or haram). These were very specific close blood relations such as such as father, grandfather, great-grandfather, son, grandson, great-grandson, uncles, brother, sons of siblings, as well as certain relations by marriage such as mother&rsquos husband, husband&rsquos father, grandfather, husband&rsquos son, grandson. Women were free to mingle with these male relatives and could be unveiled they could not move around freely and unveiled among men outside this very tight and restricted circle, or without the presence of a mahram. This impeded considerably the interaction of Muslim women in society, in the public sphere, and in circles of power, since they would inevitably be surrounded by men who were likely not their mahram relatives. Though the veil was supposed to facilitate women&rsquos access to the public, over time, women became more and more secluded and a considerable divide developed between women&rsquos quarters &ndash the andaroun &ndash and public spaces. Western women, by contrast, did not face this restriction and could easily engage in the public sphere.

Nationalist Phase

The post-WWI era and the breakup of the Ottoman, the German, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Russian empires, saw the birth of many new nations in Europe, during which constitutions were written and the rights of citizen vis-à-vis the state defined. With an already greater presence of women in the public circles, the natural course for Western women was to gain influence into the halls of power and have their voices heard in decision-making. Therefore, women suffrage became the main goal. By the 1920s, women in a dozen countries around the world had gained the right to vote, beginning with New Zealand, and others were on their way.

As mentioned above, the liberation of women became intertwined with nationalistic goals. Beginning with Turkey in 1934, by the 1950/60s, more and more MENA countries gave women the right to vote, and invested considerably in women&rsquos education. During the first half of the 20th century, most MENA countries also expanded their legal codes, often importing legal concepts and bodies of law from Western countries. However, while women were constitutionally equal to men in the West, most Western laws contained gendered language and resulted in even differential treatment between men and women in he West. In other words, at the time of their introduction into MENA legal codes, these Western laws discriminated against women. As will be explained later, from the 1960s onwards, these laws were adjusted in the West, reformed, and updated to remove any gender-discriminatory language or bias &ndash this process that has not yet fully taken place in MENA. To sum up, the nationalist phase resulted in equality under the constitution and women&rsquos right to vote. But, the adaptation of Western legal codes imported laws largely remain as they were and are often in contradiction with the spirit of the equality under the constitution.

Modernization Phase

The second phase of the women&rsquos emancipation in the MENA came with the ambitious government policies industrialize, done largely done through large-scale state-owned enterprises and enlargement of the public sector. Since men work at nearly equal rates across countries, expanding the workforce can mainly be achieved by attracting women to work outside the home. However, this meant that women had to balance their dual roles as home-makers and workers, and that the work environments had to be respectful and dignified. A host of protective legislation was enacted that ranged from family policies such as maternity leave and childcare facilities, to restriction on the type of work that women could perform, the hours of work, and the surroundings in which they worked. For instance, night work was prohibited as was working in mines or around chemicals. Women&rsquos labor force participation in modern sectors rose considerably during this period. Entire sectors, such as textiles, became only competitive because they depended on female labor. And, foreign investors would flock to countries where they could be assured to find a sufficiently large pool of female workers.

However, while nearly all countries enacted similar types of protective legislation, largely modeled after recommendations by such international organization as the International Labor Organization, women&rsquos labor force participation in MENA did not grow as fast as in other regions. This was largely because women&rsquos labor force participation was still contingent on the husband&rsquos permission, which was frowned upon within prevailing social norms. Since the husband was financially responsible for the family, having the wife work was interpreted as his inability to care for the household. Even poorer families that often needed a second income found it difficult to overcome this tradition. However, from the 1950s to mid-1970s, with the increasing need to industrialize and the enlarge the labor force, MENA moved in parallel with the West by enacting protective legislation to facilitate women&rsquos participation, and this began to pave the way for a percentage of women to enter the non-agricultural labor market.

Neo-Islamization phase

The widening gap between women&rsquos rights in the West and in the MENA countries began in earnest in the late 1970s. A turning point in the global gender agenda was the first United Nations Conference on Women that took place in Mexico City in 1975. It shone the spotlight on a range of laws that, despite the right to vote, still constituted persistent discrimination against women. The Conference led to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. Over the years, of the 194 UN member nations, 187 countries would ratify CEDAW, though curiously, two countries would still reject to do so ideologically &ndash the US and Iran.

CEDAW caused a great deal of push-back within other Muslim countries. On the one hand, women&rsquos rights groups urged for ratification in parliaments since governments that had voted for the CEDAW adoption by the UN, on the other hand conservative groups raised the specter that CEDAW contradicted the Shari&rsquoa. In the end, most Muslim-majority countries ratified CEDAW with so many specified reservations that essentially made the convention meaningless. Slowly, however, women&rsquos rights advocates have been able to justify and push their governments to remove some of the reservations.

In most non-Muslim counties, however, CEDAW offered a platform and a comparative common denominator to guide gender-intelligent legal reforms. It also strengthened the hand of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who would mobilize the grassroots and generate an impetus for change. Many countries took the opportunity to review old laws in diverse fields, ranging from labor laws, to pension regulations, to social security provision, assess to credit which were redrafted to remove specific legal-based discrimination. The process would frequently entail that a law or regulation would be challenged through the judiciary for contradicting the spirit of constitution &ndash the highest law in the land &ndash that guaranteed all citizens regardless of sex, gender, age, race, religion, etc. equal treatment.

This process of harmonizing the body of laws with the spirit of the constitution has not fully taken place in most MENA countries. As mentioned above, even though a large body of civil codes is based on laws that were imported from the West in early decades of the 20th century, the discriminatory elements are now justified under religious codes. A good example is the nationality law. Throughout the ages, women and men intermarried from different parts of the Ottoman or other Muslim lands. The concept of citizenship was invented in the West. When the law was &ldquoimported&rdquo into MENA, women in the West could not pass on their nationality to their children. In the meantime, Western countries have removed this restriction it still exists in MENA legal codes. A Lebanese woman from Beirut married to a Syrian man from Damascus cannot give the Lebanese nationality to her children. Despite its origin, the gender based discrimination is now justified in terms of the Sharia. Christian denominations are not any different. Little by little, though, some countries are finding ways to reform such laws, albeit with great difficulty.

Growing conservatism

Part of the growing disparity between the MENA countries and the rest of the world can be blamed on a growing conservatism since the end-1970s. While the 50s/60s/70s witnessed a secular outlook, the period since has been infused with an Islamic resurgence, in which the question of women&rsquos rights is challenged again. Several factors played a role. On the geopolitical front, the 1979 Revolution in Iran is perhaps the most visible pivot toward conservatism. It reversed most of the reforms of the Pahlavi regime. Another case is the growing conflict within the broader Middle East. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, in which the West fed and used extremist Islamist groups and ideology to fight communism. The continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fueled radicalism among Arabs. Therefore, from Afghanistan to Morocco, conservative movements gained ground because they provided a useful tool for people to identify against enemies. This was further augmented by the massive amounts of financial support from Wahabi sources that further engrained austere religious thinking that was misogynistic at its core.

A further development that could provide a partial explanation for the conservative tide since the 1980s is a disproportionately faster growth of the traditionally-inclined share of the population vis-à-vis to the modern and progressive segments. What does this mean? Female fertility rate declined from about seven children per woman in 1960 to three children in 2006. While this is good news, it is important to pay attention to the differential fertility rate within the population. Despite lower average fertility rates, religious/traditional families, in which gender roles were more pronounced, still had more children than the &ldquomodern&rdquo secular family. Larger traditional families are also more likely to discriminate between sons and daughters. In unitary small families the girl child is likely to be treated the same as her brother and both sexes to grow up with gender egalitarian experiences. Fast forward a generation, the differential fertility rate between the traditional and the modern segments of the society lead to conservatives outnumbering the seculars &ndash and this tilts attitudes and politics accordingly.

There are frequently pictures of graduating classes of Arab universities between these two different points of time. They demonstrate perfectly the increasing conservatism of Arab societies. Above are two such examples.

Where do we stand?

The Mexico conference led to subsequent conferences in Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995) to monitor progress. In the West, the legal changes achieved creating a de jure level playing field for women. However, even Western societies still retained hidden sexism and implicit discrimination. Affirmative action for women and for ethnic minorities enabled women to make advances into fields that were previously male-dominated. However, affirmative action was regarded as benefiting women or minorities, and not necessarily the society at large. This perception began to change when in the late 1990s and early 2000s a series of academic articles quantified with robust methods the significant economic returns of gender and race diversity. The studies analyzed the performance of publicly traded Fortune-500 firms over an extended period. Controlling for various characteristics, those that embraced diversity in leadership showed a consistent track record of higher growth in earnings per share and better return on equity in comparison with firms that were led by only white men. Diversity was measured as having at least three women or minorities on board.

These studies were seminal and were replicated repeatedly in the US and in other countries &ndash all with similar results and conclusions. The studies did not posit that by adding just a few token women to company boards earnings could be hiked up. The findings suggested that a company that managed and rewarded its diverse talent pool was likely to be more attuned to market changes, more agile to recognize and adjust to risks, and more likely to better manage its other tangible and intangible assets. Think-alike and uniform boards were less likely to see risks and opportunities.

These studies inspired a range of economic literature that set out to estimate the cost of gender inequality at the family, firm, and economy-wide levels. Universities, corporations, international organizations, and even management consulting firms were among the leading institutions to say that &ldquoempowering women is smart economics.&rdquo This marked an effective departure from previous approaches in which women&rsquos rights and equality were a goal in themselves. Today, women&rsquos empowerment is not only important on its own but benefits everyone.

The Cost of Gender Inequality for MENA

The main cause of economic losses are the persistent legal barriers and sticky social norms that impede women to access employment, entrepreneurship, promotion, and innovation opportunities. Recent literature by the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, IMF, and various UN agencies demonstrate that the MENA region still has the widest legal disparities between men and women. Not only do these barriers and discriminations place most of the countries of the region at the bottom of any gender-based rankings, they also translate into considerably high gains that these economies could achieve in terms of increase in GDP if they were able to remove the barriers. For instance, women in Egypt face some 20 gender/sex-specific legal barriers in the economic sphere over and above the barriers that men encounter. If Egypt were to remove these gender-based barriers, its GDP is estimated to increase by as much as 39 percent. Similarly, if Iran is found to have 23 legal barriers. If removed, it could boost the GDP by some 41 percent. Similar analysis for the US, for instance, yield a potential increase of 13.7 percent, for Japan, 19.76, and for Germany 14.3 percent. In the long run, the region&rsquos combined GDP could be 37.8 percent larger solely by the removal of gender-based legal barriers. If not addressed, over time, the cumulation of the GDP loss among MENA countries due to gender barriers could lead to a considerable backwardness, as had been envisaged by the 19th century thinkers like Qasim Amin.

There are two main differences between early efforts of the women&rsquos rights movements and today&rsquos approach. The first distinction is that earlier approaches focused on rights-based arguments. This was best articulated at the Beijing Conference in 1995 when then-First Lady Hilary Clinton said that women&rsquos rights are human rights, and human rights are women&rsquos rights. Building on the concept, today&rsquos focus is to quantify the economic cost of gender-based discrimination &ndash the loss of welfare to the entire society &ndash when they fail to realize their potential and are held back. This approach provides new tools, fresh ideas, and innovative methods to create a level playing field for all.

The second difference is the argument that it is not simply enough to educate women and to bring them into the workforce. The real gain from gender-equality can only be achieved when women are involved at all levels of decision-making and leadership because they bring new and different perspectives and insights that are based on their experiences and needs. These insights can lead to better business decisions and better public policies that can ultimately lead to more efficient outcomes for the society. Fortunately, in several MENA countries, women have advanced in government and business position and it seems promising that they will have more opportunities to influence policies and process for more inclusive societies.

MENA countries made considerable progress during the 20th century to strengthen the capability of their female populations through education and healthcare. But, in terms of opportunity and empowerment, the gap between MENA and the West may not have been narrowing in the past 30 years. MENA has not been able to enact the types of legislative changes that are necessary to remove de jure sex-and gender-based barriers. The rest of the world has moved more systematically because the persistence of discrimination ultimately leads to loss of economic potential. This lethargy, and at times slowness and push-back, has been largely due to a rise in conservatism, which is partly due to demographic movements, partly due to rising conflict in the region, and partly to a rise in fundamentalist discourse and finance.

As to the fate of the three women at the beginning of this paper, sadly, their destinies seem to echo the efforts they launched. The reformist king, Amanullah Shah of Afghanistan, was forced to abdicate by conservative forces in 1929. His reforms were largely overturned, then gradually came back, then reversed by the Taliban, and since 2003 slowly reintroduced. Queen Soraya died in exile in 1968. The Queen of Iran, too, left during the 1979 revolution, which ended the secular Pahlavi monarchy. Most of the gender-based reforms of the 50-year rule of the Pahlavis were reversed, except women&rsquos right to vote. The queen died in exile in 1981. Latife, the wife of Ataturk, lived a low-key life and died in obscurity in 1975. Though recent times have seen a revival of conservative attitudes toward women by the Erdogan government, the reforms in Turkey were the most sustainable among the three countries. In the Arab world, there are positive signs, though. Many countries have appointed women ministers with important portfolios to break the glass ceiling. And, recently, women in Saudi Arabia were given the right to drive, to travel with the permission of a mahram, and to participate in elections. Perhaps, with all the ups and downs, forward and backwards, the women in the region are finally turning the corner. Muslim women have come a long way. They are not where they were, they are not where they want and need to be.

Nadereh Chamlou is a former Senior Advisor for the The World Bank.

Women in the Western World compared to Women in the Middle East

Customary laws, Islamic laws, imported European laws, and reformed versions of Islamic laws affect women in varying degrees in the different Middle Eastern legal systems, and the status of women does not seem to have been settled in any of them. Legal issues involving women’s status in the Middle East tend to be quite different from those in the West. Although there are feminist organizations in Middle Eastern countries, they tend to be small and to lack significant input into the political process. This improvement in the status of women has not resulted from pressures from women and women’s groups. It has been more from male members of the political elite to modernize and industrialize their societies. They feel that using law reform as a tool of social engineering can help improve the treatment. I have known a few people from the middle east. I also know people who are not from their but have decided to take up muslim culture. I have discussed some cultural differences with them and the lack of support women receive.

One of my best friends is from afganisatan. She has expressed to me the joy she has and how thankful she is for the opportunity to come to the united states. The things she remembers about treatment of women are very harsh. The social position of women in Muslim countries is worse than anywhere else, for example a woman can work and travel only with the written permission of her husband or male guardian, they can not obtain divorce without their husband’s cooperation who in contrast can obtain divorce simply by filling out a divorce form. This is really different from the western culture because divorce statistics are on the rise. A women can file without the cooperation of her husband and like in states like California are entitled to half of everything when she does file.

Many Islamic fundamentalist are against any change regarding women’s rights that can undermine male domination with regards to family and society. Their goals are to setup special curriculam to train girls for their role as housewives, to restrict their access to political life, remove them from the legal profession, and to impose a rigid dress code. Despite these inequalities between men and women, for many of these women freedom of expression and equality do not seem meaningful goals to obtain. The majority of them see the Western culture as a danger for their native culture, brining with it the disintegration of families and social breakdown. Historically, Islam has resisted women’s rights and modernization. Unjust laws, discriminatory constitutions, and biased mentalities that do not recognize women as equal citizens violate women’s rights. According to the readings, Moranm, Abrason, and Morans say “Although the percentage of women expatriates is rising, many companies fail to send women overseas, in particular to areas of the world where the demarcation between male and female roles is clearly defined. Global women managers often talk about the “double-take” or stares they receive in Asia, South America, or the Middle East when they are first introduced.” When women visit this country and wear their traditional western culture clothing they are looked upon by the natives differently.

A friend of mine who is in the military was in Yemen and was almost taking to jail for not having on the traditional burka. She was getting a little roughed up and it was hard to explain that she was in the military because it was on their day off in a bar. Yemen along with Dubai are still one of the countries who has a place in the middle of town to take women to be killed by either being stoned to death, hung, beheaded, or shot to death.

Moran, Robert T. Abramson, Neil Remington Moran, Sarah V. (2014-02-24). Managing Cultural Differences (p. 159). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Supporting the Fight for Freedom and Equality

While the rest of the world commemorated International Women's Day on March 8, women in the Middle East had less to celebrate than most. Though women around the globe have made substantial progress in increasing their rights in the home, workplace, and political sphere, a new Freedom House survey finds that despite modest gains in the last 5 years, women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region continue to suffer from a dismal deficit in human rights.

In this part of the world, societal norms that relegate women to subordinate status continue to impede progress. Governments remain resistant to addressing inequalities for women through progressive policy or legislation and often actively pursue policies of repression. Laws against marital rape and spousal abuse are largely absent in the region, so-called "honor" killings persist, and segregation and discrimination remain par for the course in educational and political institutions.

It is perhaps not surprising that women's rights fare particularly poorly in a region that suffers from a broad deficit in freedom and human rights compared to the rest of the world. Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2010 report found that in 2009, political rights and civil liberties declined globally for the fourth consecutive year with the MENA region once again coming in dead last. Currently, 88% percent of the population in the region resides in countries that are Not Free* and lack of democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and freedom of association and assembly impede improvements for women. While it's encouraging that women in the Middle East have made some progress, one has to wonder if it can really be cause for celebration in a part of the world where the bar is so low.

This is not to say that the gains women have made are insubstantial. To the women who can now vote and run in elections in Kuwait, who can obtain a passport without male approval in Bahrain, or who are serving in parliaments in a number of countries, these gains have absolutely improved the quality of their lives and their ability to actively participate in society.

Yet, their successes have often been achieved in the face of strong resistance from clergy and governments. Women's rights groups in Jordan spent years advocating for protections against gender-based violence. The Syrian government considered legislation intended to increase religious influence over family law until action by women's rights organizations forced it to be tabled. And a regulation forbidding young women from leaving Libya without a male relative was rescinded only after a public outcry that included criticism from even the state-owned newspaper.

We cannot expect governments in the Middle East and North Africa to take it upon themselves to support policies that help women. In fact, it's clear that if left to their own devices, many governments in the region would turn in the other direction.

So what can be done to help the women of the Middle East? International NGOs should continue the good work they've done to support civil society activities in the region. The United States and other democracies must make the promotion of human rights and women's rights a priority in relationships with every government in the region, no matter the strategic situation. Ultimately, change has to come from within, but we have to listen and be responsive to the needs of the women on the ground to support them in their fight for freedom and equality.

*According to the Freedom House Freedom in the World 2010 Report

Sarah Trister is an advocacy officer with Freedom House in Washington, DC.

A Brief Guide to Russia’s Return to the Middle East

Despite the chaos unleashed by U.S. President Donald Trump&rsquos abrupt pullout from northern Syria, it would be a mistake to assume that Russia wants to displace the U.S. role in the Middle East completely. Russian leaders likely want Moscow to be seen as on equal footing with the United States and as a regional power broker.

The Kremlin has been careful not to get overextended. It has deployed a relatively small number of military personnel to Syria and has conducted military operations in a way designed to minimize the risk of Russian casualties. Of course, the Russian military has been anything but restrained while conducting a brutal air campaign that has killed countless Syrian civilians. But they have been careful not to put large numbers of their personnel at risk.

How is Russia capitalizing on changes in U.S. policy toward the Middle East under Trump?

Setting aside the spectacle of Trump&rsquos extremely impulsive approach to managing U.S. foreign policy, the sad reality is that the United States has overextended itself in the Middle East over the past two decades, and Russia has not. The Kremlin has shied away from large-scale military commitments to the Middle East. We have not seen Putin sending 100,000 troops anywhere in the Middle East.

Eugene Rumer

Director and Senior Fellow
Russia and Eurasia Program

The Kremlin has been pursuing very different objectives than what the United States tried to achieve under former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Russia was content with the status quo. It was not interested in democracy promotion it was interested in stability. Russian leaders continue to see U.S. policy as very destabilizing for the entire region, including the recent spike in U.S. tensions with Iran.

What has Russia been doing in the Middle East over the past few years?

Russia has emerged as a key power broker and military actor in the Middle East. In 2015, it sent its air force and a limited number of ground troops to Syria. That intervention changed the course of the Syrian civil war and saved President Bashar al-Assad&rsquos regime from what looked like certain defeat.

Using its success in Syria as a springboard, Russia has transformed old relationships throughout the region and forged new ones. The Kremlin has raised its profile among Persian Gulf Arab states. Moscow is showing the region&rsquos rulers that it can be a reliable partner, unlike the United States, which cut ties with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at the slightest sign of trouble&mdashafter a partnership of more than three decades. In contrast, the Kremlin has done business with Syria&rsquos Assad family for over fifty years and has stood by its man.

Another notable development in Middle Eastern politics has been the blossoming relationship between Russia and Israel. Israel is the region&rsquos most capable military actor, whose influence on the world stage goes way beyond its small size. Thanks to the expanded Russian military presence in Syria, Russia is now effectively Israel&rsquos neighbor, critical to the latter&rsquos ability to counter Iran and its proxies in Syria.

Andrew S. Weiss

James Family Chair
Vice President for Studies

What is Russia&rsquos history in the Middle East?

Russian ties to the Middle East go back centuries and provide a valuable foundation on which to build. From its quest for warm water ports and access to the Mediterranean in the eighteenth century, to its policy of protecting fellow Orthodox Christians living in Ottoman lands in the nineteenth century, Russia historically has been a factor in Middle Eastern politics and geopolitics. After the fall of colonial powers in the wake of World War II, Russia courted new Arab states. It has long been a major supplier of arms to many countries in the region.

Why does Russia want a presence in the Middle East now?

Russia is a major power. As such, the Kremlin wants a say in what arguably is the most important region of the world, where the interests of many powers intersect: the United States, the European Union, and even China. Russia is not just a &ldquoregional power&rdquo (as former U.S. president Barack Obama once dismissively described it). The Kremlin is advancing its own interests and showing that a more assertive Russia can reach beyond its periphery.

Moscow is trying to rebuild long-standing relationships with a number of Middle Eastern countries after it abruptly scaled back ties in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Russia and the Gulf nations are major exporters of oil and gas, and have huge stakes in global energy markets. Oil and gas are critical to Russia&rsquos economy, domestic political stability, and the ability to finance ongoing foreign policy and military ventures.

What might people be most surprised to learn about Russia in the Middle East?

There&rsquos a tendency to ignore Russia&rsquos long history and web of relationships in the Middle East. Many people took the relatively brief period of Russia&rsquos withdrawal from the Middle Eastern scene in the 1990s as the norm. But that was actually an aberration.

The other surprise is the close relationship between Russia and Israel. Israelis pride themselves on being the only democracy in the Middle East and the closest ally of the United States in the region. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported Israel&rsquos sworn enemy, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and crude anti-Semitism was a mainstay of Soviet propaganda.

But today Russia and Israel have a very close relationship. Russian President Vladimir Putin is friendly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The dollar value of trade and economic relationships between the two countries may not be all that impressive. But the human ties are extraordinarily close, thanks in part to a visa-free travel regime. Some one in five Israeli citizens has his or her roots in Russia or the former Soviet Union, and probably is a Russian speaker.

How enthusiastic is Russian public opinion about Putin&rsquos Middle East strategy?

That&rsquos hard to say. Putin&rsquos popularity in Russia has been declining. That sounds worse than it actually is, since he does not have any competition, and none of his political opponents are allowed to challenge him.

That said, his standing in the polls matters, because popularity has a legitimizing quality. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 gave Putin a major boost. Russia&rsquos newfound prominence in the Middle East is intended to show that Russia is a great power and that Putin is &ldquomaking Russia great again.&rdquo

But the utility of playing this card has its limits. Russians have a saying about their domestic politics: &ldquoIt&rsquos a contest between the television screen and the refrigerator.&rdquo In other words, good news and propaganda on television are intended to make up for one&rsquos empty refrigerator. Based on recent polls, the effectiveness of television is diminishing.

What does Russia&rsquos future in the Middle East look like?

Russia is likely to remain an important actor in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. The Kremlin has been careful not to overcommit. It has not overpromised and is pursuing an active diplomatic strategy, which has cost Russia very little in blood or treasure.

To some in the United States, Russia may look like a declining power. But to a lot of other countries, it is a major diplomatic actor and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Russia is unlikely to emerge as a military actor on a scale comparable to the United States. Russia is positioning itself not as the dominant player, but as one that will have the ability to challenge those other countries that aspire to become dominant in the region. It seems like a clever denial strategy that can accomplish a lot with relatively little up-front investment.

Russia does a very good job of punching above its weight. Depending on how one measures it, Russian GDP accounts for just over 3 percent of global GDP. But it has succeeded in playing a much bigger role on the world stage. The Middle East is one of the places where it enjoys some advantages in expanding its presence.

What are those advantages?

Russia is leveraging a long history of involvement in the Middle East, and this is a part of the world where history matters. Russia enjoys geographic proximity to the region. And it has pursued a very active diplomacy throughout the Middle East.

Just as importantly, Russia treats these countries and rulers for what they are, not what it wants them to be. Until the Trump era, the United States often insisted on countries embracing its transformational goals as a condition for good relations. Russians don&rsquot have such ambitions.

Does Russia face any risks involving itself in Middle Eastern politics and conflicts?

Yes, it does. The Russian military has tasted victory in Syria. That can be addictive. So the question is: Will they remain content to stay within their relatively modest footprint in the region? Or will they be tempted to engage in other conflicts more directly? There&rsquos a Russian saying that &ldquoappetite comes as you start eating.&rdquo So far, they&rsquove been careful. But there&rsquos always a risk.

There is also the challenge of dealing with Iran. Russian and Iranian interests in Syria are diverging.

Russia isn&rsquot interested in prolonging the conflict in Syria or beyond. But Iran and its proxies have set their sights on confronting Israel. That could become a source of friction with Russia that would be difficult to manage.

If the Russians want be a real power broker in the region, being the party that everyone talks to may not be enough. They will have to put their power to work, take sides, and run the risk of antagonizing some of the parties. This will be a diplomatic challenge, even if not a security concern for Russia.

This research was undertaken with generous financial support from the United States European Command Russia Strategic Initiative. The views and conclusions are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official polices, either express or implied, of the United States Government. Additional funding was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.

Continuing Storm: The U.S. Role in the Middle East

This Special Report is from Global Focus: U.S. Foreign Policy at the Turn of the Millennium, the new Foreign Policy In Focus book that features major foreign policy analysts charting the dimensions of U.S. foreign policy. Also included are provocative essays on U.S. policy in all major global regions and a comprehensive reform agenda. Global Focus is available from St. Martin’s Press.

Throughout the centuries, Western nations have tried to impose their order on the region now commonly known as the Middle East. For certain periods of time they have succeeded, only to find themselves at the receiving end of a popular and oftentimes violent backlash. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph in the Gulf War, the United States stands&mdashat least for a time&mdashas the region’s dominant outside power.

Some in Washington have traditionally argued that because the United States has entered the region eschewing colonial ambitions, championing the rule of law and the authority of the United Nations, and seeking economic growth and political stability, America stands out as a singular and responsible overseer. Most of those in the Middle East and most independent Western observers, however, see the United States’ role as far less benign, citing U.S. support for repressive and corrupt monarchies, the exploitative practices by American oil companies and other multinational corporations, the promotion of a secular and materialistic lifestyle, the highly prejudicial use of the UN Security Council, the arming and bankrolling of a militaristic and expansionist Israel, destabilization efforts against internationally recognized governments, and periodic military interventions.

Whatever the nature of U.S. policy, however, there is no question that the United States recognizes the region’s significance. At the intersection of three continents and the source of most of the world’s petroleum reserves, the Middle East has been described by leading American officials as the most strategically important area in the world. No longer concerned that the region might fall to Soviet influence, the United States is still apprehensive about the influence of homegrown movements that could also challenge American interests. There is a widely perceived, ongoing threat from radical secular or radical Islamic forces, as well as concern over the instability that could result from any major challenges to the rule of pro-Western regimes, even if led by potentially democratic movements. The most crucial part of the Middle East, according to most U.S. policymakers, is the Persian Gulf region, where conservative, pro-Western monarchies feel under threat from the radical regimes in Iraq and Iran and look to the United States for protection.

The Persian Gulf

The six Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf are guardians of valuable oil reserves to which the United States seeks access, not just to supplement American reserves (currently around 18% of U.S. consumption) but as a means of maintaining a degree of leverage over the import-dependent European and Japanese markets. During the war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, the United States played the combatants off against each other to ensure that neither of these militant regimes would become too influential. With oil, water resources, and sizable populations, both had the potential to become regional powers that could conceivably challenge American interests. Since 1993, the U.S. has articulated a policy of “dual containment” toward these governments, guarding against potential expansionist ambitions by either against the pro-Western sheikdoms. More recently, however, the extreme hostility toward Iran may be lessening as a result of the election of a more moderate Islamic government in 1997, which has provided a justification for those in Washington already interested in rebuilding ties with the oil-rich and potentially powerful country.

The British had been the dominant power in the Persian Gulf for most of the 20th century, but&mdashin recognition of their decline as a major world power&mdashthey announced their military withdrawal from the region in 1969. The United States, which had been increasing its presence in the Middle East since the end of World War II, was determined to fill the void. President Richard Nixon, facing growing opposition to the Vietnam War, knew that sending U.S. combat troops into this volatile region would not be politically feasible. By the early 1970s, antiwar sentiment had lessened, due in part to Nixon’s Vietnamization program, whereby the reliance on South Vietnamese conscripts and a dramatically increased air war had minimized American casualties. As a result, the Nixon Doctrine (also known as the Guam Doctrine or “surrogate strategy”) came into being, wherein Vietnamization evolved into a global policy of arming and training third world allies to become regional gendarmes for American interests.

The Persian Gulf was the primary testing ground, with Iran’s shah&mdashwho owed his throne to CIA intervention in the 1950s and had long dreamed of rebuilding the Persian Empire&mdashplaying the part of a willing participant. Throughout the 1970s, the U.S. sold tens of billions of dollars worth of highly sophisticated arms to the shah, and sent thousands of U.S. advisors to turn the Iranian armed forces into a sophisticated fighting unit capable of counterinsurgency operations. Such a strategy proved successful when Iranian forces helped crush a leftist insurgency in the southeastern Arabian sultanate of Oman in the mid-1970s.

This strategy came crashing down in 1979, however, with Iran’s Islamic revolution, which resulted from the popular reaction against the highly visible American support for the Iranian regime, the shah’s penchant for military procurement over internal economic development, and his brutal repression against any and all dissent. The vast American-supplied arsenal fell into the hands of a radical anti-American regime. It was then that the Carter Doctrine came into being with the establishment of the Rapid Deployment Force (later known as the Central Command), which would enable the United States to strike with massive force in a relatively short period of time. This extremely costly effort would enable the U.S. to fight a war that would rely so heavily on air power, be over so quickly, and enjoy such a favorable casualty ratio that popular domestic opposition would not have time to mobilize.

This was precisely the scenario for Operation Desert Storm. Though the exact circumstances that would trigger such a war were not known, the military response had in effect been planned for more than a dozen years prior to the Gulf War and was designed in part for domestic political impact. From Washington’s strategic vantage point, it worked well. The massive international mobilization led by the United States forced Iraqi occupation forces out of Kuwait and severely damaged Iraq’s military and civilian infrastructure in less than six weeks and with only several dozen American casualties. The war was a dramatic reassertion of U.S. global power, just as its former superpower rival was collapsing, and it consolidated the U.S. position as the region’s most important outside power.

Ironically, the United States had been quietly supporting Iraq’s brutal totalitarian regime and its leader, Saddam Hussein, through financial credits and even limited military assistance during its war against Iran in the 1980s, including offering components and technical support for programs bolstering the development of weapons of mass destruction. Washington downplayed and even covered up the use of chemical weapons by Saddam’s armed forces against the Iranian military and Kurdish civilians during this period, and the U.S. opposed UN sanctions against Iraq for its acts of aggression toward both Iran and its own population. It was only after Iraq’s invasion of the oil-rich, pro-Western emirate of Kuwait in August 1990 that Saddam Hussein’s regime suddenly became demonized in the eyes of U.S. policymakers and the American public at large.

Since the Gulf War

Even prior to the Gulf War, the United States had thrown its immense military, diplomatic, and economic weight behind the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Though they rule over less than 10% of the Arab world’s total population, these regimes control most of its wealth. Prior to the war, it was difficult for the United States to engage in military exercises or even arrange a port call without asking for permission months in advance. Not any more.

Oil Reserves and U.S. Imports

Oil Reserves
(billions of barrels)

% of U.S. imports

There is now an effective, permanent U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. The financial costs are extraordinary&mdashrunning between $30 and $60 billion annually, according to conservative estimates&mdashand are shared by the U.S. and the gulf monarchies. Though there appears to be a bipartisan consensus in Washington that there is a clear strategic imperative to maintaining such an American presence, there are critics&mdasheven among conservatives&mdashwho argue that such a presence is too costly for the American taxpayer and creates a situation where American military personnel are effectively serving as a mercenary force for autocratic sheikdoms.

Most Persian Gulf Arabs and their leaders felt threatened after Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait and were grateful for the strong U.S. leadership in the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of cynicism regarding U.S. motives in waging that war. Gulf Arabs, and even some of their rulers, cannot shake the sense that the war was not fought for international law, self-determination, and human rights, as the Bush administration claimed, but rather to protect U.S. access to oil and to enable the U.S. to gain a strategic toehold in the region. It is apparent that a continued U.S. presence is welcome only as long as Arabs feel they need a foreign military presence to protect them.

Iraq still has not recovered from the 1991 war, during which it was on the receiving end of the heaviest bombing in world history. The U.S. has insisted on maintaining strict sanctions against Iraq to force compliance with international demands to dismantle any capability of producing weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the U.S. hopes that such sanctions will lead to the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. However, Washington’s policy of enforcing strict sanctions against Iraq appears to have had the ironic effect of strengthening Saddam’s regime. With as many as 5,000 people, mostly children, dying from malnutrition and preventable diseases every month as a result of the sanctions, the humanitarian crisis has led to worldwide demands&mdasheven from some of Iraq’s historic enemies&mdashto relax the sanctions. Furthermore, as they are now more dependent than ever on the government for their survival, the Iraqi people are even less likely to risk open defiance. Unlike the reaction to sanctions imposed prior to the war, Iraqi popular resentment over their suffering lays the blame squarely on the United States, not the totalitarian regime, whose ill-fated conquest of Kuwait led to the economic collapse of this once-prosperous country. In addition, Iraq’s middle class, which would have most likely formed the political force capable of overthrowing Saddam’s regime, has been reduced to penury. It is not surprising that most of Iraq’s opposition movements oppose the U.S. policy of ongoing punitive sanctions and air strikes.

In addition, U.S. officials have stated that sanctions would remain even if Iraq complied with United Nations inspectors, giving the Iraqi regime virtually no incentive to comply. For sanctions to work, there needs to be a promise of relief to counterbalance the suffering that is, a carrot as well as a stick. Indeed, it was the failure of both the United States and the United Nations to explicitly spell out what was needed in order for sanctions to be lifted that led to Iraq suspending its cooperation with UN inspectors in December 1998.

The use of U.S. air strikes against Iraq subsequent to the inspectors’ departure has not garnered much support from the international community, including Iraq’s neighbors, who would presumably be most threatened by an Iraqi biological weapons capability. Nor have U.S. air strikes eliminated that capability. In light of Washington’s tolerance&mdashand even quiet support&mdashof Iraq’s powerful military machine in the 1980s, the Clinton administration’s exaggerated claims of an imminent Iraqi military threat in 1998, after Iraq’s military infrastructure was largely destroyed in the Gulf War, simply lack credibility. Nor have such air strikes eliminated or reduced the country’s biological weapons capability. Furthermore, only the United Nations Security Council has the prerogative to authorize military responses to violations of its resolutions no single member state can do so unilaterally without explicit permission.


The U.S. also usurped UN Security Council authority with a series of air strikes against Iraq in September 1996, justifying them on the grounds that Iraqi forces had illegally moved into Kurdish-populated areas of the country that had been under UN protection since Saddam’s brutal repression of the Kurds at the end of the Gulf War. There is reason to believe, however, that these air strikes were not so much for the defense of the Kurds as simply another futile attempt by a frustrated administration to strike back at an upstart dictator who continues to challenge the United States.

The Kurds are a nation of more than 20 million people divided among six countries and containing nationalist movements rife with factionalism. The worst repression against the Kurds in recent years has come from Turkey, a NATO ally, which the U.S. considers part of Europe. Turkey receives large-scale military, economic, and diplomatic support from the United States during the 1990s, U.S. military aid and arms sales totaled about $10.5 billion. On several occasions in recent years, thousands of Turkish troops have crossed into Iraqi territory to attack the Kurds. Though these incursions also took place in the UN safe zone and have been far greater in scope than Saddam’s 1996 forays, President Clinton supported the Turkish attacks, making his harsh response to Iraq’s incursion appear to be motivated by other than humanitarian or legal concerns.

Although the United States clearly wants Saddam Hussein removed from power, the U.S. and other countries may not want to risk Iraq’s total disintegration. Washington wants neither a victory by a radical Kurdish movement in the north nor a successful rebellion in the south of the country, where an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim movement has challenged the authority of the Sunni Muslim-dominated government in Baghdad. At the same time, the totalitarian nature of the Iraqi regime renders prospects for internal change unlikely, at least as long as the population is suffering so much economic hardship from the sanctions.

In 1998, the United States successfully pressured Syria to expel Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a radical Kurdish nationalist guerrilla group fighting Turkey for greater autonomy. In February 1999, the United States assisted Turkish intelligence agents in locating Ocalan in Kenya, where he was kidnapped and brought to Turkey to face what virtually all outside observers (the Clinton State Department being an exception) see as unfair judicial treatment.

The U.S.-backed Turkish regime has used the PKK’s sometimes brutal tactics as an excuse to crush even nonviolent expressions of Kurdish nationalism for example, speaking the Kurdish language or celebrating Kurdish cultural life has been severely repressed. Kurdish civilians have been the primary targets of Turkey’s counterinsurgency campaign. The United States has been largely silent against the Turkish government’s repression but active in condemning what is sees as Kurdish terrorism.

Kurdish Population Estimates: 1997

Washington’s military and diplomatic support of Turkey’s repression of the Kurds is quite consistent with U.S. acquiescence to other controversial policies by this NATO ally. The U.S. has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions 353 and 354 calling for Turkey to withdraw its occupation forces from northern Cyprus. The U.S. has also failed to condemn the Turkish government for widespread human rights violations against its own population. And Washington has refused to even acknowledge the Turkish genocide against the Armenians earlier this century, in which well over one million people were slaughtered. This double standard, which rejects adherence to international law or basic standards of human rights, further undermines U.S. credibility in the region.

Islamist Radicalism

The United States has been greatly concerned over the rise of radical Islamic movements in the Middle East. Islam, like other religions, can be quite diverse regarding its interpretation of the faith’s teachings as they apply to contemporary political issues. There are a number of Islamic-identified parties and movements that seek peaceful coexistence and cooperation with the West and are moderate on economic and social policy. Many Islamist movements and parties have come to represent mainstream prodemocracy and pro-economic justice currents, replacing the discredited Arab socialism and Arab nationalist movements.

There are also some Islamic movements in the Middle East today that are indeed reactionary, violent, misogynist, and include a virulently anti-American perspective that is antithetical to perceived American interests. Still others may be more amenable to traditional U.S. interests but reactionary in their approach to social and economic policies, or vice versa.

Such movements have risen to the forefront primarily in countries where there has been a dramatic physical dislocation of the population as a result of war or uneven economic development. Ironically, the United States has often supported policies that have helped spawn such movements, including giving military, diplomatic, and economic aid to augment decades of Israeli attacks and occupation policies, which have torn apart Palestinian and Lebanese society, and provoked extremist movements that were unheard of as recently as 20 years ago. Similarly, the United States has taken the lead in encouraging the adoption of neoliberal economic policies by a number of Middle Eastern governments. Such policies have destroyed traditional economies and turned millions of rural peasants into a new urban underclass populating the teeming slums of such cities as Cairo, Tunis, Casablanca, and Teheran. Though policies of free trade and privatization have resulted in increased prosperity for some, far more people have been left behind, providing easy recruits for Islamic activists rallying against corruption, materialism, and economic injustice.

It is also noteworthy that in countries that have allowed Islamic groups to participate more fully in the democratic process &mdash such as Jordan, Yemen, and, for a time, Turkey &mdash Islamists have played a largely responsible role in parliamentary politics. It has only been in countries where democratic rights are seriously curtailed that Islamists have adopted the more radical, militaristic, and antidemocratic forms that the U.S. finds so disturbing. Many Islamic movements, such as those in Egypt, Palestine, and Algeria, include diverse elements that would span the ideological spectrum if they were allowed to function in an open, democratic system.

In a response that bears striking similarity to the perceived Communist threat during the cold war, however, the standard U.S. reaction to radical Islamic movements appears to be to support authoritarian regimes in imposing military solutions to what are essentially political, economic, and social problems. The result of such a policy may be to encourage the very extremist forces Washington seeks to curtail.

What has made such policies particularly difficult to challenge is the role of influential elements in the American intelligentsia and foreign policy establishment, as well as certain Christian fundamentalist leaders, who have played upon the widespread prejudice many Americans have regarding Islam to create a popular antipathy toward Muslims that justifies hard-line policies toward Muslim countries, peoples, and organizations. Given the size and importance of the world’s Islamic population, however, the development of a more enlightened policy is crucial.


The U.S. has highlighted the threat of terrorism from the Middle East, billing it as America’s major national security concern in the post-cold war world. Washington considers Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya to be the primary sources of state-sponsored terrorism and has embarked on an ambitious policy to isolate these regimes in the international community. Syria’s status as a supporter of terrorism has ebbed and flowed not so much from an objective measure of its links to terrorist groups as from an assessment of their willingness to cooperate with U.S. policy interests, indicating just how politicized “terrorist” designations can be.

U.S. Trade Balances with Middle East, 1998
(billions of $U.S.)

Source: U.S. State Department 1998 Country Reports on Economic Policy and Trade Practices, Near East. Available at: http://www.state.gov/www/

The U.S. war against terrorism has been hampered by double standards. During the 1980s, for example, the Nicaraguan contras&mdasharmed, trained, and effectively created by Washington&mdashwere responsible for far more civilian deaths than all terrorist groups supported by all Middle Eastern countries combined. In addition, the most serious single bombing attack against a civilian target in the history of the Middle East was the March 1985 blast in a suburban Beirut neighborhood that killed 80 people and wounded 200 others. The attack was ordered by CIA director William Casey and approved by President Ronald Reagan as part of an unsuccessful effort to assassinate an anti-American Lebanese cleric. The U.S. role in the bombing, which was widely reported throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, has lent Washington’s crusade against Middle Eastern terrorism little credibility in much of the world. (Though the initial report of U.S. involvement made the leading front-page headline of the New York Times and was described in detail in Bob Woodward’s book Veil, it is rarely ever mentioned by so-called experts on Middle Eastern terrorism in the United States.) The perpetrators have never been brought to justice.

Libya has long been a major target of the United States regarding international terrorism. In 1992 and 1993, the United States successfully pushed through a series of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council against the government of Libya for its failure to extradite two of its citizens to Great Britain or the United States, where they face criminal charges in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1988. Libya cited both the absence of any extradition treaty with the United States or Great Britain and concerns over the likelihood of an unfair trial. Libya and the United States reached a compromise agreement in 1999 to extradite the suspects to the Netherlands for trial before a Scottish judge UN sanctions were suspended but unilateral U.S. sanctions continue.

What apparently provoked the terrorists who destroyed the airliner was the 1986 American bombings of two Libyan cities, in which scores of civilians were killed. The U.S. justified the air strikes on the grounds that they would prevent future Libyan-sponsored terrorism, an ironic justification given the subsequent event. What is less well-known is the fact that the U.S. has similarly refused to extradite several American citizens charged with acts of terrorism. Both Venezuela and Costa Rica, for example, have outstanding warrants for CIA-connected individuals linked to a series of terrorist attacks in Latin America, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner, in which several dozen passengers were killed.

Middle East Trade with U.S.
(as % of total external trade)

More recently, the United States has focused attention on the activities of Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire orchestrating a number of terrorist cells operating out of the Middle East. Ironically, many of the key players in these terrorist networks originally received their training and support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency when they were mobilized to fight the Soviet-backed communist regime that ruled Afghanistan in the 1980s. In August 1998, the United States bombed suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan&mdashoriginally built by the CIA&mdashin an effort to cripple Bin Laden’s movement. The U.S. simultaneously bombed a civilian pharmaceutical plant in Sudan under the apparently mistaken belief that it was developing chemical weapons that could be used by these terrorist networks. Given the highly questionable strategic value of such air strikes, these responses seem to be little more than foreign policy by catharsis. Though strong intelligence and interdiction efforts are important in the fight against terrorism, such impulsive military responses are likely to merely continue the cycle of violence.

Another source of concern for the Clinton administration is the use of terrorism by Palestinian extremists determined to disrupt the peace process. Although both suicide and the taking of civilian life are explicitly proscribed in the Islamic faith, such prohibitions have not stopped underground movements from organizing several deadly suicide bombings against civilian targets in Israel. The United States has pressured Palestinian authorities to crack down still harder on Islamic dissidents, including those not directly involved in acts of violence. Repression alone, however, will not work. Such desperate acts of terror erupt not from any outside conspiracy or from any inherent cultural or religious base, but from a people frustrated that the economic prosperity and national independence promised by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat as a reward for Palestinian nonviolence and moderation has not been forthcoming. Some Palestinians have committed acts of terrorism for the same reasons as did some Kenyans, Algerians, and Zimbabweans: they feel that they are prevented from attaining their national freedom nonviolently. Indeed, the Zionist movement produced its share of terrorist groups during the Israeli independence struggle against Britain in the 1940s, with two prominent terrorist leaders&mdashMenachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir&mdashlater becoming prime ministers. As long as the U.S. and Israel oppose Palestinian statehood, such attacks will not end.

Israel and its Neighbors

U.S. Aid to World Regions
(thousands $U.S.)

One area where the Clinton administration has received high praises in the mainstream media is in its pursuit of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Yet the U.S. has, in large part, hampered rather than promoted the peace process. For over two decades, the international consensus for peace in the Middle East has involved the withdrawal of Israeli forces to within internationally recognized boundaries in return for security guarantees from Israel’s neighbors, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and some special status for a shared Jerusalem. Over the past thirty years, the Palestine Liberation Organization, under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, has evolved from frequent acts of terrorism and the open call for Israel’s destruction to supporting the international consensus for a two-state solution. Most Arab states have made a similar evolution toward favoring just such a peace settlement.

However, the U.S. has traditionally rejected the international consensus and currently takes a position more closely resembling that of Israel’s right-wing governments: supporting a Jerusalem under exclusive Israeli sovereignty, encouraging only partial withdrawal from the occupied territories, allowing continuation of the illegal policies of confiscation of Palestinian land and the construction of Jewish-only settlements, and rejecting an independent Palestine. As a result, there are serious questions as to whether the United States can actually serve as a fair mediator in the conflict. A more neutral arbiter, such as the United Nations, might better serve the peace process in the Middle East.

Although successive U.S. administrations have&mdashon occasion&mdashcriticized certain Israeli policies and actions, Washington is more likely to come to Israel’s support. For example, the U.S. has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and has defended Israeli attacks on Lebanese villages&mdashin retaliation against Muslim guerrillas fighting Israeli occupation forces&mdasheven when such attacks have resulted in large-scale civilian casualties. Washington also refuses to insist upon Israeli withdrawal from the Golan region of Syria, even after the once-intransigent Syrian regime finally agreed to international demands for strict security guarantees and eventually normalized relations with Israel in the early 1990s. Regarding the Palestinians, the interpretation of autonomy by Israel and the United States has thus far led to only limited Palestinian control of a bare one-tenth of the West Bank in a patchwork arrangement that more resembles American Indian reservations or the infamous Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa than anything like statehood.

Most observers recognize that one of the major obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peace is the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. However, the U.S. has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw its settlements from Palestinian land. These settlements were established in violation of international law, which forbids the colonization of territories seized by military force. In addition, the Clinton White House&mdashin a reversal of the policies of previous administrations&mdashhas not opposed the expansion of existing settlements and has shown ambivalence regarding the large-scale construction of exclusively Jewish housing developments in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. Furthermore, Clinton has secured additional aid for Israel to construct highways connecting these settlements and to provide additional security, thereby reinforcing their permanence. This places the United States in direct violation of UN Security Council resolution 465, which “calls upon all states not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection with settlements in the occupied territories.”

The Struggle for Democracy

The growing movement favoring democracy and human rights in the Middle East has not shared the remarkable successes of its counterparts in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Most Middle Eastern governments remain autocratic. Despite occasional rhetorical support for greater individual freedoms, the United States has generally not supported tentative Middle Eastern steps toward democratization. Indeed, the United States has reduced&mdashor maintained at low levels&mdashits economic, military, and diplomatic support to Arab countries that have experienced substantial political liberalization in recent years while increasing support for autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Morocco. Jordan, for example, received large-scale U.S. support in the 1970s and 1980s despite widespread repression and authoritarian rule when it opened up its political system in the early 1990s, the U.S. substantially reduced&mdashand, for a time, suspended&mdashforeign aid. Aid to Yemen was cut off within months of the newly unified country’s first democratic election in 1990.

Military vs. Economic Aid to the Middle East FY 1999 (est.)

Defining "The Middle East"

Today, even Arabs and other people in the Middle East accept the term as a geographical point of reference. Disagreements persist, however, about the exact geographical definition of the region. The most conservative definition limits the Middle East to the countries bound by Egypt to the West, the Arab Peninsula to the South, and at most Iran to the East.

A more expansive view of the Middle East, or the Greater Middle East, would stretch the region to Mauritania in West Africa and all the countries of North Africa that are members of the Arab League eastward, it would go as far as Pakistan. The Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East includes the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus in its definition of the Middle East. Politically, a country as far east as Pakistan is increasingly included in the Middle East because of Pakistan's close ties and involvements in Afghanistan. Similarly, the former south and southwestern republics of the Soviet Union--Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan--can also be included in a more expansive view of the Middle East because of the republics' cultural, historical, ethnic and especially religious cross-overs with countries at the core of the Middle East.

Myths & Facts - Human Rights in Arab Countries

While much attention has been focused on alleged Israeli human rights violations in the volatile West Bank and Gaza, the popular press has chosen to virtually ignore violations of fundamental human rights that take place daily in almost every Arab country. According to annual reports compiled by the State Department, most of the Arab states are ruled by oppressive, dictatorial regimes, which deny their citizens basic freedoms of political expression, speech, press and due process. The Arab Human Development Report published by a group of Arab researchers from the UN Development Program concluded that out of the seven regions of the world, Arab countries had the lowest freedom score. They also had the lowest ranking for "voice and accountability," a measure of various aspects of the political process, civil liberties, political rights and independence of the media. 1

"Women's rights are now protected in the Arab world."

In most Arab countries, the Shari'a, or Islamic law, defines the rules of traditional social behavior. Under the law, women are accorded a role inferior to that of men, and are therefore discriminated against with regard to personal rights and freedoms.

As Middle East expert Daniel Pipes explains: "In the Islamic view. female sexuality is thought of as being so powerful that it constitutes a real danger to society." Therefore, unrestrained females constitute "the most dangerous challenge facing males trying to carry out God's commands." In combination, females' "desires and their irresistible attractiveness give women a power over men which rivals God's." 2

"Left to themselves," Pipes continues, "men might well fall victim to women and abandon God," resulting in civil disorder among believers. In traditional thought, Pipes notes, women pose an internal threat to Islamic society similar to the external one represented by the infidel.

Traditionally, the Arab woman marries at a young age to a man of her father's choice. A husband is entitled to divorce any time, even against his wife's will, by merely declaring verbally that this is his intention.

Although the image of the egalitarian woman is slowly developing within some more secular Arab states, it remains largely confined to urban centers and upper-class circles. Ritual sexual mutilation of females is still common in rural areas of Egypt, Libya, Oman and Yemen.

Furthermore, laws that restrict women's rights remain in force in almost all Arab countries. In Syria, a husband can prevent his wife from leaving the country. In Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Yemen, married women must have their husbands' written permission to travel abroad, and they may be prevented from doing so for any reason. In Saudi Arabia, women must obtain written permission from their closest male relative to leave the country or travel on public transportation between different parts of the kingdom.

According to the UN, "utilization of Arab women's capabilities through political and economic participation remains the lowest in the world in quantitative terms&hellip.In some countries with elected national assemblies, women are still denied the right to vote or hold office. And one in ever two Arab women can neither read nor write." 3

In a Saudi Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women. In Kuwait, the male population is allowed to vote, while women are still disenfranchised. Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all have laws stating that a woman's inheritance must be less than that of her male siblings (usually about half the size). Moroccan law excuses the murder or injury of a wife who is caught in the act of committing adultery yet women are punished for harming their husbands under the same circumstances.

Wife-beating is a relatively common practice in Arab countries, and abused women have little recourse. As the State Department has noted regarding Jordan (and most of the Arab world): "Wife beating is technically grounds for divorce, but the husband may seek to demonstrate that he has authority from the Koran to correct an irreligious or disobedient wife by striking her." 4

In Saudi Arabia, restrictions against women are among the most extreme in the Arab world. Saudi women may not marry non-Saudis without government permission (which is rarely given) are forbidden to drive motor vehicles or bicycles may not use public facilities when men are present and are forced to sit in the backs of public buses, segregated from men. At Riyadh's King Saud University, professors lecture to rooms of men while women watch via closed-circuit television from distant all-female classrooms. 5 "[Islamic] Advice columns" in the Saudi Arabian press recommend strict disciplining of women as part of a proper marriage. Women must cover their entire body and face in public, and those who do not are subject to physical harassment from the Saudi religious police, known as the Mutaaw'in. The Saudis even extend their discriminatory treatment to women abroad. During a visit to the United States by Crown Prince Abdullah, for example, the prince's aides requested that no female air traffic controllers be allowed to control his flight into Texas to meet President Bush. They also requested that no women be allowed on the airport tarmac with the jet. 6

The UN, international organizations and local human rights rights nongovernmental organizations constantly pressure the regimes in Arab states to improve the state of human rights in general and women's rights in particular. According to UN data, the proportion of women's representation in Arab parliaments is only 3.4% (as opposed to 11.4% in the rest of the world). In addition, 55% of Arab women are illiterate. The Assistant to UN Vice Secretary General, Angela King, publicly called on Arab states to grant women their rights. 7

Arab regimes find different ways to deal with the international pressure to improve women's rights. They often prefer to introduce mild improvements in women's status rather than to enacting radical reforms that might contradict their ideology and antagonize conservative elements in the country.

&ldquoFreedom for Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority includes the right to sell land to Jews.&rdquo

In 1996, the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mufti, Ikremah Sabri, issued a fatwa (religious decree), banning the sale of Arab and Muslim property to Jews. Anyone who violated the order was to be killed. At least seven land dealers were killed that year. Six years later, the head of the PA's General Intelligence Service in the West Bank, General Tawfik Tirawi, admitted his men were responsible for the murders. 8

On May 5, 1997, Palestinian Authority Justice Minister Freih Abu Middein announced that the death penalty would be imposed on anyone convicted of ceding "one inch" to Israel. Later that month, two Arab land dealers were killed. PA officials denied any involvement in the killings. A year later, another Palestinian suspected of selling land to Jews was murdered. The PA has also arrested suspected land dealers for violating the Jordanian law (in force in the West Bank), which prohibits the sale of land to foreigners. 9

&ldquoIsrael&rsquos conflict with the Palestinians is blocking reform in the Middle East.&rdquo

The old saw that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the source of all evil in the Middle East is being trotted out again to justify the failure of the Arab states to embrace President Bush&rsquos democracy initiative or to reform their authoritarian societies. If the conflict was resolved tomorrow, or if Israel ceased to exist, however, the Arab world&rsquos despots would be no more interested in reform than they are today.

The divisions among the Arabs were on display again in March 2004 when Tunisia abruptly cancelled a planned Arab League summit. While some of the Arab officials suggested that Israel was to blame, the Tunisians themselves made clear the problem was the unwillingness of the Arab states to agree on any reforms, or even to endorse the principal of democracy and reject extremism and terrorism. Tunisia&rsquos official news agency noted that unspecified countries refused to support calls for &ldquotolerance&rdquo and &ldquounderstanding,&rdquo and would not allow the word &ldquodemocracy&rdquo to appear in the final draft of a position paper to be approved by heads of state. 10

At least seven Arab leaders had bowed out of the meeting and several countries, led by Syria, made clear their disinterest in committing the Arabs to institutional reform. And no Arab nation would support Libya&rsquos suggestion that other governments follow its example and give up programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. 11

Of course the summit host, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is no democrat. He seized power in a 1987 palace coup and has ruled the country ever since. And he&rsquos one of the newer Arab autocrats. Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt since Anwar Sadat&rsquos assassination in 1981, Libya&rsquos Moammar Gadhafi has been in power since 1969, and the Saud and Hashemite dynasties have maintained monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Jordan for decades. And even they are newcomers compared to the family that has ruled in Oman for 250 years. Lebanon is a puppet state under Syrian occupation, and Syria has been a dictatorship run by the Assad family since 1970. Yasser Arafat has dominated Palestinian politics for decades and has ruled the Palestinian Authority with an iron hand since its establishment in 1993.

None of these tyrants have any interest in implementing reforms that would permit the people to choose their leaders in a democratic way because they know they would be swept from power. They will therefore continue to use Israel&rsquos existence as an excuse for avoiding any meaningful changes to their totalitarian societies.

&ldquoThe Palestinian Authority held a free, democratic election in 2005.&rdquo

Elections are not synonymous with democracy. Several Arab countries hold elections, including Egypt and Syria, but they have only one candidate, and there is no doubt about the outcome. The dictators are always reelected with nearly 100 percent of the vote. In those nations, no one seriously claims the elections are democratic.

In the case of the Palestinian Authority (PA) elections held in January 2005, the standards were higher. These were advertised as an example of democracy and, compared to other Arab states, the voting was a considerable advancement toward free elections.

Still, the election could hardly be called competitive as the outcome was never in doubt. Seven candidates ran for president, but the only question was the size of Mahmoud Abbas&rsquo margin of victory. He won with 62.3 percent of the vote. His nearest challenger was Mustafa Barghouti with 19.8 percent. 12

The election had a much lower turnout than expected (62 percent), and supporters of the Islamic terrorist organizations largely boycotted the vote, as did Arabs living in east Jerusalem. Thus, Abbas was conservatively estimated by al-Jazeera to have received the support of only about one-third of the eligible voters. 13

The election process went smoothly and, despite Palestinian predictions of Israeli interference, international observers reported that Palestinians were not obstructed by Israel from participating in the election. In fact, Palestinian and Israeli officials were said to have worked well together to facilitate voting. 14

&ldquoFree elections can only take place in societies in which people are free to express their opinions without fear.&rdquo

? Natan Sharansky 15

Immediately after the election, however, 46 officials from the PA Central Election Committee resigned, confirming suspicions of voting irregularities and fraud. The Committee had come under pressure from Abbas&rsquo staff to extend the vote by an additional two hours and to allow non-registered voters to cast ballots to guarantee a larger turnout and improve Abbas&rsquo chance of a &ldquolandslide&rdquo victory.

The day of the election, gunmen stormed the Committee offices to demand that Palestinians who were not registered be allowed to vote. The deputy chairman of the Committee, Ammar Dwaik, said he &ldquowas personally threatened and pressured&rdquo and confirmed that some voters were able to remove from their thumbs the ink that was supposed to prevent double voting. 16

While Abbas is now seen as a legitimately elected leader by most Palestinians and the international community, the PA has no history of democratic institutions, so it remains in doubt whether the various terrorist groups will also accept his leadership, and whether the security services will enforce the president&rsquos will.

Natan Sharansky observed that &ldquoIt is important that these elections took place, because it important that the new leadership comes, or will come, not through violence. That can be the beginning of the process of democracy.&rdquo 17 To move closer to true democracy, Abbas will also have to remove his predecessor&rsquos restrictions on the freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the press. Then perhaps the next election will be truly free and democratic.


(Unless otherwise noted, all information is from U.S. State Department Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2000-2001)


Although the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom declared that, with the demise of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia is probably the worst oppressor of religious rights in the world, the Bush Administration decided on political grounds to leave the kingdom off its annual list of "countries of particular concern," an American blacklist of countries that engage in "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of the rights of religious minorities. 18

Saudi Arabia is a dynastic monarchy, ruled by King Fahd Bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud. The country?s constitution is the Koran and the Sunna (tradition) of the prophet Muhammad, and the country is thus governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Because there are no democratic institutions, citizens have no role in the government. Security in the country is enforced by both a secular security force, and the Mutawwa'in, the religious police, who comprise the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. Because the traditional Islamic view of human rights does not coincide with the modern view, the government has allowed both the secular and religious security forces to commit serious abuses.

The Saudi government beheaded 52 people in 2003, for crimes including murder, robbery, drug smuggling, and homosexuality. 19

Legal Rights

Torture, beatings, and other abuses of prisoners are committed regularly by both the Mutawwa'in and officials in the Ministry of Interior. Additionally, at least one person was killed recently by the Mutawwa'in for a very minor religious violation. Other executions during the year 2000 were for crimes ranging from ?deviant sexual behavior? to sorcery, and were carried out by stoning, beheading, or firing squad additionally, some prisoners were punished by amputations or the loss of an eye. Prisoners are sometimes held for long periods of time without charge or trial.

Freedom of speech and of the press are severely limited in Saudi Arabia ? criticizing Islam or the Royal family is illegal, and can result in prolonged imprisonment without trial. Television, radio, internet and literature are all heavily censored. Freedom of assembly and association are also limited, subject to regulations such as the segregation of men and women at meetings.

Treatment of Women

Women are the victims of systematic discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Domestic violence and rape are widespread problems, and women have no redress for such crimes. Women cannot travel, be admitted to a hospital or drive in a car without their husbands? permission. Buses are segregated, and women must sit in the rear. Those women not wearing an abaya (a black garment covering the entire body) and covering their faces and hair are harassed by the Mutawwa'in.

Laws that discriminate against women include those governing property ownership, testimony in court inheritance, and child custody in cases of divorce. Comprising only five percent of the workplace, it is nearly impossible for women to be employed in any but the simplest of tasks. Also, Female Genital Mutilation is legal and is practiced in some parts of Saudi Arabia.

Women from foreign countries also must adhere to the strict laws in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military has gone so faras to require its female soldiers to wear restrictive clothing, ride in the back seat of cars, and have a male escort when off base. In 2001, the U.S. Air Force's highest ranking female fighter pilot sued the U.S. government to overturn the policy on the grounds that it discriminates against women, violates their religious freedom, and forces them to follow customs required by a religion not their own. The Pentagon subsequently ended the requirement that women wear the black head-to-toe abayas worn by Saudi women, but the other restrictions still apply. 20

Workers? Rights

There are no labor laws, unions or collective bargaining in Saudi Arabia. While forced labor is technically illegal, foreign workers and domestic servants are sometimes forced to work up to sixteen hours daily, seven days a week. Pay is often withheld for weeks or months at a time.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that women are sometimes smuggled into Saudi Arabia to work as prostitutes, and children are smuggled in to work in organized begging rings. Officially, trafficking in persons is illegal under Saudi law.

Treatment of Minorities

There is no freedom of religion in Saudi Arabia. All citizens must be Muslims, and only the Sunni branch of Islam can be practiced publicly. There is institutional discrimination against Shi?a Muslims. Religions other than Islam are tolerated if practiced discreetly a number of Christians were deported in 2000 because they practiced ?apostasy? in too public a manner.

Asian and African workers living in Saudi Arabia report widespread discrimination, and difficulty in the redress of grievances.


The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Abdullah bin Hussein. While direct elections are used to appoint representatives to the uninfluential lower house of Parliament, the 104-seat Chamber of Deputies, the upper house, the 40-seat senate, is appointed by the king. Virtually all power is concentrated in the king, who can dismiss any representative or disband the parliament altogether, as he did in June 2001. Thus, citizens of Jordan cannot change their government. Many serious human rights violations occur in Jordan and are condoned by the government.

Legal Rights

Jordanian security forces use torture on a regular basis, which has recently resulted in several deaths. Prisoners are often held without charges, are not allowed to meet with lawyers, and are kept in unsanitary conditions this applies also to journalists charged with ?defamation,? meaning they criticized the government or the king. Forced expulsions are rare in Jordan, and are generally used only on suspected terrorists terrorist groups are well represented in Jordan. For example, the Islamic Movement of Jordan ("The Group of Ahmed Al Daganesh") and the Nobles of Jordan claimed responsibility for the August 2001 murder of an Israeli businessman in Amman. The government denied that the killing was political and has made no arrests in the case.

Freedom of assembly, association, the press and speech are all restricted by the government authors of articles critical or satirical of the government are often arrested and imprisoned. In August 2002, the Al-Jazeera television network's license was revoked for airing views critical of the government. 21

Women?s Rights

Jordanian women are at a distinct legal disadvantage. Marital rape is legal, wife-beating is rampant, and often allowed by law, and honor crimes crimes (domestic violence against women committed by men who feel the women have undermined their honor by their "immoral behavior") receive minimal sentences. Such honor crimes have become so common that they comprise 25% of the total murders committed in Jordan in 2000, according to one study.

Financially, women are at a legal disadvantage as well. Social security, inheritance, divorce and testimony laws all favor men. Women earn less than men for equal work, and are under-represented in the workplace.

Female Genital Mutilation, once practiced widely in Jordan, has largely been discontinued. Some tribes, however, maintain the practice. Much more common is the abuse of female children, especially sexual abuse. While the law calls for strict punishment in such cases, few are ever investigated.

Workers? Rights

Labor laws are generally good however, there are exceptions. Although forced labor is illegal in Jordan, many foreign servants work under conditions that amount to forced labor. Additionally, child labor is common, although the government has taken steps to curb it.

Treatment of Minorities

Freedom of religion is for the most part respected in Jordan. While only the three ?main monotheistic religions? (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) are officially recognized by the government, all other religions are permitted to practice freely, and are given equal rights. The one exception to this rule is the Baha?i faith, members of which face official, systematic discrimination. They are, however, allowed to practice openly.

Following the 1948 war, and again following the 1967 war, Jordan granted citizenship to Palestinian refugees fleeing from Israel. However, refugees who arrived since then have not been granted citizenship, and are widely discriminated against.


Since ending a 16-year civil war in 1991, Lebanon has been primarily controlled by Syria, which stations 25,000 soldiers in the country. Thus, although Lebanon is technically a parliamentary republic, neither citizens nor government officials have much of a role in changing their government, because Syria makes all policy decisions and heavily influence the elections. The Lebanese government and army do not respect human rights, and the several terrorist organizations that are headquartered in Lebanon commit abuses as well.

Legal Rights

While official governmental killings are unknown in Lebanon, there have been numerous disappearances and deaths of political prisoners in prison awaiting trial. Arbitrary arrests are common, and some prisoners are held for long periods of time without trials or charges. The use of torture is reportedly widespread. In the areas of the country controlled by the Syrian-backed militia Hizballah, only Islamic law is applied in the independent Palestinian refugee camps in the south, no specific law system is endorsed. In both locations, human rights violations abound.

Freedom of speech and of the press are granted by law, and respected for the most part however, cases of censorship are common. The right to assembly granted by law is restricted by the government. In August 2001, mostly Christian students staged a non-violent protest against Syria's role in Lebanon and were beat up by security forces. Days earlier, other anti-Syrian activists were arrested. 22

In August 2001, Lebanese security forces arrested a Christian journalist in a crackdown on anti-Syrian Christian dissidents. The week before about 200 members of Christian-led opposition groups that oppose Syria's control over Lebanon were arrested. 23

Inhabitants of Lebanon have suffered from the numerous competing terrorist groups that operate inside Lebanon. These groups either attack targets within the country, or attack Israel to the south when they do the latter, Lebanon?s population is forced to bear the brunt of the reprisals. However, attacks on Israel by Syrian-backed Hezbollah and other terrorist groups have significantly decreased since Israel?s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May of 2000.

Women?s Rights

Domestic violence and rape are significant social problems, and affect a large segment of the population. Honor Crimes are illegal, but reduced sentences are applied in such cases.

While technically women can enter any profession they wish, there is strong societal pressure that prevents most women from doing so. Many other laws in Lebanon are based on Islamic law, and are discriminatory against women and children.

Workers? Rights

Forced labor is not illegal, and many foreign servants, women, and children are compelled to work against their will. Child labor in general is rampant. Children suffer under Lebanese law in other ways as well: child abuse, kidnappings, and even the sale of children to adoption agencies are relatively common, and ignored by the government.

Treatment of Minorities

Freedom of religion is generally respected, although some discrimination is built into the legal system: for example, certain government positions can only be held by certain types of Muslims. Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon have no rights, and cannot become citizens of the state.


Technically, Syria is a parliamentary democracy in which officials are appointed through direct elections in practice, President Bashar Assad wields virtually absolute power. When his father Hafez Assad died on June 10, 2000, after a 30-year reign, Bashar ran unopposed for the post, and consequently, the minimum age required by law for a president was lowered from 40 to 34, Bashar?s age. Because of an emergency martial law that has been in place since 1963, powerful security services and militias operate independent of each other, and unimpeded by the government. Human rights are significantly restricted by the government, and the security services commit serious abuses as well.

Legal Rights

Because of the power of the security services, the legal rights of citizens of Syria are not enforced. Arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearances of prisoners all occur regularly. Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian political prisoners have been held incommunicado by the government for long periods of time, as have missing Israeli soldiers captured by Syria, and Hezbollah, the terrorist organization it backs in Lebanon. Prisoners captured as many as twenty years ago remain unaccounted for.

Freedom of speech and of the press are granted by law, but severely restricted. Publication of any ?false information? published that opposes ?the goals of the revolution? is punishable by lengthy jail sentences. All press industries are owned and operated by the government. In 2001, ten pro-democracy activists were arrested and convicted of inciting rebellion, disseminating lies and trying to change the constitution by force. 24

Freedom of association is severely restricted by the government, and freedom of assembly does not exist at all.

Women?s Rights

Domestic violence occurs in Syria, though little is known about its extent. Spousal rape is not illegal, and honor crimes occur. Legally, many financial laws, such as inheritance and social security, discriminate against women, and the punishment for adultery for women is twice that of men. Women cannot travel outside the country without their husbands? permission. Women are employed in all areas, but are under-represented in most fields.

Workers? Rights

Child labor is common, despite laws to the contrary. Additionally, the rights to form unions and bargain collectively are restricted.

Treatment of Minorities

Freedom of religion is generally respected, with two exceptions: Jews are systematically excluded from government involvement, and lack many basic rights and extreme Islamic groups are frequently targeted for attacks and discrimination, due to the numerous Islamic terrorist groups that oppose the government.

Kurds are systematically oppressed by Syria: they cannot become citizens, they have few rights and the teaching of their language and culture is outlawed by the government.


The constitution of Iraq grants rule to the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party, which is dominated by Saddam Hussein and his relatives. Hussein attempts to legitimate his rule by referring to an October 1995 ?referendum,? in which he received 99.9 percent of the vote. This election, however, had neither secret ballots nor opposing candidates, and Iraqi citizens reported that they feared reprisals if they cast a dissenting votes. Iraq?s record on human rights indicates that this fear was warranted ? Iraq?s government commits serious human rights violations, primarily through the various militias that operate in the state. These militias are instrumental in maintaining an atmosphere of fear and repression.

Legal Rights

The government?s police tactics are among the most brutal in the world. Citizens are routinely arrested and executed for such crimes as defecting, criticizing the government and prostitution. Additionally, criminals charged with lesser crimes are routinely killed en masse as part of a ?prison cleansing? system designed to reduce the prison population. Political or religious figures who are viewed as a threat to Saddam or other higher-ups are killed without compunction, and without being charged with a specific crime. Those who are charged with specific crimes rarely receive fair trials, as any court?s decision can be overridden by the President. Sometimes trials are not held at all. Torture is used systematically in Iraqi prisons.

While the government officially respects the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, all these rights are restricted in practice. The government owns all the newspapers in the country, and operates them as propaganda sources. Any statements critical of the government are harshly punished, and citizens who assemble peacefully have been repressed, and sometimes attacked by government militias.

Allegations of serious war crimes have been frequently directed against Iraq. Atrocities committed during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, and during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, are mirrored to this day, as Iraqi forces fighting with the Kurdish army that controls the north of Iraq routinely target civilians, and plant mines in civilian areas. UN inspectors who were monitoring Iraq?s military and chemical weapons plants were summarily expelled in 1997.

Women?s Rights

Domestic violence occurs in Iraq, but no statistics exist to account for its frequency. Honor crimes are legitimate under Iraqi law, and crimes such as prostitution are often punished by beheading. Numerous laws are in place guaranteeing rights for women in the workplace, but it is difficult to determine how successful they have been in producing equality.

Workers? Rights

Workers have virtually no rights in Iraq. Unions are illegal, and while forced labor is technically illegal, resigning from one?s job can result in a prison sentence. Child labor is not uncommon, despite government regulations to the contrary.

Treatment of Minorities

Freedom of religion is technically in place, but not respected by the government. While the majority of the population consists of Shi?a Muslims, the Sunni minority controls the Ba?ath Party. Thus, Shi?a religious and lay leaders are frequently assassinated or repressed. The small Christian community has been subjected to abuses as well.

The Kurds that control the north of Iraq have been severely oppressed. Kurds are prohibited from living in Iraq proper, and those in the north have been subjected to atrocities by the Iraqi military, including torture, summary executions and attacks on civilian centers using chemical weapons.


According to its constitution, Egypt is a social democracy in which Islam is the state religion. The President and his National Democratic Party, however, control the political scene to such an extent that citizens do not have a meaningful ability to change their government. There has been an Emergency Law in effect since 1981, allowing the government to arbitrarily detain persons without charge, and to regularly deny legal rights to Egyptian citizens.

Legal Rights

Freedom of speech and of the press are guaranteed by the Constitution, but are often withheld in practice. The government owns and controls the three largest newspapers and holds a monopoly on printing and distribution. Thus, newspapers rarely criticize the government, and the output of oppositions parties? newspapers is limited. Scholars and officials who criticize the government are often charged with the crimes of libel, slander, or ?disseminating false information about Egypt,? and are imprisoned. Freedom of association and assembly are severely restricted.

Physical or psychological torture, while officially outlawed, are nonetheless common, and it is reported that at least eight prisoners were tortured to death in the year 2000. Prison conditions are squalid. The Egyptian police routinely arrest prisoners arbitrarily, often holding them for long periods of time without charge, trial or access to a lawyer.

&ldquo[Egypt&rsquos] autocratic regime, established a half-century ago under the banner of Arab nationalism and socialism, is politically exhausted and morally bankrupt. Mr. Mubarak, who checked Islamic extremists in Egypt only by torture and massacre, has no modern political program or vision of progress to offer his people as an alternative to Osama bin Laden's Muslim victimology. Those Egyptians who have tried to promote such a program. are unjustly imprisoned. Instead, Mr. Mubarak props himself up with $2 billion a year in U.S. aid, while allowing and even encouraging state-controlled clerics and media to promote the anti-Western, anti-modern and anti-Jewish propaganda of the Islamic extremists. The policy serves his purpose by deflecting popular frustration with the lack of political freedom or economic development in Egypt. It also explains why so many of Osama bin Laden's recruits are Egyptian.&rdquo

? Washington Post editorial 25

Women?s Rights

Domestic violence is a serious social problem in Egypt one report concluded that one in three married women has been beaten by her husband. Additionally, marital rape is legal. Female Genital Mutilation still occurs, and a majority of women undergo the procedure. In the business world, women are guaranteed pay equal to that of men, but there are strong societal pressures against women being employed. Legally, many laws, particularly inheritance laws, favor males, and men who kill women in honor killingsreceive significantly lighter sentences than women who kill men under similar circumstances.

Workers? Rights

Labor laws in Egypt do not provide adequately for union members striking is illegal and punishable by prison terms. Many government mandated labor laws are not enforced, such as minimum wages and maximum hours. While child labor has been a problem in Egypt in the past, there has been marked improvement recently.

Treatment of Minorities

Egypt guarantees freedom of religion, and the Jewish and Christian communities are generally treated well. Nevertheless, the Christian minority has reported that it is sometimes discriminated against, and there have been reports of forced conversions to Islam. Members of the Baha?i faith are categorically banned from practicing or living in Egypt.


The Palestinian Authority's poor human rights record worsened after the onset of the "al-Aqsa intifada." In September 2000 as members of the Palestinian security services and Fatah's Tanzim participated in violent attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers. Because armed Palestinians often launched their attacks near the homes of Palestinian civilians residents of the homes sometimes found themselves in the line of fire when Israel retaliated. Palestinian security forces also failed to prevent armed Palestinians from opening fire on Israelis in places where bystanders were present.

Legal Rights

On December 2, 2001, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat declared a state of emergency and granted himself broad legal powers.

PA security forces arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and prolonged detention and lack of due process are prevalent. The courts do not ensure fair and expeditious trials. The PA executive and security services frequently ignore or fail to enforce court decisions.

The PA does not prohibit by law the use of torture or force against detainees, and PA security forces reportedly were responsible for torture and widespread abuse of Palestinian detainees. International human rights monitoring groups have documented widespread arbitrary and abusive conduct by the PA. These organizations state that use of torture is widespread and not restricted to those persons detained on security charges. At least five Palestinians died in PA custody during 2001.

PA security forces infringed on citizens' rights to privacy and restricted freedom of speech and of the press by closing down media outlets, banning publications or broadcasts, and periodically harassing or detaining members of the media. For example, after the brutal killing of two IDF reserve soldiers at a Ramallah police station on October 12, 2000, Palestinian police confiscated film from several journalists who were at the scene. On October 4, a foreign journalist filmed three members of the Palestinian security forces distributing Molotov cocktails to several children. The security forces detained the journalist and his crew for several hours and destroyed the roll of film. PA harassment contributed to the practice of self-censorship by many Palestinian commentators, reporters, and critics.

Violence Against Israelis

Palestinian violence during the "al-Aqsa iintifada" included violent demonstrations, shootings and incidents in which Palestinians usually threw stones and Molotov cocktails at IDF checkpoints. Israeli civilians and Jews in the territories became frequent targets of drive-by shootings and ambushes, suicide and other bombings, mortar attacks, and armed attacks on settlements and military bases. Palestinians acting individually, or in unorganized or small groups, including some members of Palestinian security services, killed 87 Israelis in the territories in 2001. Off-duty members of PA security forces and members of Chairman Arafat's Fatah faction participated in some of these attacks.

Several Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and Fatah-affiliated groups such as the al-Aqsa Brigades, have also claimed responsibility for attacks specifically targeting civilians within Israel proper. The PA had made few arrests in these killings by year's end.

An estimated 340 suspected collaborators and 180 to 200 political prisoners were held in PA jails at the end of 2001. A number of Palestinians suspected of collaboration with the Israeli government were arrested, tried and executed. Dozens more were simply murdered. 26

Women?s Rights

Spousal abuse, sexual abuse, and honor killings occur, but societal pressures prevent most incidents from being reported and most cases are handled within the families concerned, usually by male family members.

Palestinian women endure various forms of social prejudice and repression within their society. Because of early marriage, girls frequently do not finish the mandatory level of schooling. Cultural restrictions sometimes prevent women from attending colleges and universities. While there is an active women's movement in the West Bank, serious attention has shifted only recently from nationalist aspirations to issues that greatly affect women, such as domestic violence, equal access to education and employment, and laws concerning marriage and inheritance. Women who marry outside of their faith, particularly Christian women who marry Muslim men, often are disowned by their families and sometimes are harassed and threatened with death.

A growing number of Palestinian women work outside the home, where they tend to encounter discrimination. There are no special laws that provide for women's rights in the workplace. Women are underrepresented in most aspects of professional life.

Workers? Rights

There is no minimum wage in the West Bank or Gaza Strip and no laws that protect the rights of striking workers. In practice, such workers have little or no protection from an employer's retribution. In early 2000, West Bank teachers held a strike. On May 5, 2000, PA officials arrested one of the strike leaders for criticizing the PA during a radio interview. The radio station was also shut down. The teachers suspended their strike on May 17, despite the fact that none of their demands were met.

Treatment of Minorities

No PA law protects religious freedom however, the PA generally respects freedom of religion. In past years, there were allegations that several converts from Islam to Christianity at times are subject to societal discrimination and harassment by PA officials. However, there was no pattern of PA discrimination and harassment against Christians.

&ldquoIt is hard to know what is more alarming -- a toxic statement of hatred of Jews by the Malaysian prime minister at an Islamic summit meeting this week or the unanimous applause it engendered from the kings, presidents and emirs in the audience. The words uttered by the prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, in a speech to the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference on Thursday were sadly familiar: Jews, he asserted, may be few in number, but they seek to run the world. Sympathy for the Muslims' plight must not be confused with the acceptance of racism. Most Muslims have indeed be shoddily treated &mdash by their own leaders who gather at feckless summit meetings instead of offering their people what they most need: human rights, education and democracy.&rdquo

? New York Times editorial 27


1 Arab Human Development Report 2002, NY: UN, 2002.
2 Daniel Pipes, In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power, (NY: Basic Books, 1983), p. 177.
3 Arab Human Development Report 2002, NY: UN, 2002.
4 U.S. State Department, Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999.
5 Martin Peretz, "Remembering Saudi Arabia," The New Republic, (January 28, 2002).
6 USA Today, (April 29, 2002).
7 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), (December 4, 1999).
8 Jerusalem Post, ,(August 19, 2002).
9 State Department. Human Rights Report for the Occupied Territories, 1997, 1998.
10 Associated Press, (March 28, 2004).
11 Washington Post, (March 29, 2004).
12 CNN.com (January 10, 2005).
13 Aljazeera.Net, (January 11, 2005).
14 CNN.com, (January 10, 2005) Herb Keinon, &ldquoObserver teams validate PA elections,&rdquo Jerusalem Post, (January 11, 2005).
15 Herb Keinon, &ldquoSharansky: PA election not &lsquotruly free,&rsquo&rdquo Jerusalem Post, (January 11, 2005).
16 Aljazeera.Net, (January 15, 2005) Jerusalem Post, (January 16, 2005).
17 Herb Keinon, &ldquoSharansky: PA election not &lsquotruly free,&rsquo&rdquo Jerusalem Post, (January 11, 2005).
18 Newsweek, (March 10, 2003).
19 CBS News, (June 25, 2004).
20 Washington Post, (December 4, 2001).
21 Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (August 9, 2002).
22 Jerusalem Report, (March 25, 2002).
23 CNN, (August 16, 2001).
24 Jerusalem Post, (July 1, 2002) BBC News, (August 11, 2002).
25 Washington Post editorial, (October 11, 2001).
26 Isabel Kershner, "Below the Law," Jerusalem Report, (April 22, 2002), pp. 32-33.
27 New York Times editorial, (October 18, 2003).

To order the paperback edition, click HERE.

To receive a weekly myth and fact and periodic fact sheets by email, send a request to [email protected]

The Role of Government

U.S. foreign policy is crafted principally in the executive branch, with the White House setting the agenda and assembling a national security strategy. At the Cabinet level, the Secretaries of State and Defense also play key roles in shaping policy, determining priorities, and implementing strategy. The U.S. Foreign Service, under the aegis of the State Department, trains and employs our diplomats, who are posted at U.S. diplomatic missions throughout the world to carry out U.S. foreign policy.

In the legislative branch, lawmakers in the House and Senate do play an important role in foreign policy elected representatives in Congress have Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities for foreign affairs, “including the right to declare war, fund the military, regulate international commerce, and approve treaties. At least as important are such congressional authorities as the ability to convene hearings that provide oversight of foreign policy.”

The following Congressional committees handle foreign policy, defense, and national security matters:

Goals of U.S. Policy in the Middle East

National Security and Diplomacy

Over the past few decades, the Middle East has experienced much upheaval . Uprisings across the region have “challenged autocratic governments,” “toppled longtime dictators,” and resulted in multiple civil wars, all of which have “left regional leaders intently focused on regime security,” Brookings Senior Fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes explains. The U.S. has relied on a combination of intelligence cooperation, diplomacy, and military tools in the region for example, the U.S. was heavily involved in the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS. Senior Pentagon official James H. Anderson described to Congress in May 2020 that U.S. military presence in the Middle East was to “ensure the region is not a safe haven for terrorists, is not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and contributes to a stable global energy market.” Recent administrations have made efforts to recede from the region, but there are still concerns about how regional partners can stabilize the region and protect shared interests, and the costs are still large.

According to a report by the RAND Corp., the Middle East receives more than 50% of all U.S. global military aid, and o f the roughly $6 billion in global foreign military financing apportioned in 2019, over 80% went to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. The authors explain much of this is comes in the form of “[l]egacy aid packages and regional partnerships designed during the Cold War and the post-1990-1991 Gulf War eras, including massive arms packages to increasingly assertive Arab Gulf partners,” but very little attention is paid to nonsecurity investments.

Economic and Trade Interests

The U.S. links its national security and economic goals, based on the idea that “economic development supported through enhanced trade and investment ties can advance U.S. goals of peace and stability” in the region. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative points to U.S. Free Trade Agreements with Jordan, Israel, Bahrain, and Oman, among others, as “context for U.S. trade investment policy dialogues with these governments, dialogues which are aimed at increasing U.S. exports as well as assisting in the development of intra-regional economic ties.” Economic sanctions are also part of this U.S. sanctions on Iran “were at the core of Trump Administration policy to apply ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran” and compel Iran to renegotiate a new version of the JCPOA, although these “have arguably not, to date, altered Iran’s pursuit of core strategic objectives,” some experts note.

Arms sales are also a central component of U.S. economic relations in the Middle East between 2013 and 2017, almost half of U.S. arms exports went to the region, primarily to Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. is also Israel’s single largest trading partner, primarily in semiconductors and telecommunications equipment.

In terms of imports, foreign relations analyst Martin Indyk says the U.S. is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil as it has focused on its own domestic natural gas production, which means ensuring “the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf area at reasonable prices” is still important but no longer “a vital strategic interest.”

Universal Human Rights

The State Department maintains that “a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights .”

According to Amnesty International , across the Middle East “with virtually no exceptions governments have displayed a shocking intolerance for the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.” Protesters and activists across the region from the United Arab Emirates to Palestine to Lebanon have been detained for criticizing authorities or peacefully demonstrating.

Civilians also suffer through armed conflicts in the region, particularly those caught in the civil wars in Yemen and Syria. Human Rights Watch reports that as of the end of 2020, there have been more than 18,400 civilian deaths in Yemen and more than 9.3 million Syrians have become food insecure. The Global Coalition seeks to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but the US-led offensive against ISIS in Raqqa has also been accused of causing far more civilian deaths than had been acknowledged .

Did Soviet Influence Improve Women's Rights in the Middle East? - History

Historically, Iraqi women and girls have enjoyed relatively more rights than many of their counterparts in the Middle East. The Iraqi Provisional Constitution (drafted in 1970) formally guaranteed equal rights to women and other laws specifically ensured their right to vote, attend school, run for political office, and own property. Yet, since the 1991 Gulf War, the position of women within Iraqi society has deteriorated rapidly. Women and girls were disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of the U.N. sanctions, and lacked access to food, health care, and education. These effects were compounded by changes in the law that restricted women's mobility and access to the formal sector in an effort to ensure jobs to men and appease conservative religious and tribal groups.

Women's Status in Iraq Prior to the 1991 Gulf War
After seizing power in 1968, the secular Ba'ath party embarked on a program to consolidate its authority and to achieve rapid economic growth despite labor shortages. 1 Women's participation was integral to the attainment of both of these goals, and the government promulgated laws specifically aimed at improving the status of women in the public and-to a more limited extent-the private spheres. 2 The status of Iraqi women has thus been directly linked to the government's over-arching political and economic policies.

Until the 1990s, Iraqi women played an active role in the political and economic development of Iraq. A robust civil society had existed prior to the coup d'etat in 1968, including a number of women's organizations. 3 The Ba'ath Party dismantled most of these civil society groups after its seizure of power. Shortly thereafter it established the General Federation of Iraqi Women (GFIW). 4 The GFIW grew to play a significant role in implementing state policy, primarily through its role in running more than 250 rural and urban community centers offering job-training, educational, and other social programs for women and acting as a channel for communication of state propaganda. 5 Female officers within the GFIW also played a role in the implementation of legal reforms advancing women's status under the law and in lobbying for changes to the personal status code. 6 On the other hand, some Iraqi women have argued that as a political arm of the Ba'ath party, the GFIW was destructive to women's issues in Iraq and "did not reflect or represent the struggle of millions of oppressed Iraqi women." 7

The primary legal underpinning of women's equality is contained in the Iraqi Provisional Constitution, which was drafted by the Ba'ath party in 1970. Article 19 declares all citizens equal before the law regardless of sex, blood, language, social origin, or religion. In January 1971, Iraq also ratified the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which provide equal protection under international law to all. 8

In order to further its program of economic development, the government passed a compulsory education law mandating that both sexes attend school through the primary level. 9 Although middle and upper class Iraqi women had been attending university since the 1920s, rural women and girls were largely uneducated until this time. In December 1979, the government passed further legislation requiring the eradication of illiteracy. 10 All illiterate persons between ages fifteen and forty-five were required to attend classes at local "literacy centers," many of which were run by the GFIW. Although many conservative sectors of Iraqi society refused to allow women in their communities to go to such centers (despite potential prosecution), the literacy gap between males and females narrowed. 11

The Iraqi government also passed labor and employment laws to ensure that women were granted equal opportunities in the civil service sector, maternity benefits, and freedom from harassment in the workplace. 12 Such laws had a direct impact on the number of women in the workforce. 13 The fact that the government (as opposed to the private sector) was hiring women contributed to the breakdown of the traditional reluctance to allow women to work outside the home. 14 The Iraqi Bureau of Statistics reported that in 1976, women constituted approximately 38.5 percent of those in the education profession, 31 percent of the medical profession, 25 percent of lab technicians, 15 percent of accountants and 15 percent of civil servants. 15 During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), women assumed greater roles in the workforce in general and the civil service in particular, reflecting the shortage of working age men. Until the 1990s, the number of women working outside the home continued to grow.

While most advances in women's status occurred in the political and economic spheres, the government also made modest changes to the personal status laws in 1978. 16 For example, divorced mothers were granted custody of their children until the age of ten (previously seven for boys and nine for girls) at which time, at the discretion of a state-employed judge, custody could be extended to the child's fifteenth birthday. 17 The child could then choose with which parent to live. Changes were also made to the conditions under which a woman could seek divorce and regulations concerning polygynous marriages and inheritance. 18 These reforms reflected the Ba'ath Party's attempt to modernize Iraqi society and supplant loyalty to extended families and tribal society with loyalty to the government and ruling party. 19

Women attained the right to vote and run for office in 1980. 20 In 1986, Iraq became one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). While this represented a positive step for Iraqi women, the reservations entered in regard to articles 2(f), 2(g), 9, and 16 undermined the guarantees of equality at the heart of the convention. Namely, these reservations sought to justify continued application of national laws that discriminate on the basis of sex, especially those in relation to women's and girls' rights within the familial structure, on the grounds that they are largely dictated by Islamic law. 21 As with other countries in the region, most advancement in the status of Iraqi women has thus occurred within the public sphere.

Women's Status in the Post-Gulf War Years
In the years following the 1991 Gulf War, many of the positive steps that had been taken to advance women's and girls' status in Iraqi society were reversed due to a combination of legal, economic, and political factors. 22 The most significant political factor was Saddam Hussein's decision to embrace Islamic and tribal traditions as a political tool in order to consolidate power. In addition, the U.N. sanctions imposed after the war have had a disproportionate impact on women and children (especially girls). 23 For example, the gender gap in school enrollment (and subsequently female illiteracy) increased dramatically due to families' financial inability to send their children to school. When faced with limited resources, many families chose to keep their girl children at home. 24 According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as a result of the national literacy campaign, as of 1987 approximately 75 percent of Iraqi women were literate however, by year-end 2000, Iraq had the lowest regional adult literacy levels, with the percentage of literate women at less than 25 percent. 25

Women and girls have also suffered from increasing restrictions on their freedom of mobility and protections under the law. 26 In collusion with conservative religious groups and tribal leaders, the government issued numerous decrees and introduced legislation negatively impacting women's legal status in the labor code, criminal justice system, and personal status laws. 27 In 2001, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Violence against Women reported that since the passage of the reforms in 1991, an estimated 4,000 women and girls had been victims of "honor killings." 28 In recent years, both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) administrations in northern Iraq issued decrees suspending laws allowing for mitigation of sentences in honor crimes, but the degree to which the suspension has been implemented is unknown. 29

Furthermore, as the economy constricted, in an effort to ensure employment for men the government pushed women out of the labor force and into more traditional roles in the home. In 1998, the government reportedly dismissed all females working as secretaries in governmental agencies. 30 In June 2000, it also reportedly enacted a law requiring all state ministries to put restrictions on women working outside the home. 31 Women's freedom to travel abroad was also legally restricted and formerly co-educational high schools were required by law to provide single-sex education only, further reflecting the reversion to religious and tribal traditions. 32 As a result of these combined forces, by the last years of Saddam Hussein's government the majority of women and girls had been relegated to traditional roles within the home.

For information on the current situation in Iraq and issues related to women, see the Human Rights Watch report "Climate of Fear: Sexual Violence and Abduction of Women and Girls in Baghdad," (July 2003) available at http://hrw.org/reports/2003/iraq0703/ . Additional information and reports are available at http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/iraq/ .

1 Suad Joseph, "Elite Strategies for State-Building: Women, Family, Religion and State in Iraq and Lebanon," in Women, Islam and the State , ed. Deniz Kandiyoti (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1992), p. 178-79.

3 Such organizations included the Women's Empowerment Society (Jameat al-Nahda al-Nisaeya - founded in 1924), the Kurdish Women's Foundation (founded in 1928), and the Iraqi Women's League (founded in 1951).

4 Ibid., pp. 182-83. The goals of the GFIW were outlined in Revolutionary Command Council Law No. 139, December 9, 1972: (1) to fight the enemies of a socialist, democratic Arab society (2) to ensure the equality of Iraqi women with men in rights, in the economy, and in the state (3) to contribute to the economic and social development of Iraq by cooperating with other Iraqi organizations and by raising the national consciousness of women and (4) to support mothers and children within the family structure. As of 1997, 47 percent of all women in Iraq belonged to the organization. The Coalitional Provisional Authority abolished the GFIW, which required Ba'ath party membership and represented the only channel for many women to access positions of political power, under the post-war "de-Baathification" policy. See Coalitional Provisional Authority Order No. 1, "De-Baathification of Iraqi Society," May 16, 2003 [online], http://www.cpa-iraq.org/regulations/CPAORD1.pdf (retrieved June 25, 2003).

5 Assam, "Political Ideology and Women in Iraq," p. 87.

6 Joseph, "Elite Strategies for State Building," p. 184.

7 "Joint Comments by Women for a Free Iraq and Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq," July 15, 2003 [online], http://www.womenforiraq.org/winning_the_peace.doc (retrieved August 6, 2003).

8 Iraq ratified both the ICCPR and the ICESCR on January 25, 1971.

9 The Compulsory Education Law 118/1976 stated that education is compulsory and free of charge for children of both sexes from six to ten years of age. Girls were free to leave school thereafter with the approval of their parents or guardians. See U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, "Second and Third Periodic Reports of State Parties: Republic of Iraq," CEDAW/C/IRQ/2-3, October 19, 1998, pp. 11-12.

10 The law required illiterate adults between the ages of 15 to 45 to participate for a two-year period in one of the many literacy programs established by the government. Joseph, "Elite Strategies for State-Building," p. 181.

11 It is unclear to what degree the law was enforced, though attendance at primary schools increased significantly. See U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, "Arab Women in ESCWA Member States," E/ESCWA/STAT/1994/17, 1994, p. 88.

12 Articles 80-89 of the Unified Labor Code (originally Law 151/1970, replaced by Law 81/1987) established "protections of working women." Article 4 established the right to equal pay. Under the Maternal Law of 1971, women received six months' paid maternity leave and could take six additional months of unpaid leave.

13 Joseph, "Elite Strategies for State-Building," p. 186. According to a report by the General Federation of Iraqi Women, female participation in the workforce increased from 2.5 percent of the total labor force in 1957 to 12 percent in 1977. Another study reports an increase from 12 percent in 1977 to 19 percent in 1980. See Amal Sharqi, "The Progress of Women in Iraq," in Iraq: The Contemporary State , ed. Tim Niblock (London: Croom Helm and Exeter Centre for Arab Gulf Studies, 1982).

14 Rassam, "Political Ideology and Women in Iraq," p. 88.

16 The Code of Personal Status was first promulgated in 1959 under the regime of Abdal-Karim Qasim, which took power after the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in July 1958. Until that time, family laws were based on tradition or customary law and had never been codified. Qasim was executed in 1963 and many of the family law reforms he had implemented were reversed by the successive rulers under religious pressure. See Joseph, "Elite Strategies for State-Building," p. 184. See also Eric Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq , March 2003 [online], http://fas-polisci.rutgers.edu/

18 Rassam, "Political Ideology and Women in Iraq," p. 84.

19 Rassam, "Political Ideology and Women in Iraq," p. 91. It is also suggested that this may have been done to intimidate religious institutions and authorities.

20 Although given the right to run for election to the National Assembly, women were still underrepresented in government and politics.

21 Article 2(f) and (g) requires States Parties to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices (including penal provisions) which constitute discrimination against women. Article 9 guarantees women's individual nationality rights as well as their right to confer nationality upon their children (whereas Iraqi Nationality Law 43/1961 allows only the father to confer nationality upon his children). Article 16 pertains to the elimination of discrimination in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.

22 The Iraqi government suffered large human and material losses in its eight-year war with Iran. At the war's end in 1988, lower oil prices prohibited the state from maintaining the massive social welfare state it had created in the 1970s. These two factors led to massive social discontent and Saddam Hussein confronted the possibility of being overthrown. The economic impact of 1991 Gulf War further fueled social discontent and the Ba'ath party reversed many of its earlier social policies. In attempt to foster loyalty among tribal and religious groups, Saddam Hussein began incorporating religious rhetoric into the party's platform and also reinstated tribal sheikhs as leaders, arming them and giving them land. See Sami Zubaida, "The Rise and Fall of Civil Society in Iraq," May 2, 2003 [online], http://www.opendemocracy. net/debates/article-2-88-953.jsp (retrieved June 25, 2003).

23 U.N. Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (UNOCHR), "Occasional Paper: Situation of Women in Iraq," May 28, 2003.

24 The Government of Iraq reported that this was the case in its most recent periodic report to CEDAW. "Second and Third Periodic Reports of State Parties: Republic of Iraq," CEDAW/C/IRQ/2-3, October 19, 1998, p. 12.

25 UNOCHR, "Occasional Paper: Situation of Women in Iraq," p. 1.

27 For example, in March 1990, a presidential decree was issued exempting men who kill or assault their female relatives in defense of their family's honor from prosecution and punishment, resulting in a resurgence of a practice that had markedly decreased. U.N. Commission on Human Rights, "Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women," E/CN.4/2002/83, January 31, 2002. Under the decree, a male defendant accused of murder or assault of a female relative may plead as a defense that he was motivated by a real or perceived breach of family honor. In murder cases, this defense can result in the reduction of the minimum prison term from eight years to six months.

29 "Iraqi Kurds Amend Law to Reduce Honor Crimes," AFP , 14 August 2002 UNOCHR, "Occasional Paper: Situation of Women in Iraq," p. 4.

30 "Saddam Bans Iraqi Women from Work," June 15, 2000 [online], http://www.iraqfoundation.org/news/
2000/fjun/15_womenbanned.html (retrieved June 25, 2003).

32 Women under age forty-five were prohibited from leaving the country unless accompanied by a male relative.