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Millions of women in the Middle East and Arab world are suffering. During heavy times, the hope lies in their collective strength

The present moment for women in the Middle East is arduous and filled with pain. For Lebanese journalist and writer Batoul Yazbeck, the way out will require nothing short of a paradigm shift away from the oppressive grip of entrenched masculine power in the region.

Right now, as I wrote this article, my goal was clear – to steer clear of neutrality, to reject the detachment that often accompanies discussions about the plight of millions of women in the Middle East and the Arab world. It is a deliberate effort to avoid the trap of remaining indifferent to their experiences, to give a voice to the silenced, and to challenge the status quo with a call for genuine empathy and understanding.

From Iran, where the poignant struggle against authoritarian oppression manifests in the forcible imposition of the Hijab (headscarf), to the harrowing experiences of Iraqi and Syrian women ensnared in the clutches of human trafficking—underscored by the stark reality of deteriorating security conditions and the absence of protective policies in their respective nations. This distressing pattern of injustice extends its reach to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, several Gulf nations, and Palestine, nations tragically marked by the arbitrary killing of numerous women—a phenomenon fueled by a toxic blend of so-called "honor killing” pretexts and domestic violence (not to be overlooked are the indescribable hardships endured by the women in Gaza). Unfortunately, the cycle of injustice persists, vividly illustrating the grim reality of the living conditions faced by women in the Arab and Middle Eastern regions.

Gender-based violence in the Middle East and North Africa

A nuanced examination of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region over the last five years unveils a landscape overshadowed by significant crises, notably highlighted by the persistent challenges confronting women's rights. Despite incremental progress in diverse developmental spheres, the MENA region remains entrenched in formidable hurdles on the path to achieving gender equality.

The widespread occurrence of violence against women, ranging from domestic abuse to detrimental traditional practices, coupled with the limited representation of women in decision-making processes, underscores the enduring impact of deeply ingrained societal norms and cultural dynamics. Not to mention the male guardianship policies, still prevalent not only in the Middle East but also extending beyond, that historically granted or still grant men control over women's lives.

Disturbingly high rates of gender-based violence in the MENA region, including domestic violence, honor killings, and female genital mutilation (FGM), have been documented by reputable sources such as the United Nations and local women's associations. However, these statistics likely underestimate the true extent of the problem due to underreporting driven by social stigma, fear, and inadequate support systems.

Amplifying the Silent Struggles of Arab and Middle Eastern Women Fighting 'Honor' Crimes

The abhorrent practice of honor killings, predominantly impacting women (with some statistics suggesting as high as 93%), operates on the premise of "cleansing shame" attributed to a woman's perceived moral transgressions. In Middle Eastern societies, the honor of an entire family becomes intertwined with the perceived sexual conduct of any woman connected to them. The closer the familial relationship, the more profound the sense of shame, compelling a perceived duty to avenge the family's honor. Shockingly, no concrete evidence is required to substantiate an alleged moral error; mere suspicion is often enough to pass judgment. Remarkably, this authority lies not with the family as a collective, but with an individual member—typically the father or brother—who unilaterally decides guilt, pronounces the death sentence, and, chillingly, carries out the execution. The entire process, from investigation to judgment and execution, is thus monopolized by the arbitrary will of a single individual who falsely believes he possesses dominion over a woman's life merely by virtue of their familial association.

Quantifying the prevalence of "honor" killings in the MENA region presents a formidable challenge for researchers, as perpetrators deliberately cloak their actions in diverse pretexts, and many cases escape detection entirely, often masquerading as suicides. The perpetuation of stereotypical narratives further complicates matters, either justifying the crime or deflecting culpability. This intricate web of deception allows wrongdoers to evade justice.

Further complicating the issue is the intrinsic link between this form of violence and a social milieu that not only tolerates but also justifies it. Societal norms, on one front, seemingly validate such acts, while on the other, the legal landscape is shaped by norms deeply rooted in dominant male ideologies. This dual dynamic not only sustains the cycle of violence but also provides a refuge for perpetrators from legal consequences. Consequently, a comprehensive approach is imperative to dismantle the societal and legal frameworks that enable, and sometimes legitimize, "honor" killings in the MENA region.

Precision Protocols for Combatting Criminal Menace: Official Measures and Awareness Initiatives

Despite legislative efforts in the MENA region to protect women from violence, challenges persist in implementing and enforcing these laws. Legal loopholes, lack of awareness, and cultural resistance undermine their effectiveness. A notable example of feminist initiatives is ABAAD, a Lebanese organization actively campaigning against sexual violence. Their efforts revealed that many women don't report assaults due to cultural factors, and a national study emphasized the importance of addressing these crimes outside societal stereotypes. Ghida Anani, ABAAD's Director, emphasized the need to confront sexual assault beyond societal norms. The organization's work aligns with the national campaign "(no shame, no blame) #لا_عرض_ولا_عار," part of the 16-day global campaign to end violence against women and girls.

Where to from here?

In my opinion, fostering hope for meaningful change in the Arab world necessitates a paradigm shift, one that transcends conventional thinking and liberates us from the oppressive grip of entrenched masculine power. Addressing this requires the implementation of stringent laws that firmly establish true equality, extending beyond mere superficial measures. While this reflects my own viewpoint, the stark absence of female representation in the decision-making arena underscores the substantial distance we must traverse — potentially spanning years — before realizing genuine prospects for transformative change.