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Two years ago, no one could have predicted that the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia would ignite a pro-democracy movement which would spread throughout the Middle East.
Many in the field of human rights NGOs praised the Arab Spring. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch called it “a transformative moment, an historic opportunity for a long-suppressed people to seize control of its destiny.”
But the sad reality is that the revolutions have not fulfilled their promises — and the women of the region are suffering as a result. Perhaps if the well-funded international human rights movement, including Human Rights Watch, had been better prepared to help the millions demanding change, reality on the ground would be much different.
Women played an essential role in the uprisings, yet as these countries move into the post-revolution phase, the women who helped light the fuse remain marginalized. Egypt is a case in point. Here’s what Moushira Khattab, a former Egyptian ambassador to South Africa and minister of family and population, had to say about the brave women who protested alongside men in Tahrir Square: “The train of change has not only left them behind, but has in fact turned against them …”
At a recent conference on women’s rights following the Arab Spring, activists noted that women had seen “precious few gains”. The 85-member constituent assembly behind Egypt’s draft constitution included only five women, and the constitution has been criticized for not explicitly guaranteeing equal rights for both genders. The quota for female representation in Egypt’s parliament has been abolished, resulting in only eight women being elected out of 508 seats.
Activists report that sexual harassment has reached “epidemic proportions” in Egypt. Surveys say that, on a daily basis, Egyptian women are dealing with some form of sexual harassment: verbal abuse, groping, even attacks by violent mobs. In June 2012, women who gathered in Tahrir Square to protest the harassment were assaulted by hundreds of men.
Egyptian parliamentarians have been urged to establish harsher penalties for the crime of honor killings. They’ve resisted, arguing it would lead to an increase in “promiscuity”. The law that allows for a reduced sentence for a man convicted of an honor killing remains on the books.
Honor killings are based on a perception of shame brought upon a family; most of the victims are young women. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have done little to report on these crimes throughout the Middle East. In fact, Human Rights Watch has not written on the issue once in the context of Egypt since the uprisings.
The human rights movement has lost both direction and moral authority. A vast multi-billion dollar business, its leaders are politicians without mandates or accountability, cynically manipulating public opinion without principles. Had this not been the case, the outcome of the Arab Spring could have been much different. But for decades, human rights organizations made little or no effort to issue substantial reports on, or build democratic mechanisms in, the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East.
When the revolutions erupted, the NGOs lacked the infrastructure in the region to make any real impact. In Syria for example, Human Rights Watch’s inadequacy was largely evident in its July 2010 report, “A Wasted Decade” — which covered ten years of research on human rights violations in Syria in just 35 pages. The thinness of the report was matched by its weak recommendations, which clearly made no impact.
Had countries such as Egypt and others been able to turn themselves into real, peaceful democracies, the region — and the rest of the world — surely would benefit. But the Arab Spring seems to have failed to deliver on human rights. The suppression of women’s rights throughout the region is a prime example of this failure.