| Interviews

The Good News Behind the Bad for Middle Eastern Women

Nikki Keddie, one of the nation’s leading Middle East scholars, argues that despite Western stereotypes, women in many Middle Eastern countries are making great strides in terms of civil liberties and legal rights. But America’s disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan threaten to undo much of the progress.

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation between Truthdig contributing editor Joshua Scheer and Nikki Keddie, professor emerita of Middle Eastern and Iranian history at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose most recent book is “Women in the Middle East: Past and Present,” a comprehensive history of women and their role in the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2006).

TRUTHDIG: What was women’s role in shaping the Middle East, historically, and how have they been treated, historically, in the Middle East?

KEDDIE: Women were evidently quite important in the very early days of Islam. The Koran is addressed equally to men and women, and most of its suras, which are the revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, treat them with the same respect and the same general way … as men. And there are laws in the Koran regarding women — not all of which are egalitarian, but they were similar to what existed in many other societies at the time — allowing polygamy, and saying that husbands were to be obeyed, and things of that sort.

On the other hand we know that women were very active in some of the early battles and the councils of Muhammad…. However, in the first couple of centuries there was a lowering of the position of women, which was partly reflecting the society around them. The idea of stoning to death for adultery, for example, clearly came in through Jewish [law], even though it was very seldom enforced, either in Jewish law or in Muslim law.

TRUTHDIG: All that many people see [about women’s current status in the Middle East] is what the media portrays, and I think it’s pretty simplistic. It seems that women there have no rights, that they don’t have a role — except to be covered up. Do you think the media does a poor job here?

KEDDIE: Yes, I do think they do a poor job. Now there are some people of course who want to point out repression of women everywhere, and in all societies there remain inequalities, but there have been great advances in the last couple of centuries for women in the Middle East. For example, women in every Middle Eastern country — and technically there are about 22 of them, if you count the small Gulf states — now vote. There are women [governmental] ministers in several Muslim countries and Middle Eastern countries. And if you’re talking about the Islamic world in general, it’s striking that Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey … have all had women prime ministers, which is quite striking, certainly as compared to the United States. There are also laws in most of these Middle Eastern countries that provide for equal pay for equal work, for certain kinds of maternity leave, for child care, pay and no discrimination for part-time work. These are things that women have fought for in Middle Eastern countries, and [that] some of the liberal men or more modernizing men have also fought for. They are advancing in education; … in the country of Iran, where they’re really advancing between the adult education and the regular education program, they’re getting very close to universal literacy. Family planning is present in most Middle Eastern countries. In Iran the birthrate has fallen with a fantastic voluntary birth control program — has fallen from a very high level previously to replacement levels, and the government has gotten the clergy behind this program, which is one reason for its success. So there are many aspects about women in the Middle East that we don’t hear about very much; we tend to hear just about the negatives.

TRUTHDIG: Why do you think that is? Do you think [the media] lumps all these countries together, and assumes that if it’s a Middle Eastern country that it has to be like the Taliban?

KEDDIE: I think that’s part of it. They take the dramatic cases, like Saudi Arabia and the Taliban, and generalize to all of the Middle East. It’s also unfortunately true that mistreatment of women has been used as an excuse, as it was in Afghanistan, … for U.S. intervention. And this in Iraq has resulted in women’s positions being much worse than [they were] before, under Saddam Hussein. And in Afghanistan, it’s better in some ways, but it looks in danger of going back to many of the pre-invasion practices, with the rise of the Taliban again. So intervention certainly doesn’t help.

I think one point that should be made is that the various secularist nationalist governments, partly for their own reasons, generally have been behind more egalitarian reforms for women in their record for the past half-century. And that’s true in Syria, in Iraq, in Egypt, in Iran [earlier], certainly in Turkey under Ataturk and since Ataturk. And we don’t hear much about the positives about the secularist, nationalist governments, because in the cases of Syria and Iraq they were regarded as our enemies, so we wanted to make them sound as bad as possible.

TRUTHDIG: Anecdotally, I’ve heard from people from Syria or Lebanon that the new prime minister is very friendly toward women, increasing their role in society. It’s interesting that we go to war with these countries, and they are secular nationalists, and then we get involved with people who may be worse towards women.

The United Nations has rated Afghanistan [with the resurgence of the Taliban] as one of the worst places for women to live. How bad do you think it’s going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan now that we’ve knocked out whatever government they had?

KEDDIE: Well, in Iraq of course it’s terrible for everyone. But the worsening position for women — and many of these things are discussed in the book — already began with the sanctions for 10 years, in which all sorts of services which had been supplied by the government were cut back. Whether it was education or health or child care — if the family could only afford to educate one or some of its children, it would tend to go for the boys rather than the girls. So we have this beginning already. Also, Saddam Hussein cut back under this pressure on his secularism and began to favor former opponents like tribal and religious forces. That already began under the sanctions program. In addition, you have what happened since the war, in which one way to dishonor a family — and of course many Americans have done a lot of the dishonoring by coming into homes and private spaces and dealing with men and women badly — but one way to dishonor them would be to kidnap, rape them [the women]; things of that sort would dishonor the whole family. And so there’s far more of that going on; so girls often don’t dare even go out to school. That’s partly true in Afghanistan, too.

TRUTHDIG: Do you think there’s any hope for these countries? Is there a government you can see that you think can help them? Or is it going to be bad for some time?

KEDDIE: Well, it’ll be bad for some time, but there’s hope in the distant future. Obviously the kinds of policies that the U.S. has been following have been harmful to women, perhaps even [more] than men, although they’ve been very harmful to men, too.

TRUTHDIG: Thanks so much.

Joshua Scheer
Joshua Scheer is a Truthdig…
Joshua Scheer
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