UN Should Act to Protect Muslim Women
By Fadwa El Guindi.
Fadwa El Guindi is an adjunct anthropology professor at the University of Southern California. She deals with Muslim women in a forthcoming book.
BY 1993, the Islamic Salvation Front had galvanized a wide and
popular Algerian base of support and was expected to win elections. The
Arab street, a popular and growing force of public opinion and
nonmilitant resistance, had expressed desire for political change. Had
the will of the people been allowed to take its course democratically,
the world would have seen a different political landscape in Algeria.
Instead, more than 60,000 people have reportedly died in the civil
war between the government and the Islamic opposition since the voided
1993 election. In more recent developments, many innocent Algerian
civilians in villages - mostly women and children - have been
killed in brutal attacks blamed on Islamic groups. There is a clear need
for human rights groups and the United Nations to take active roles in
seeking to halt such atrocities. The United States has a responsibility
to ease regional tensions that contribute strongly to the local
instabilities by, for example, putting pressure on Israel to comply with
peace agreements and UN resolutions. It must also end sanctions against
Iraq, which have caused human suffering and bitterness in the region.
For members of Islamic groups to engage in senseless brutalities
contradicts patterns of resistance consistent throughout the Arab world
among similar organizations. It is also contrary to common sense.
After all, the victims in Algeria's case are the attackers' own
mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. Why should Islamic groups
challenging local undemocratic regimes and simultaneously destabilizing
postcolonial forces unleash their anger on their own families?
In the past six years, more than 3,700 women were killed in Algerian
attacks, including massacres of villagers. Many women, kidnapped and
raped,have subsequently been found dead with their throats cut. These
brutalitiesconfused observers and analysts of Arab politics.
Rape is an ultimate violation designed to break Muslims by
dishonoring their families and humiliating Muslim men. This was the
case in the Serbian attacks on Bosnians. But these rapists were
considered "enemies from outside the Islamic fold." It makes no sense
for groups whose identity de guerre is Islamic to rape their own Muslim
women, whatever the nature of the conflict. And, in the case of Algeria,
Muslims around the world dissociated themselves from these un-Islamic
brutalities and violations of sanctity.
The questions remain, however: Who is doing this? And why? Recent
the country to investigate human rights abuses by both sides in the civil war.
The reason is likely that such an investigation will prove embarrassing to the
The gravity of the violations can be explained in cultural terms. In
traditional Arab culture, the family is the center around which the
sociomoral universe exists. Women are the center of the family's sacred
identity and the guardians of the Arab family's honor and reputation.
Motherhood is considered sacred. Nationhood is expressed in
"motherland" terms. The Arabic words for women, household and sacred
sanctity are close derivatives of the same root.
To undermine or attack the Muslim woman destabilizes the core of
the sociomoral system. The Arab-Islamic judicial system long recognized
rape as a serious crime that received capital punishment - at a time
when rape in America was considered sex, not crime. That is precisely
why those at war with Muslims and trying to break them choose the path
of raping and killing Muslim women. A cultural strength, Islam's placing
women at the heart of sacredness, is turned into a grave human rights
violation in times of conflict and crisis. These are not random acts.
They are systematic, racist, sexist and they violate international
Whether these brutalities are by insiders or outsiders, the world
organizations entrusted with protecting human rights and lives must
intervene. Just as in Bosnia the world cannot remain a spectator. The
raping of Muslim women must be entered as a crime tried in international
tribunals. Western feminist groups that on short notice, become
activated over issues of whether Muslim women have the right to drive
cars, to unveil or join the work force must now demonstrate compassion
for the more serious issue of brutal raping and butchering of Muslim
This is particularly significant since the strong destabilizing
factor underlying such crises comes from a poorly conceived U.S. foreign
policy that consistently underestimates the role of the Arab street and
is too static to adjust flexibly to the emergent political (Islamic)
landscape in the region.
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