EDITORIAL PAGES / Monday, April 13, 1998

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

reports by the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and Human
Rights Watch implicated Algerian security forces in systematic torture,
arbitrary arrests and summary executions. The Algerian government has
consistently refused to allow an international committee of inquiry access to

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

human rights.

     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.

Copyright 1998, Newsday Inc.
UN Should Act to Protect Muslim Women., pp A29.