WorkShop 04: Gender and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa
Gender and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa
Violence is often defined as an assault on a person’s physical and mental integrity. It is an underlying feature of all societies, and an undercurrent running through social interaction at many different levels. The World Health Organization defines violence as the ‘intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, mal-development or deprivation’ (2002) .
Gender violence reflects culturally defined notions of masculinity and femininity which serve to reinforce women’s subordinate position. It is in most cases, though not always, perpetuated by men against women and it embodies the power imbalances inherent in patriarchal societies.
This workshop proposes to investigate all forms of Gender violence as practiced in the Middle East and North Africa, and explore the ways adopted by women activists and academics both on the national and international levels to change the society’s awareness with regard to violence and to lobby those in power to establish relevant legislation to prevent gender violence.
Gender violence may take an endless spectrum of forms, such as rape, including marital rape and rape as a tool of repression against particular classes or groups, domestic violence, child abuse, female foeticide and infanticide, denial of health care and nutrition for girl children, sexual and emotional harassment, genital mutilation, prostitution, pornography, enforced sterilisation, war and state violence, exploitation of refugees, political violence, including that directed at the families of political targets, reduction in state services leading to increased stress and workload for women (El-Bushra & Lopez, 1993). Though not all of these manifestations of violence necessarily exist in the same way or with the same intensity across the Middle East and North Africa, two levels at which violence may strike women’s lives can be identified as private violence and public violence. The forms that these two types of violence may take also differ from one country to another according to cultural norms and religious beliefs. To these two main factors one can add economic and political factors which may exacerbate (or alleviate) the intensity and degree of violence.
Private violence occurs in the private sphere and may be physical and/or mental. It takes various forms including marital rape, wife-battering, female genital mutilation, honour killing, perpetration of violence by female adult victims towards children such as in the case of battered mothers, forced marriages, discrimination against girls in terms of access to health and education, segregation between males and females in food and clothing, and exclusion of female household members from participation in decision-making.
The materialization of these types of discrimination in the private sphere cultivates an environment in which physical and mental abuse of women is seen as an acceptable practice. In the context of MENA female children are not only brought up into an acceptance of gender violence and segregation but also conditioned to accept their lot as part of being female. They are taught from a young age that their conduct and dress code may provoke violence from men and that they should follow certain social norms. Male children on their part are taught from a very early age that they should be in charge of their female kin (not only their sisters, female cousins, and in some cases even their neighbours but also their elder female relatives) and that they should correct their conduct if they transgress the prevailing social norm. In Muslim societies this tendency is accentuated by the religious command that a good Muslim should change what they see as wrongdoing, and it so happens that this is mostly applied in the case of women.
Consequently, while such codes boost male self-esteem and self-confidence from an early age, they totally undermine women’s self-esteem and condition them to a state of subordination and total dependence on male relatives in terms of decision-making. It is often found that women are unable to take charge of their lives and have to depend constantly on male relatives. This is especially the case for widows and divorcees who in Muslim societies are compelled to return to their family homes or have a male tutor (usually a father or brother) to take care of them and act as tutor to their children.
In the case of MENA, private violence is not considered a major concern to local authorities despite its increasing levels and direct links with public violence. State institutions across the region do not take such violence seriously, and legislation to protect victims of violence is almost non-existent. This general state of indifference to such violence arises from both religious and cultural beliefs. Wife battering, for example, is justified as a corrective measure towards disobedient wives, as prescribed in the Qur’an (IV, 34). Furthermore, speaking about wife battering is silenced by the whole society, including the victim, her family, the police, the health professionals, and so on, as a matter of family honour (Haj Yahia, 2000).
Djerbal-Iamarene ( 2005) argues that violence rests upon its toleration within the family, where until recently it has been seen as a trivial topic which no one has thought to raise as a true problem. Indeed, while domestic violence is largely discussed in the West and adequate policies are formulated to deal with it, in MENA this type of violence is not yet considered a key concern despite its increasing occurrences and its grave consequences ( Douki, 2003).
As opposed to private violence, public violence occurs in the public sphere. It may take place in the street or at work in the form of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and in some cases physical assault. Public violence can also take the form of discrimination in employment opportunities, and the absence of adequate legislation to protect women from abuse and discrimination and guarantee equal opportunities for both men and women. In this area, the role of government bodies is crucial to ensure citizens’ safety and well-being. At the same time, local culture may prevent women from reporting violence and encourage the perpetrators to wield more pressure on their victims.
In most MENA countries, which are known to be largely patriarchal, women often find themselves underrepresented in the public sphere where women have to keep a low profile and only make timid appearances. From personal observations, we have found that a common aspect of such societies is male domination of the street and intense harassment of women, who become subject to insult and verbal abuse in the public sphere. Another common feature, however, is women’s passive reaction to such abuse: on the one hand they refrain from engaging in losing battles and on the other they fear violent reprisals which would ultimately tarnish personal reputation and family honour.
We contend that private violence against women has direct implications for public violence in that such patterns of violence are cultivated in the private sphere and are directly transposed into the public sphere. Furthermore, consciously or not the goal of violence against women is to discipline women, to contest their access to the public sphere, and to challenge or subvert their determination to speak and act for themselves. Yet, above all, the main aim is to preserve male supremacy in both spheres, and the tolerance of violence in the private sphere is ultimately reflected in the tolerance of violence in the public sphere.
This is symptomatic of a misogynistic culture which in some societies motivates extreme violence amounting to femicide. Such extreme violence includes mutilation murder, rape murder, battery that escalates into murder, the immolation of brides and widows in India, and crimes of honour in some Middle Eastern countries, where women believed to have lost their virginity are killed by their male relatives. And to this we can add Islamist murder such as seen in Afghanistan and Algeria.
Calling misogynist killings femicide removes the obscuring veil of non gendered terms such as homicide and murder, and in the case of MENA, honour killings and Islamist violence against women are the most frequent forms of femicide.
In the face of all these forms of violence MENA women are often not protected by adequate laws and regulations. It is often found that existing Family laws institutionalize discrimination against women and therefore constitute a form of public violence against them; the discriminatory provisions contained in Family laws facilitate violence against women, legitimize discrimination in practice, and make it particularly difficult for women to deal with the consequences of widespread human rights abuse.
This workshop strives to understand the root causes of violence against women in MENA and the strategies adopted by various parties including women’s organisations, to fight violence.
It is hoped that this workshop will constitute a significant gathering point to discuss these and other issues relating to gender violence.
We welcome contributions on any of the following threads:
Investigate the various forms of gender violence as practiced in a specific MENA country ( case study)
Identify the cultural, religious, economic and political base of gender violence
Investigate the religious sources (Interpretations of the Quran and Hadith) that form a base to violence against women
Explore the most efficient ways of eliminating all forms of gender violence.
Investigate the use of the cyberspace as a space of free expression for victims of violence and mobilisation against the acceptance of violence
Explore the effect of the transnational public sphere on the understanding of violence and its repercussions on women’s physical and mental health
Examine the parameters of ‘violence as a health issue’ as a way to engage governments into the campaign of fighting violence.
Examine ways of overcoming the culture of shame
Explore the parameters of gender and violence in war zones and occupied territories
Investigate New Media, Cyber culture and the propagation of gender violence
Examine New Media, the public Sphere, and the empowerment of women
We hope that the workshop will bring together a set of papers that can be published either as a special issue of an academic journal (JMEWS: Journal of Middle Eastern Women Society, BJMES: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, IJMES: International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies) or in an edited volume.