Arab Unrest and the Status of Women

by Dr. David Aikman
March 31, 2011

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In the 1980s, when it was President Reagan's challenge to face down the mad dictator of Libya, he referred to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as both a "mad dog" and "Looney tunes," a Warner Brothers cartoon series with a cast of nutty and humorous characters. But in today's situation in Libya, the movie analogy should be changed to Goldfinger, the deranged and super-rich villain of a James Bond movie who deploys his billions to pay off a retinue of mercenary thugs.

Today, Libya contains the Arab world's Blofeld, the Goldfinger villain, a megalomaniac tyrant apparently willing to murder hundreds of his own people to demonstrate the point that his people "love" him. One of his Western-educated sons, Saif, alternately winked at the camera or ranted in public that "rivers of blood" would be shed as his father took the needed measures to suppress political opposition. Of course, Muammar Gaddafi had already insisted in public that his political opponents had probably all been deluded into criticizing him by hallucinogenic drugs slipped by agents of al-Qaeda into their instant Nescafe when they weren't watching.

If ordinary Libyans weren’t, in reality, being beaten and murdered by the Gaddafi regime for their actions, the situation would almost read like the subtext of a twisted Hollywood thriller: political unrest in the Arab world metastasizing into murderous mayhem in the one Arab country whose ruling tyrant is manifestly delusional and has been in power for more than four decades. But this isn’t fiction. No matter how you look at it, the situation in Libya is a tragedy for the Arab world and a slap in the face of all human beings who aspire to orderliness and decency in government.

It isn't clear yet how many Arabs have died amid the tsunami of political unrest that has swept their countries since a street vendor in Tunis named Mohamed Bouazizzi touched off the regional protests by immolating himself last December 17 in public. Since then by far the biggest political change has been the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. But even in Cairo's Tahrir square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak revolt, there was a sour taste amid the jubilation at a change in government secured through public protest. The most grotesque evidence of this was a posse of pro-Mubarak thugs riding horses or camels headlong into crowds of demonstrators. Much more sinisterly, hidden from the eyes of reporters' cameras, Western women reporters like CBS correspondent Lara Logan were being groped and sexually molested by Egyptian men supposedly celebrating Mubarak's downfall. It raises a very important question: what kind of civilization will the Arab world construct upon the ruins of one-man or oligarchic autocracy?
This isn't just an academic issue. It was highly significant that the leaders of the anti-Communist demonstrations in Eastern Europe in 1989 were constrained by the awareness that it wasn't simply political change they were seeking but an alteration of the moral landscape. "When we come to power" -- I paraphrase Czech dissident playwright Václav Havel, later president of the Czech Republic, in one of his speeches prior to the fall of Communism in his country -- "we must not conduct a witch-hunt of our former Communist persecutors." Pause. Then the crowd in Prague's Wenceslas Square started chanting back in unison, "We are not like them, we are not like them." A moral self-discovery was in process. Czechs didn't want to become the same human types as those who had earlier been their Communist rulers.
What was the Egyptian equivalent of this self-discovery? When Egyptian women protested in Cairo's Tahrir Square for better political and human rights for women, they were outnumbered and shouted down by belligerent men. Oh, and a statistic worth knowing -- especially for women tourists to Egypt -- is that 93 percent of Egyptian women report having been manhandled in public settings; and 98 percent -- can you imagine, 98 percent? -- of foreign women have reported the same thing in Egypt.

And since the international media spotlight has turned toward Libya, it is becoming terrifyingly apparent the women of that country are routinely subjected by brutes of the Gaddafi regime to the most brutal forms of sexual debasement and assault, with seemingly no social or judicial recourse. Case in point: an unnamed Libyan woman ventured into the five-star Rixos Hotel in Tripoli last weekend, where members of the foreign media were staying, and began shouting that she had been detained and raped by militiamen loyal to Gaddafi. “Look what Gaddafi’s militia has done to me,” she screamed, raising her black robe to reveal deep scratch marks, blood, and bruises on her cheeks and thigh. The woman was instantly and forcibly silenced by government security guards, who wrestled a coat over her head and whisked her away. Journalists who tried to intervene were beaten and had their cameras confiscated or destroyed. No one has seen the woman since, and today we learn that she is being sued for slander by her alleged assailants. Let us pray to God that she, and others like her, will soon be released unharmed.
It is deeply discouraging that, in the Arab world, half of the entire population is regularly subjected to mistreatment that would be utterly intolerable, indeed illegal, in any orderly democratic society. I use the word "orderly" advisedly. It is surely delusional to assume that a mere change of regime, even the overthrow of it after four decades of an autocracy, will lead to the kind of life that is decent for most of the citizenry.
It took centuries of slow, incremental change in the West to reach the point where self-government could be managed without gross abuses. Part of it was social habituation to the rule of law: the concept that no one could claim political privilege to be above the law. And part of it was a habit of decent behavior towards that half of the human race which is female, an attitude reinforced by the then-dominant Christian teaching that women should be honored.
But in the Arab world, an important question should be raised: if half the entire population is being abused by the other half, what hope is there for the benefits of democratic rule? As we look back on the recent observance of International Women's Day, it is a question worth asking.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in

Dr. David Aikman was a journalist with TIME Magazine for 23 years, and is now a Professor of History at Patrick Henry College. He has authored more than a dozen books, including Jesus in Beijing (Regnery, 2003), Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and The Delusion of Disbelief (Tyndale, 2008). His latest book is The Mirage of Peace (Regal), and he is currently working on a book about the end of Christian America.

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