Throughout the Islamic world, women are fighting for rights they have never had. The only exception is in Iran, where women fight for rights that the regime took away. While hopes for democracy in Arab states have never been so great, the future of the region’s women is precarious. The victory of Ennahda, an Islamist party, in Tunisia has raised concerns in that North African country, until now one of the most liberal on women’s issues in the Arab world. That the leader of the new ruling party pledges moderation and suggests Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, better known by its Turkish acronym AKP, might provide a model for Ennahda’s rule is of little comfort: After all, as even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upholds Turkey as a model for the region, Turkish women know that the murder rate of women has increased 1,400 percent since the AKP took power; child marriage is also increasing.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee sought to assuage concerns about women’s fate in the Arab Spring when it awarded the Nobel Prize to Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni protest leader active in the Islah Party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. Thorbjoern Jagland, who heads the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee, acknowledged that Karman was a symbol honored to make a political point. He told the Associated Press that including Karman in the prize was meant to “signal that the Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it.” Noting that Karman belonged to a Muslim movement with links to an Islamist movement “which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy,” he suggested instead that instead, he believed the Muslim Brotherhood to “be an important part of the solution.”
If anything provides hope to the women of Yemen, it is not the Nobel Committee’s embrace of Karman as a means to endorse the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather, it is the fact that Yemeni history has strong female role models. Yemenis note with pride not only that the Biblical Queen of Sheba hailed from Yemen, but also that, during the Islamic period, Yemen was at its apex during the reign of Queen Arwa (r. 1067-1138). Still, a thousand years of cultural repression will be difficult to overcome, especially if the United States and the West does not make women’s rights a metric by which to judge the coming post-Saleh era.
It is perhaps in Libya where the West should be most concerned about the plight of women. Infused through the late Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s political theory was both racism and misogyny. Libyan teachers have indoctrinated two generations of Libyan youth with quotations from The Green Book which referred to women as “the feebler sex.” It will be difficult for Libyan women subject to systematic repression and denial of opportunity to assume senior bureaucrat positions to which so many aspire.
What should the United States do? First, not to repeat the mistakes of the past: Too often, the State Department treats women as simply one issue among many, a bargaining chip to be discarded to make a deal. After Time Magazine showed a woman with her nose amputated to highlight the cost of a Taliban victory, the late Richard Holbrooke worried that sympathy for Afghan women might dissuade attempts to engage the Taliban since he dismissed such Taliban behavior as a common Pashtun practice. In one fell swoop he conflated the Taliban and Pashtun and demonstrated disdain for Afghan women who, to be blunt, do not like having their appendages amputated.
Nor should Obama replicate the mistakes of the State Department during previous administrations, when they conflated women’s rights with quotas. In Iraq, for example, the State Department applauded a quota in which 33 percent of candidates and 25 percent of parliamentary seats would be reserved for women. Islamist parties quickly mastered the system, and stacked the quota with Islamist women who readily voted to deprive women of the choices and opportunities for which so many strove.
The White House has a bully pulpit and should use it to embrace moral clarity and endorse individual liberty. Women should have equal opportunity in education. Their rights should never be diluted by Western notions of cultural relativism. The best foreign aid is not transfer of taxpayer dollars to Islamist-dominated governments; rather it is unwavering support for the empowerment of women. Empowering the suppressed 50 percent will provide dividends long into the future.