By Ben Hubbard
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — There were no public debates, few campaign posters and no scandals. Candidates did not promote their platforms or undermine their rivals on television. And they risked disqualification for speaking to journalists.
But a small minority of Saudi citizens went to the polls on Saturday for a rare exercise in democracy, or at least its closest equivalent in a country ruled by an absolute monarch and according to Shariah law.
The elections for local councils across the kingdom were the first time that women were able to participate — as both voters and candidates — and rights activists lauded the move as further expanding the role of Saudi women in public life. The rules were largely the same for candidates of both genders.
“It is very important, with all its problems,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi professor of women’s history, who helped organize workshops for female candidates until the government told her to stop. (It said the advice gave the women an unfair advantage, she said.)
“This is a big step that we are making the best of and that we are going to build on to ask for more rights,” Ms. Fassi said.
The elections come at a time of great social change in Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the United States. The political system remains closed and dominated by the royal family, and no one expects that average Saudis will soon play a role in choosing the officials — all men — who run their country’s economic, military and foreign affairs.
But the highly religious and conservative society is changing, with more women working outside the home, a large youth population and some of the world’s highest use of social media, making Saudis more acquainted with the rest of the world and eroding resistance to change.
By Anna Lekas Miller
In Egypt, as well as in the West, outrage over rampant sexual assault has too often been about political agendas rather than concern for the actual victims.
Since the most recent wave of protests began in Tahrir Square on June 30, there have been 186 recorded sexual assaults—including eighty the night that former President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown. Many of these attacks are mob-style sexual assaults, often involving between fifty and 100 assailants, in which a woman is surrounded, stripped, groped and in some cases beaten and gang-raped until she needs medical attention. And in some recent cases, women were attacked and penetrated with knives and other weapons.
In Egypt, they call this the “Circle of Hell.”
Since the Egyptian Revolution began more than two and a half years ago, hundreds of thousands of women have been sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. And over the past two and a half years, not a single assailant of the thousands who participated in hundreds of attacks has been prosecuted.
“These men attack women because they know they can get away with it,” said Yasmine, an Egyptian activist who doesn’t wish to give her last name.
Many of the women surveyed agree that sexual violence has gotten worse since former President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Up until the most recent wave of protests, during which the Muslim Brotherhood pointed to sexual assaults in Tahrir Square in an attempt delegitimize anti-government opposition, the rampant attacks that happened under President Morsi’s leadership have gone largely ignored.
According to a recent survey from UN Women, 99.3 percent of all Egyptian women report being sexually harassed, and 91.5 percent have experienced unwelcome physical contact. The country has three laws in the penal code that address sexual harassment, assault and rape—and though the punishments range from fines to imprisonment, including life sentences and the death penalty, these laws are rarely enforced. Instead, most women are discouraged from reporting their sexual assaults to the authorities. For most, the high risk of shame and humiliation in publicly outing oneself as a sexual assault survivor—and the assumption that one is tainted or, if unmarried, now unfit for marriage—far exceeds the likelihood that the assailant will be held accountable.
Like in the West, women’s attire is often blamed for attacks, particularly Western-style clothing that many conservative Egyptians claim attracts assailants and in some cases even justifies rape. According to a 2008 survey with the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 53 percent of all men believe that a woman invites harassment through what she is wearing. Many of the women surveyed agree.
Despite these stereotypes, a woman’s clothing doesn’t have much bearing on the likelihood of an attack. One of the most famous photographs of the recorded history of Egypt’s sexual assault epidemic is of a woman sprawled on the floor in only her blue bra, her traditional niqab veil ripped and shredded next to her after her attack.
By David Ignatius
A week ago, Saudi Arabia saw something that people in the kingdom often talk about but rarely witness — a potentially important political reform.
King Abdullah announced Jan. 11 that 30 women would join the kingdom’s Shura Council, a consultative body of 150 persons, and that women henceforth would hold 20 percent of the seats. Skeptics cautioned that it’s a symbolic move, since this is an advisory group that doesn’t actually enact any legislation. But it’s a powerful symbol, according to men and women here.
When Abdullah first signaled his plan to name women to the council, a Saudi cleric said it would be “haram,” or forbidden under Islam. The king went ahead and announced the 30 appointees, saying that he had consulted the Senior Ulema Council, the religious body whose approval is one of the pillars of the Saudi monarchy.
A Westerner here told me that, last weekend, several dozen conservative Saudis gathered near Abdullah’s palace to complain, but he wouldn’t see them.
It’s understandable why conservatives would be upset: If Saudi women are deemed worthy of joining the body that advises the king on sensitive matters, it’s harder to justify the many limits on their rights.
I met here last week with Hayat Sindi, a scientist who is one of the newly appointed Shura members. She took her doctorate in biotechnology from Cambridge in 2001, and in the years since she has been a visiting scholar at Harvard, launched two companies and helped run a third.
“I feel the solution for the Middle East is based on women and youth,” she says. Listening to her story of insistent, determined accomplishment, it’s hard to disagree.
CAIRO — The sheer number of women sexually abused and gang raped in a single public square had become too big to ignore. Conservative Islamists in Egypt’s new political elite were outraged — at the women.
“Sometimes,” said Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, a police general, lawmaker and ultraconservative Islamist, “a girl contributes 100 percent to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions.”
The increase in sexual assaults over the last two years has set off a new battle over who is to blame, and the debate has become a stark and painful illustration of the convulsions racking Egypt as it tries to reinvent itself.
Under President Hosni Mubarak, the omnipresent police kept sexual assault out of the public squares and the public eye. But since Mr. Mubarak’s exit in 2011, the withdrawal of the security forces has allowed sexual assault to explode into the open, terrorizing Egyptian women.
Women, though, have also taken advantage of another aspect of the breakdown in authority — by speaking out through the newly aggressive news media, defying social taboos to demand attention for a problem the old government often denied. At the same time, some Islamist elected officials have used their new positions to vent some of the most patriarchal impulses in Egypt’s traditional culture and a deep hostility to women’s participation in politics.
Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head last year by the Taliban for campaigning for girls education, vowed overnight to intensify her struggle for “a world where everyone can go to school”.
Speaking at a ceremony in The Hague, where she was awarded the 2013 International Children’s Peace Prize, Malala said last October’s attack on her had made her more determined than ever to continue her campaign.
“I was just one target for their violence,” Malala said in her acceptance speech, referring to her near-fatal shooting when a Taliban gunman’s bullet grazed her brain.
“There are many others for whom we must continue… so that children all over the world can have a right to go to school.”
Malala, 16, received her prize from the 2011 Nobel Peace laureate, Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkol Karman, who told a humbled Malala “you are my hero”.
Salmas fate wasn’t meant to be any different to that of millions of girls in rural India: You’re born to the huge disappointment of your parents who were desperate for a boy; youre sent to school for a few years; youre married off in your teens and have children of your own. Eventually, you die.The prospect of such a life haunted Salma when she was a young girl growing up in an ultra-conservative Muslim village in southern India. The thought of puberty filled her with dread, for that was when young girls got locked up inside their homes, forbidden to study, play, or do any of the things children do.
This was and still is the destiny of so many girls in her community – until they get married, sometimes only to be imprisoned inside four walls again, but this time in their husband’s home.
Salma’s life, however, took another turn and quite an extraordinary one. So extraordinary that it was a story that had to be told, says British director Kim Longinotto.
Ms. Longinotto turned Salma’s life story into a film that was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, at the Berlin International Film Festival, and at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. [Editor’s note: Click here for the “Salma” film’s website.]
Tehran, Iran (CNN) — They may be a far cry from their Western counterparts fighting for the acceptance to breast-feed — or go topless — in public, but two girls clobbered a cleric recently in a small town in Iran when he admonished one of them to cover herself more completely.