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Egypt, Jordan reproductive health changes — the new youth revolution

Jordan and Egypt made positive strides in reproductive health through the past several years but still have many challenges and opportunities to address, according to World Bank reports publicized yesterday.

Some of the key findings showed stark improvement in some areas: Egypt halved its infant mortality rate and malnutrition in children under five years old in the past two decades; 89 percent of Jordanian 15-year-old girls are literate; fewer than 2 percent of Jordanians live on less than $1.25 per day; overall fertility is declining, which is a positive for the overpopulated and youth-heavy nations; and use of modern contraceptives in both nations is increasing.

However, those pluses must be met with the sobering realities in each country. Contraceptive use among married women is just 60 percent in Egypt and 59 percent in Jordan. In Egypt, just 58 percent of women aged 15 and older are literate. Just 25 percent of Egyptian adult females work, mostly in agriculture. Fertility remains high among the poorest in each nation, creating large social problems. The poor are more at risk of early childbearing in each nation. HIV awareness is low in Egypt.

With 33 percent of Egypt and 35 percent of Jordan younger than 15 years old, tremendous opportunities exist to improve those statistics, the World Bank said. And if the revolutions in Egypt and Jordan (to a much lesser extent, of course) has proven anything, it’s that Arab youth are tired of being denied the standard of living so many other nations have. That means a path for grassroots reproductive health education has been paved, as raising the standard of living starts with healthy pregnancies.

Healthy pregnancies is an all-encompassing term. It doesn’t just mean birthing a functioning child — it means having a child at the proper age, having the right amount of children, being economically self-sufficient and having two parents. None of that will happen, however, without proper education and societal change that empowers women and promotes safe sex.

Both of those aims — empowering women and promoting safe sex — are complicated in the current Egyptian and Jordanian context. Still ruled and influenced by older religious men, women — especially in Egypt — are subordinate to men in every way. Additionally, contraception is frowned upon in Muslim society despite no explicit mention of banning birth control in the Qur’an.

These customs will be difficult to overturn in a top-down fashion. But, then again, the same would be said for changing governance — which is exactly why revolutions in Egypt and Jordan have been youth-led, grassroots efforts. The opportunity to change society and not only politics can be exploited in the same way. By directing the female empowerment and contraception message at the enormous youth populations in Jordan and Egypt, change will slowly occur. And this is change that does not require an election — it can happen everyday, with any person, whenever they choose.

Jordan report

Egypt report

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Saudi women earn inheritance rights

The Saudi Justice Ministry says people who deprive women of inheritance may face imprisonment, an important shift that conflicts with the religiously rigid, patriarchal majority Salafi society.

According to ArabNews.com, denying women inheritance was more common among tribes. But in the Wahhabi-influence nation, the more fundamentalist customary rather than textual implementation of Islam prevails. Therefore, there is reason to believe this dynamic is more widespread than what ArabNews is letting on, even if it occurs discreetly.

The measure in part addresses a 2008 United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women report, which suggested codifying into law equal gender rights for inheritance and a host of other issues.

From the report:

concept of male guardianship over women (mehrem), although it may not be legally prescribed, seems to be widely accepted; it severely limits women’s exercise of their rights under the Convention, in particular with regard to their legal capacity and in relation to issues of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, property ownership and decision-making in the family, and the choice of residency, education and employment.

In the section of the Qur’an that discusses mahram, there is no mention of male supremacy over women. This is the crux of the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam — much of it is founded on customs that existed during the time of Mohammed. For comparison, and as I have said before, the United States would be considered a backwards place if this majority Christian nation based civil society on the customs at the time Jesus walked the earth.

In fact, the Qur’an precedes a section on mahram for women with equally moralistic instruction for men in their dealings with the opposite sex.

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. (24:30)

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss. (24:31)

Clearly, the verse regarding women is more restrictive — such was society at the time. But nowhere does it mention that men have supremacy over women. So where does this interpretation come from? Fundamentalism, whether it’s Christian or Islamic, is rooted not in text but in an idea that the people interpreting that text today know what the prophets wanted better than anyone else does. And because of their immovable devotion to the faith, they are willing to be loud and use whatever force or tactics necessary to impress their views.

There is a sense of male supremacy in the Qur’an, that is for sure. But that’s only because it was written during a time when women were largely considered temptresses and second-class citizens. Those times need to change — 1,400 years is too long.

The Joe Camel technique, al Qaeda style

Will McCants at Jihadica pointed out that Al Qaeda may be creating a cartoon to recruit youth. McCants questions the authenticity of the cartoon, but if it’s real it certainly shows the terrorist organization is trying to innovate.

The tactic might be necessary for Al Qaeda. After suffering the loss of its figurehead and leader, Osama bin Laden, the terrorist organization’s power definitely took a hit in the international conscience. It is no longer considered an untraceable, indefatigable network — even the very top is vulnerable, as bin Laden’s death proved. Bin Laden’s death was just as much a symbolic contribution to Al Qaeda’s hopeful demise as it was strategic.

Bin Laden’s death will damage Al Qaeda’s fundraising ability, and it already has turned to kidnapping people for ransom to fund operations. Bin Laden was the son of a Saudi billionaire and well connected with very important friends. With that link now severed, less money will flow into the organization’s coffers. Additionally, bin Laden’s death likely spooked well-to-do “investors” from renewing their commitment to al Qaeda, as the US now has troves of information regarding al Qaeda’s operations and likely some leads as to who has donated.

With the al Qaeda becoming a less attractive destination for the world’s most misguided philanthropists, it will now have to turn to grassroots recruiting based on a message rather than providing luxuries.

For children, terrorist organizations are seen as providers, not unlike down-on-their-luck urban American youth who get swallowed into drug trafficking because they see it as an option that pays. Terrorist organizations, being well funded by various benefactors, can often lure youth by giving the

m things the traditional system or government cannot, such as food. Terrorism itself exists because of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and in many of the countries where terrorism flourishes the status quo means hunger, lack of education, poverty, high unemployment, corruption, religious animosity, ethnic divisions and severe income inequality.

Governments will get a boost in fighting al Qaeda as its ability to provide for young people depreciates. But governments must still step up and fill the void. The Arab protesters demanding reform should first call for a developed welfare system that redistributes wealth throughout society. The income inequality in many Arab countries differs from the United States in that Arab countries simply lack the institutions and accountability to force governments to spend that money on the people rather than keep it for themselves. Privatizing industries — especially oil — would be a good first step, as that would reduce government control over valued resources in economies that tend to lack diversity.

Until governments can provide basic necessities, terrorist networks will be a draw — and it won’t take an al Qaeda Joe Camel to attract new recruits.

Is this al Qaeda's Joe Camel?

New IMF chief good news for Arab world

New International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has promised to give emerging markets a greater role in the macroeconomic monitoring and emergency lending organization, a move that should be a positive for Arab countries.

The IMF lends money to ailing nations — mostly poor — based on a “Washington Consensus” of structural adjustment policies. The idea is that these SAPs will integrate nations into the global economy, which will boost employment, make goods cheaper and provide stability for those nations.

For nations with a poor regard for human rights, IMF’s conditions could possibly increase the income gap between the wealthy and poor. IMF conditions such as spending cuts in social services, massive public sector layoffs, wage freezes to attract foreign investment, weaken public sector rights, devaluing local currencies, abolish price controls on basic foodstuffs and promotion of export-oriented production all put pressure on nations’ poor.

In nations where human rights and democracy are not respected — like many in the Arab world — IMF loans have been widely abused. For example, since dictators ran many borrowing countries between 1972 and 1981, IMF loans were used to boost military spending from $2.5 billion to $29 billion. Developing nations turned to rapid industrialization, building airports and dams, rather than small-scale development projects to assist local economies.

The IMF, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has a “Western” economic philosophy of open trade, but open trade does not suit every nation. And given the recent financial troubles of interconnected, open economies in Europe and the United States, the timing could not be better for emerging market input.

The IMF applies its Washington Consensus because it believes that cocktail of macroeconomic reform will allow debtor nations to repay IMF loans faster. But I would argue this is a quick fix that provides a cosmetic spurt to GDP without actually creating a sustainable improvement of quality of life.

Many Arab nations — even a majority of those still engaged in the Arab Spring revolutions — are largely run by authoritarian figures that spend little on social services because there’s no political pressure, such as elections, to do so; rely on public sector employment because those figures build loyalty through those jobs; rely on military employment for loyalty; have undiversified economies; and institutionally-created income gaps through shoddy welfare systems and lack of homegrown business.

At the root of this problem is the lack of accountability for Arab leaders as a result of weak or nonexistent human rights. Without the threat of being voted out of office and with the military, business elite and public sector dependent on those rulers staying in power, there are few ways to force leaders to cycle the money they earn and keep for themselves back into the economy. As a result, most people remain poor, education becomes less attainable, those nations become less attractive for foreign investment to mine the talent living there and people do not have enough money to do things like become an entrepreneur.

India and China still have rampant income inequality and the latter has a suspect human rights record, but their economies are growing faster than anyone. They will undoubtedly have an increased influence in the Lagarde-led IMF. India built its economy through harnessing the loads of young talent it had at home, making it an attractive place for investment. China closed its economy, has manipulated currency and relied on its 2 billion residents to be its market.

Neither India or China should be a model for macroeconomic policies. Their input, however, could help craft a better model than what we have today.

 

 

 

Saudi private school teachers forced to take low wages or quit

While teachers in the United States are poorly paid, I don’t think they would settle for $533-$800 per month. But that’s what Saudi Arabian private school teachers are being forced to take, unless they’d rather quit.

Of course, the Saudi Arabia gross domestic product per capita was $14,799 in 2009 — about one-third of the U.S. And much of that GDP is locked into the royal family’s bank accounts. Saudi Arabia should put that money back into the economy in some way — funding education would be a good start — to ensure it doesn’t hang onto an unsustainable industry for its indefinite economic future.

From ArabNews.com:

Maha Al-Qadi, an elementary school teacher, said that she sees no justification for the school management to compel her to sign a new contract with a monthly salary of SR3,000 or resign.

“The order issued by the king should be fully enforced. It needs no further clarifications from the ministry or any other educational bodies,” she said.

Al-Qadi refused to sign the new contract and instead resigned.

“I tendered my resignation papers even though I am in dire need of money to support my family. But I have no regrets leaving the job,” she said while criticizing private school operators for their greed and exploitation.

This underfunding of education professionals will be a drain on one of the richest countries in the world. Saudi Arabia needs talented brainpower for the coming decades as oil reserves begins to deplete. It won’t necessarily be their own oil reserves running out, but if supply runs out around the world it will increase the cost of Saudi oil. That, in turn, could make importing oil too expensive and force more countries to turn to other fuel sources rather than being dependent on a foreign nation. And then Saudi Arabia will be left with an ancient industry and no backup plan.

This scenario is still decades away, but it is very real. Saudi Arabia should be using its oil revenues to support education, pay teachers and diversify the economy. Instead, the House of Saud keeps the revenues for itself.

“Middle East Marshall Plan” should include human rights promotion

U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are planning a sort of Middle East Marshall Plan by tying U.S. intervention with business and economic interests. IF (and I say IF) this is what the U.S. decides to do to break its relative isolation during the Arab Spring, the senators should work to promote human rights at the same time.

This extremely nauseating puff piece about the war veterans/politicians/BFFLs seemed to care less about the news and  more about their on-again, off-again Beltway lovefest. I hope WaPo plans on a follow with some analysis, but in case they don’t, I’ll go ahead and do it anyway.

From The Washington Post:

The elder statesmen are also hoping to forge something resembling a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, aiming to spur massive private-sector investment across a region remade by revolution. The pair traveled to Egypt last weekend with eight Fortune 500 executives in an attempt to ignite investment in a country that has struggled since the February fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

Human and basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech and free and open elections, ideally, would come before economic development. Without human rights, society is at greater risk of corruption and abuse.

The U.S. has had its rear end pinned to the pine when it comes to supporting revolutionary forces in the Arab Spring. So the first proactive approach the U.S. makes is to support investment and U.S. economic interests, which is not going to set off a ticker tape parade in most Arab countries.

By promoting human rights in tandem with economic interests, the U.S. will appear more benevolent and also secure more stable investments. Fortifying institutions such as free and open elections will make politicians more accountable and curb corruption, which will mean a more honest and even approach to things from government contracts to welfare. Human rights reform will reduce workplace abuses, alleviate gender wage and employment differentials and therefore lead to a more productive and stable economy.

There’s also the dangers posed by opening up economies to the global market when those nations do not have sound human rights protections. “Race to the bottom” scenarios could develop in which nations depress wages to earn a competitive advantage for foreign investment. It also makes exports cheaper and therefore more attractive in the international market, but at the expense of a nation’s own people because it decreases purchasing power. That, in turn, diminishes the opportunity to innovate and be entrepreneurial because citizens have less disposable income and have to provide for families on sub-standard wages.

This is obviously asking for a lot. Promoting business will address youth unemployment, one of the largest causes of the Arab Spring. That alone would go a long way. But the U.S. should aim to have equal involvement in helping craft institutions and human rights reform as it does in boosting the Middle East economy.

Ultimately, the U.S. is currying favor with future Arab leaders, and one way to do that is by bolstering those nations’ economies. The U.S. doesn’t negotiate trade or peace agreements with the Arab street, so I understand the tactic.

But the U.S. has often worried about its image in the Arab world, and its hesitance to support revolutionary forces has not been viewed positively by most Arabs. The perceived inconsistency of the State Department — intervening in Libya but not Syria, for example — only amplifies that negative image.

I truly believe a more active approach to human rights promotion is possible. There is a power vacuum in the Arab world, unlike China, where the U.S. has also used rhetoric rather than might to encourage human rights reforms. The Arab street genuinely wants the freedoms U.S. and other nations have, so I believe it would be more receptive to U.S. help.

Diplomatically, America’s hands are tied. Intervening on the side of revolutionary forces will send a signal to allies that the U.S. is fickle. But the Arab street sees a contradiction between U.S. actions and its purported values of freedom and liberty. Arabs see that as hypocrisy, which amounts to an image problem of the worst kind.

 

Saudi women drivers still a hot issue

June 11, 2011 2 comments

Crossroads Arabia highlighted an opinion piece that originally appeared in Arab News about the Saudi government’s refusal to hear arguments allowing women to drive. And despite the Shoura Council’s call for women’s suffrage in local elections, it allegedly repeatedly denies requests for women to take the wheel.

Again, this is a classic example of a minority religious belief exerting disproportionate power over a country’s political machinery. It has happened in Saudi Arabia and it has happened in the United States — this is not uncommon around the world. In fact, Israel institutionalized disproportionate religious influence at the government level in order to get ultra-orthodox Jews on board with the Zionist movement and formation of Israel. Under that agreement, the state agreed to keep all state-run facilities kosher and permitted the rabbinate to set the standards for marriage and citizenship. Those institutions continue today despite immense resentment from Israel’s mostly secular population.

But as I noted last week, many people have interpreted the Qur’an through custom rather than text. In this customary interpretation, women are subordinated to men in society. Apparently the Shoura Council believes voting is a right but that driving is a privilege and can therefore be denied to certain groups of people that may be considered impure in some way.

It must be stressed, however, that this is a minority view. Islamic academics who study the Qur’an have continuously noted that interpretations denying rights to women are not stated in text:

Muhammad Abdullatif Al-Sheikh, a Saudi scholar, said that the ball was now in the court of the political leadership since the issue was political rather than religious.  “Islamic teachings, which did not prevent women from mounting camels and horses, would not forbid them from driving cars,” he wrote.

It’s another classic example of a loud, zealous religious minority with a strong hold on a nation’s political and social fabric. It’s important for Americans to understand this is indeed a minority. If the tides of revolution are truly mounting, then those minority groups could be swept in the undertow.

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