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Saudi Arabia’s gender hegemony in the new Arab world

February 16, 2012 1 comment

For a nation that measures success in black gold, Saudi Arabia hopes sending one female athlete to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London will pacify gender equality activists. But meeting the International Olympic Committee’s bare minimum requirement for female participation is hardly a bold stance.

Taken in context, this is still Salafist-dominated Saudi Arabia, the hallmark of gender inequality in the Arab world. Putting it in another context, however, spells bad news for the clean Arab Spring slate regarding human rights.

From The Jerusalem Post:

Saudi Arabia, which follows a male-dominated puritan form of Islam that bars women from driving or travelling aboard alone follows strict gender segregation, is the last to buckle under to IOC demands. Since it is seeking athletes who live abroad, Saudi Arabia’s most likely Olympic female athlete is reportedly Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old equestrienne who won a bronze medal in the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics. At that time, Malhas did not officially represent the kingdom.

From Tunisia to Egypt, women hoped bringing down dictators would usher in respect for women’s rights. Unfortunately, the hodgepodge revolutionaries’ power was far too scattered to mount a cohesive political front or voice. Yes, women’s rights, they said. But how? The question remains largely unanswered as political realities threaten to minimize liberal groups’ impact in nascent democracies.

The Kingdom of Saud is the counterbalance to the revolutionary hoopla. An overwhelmingly Sunni nation — much like the rest of the Arab world — asserting social values across the Persian Gulf with recently empowered fundamentalist political parties will likely slow the women’s rights agenda.

The Muslim Brotherhood and conservative groups like Ennahda were poised to jump into the political arena because, though marginalized under former reigns, were still organized political groups. This much is known, is history.

The future will reveal them to be more moderate than fearmongers predicted one year ago. Playing in the political system does these things, and those groups didn’t wait decades on the backburner within their respective nations to throw it all away on unpopular, autocratic initiatives.

But to each Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda there are even more fundamentalist groups. Their strength — and, to the same extent, liberal parties’ weaknesses — will determine whether groups like the Muslim Brotherhood invite them into coalitions. The Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt especially, recognized doing so would blatantly dismiss the work of the revolutionaries whose views are not reflected in ultra-conservative parties.

Viewed through this Olympic snafu, the Arab Spring hardly has had a liberalizing effect on Saudi Arabia. While expected, the ramifications of this resistance should not be understated. Undoubtedly, fundamentalist groups in new Arab democracies will follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, which is as hegemonic a force for fundamental political Islam as anywhere in the world.

If strong liberal parties in other Arab nations fail to emerge, Saudi Arabian influence may continue to grow as Egypt’s prominence declines. That will make it ever harder for women’s rights to gain traction.

 

 

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Ramadan could put Syria sectarian struggle in motion as attacks, protests increase (w/ video)

Ramadan began Monday, which could spark a fresh spate of protests and ensuing violence in Syria — some of which may lend itself to sectarian undertones. During Islam’s holy month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Muslims congregate at mosques following sunset. The majority-Sunni Syrian population will therefore have a means to meet up and discuss the atrocities being committed by its government, which is largely controlled by the minority (about 12 percent of the population) Alawite sect of Islam.

The attacks also will do nothing to silence the murmurs of sectarian strife in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood accused Bashar al-Assad’s government Sunday of igniting sectarian conflict:

“Syria is witnessing a war of sectarian cleansing. The regime has linked its open annihilation with the crescent of Ramadan. It is a war on the identity and beliefs of the Syrian nation … on Arab Muslim Syria.”

The Brotherhood’s timing is significant. Many people have suggested Syria would devolve into sectarian crisis, and Ramadan could best amplify that sentiment. Alawites view fasting during Ramadan as merely symbolic, whereas it is one of the five pillars of Islam that Sunni Muslims observe without question.

Hama, a central Syrian Sunni stronghold, suffered 80 deaths at the hands of government-backed security forces Monday. Such violence will only magnify the growing divide between ruling forces and people at large.

What is getting less attention than the actual violence itself is the opportunity Ramadan will give Sunnis to organize. Under the cover of the mosque, Syrians can organize face-to-face and discuss strategy with less fear of backlash. Meeting in a mosque is inherently safer than a coffee shop, and physical communication removes the risks of internet and telecommunications contact. It could also help bring protest outsiders into the revolution as they see the passion with which protesters carry themselves.

But at the same time, various Muslim sects meeting daily for prayer during Islam’s holiest month as violence continues may foment discriminatory, sectarian views. To this point, many Syrians believe President Bashar al-Assad has manipulated violence to make it appear more sectarian. By doing so, al-Assad can claim his rule is important for restoring order so the nation does not devolve into sectarian war. However, as violence and protests ramp up this month, it will be increasingly plausible to Syrians that a sectarian struggle is on the horizon.

Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, established a sophisticated patronage network by installing the formerly disregarded Alawite minority into top business, police and military positions. That network has provided Bashar al-Assad unflagging loyalty, as if the regime falls, so do those top Alawites who benefited from al-Assad corruption and thuggery.

As attacks continue during Ramadan, Sunnis will grow more enraged with the regime. Alawites do not share the same view as Sunnis when it comes to the holy month. The differences between sects will never be more pronounced than during the next 40 days.

 

A Syria city rallies in support of Assad as ‘fresh’ violence breaks out

This rally in Sweida, a city south of Damascus, at first seems vaguely reminiscent of North Korea allegedly paying Chinese actors to pose as fans during last summer’s World Cup. It seems counterintuitive to have such massive support for Bashar al Assad considering all the government-led violence against civilians.

Sweida is not representative of  a majority of Syria. It is heavily populated by Druze, a minority population that had been violently persecuted in the middle of the 20th century by the Syrian military when the country was under French control. When Hafez al Assad took power in the 1960s, he elevated Druze and Alawites to prominent military positions, seeking to institutionalize loyalty for the minority Alawite leader in a predominantly Sunni nation. Sunnis comprise 74 percent of Syria’s population and have been relegated to the political sidelines because of the patronage system Hafez al Assad started. Alawites represent 12 percent of Syria, while Druze is at 3 percent.

Syrian rights group estimated more than 1,400 civilians have died since protests began. Assad said Monday he would announce reforms, which are largely expected to have little substance or effect. Some of the largest anti-government protests (the first video below) occurred today in response to the Assad-declared “National Unity Day” in support of the government.

The Sweida rally video is below this video from an anti-Assad protest today, which is a more accurate representation of Syria:

 

Here’s the Sweida video:

 

Thoughts on Bahraini life sentences

Martin Chulov of the Guardian reported eight Bahraini civil rights activists were sentenced to life imprisonment for “plotting a coup against the government.” And while I can certainly sympathize and no doubt agree with those activists’ aims, the court’s decision could be considered legitimate — although certainly operating in an illegitimate and rather ineffective code of law.

It’s worth noting that peaceful demonstration and free speech are not exactly protected in Bahrain. That much should be obvious. And given that societal and institutional framework, the court’s decision cannot be unexpected. Any attempt to overthrow a government will usually be met with police force and judicial response, whether you’re in Bahrain or the United States.

The freedoms offered in Bahrain are certainly more limited than the U.S. And while it’s easy to criticize the Bahraini courts for their decisions to punish dissenting voices, we are only doing so based on our understanding of society. That understanding is tainted, however, by living in a free society.

That’s not to say what Bahrain is doing is right or morally justified — it is not. The governance there is similar to what is happening in Syria, with a minority religious sect occupying power positions while the opposing majority religious sect is subordinated. But it’s all about cultural relativism.

The only way suppression of activists will end is by government overthrow. But if the government views itself as legitimate — and it does — it will try to maintain any semblance of rule of law it still possesses. That would include punishing “subversives,” which is a broader term in a country with fewer personal liberties.

Again, I am not defending the Bahraini court’s decisions — everyone deserves the right to protest. But that is simply not the case in Bahrain. A complete change in government and institutions is the only way to provide that, and the current government — especially since it is run by the minority Sunni population — is not likely to allow that.

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