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Human rights organizations emphasize that women all over the world “are in double jeopardy” (“Women’s human rights,” 2005, para. 1); not only their human rights can be violated the way it happens in many countries, but also they may be discriminated against specifically because they are women. There are many ways in which women’s rights are violated, and modern international standards imply that governments should recognize, respect, and fulfill the rights of women.
Monitoring the women’s rights situation is an important process because it allows identifying areas in which action should be taken and provides recommendations as per what the action should be. A particular aspect of monitoring is comparing women’s rights situations in different countries to gain insight into what is going on, what can be improved, and what should be done to achieve improvement. Comparison, especially among countries that are close to each other, also helps identify similarities and differences in particular aspects of women’s rights.
In a review of relevant literature, women’s rights in Palestine can be compared to women’s rights in three neighboring countries—Jordan, Egypt, and Israel—from the perspective of violence and discrimination, and specific differences, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, should be addressed.
Violence against women is a daunting problem in today’s world and a remarkable part of women’s rights violations. In one of its resolutions, the United Nations (2009) states that it’s General Assembly “[s]trongly condemns all acts of violence against women and girls” (para. 21) and “[u]rges States to end impunity for violence against women by investigating, prosecuting with due process and punishing all perpetrators [and] by ensuring that women have equal protection of the law and equal access to justice” (para. 24).
Many countries claim to comply with the UN resolutions, which implies efforts aimed at incorporating such regulations into national legislation and enforcing related laws, but the actual situation remains rather disturbing, especially in countries in which violence against women may be recognized by some as part of culture and traditions.
It can be argued that Palestine, along with its neighboring states, is one of such countries; in many segments of the population, there are practices of forcing women into submission or punishing them for perceived misbehavior, both involving violence, that are still used today. According to Syam (2016), approximately 50 percent of women in Palestine report exposure to economic or social violence; almost 25 percent report exposure to physical violence, and more than 10 percent report exposure to sexual violence.
When examining these statistics, one should take into consideration that non-reporting violence is a widespread phenomenon, and it is likely that many victims fail to report; possible reasons may include fear, inability to access channels through which their complaints will be heard, or uncertainty whether such cases should be reported at all. Syam (2016) stresses that the perpetrators in those violent cases are mostly the victims’ husbands, i.e. violent acts are committed by women’s closest people, often in their own homes.
Sexual violence is a problem in the neighboring countries, too, but certain differences can be observed. In Egypt, the rates of public sexual violence (i.e. harassment and abuse in the streets, especially during such events as mass demonstrations, or in public transport) have increased since the revolution in 2011 (Langohr, 2015). Also, according to a recent report, 99.3 percent of women in Egypt experience exposure to sexual harassment (Nahhas, 2015). However, the opposition to such violence and civil activism against it have increased, too (Langohr, 2015). The general trend toward the expansion of civic engagement and a larger role of activism has resulted in more extensive measures taken by the government to protect women from public sexual violence.
There is a widespread international perception that women in the Middle East are heavily persecuted, deprived of their rights, and subjected to violence, and this perception can be detrimental sometimes to the actual position of women in the area. Anderson (2012) refers to a book published by Norma Khouri, a Jordanian-born American author who described her life in Jordan with frightening details of how women are violated and murdered in that country.
Prominent Jordanian women’s rights activists noticed many inaccuracies in Khouri’s narrative, investigated it, and found out that the book was a hoax. One of the activists later said, “She [Khouri] ruined the reputation of Jordanian women, saying they were imprisoned in their homes and so on. Jordanian women have excellent education levels that are gradually being translated into participation in the workforce. Her tone is that all Jordanian women live under these traditional practices, which is wrong” (Anderson, 2012, p. 3). Therefore, it should be internationally recognized that there are successes of the women’s rights movements in the Middle East, and this will help such movements to succeed further.
It can be stated that the most extreme form of violence is murdering, and in the four countries of interest, killings of women occur in an especially brutal form: so-called “honor killing”, i.e. killing of a person by his or her family members due to perceived misconduct or violation of certain ethical principles. O’Connor (2014) states that, in 2013, 27 women were victims of such killings in Palestine in comparison with 13 killings documented in 2012.
It is also stated that the Palestinian Authority initiated special training for the police to detect such cases, report them, and prevent violence against women on the territories the Palestinian Authority controls. The descriptions of honor killings are highly disturbing; O’Connor (2014) refers to the case in which “a young Gazan mother of five … was bludgeoned to death by her father because he suspected she was using her cellphone to talk to a man” (para. 11).
It is noteworthy that religious leaders and authorities of Palestine condemn this practice; Sheik Yousef Ideas, head of the Palestinian Islamic-law court, notes that women are being killed based on rumors or suspicions that would be ignored if they were men (O’Connor, 2014). It is also acknowledged by Muslim clerics that “honor killings” of women do not comply with the Koran.
In Jordan, “honor killings” take place, too. According to Cuthbert (2016), a young woman was killed by her 18-year-old brother in her sleep because he had found out that she owned a mobile phone of which the family did not know. The overall number of cases, according to human rights organizations, is 15 to 20 per year. Similar to the situation in Palestine, legal authorities publically condemn the practice and refer to the country’s Constitution that prohibits such forms of violence.
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According to Nahhas (2015), Jordan is ranked second-worst country by the number of “honor killings,” and the first place belongs to Egypt. The women’s rights report that provides this data also refers to the number of women who avoided being killed by a family member because they went to the police for protection; 24 such cases were recorded in Jordan in 2012.
Since the problem is particularly daunting in Egypt, extensive measures are taken in this country to stop “honor killings.” On the international level, among researchers and journalists, there is currently an additional initiative to stop the use of the term “honor killings;” however, the opponents of this idea say, “By naming these ‘honor killings,’ we are acknowledging the role that this misogynistic concept of honor plays, not only in the murders themselves but in these entire societies and how it entraps both men and women” (Welle, 2016).
It can be argued that the recognition of the perception of honor as something that allows killing a person brutally is important in studying and combating the phenomenon of “honor killings.” At the same time, it should not be overlooked that the concept of honor is often a disguise for actual causes of killings; O’Connor (2014) argued that it “can serve as a cover for domestic abuse, inheritance disputes, rape, incest or the desire to punish female independence” (para. 4). However, eradicating this form of violence is complicated because some people perceive it as part of their cultural heritage and their right to commit violence.
In Israel, cases of violence against women were reported, too. Particularly, women’s rights organizations report “honor killings” in national minority communities; however, the Israeli government denies the seriousness of the issue and claims that the incidence of women’s killings by their family members is the same among Arabs and the rest of the population (Weinglass, 2015). Similar to the other three countries, Israel demonstrates a remarkable contrast between the women’s rights situation in urban areas and that in rural areas. In the latter, women are less protected from violence, and the government recognizes its responsibility to reach the most vulnerable parts of the population as part of an effort to comply with the international standards of opposing violence.
Discrimination against women is another major women’s rights topic, and like violence, it is observed in a variety of forms in many countries. In an international convention, the United Nations (1979) called upon its participants to “condemn discrimination against women in all its forms [and to] agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women” (para. 28). All four countries of interest ratified the agreement; Egypt in 1981, Israel in 1991, Jordan in 1992, and Palestine in 2014 (“Convention on the elimination,” 2017). However, the governments’ actions toward the elimination of discrimination appear insufficient until today.
In Israel, this insufficiency of measures is especially visible in the way women are treated in Arab communities. Neila Awad-Rashed, the director of Women Against Violence, refers to the “three circles of oppression” (Weinglass, 2015, para. 5) of women, i.e. being oppressed as women, as citizens, and as a minority. Many activists in the county refer to these and other forms of discrimination, e.g. in terms of wages or workplace treatment. However, Dotan (2015) argues that women in Israel have managed to achieve “social mobilization through law” (p. 29), i.e. to promote their rights through attempts to change the existing legislation.
In Palestine, many appropriate laws are in place, too, but the problem is that they rarely work. For example, there is the issue of violating labor rights; according to Abu Jahal (2016), many working women are forced to work extra hours or not allowed to go on leaves, but they are afraid to speak up because of the fear of losing their jobs. The government has published guidelines for protecting working women, but activists claim that there is a lack of enforcement, and the publication itself will not improve the situation. Also, Syam (2016) notes that women are limited in their access to political participation, and it ultimately deteriorates the quality of their lives.
In Egypt and Jordan, women’s rights movements demonstrated several achievements in terms of opposing discrimination against women, and even positive discrimination (Yahiaoui & Al Ariss, 2017) was adopted: parliaments of both countries have quotas for women. However, Egyptian activists claim that women’s rights are still frequently violated because “the deeply religious society remains very much rooted in conservative traditions” (Frantzman, 2017, para. 1).
Weinglass (2015) referred to conservative traditions as the source of discrimination, too; the author argues that a patriarchal society presents many ways in which women’s rights are restricted or violated, including barriers to free labor and lack of representation.
Specific Differences in Women’s Rights Situations
Apart from the differences and similarities summarized above for two areas of violating women’s rights (violence and discrimination against women), there are also specific differences that stem from the four countries’ different political situations. Primarily, it should not be overlooked that Palestine is affected by occupation, and it is a major factor in the context of women’s rights.
Elia (2006) reviews three documentaries about the way Palestinian women live under the Israeli occupation, and the general impression the author has about the films is that, for Palestinian women, it is a constant struggle. One of the characters says, “The Israeli occupation invades your most private spaces, space even your husband and children never enter” (Elia, 2006, p. 125).
Further, a story is told about Israeli soldiers attacking women who try to collect olives (this is often the only source of income for local people); the women express their bitterness because those olive trees were grown by their ancestors and not by Israelis. Although occupants commit violence, a character of the documentary titled Soraida, a Woman of Palestine teaches her children not to hate all the Israelis, not to give up, but to never commit violence in response.
Abu-Lughod (2010) describes differences between the women’s rights situation in Palestine and that in Egypt, and the general conclusion is that Egypt has a “women’s rights industry” (p. 33), while Palestine does not. In Egypt, people make careers, attract investments, and create wide networks of cooperation because the agenda of women’s rights is trending, and the women’s rights discourse is strong and influential.
In Palestine, there are organizations dedicated to improving the women’s rights situation, too, but they fail to build strong connections with the government or the society to promote their agenda more extensively. To understand the difference, the author examined a rural community in Upper Egypt, in which women were not affected by the discourses of women’s rights. While those women were restricted in some of their rights acknowledged by the state, they also recognized many important rights and used certain power in their social interactions despite being unaware of the international standards of women’s rights.
The author suggests revising the concept of women’s rights and adding clarity to it, specifically in terms of cultural relativism. When discussing what rights a woman should have, activists and researchers should take into consideration the context in which the woman lives. However, it does not mean depriving certain women of universally acknowledged human rights, but it refers to designing a better toolkit for approaching the women’s rights situation in a specific country.
In a review of relevant literature, it has been established that two major areas in which women’s rights are violated and two major topics in women’s rights-related discussions are violence and discrimination. Sexual violence and extreme forms of violence, such as “honor killings,” are present in all four countries of interest: Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. In all four countries, authorities condemn violence, but the practices of violence against women persist due to being perceived as part of traditions.
Notably, activists who oppose violence in Egypt are more empowered and influential than in Palestine, but important steps toward civil resistance to violence are made in the latter country, too. In terms of discrimination, a major problem of Palestine is that relevant legislation is not sufficiently enforced. Again, researchers see the roots of discrimination in patriarchal and conservative features of the four countries’ societies.
A specific factor that makes Palestine different from the other three countries is that it is affected by occupation in addition to other factors that contribute to the women’s rights situation. The comparison has shown that, while there are problems with women’s rights in all four counties, there have also been important achievements in terms of civil activism, opposition to violence and discrimination, and governments’ efforts to comply with the international standards of honoring women’s rights.
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