Showering platitudes on Islam's suffering women: Forget Cairo: The West will put Arab stability before sexual equality, argues Robert Fisk

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The Independent Online
CAIRO - At the UN conference on population, in seminars and debates and press conferences, women far outnumbered men; Muslims in scarves or chadors, sitting next to ferocious Nordic liberals and plump American matrons, many of them realising for the first time in their lives that their 'sisters' - outside the manic controversy about abortion - understood their demands and suffering. No one who attended the conference, which ends today, could doubt that its focus was neither population nor development but women themselves.

If women outnumbered men eight- to-one in the forum for humanitarian groups working under the UN's umbrella, few could be found in the official delegations of the 158 nations attending the conference. The doers were women but the deciders were still (save for Gro Harlem Brundtland and Benazir Bhutto, prime ministers of Norway and Pakistan) men.

That the conference should have taken place in the Arab world - where women's lot remains, in our comfortable Western vision, a grimly subservient one - merely added irony to a gathering which may one day turn out to have been a betrayal rather than a symbol of hope for millions of women in the region.

Few of the 15,000 delegates and officials in Cairo would agree with this. Across the Middle East the conference generated enormous publicity about women's rights, and their need - in the UN's deplorable lexicon - for 'empowerment'. Egyptian and other Arab officials pointed to the success of their family planning programmes. Had there not been a women's rights group in Cairo since the Thirties? Were there not two women ministers in the Egyptian government, one in the Syrian government? Was not the leader of Iran's delegation a woman?

But behind this dangerous euphoria lay the reality of the Middle East, in which men control Islamic guidance jealously, in which traditional - dare one say tribal? - lives are dominated by a male community whose very political creations - dictatorial, feudal, vengeful - would be smashed to pieces if the promises inherent in the UN population conference were ever to be fulfilled.

Take the Egyptian family planning groups whose work has already transformed the lives of millions of women in the villages of upper Egypt, persuading them to limit their families to three or four children. A bourgeois woman at one stand was insisting yesterday morning that it would be only '10 or 20 years' before Egyptian women achieved equality with men. Yet just feet from her lay a pile of booklets prepared by the Egyptian Ministry of Information setting out Islam's teachings on family planning.

One section approves coitus interruptus, the Arabic for which is al-azl (meaning eternity or 'something which is not finished') and justifies this as follows: 'It is reported . . . that a man came one day to the Prophet, may God's peace and blessings be upon him and his family, and said: 'I have a slave-woman, who is serving us and taking care of our palm-trees, and with whom I occasionally have sex, and I would not like her to become pregnant.' In answer, the Prophet said: 'You may exercise al-azl with her if you wish to do so, but she will still get what has been divinely predestined for her . . .' ' An ancient Muslim scholar is quoted as approving of the method with the Koranic quotation: 'Your wives are/As tilth unto you;/So approach your tilth/When or how you will.'

The social role of the slave-woman is not questioned in this English-language booklet, nor the implication of 'tilth' (which might more properly be translated as 'a legal source of fruitfulness'). The Koran, of course, was written when women were treated as chattels; and historically there is no doubt that the teachings of the Prophet improved the lot of women. The concept of respect for women was introduced by the Prophet into an otherwise brutal and chauvinist world. But it was a tribal world in which men - and only men - were expected to exercise political power.

And a number of Arab intellectuals - liberal writers, some of them Western-educated but orthodox Muslims none the less - believe that the Koran has, unwittingly, contributed to and provided a justification for this male power, has given to men the role of both master and protector of women, a role as ambiguous as it is, for the most part, unquestioned.

This has in turn led - with no basis in the Koran - to a series of grotesque insults to women; to the continuation of female mutilation, for example, the cutting off of part or all of a girl's genitals to 'save her from promiscuity'. To the dispatch of girls to the sweatshops of modern-day Cairo. It has provided an excuse - again without encouragement from the Koran - to the vicious system of 'honour killings' in which young women deemed to have been involved in extramarital affairs are murdered by their brothers or fathers for the sake of 'family honour'. In Egypt, in the occupied Palestinian territories, occasionally in Lebanon - often in Iraq, according to some reports - hundreds of young women have

been slaughtered for these reasons.

An Egyptian delegate to the conference tried to convince me that the evils visited upon women in the Middle East could be eradicated if only women were aware of the laws in Arab constitutions that protect them. The problem is that these laws are as unenforceable as the equally valid statutes on human rights which are regularly flouted by the state security police of every dictatorship in the region. In Iraq, for example - where women held key civil service posts in the pre- Gulf war government - Saddam Hussein's Mukhabarat intelligence service maintains officially sanctioned 'raping rooms' for the wives and daughters of political opponents.

And in this lies a clue to the system of power in the Middle East. Almost all governments are dictatorships, regimes of various viciousness led by men who wield total and often cruel power over their populations. Their rule is dependent on the male community, men who spend their lives in humiliating subservience to largely unelected kings and generals who are - for the most part - supported by the West as masters and protectors of their nations. Effectively cut off from all decision- making, subject themselves to extrajudicial killing and torture, these male subjects can themselves only become masters and protectors when they enter their own homes. And within the walls of these houses, their obedient and long-suffering subjects are their women.

Thus, many Western delegates in Cairo were, unknowingly, guilty of the worst hypocrisy. They urged the 'empowerment' of women in societies which refuse the political 'empowerment' of whole populations. If Arab women are to be awarded the democratic rights the UN wishes upon them, there must be a revolution, not just in the home but in the nation to which they belong. To ensure the equality of women, their states must, by the same token, guarantee the genuine rights of all men and women - which means the end of the Middle East's friendly dictators.

And we in the West don't plan to let that come about. We need these dictators, as friends and as enemies, largely because they do our bidding. The mystery of democracy is not something we advocate in Arabia. Thus as long as King Fahd of Saudi Arabia remains a loyal and wealthy ally, we will not attack his monarchy for refusing women the right to drive cars or hold passports without a husband's permission. As long as Arab leaders want to make peace with Israel or wish to be our allies in wars against 'terrorism' or 'fundamentalism' we will do nothing to change their dreadful record on human rights.

In Cairo, however, we asked courageous women to stand up for themselves, to throw off the yoke, to seek 'empowerment'. No wonder Arab regimes baulked when they heard this word; for if these women follow our advice, the dictatorships must be overthrown. And that we do not intend to permit. How soon, therefore, before the brave women we have been encouraging accuse us of betrayal?

(Photograph omitted)