It’s Not Just the Taliban That Abuses Human Rights s

One element of war is propaganda and it is being used to prepare Americans for the upcoming battle with Afghanistan. A central feature of the information being disseminated by the Bush Administration is that the Taliban regime is evil and merits being deposed. Besides the evidence of its support for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, the Taliban is being attacked for its human rights abuses. While everything being said about the Taliban is true, what is striking is that many of the complaints we have against the Afghans can be made against other Arab nations that we are now calling allies.

In his speech to Congress, President Bush specifically said the Taliban is brutalizing its people. “Women are not allowed to attend school. You can be jailed for owning a television. Religion can be practiced only as their leaders dictate. A man can be jailed in Afghanistan if his beard is not long enough.”

Since the list of human rights abuses in the Arab world fills a large volume, let me just focus on one issue that has gotten special attention in the criticism of Afghanistan, the treatment of women. Incidentally, most of this information comes directly from the State Department’s annual report on human rights.

In most Arab countries, the Shari'a, or Islamic law, defines the rules of traditional social behavior. Under the law, women are accorded a role inferior to that of men, and are therefore discriminated against with regard to personal rights and freedoms.

In Syria, a husband can prevent his wife from leaving the country. In Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Yemen, married women must have their husbands' written permission to travel abroad, and they may be prevented from doing so for any reason. In Saudi Arabia, women must obtain written permission from their closest male relative to leave the country or travel on public transportation between different parts of the kingdom.

In Kuwait, the male population is allowed to vote, while women are still disenfranchised. Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all have laws stating that a woman's inheritance must be less than that of her male siblings (usually about half the size). Ritual sexual mutilation of females is still common in rural areas of Egypt, Libya, Oman and Yemen.

Traditionally, the Arab woman marries at a young age to a man of her father's choice. A husband is entitled to divorce any time, even against his wife's will, by merely declaring verbally that this is his intention. Moroccan law excuses the murder or injury of a wife who is caught in the act of committing adultery; yet women are punished for harming their husbands under the same circumstances.

Wife-beating is a relatively common practice in Arab countries, and abused women have little recourse. As the State Department has noted regarding Jordan (and most of the Arab world): "Wife beating is technically grounds for divorce, but the husband may seek to demonstrate that he has authority from the Koran to correct an irreligious or disobedient wife by striking her."

Our closest Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, has the most extreme restrictions against women in the Arab world. In addition to those cited above, Saudi women may not marry non-Saudis without government permission (which is rarely given); are forbidden to drive motor vehicles or bicycles; may not use public facilities when men are present; and are forced to sit in the backs of public buses, segregated from men. "[Islamic] Advice columns" in the Saudi Arabian press recommend strict disciplining of women as part of a proper marriage. Women must cover their entire body and face in public, and those who do not are subject to physical harassment from the Saudi religious police, known as the Mutaaw'in. In a Saudi Shari'a court, the testimony of one man equals that of two women.

According to the United Nations, the proportion of women represented in Arab parliaments is only 3.4% (as opposed to 11.4% in the rest of the world). In addition, 55% of Arab women are illiterate.

While the Administration may try to distinguish between good and bad Muslims, and to argue that Islam is not at odds with the West or its values, the truth is quite different, and is starkly evident in the case of women’s rights. The common, not the radical view of Islam toward women is very different from our own. As Middle East expert Daniel Pipes explains: "In the Islamic view...female sexuality is thought of as being so powerful that it constitutes a real danger to society." Therefore, unrestrained females constitute "the most dangerous challenge facing males trying to carry out God's commands." In combination, females' "desires and their irresistible attractiveness give women a power over men which rivals God's. Left to themselves," Pipes continues, "men might well fall victim to women and abandon God," resulting in civil disorder among believers. In traditional thought, Pipes notes, women pose an internal threat to Islamic society similar to the external one represented by the infidel.

Our leaders may be correct when they say we need Arab allies in our war against terrorism, but we should not have any illusions as to whether they share our fundamental values. They do not.