The Middle East is undergoing a profound and dramatic political transformation. But the analysis of the scope, pace, and quality of this change has focused largely on the quality and results of initial elections in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. Unfortunately, this sort of analysis overlooks how these transitions are affecting women and minorities—key indicators of the robustness of democracies around the world.
Despite the prominent role played by women in organizing the popular movements that have overthrown and challenged authoritarian regimes across the region, the early results on the treatment of women in three key countries—Egypt, Yemen, and Libya—raise serious concerns about the future of democracy and human rights in the Middle East as the region experiences tectonic political change.
As momentous as these changes are, they are occurring within a social context that has made sexual violence against women a powerful instrument of political repression. In many cases sexual violence against women is a desperate reaction of the powerful elite groups linked to authoritarian leaders and dictators who are rapidly losing power and relevance.
Like other forms of violence and repression, sexual violence against women has been used as a tool to punish or intimidate those advocating for political change. The most horrific of these tools being used to control women is rape. Using rape as a weapon of war is not new, but in the context of patriarchal religious societies, it holds unique potential as a horrific tool of political repression.
Our new issue brief outlines the role women have played in three countries that experienced changes in leadership—Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. It analyzes the use of sexual violence as a tool of continued repression and a means to hold back political change, and attempts to offer recommendations to U.S. policymakers and others in the international community to help protect women in the Middle East. At the same time, the limitations in influence foreign powers like the United States have in shaping the social and political realities of these countries must be acknowledged.
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