Violence Against Women in Egypt Prevents Revolutionary Activity

One of the most conspicuous issues coming to light after Egypt’s “Arab Spring” in 2011 and the more recent round of protests has been the high levels of violence directed towards women. Before I proceed, I want to acknowledge that a majority of Egyptian men present at the protests did not assault women and many acted to protect women and facilitate their involvement.

However, news reports of gang rapes became common during the protests that deposed former President Hosni Mubarak as well as those that preceded the ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The number of attacks against Egyptian and foreign women is astounding; in the security vacuum that occurred in major protest locations, Human Rights Watch reports that 91 women were assaulted in just four days during the last week of June.

This is symptomatic of a wide and dangerous phenomenon that is preventing women from taking part in the country’s revolutions, and will ultimately harm their opportunities for advancement in the future.

In the wake of the attacks, responses have oscillated between blaming religion and socio-economics. I would argue that a country’s treatment of women is largely based on culture and the position women have in it. Egyptian men didn’t begin to rape women because of the lack of security in Tahrir Square or because they were frustrated with the country’s economic stagnation. Violence against women stems from a lack of respect and a low position of women in society – a problem that takes shape long before protests begin.

Cultural acceptance of sexual violence has long been a known, if quiet, phenomenon in Egypt. Prior to the revolts, women were more likely to come to terms with their attacks in the offices of psychiatrists than they were in hospitals or police stations due to denial, victim-blaming, and other negative responses.

In the case of Egypt, women there say that sexual harassment has been a part of their daily lives for as long as they remember – in fact, some surveys show that as many as 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed. Some claim that protests worsen the situation because enormous groups of men gather, knowing they will not be caught or in most cases, even sought.

The acceptance of violence against women is seen at all levels of Egyptian society, which makes the phenomenon more difficult to fight. Of course police will ignore complaints and violent men will continue acting on their most brutal impulses when officials in the top echelons of government, such as the Salafist member of the Shura Council General Adel Afifi, say things like, “Women contribute 100% to rape because they put themselves in such situations [such as partaking in protests]”.

Female activists agree that the Islamist government and Muslim Brotherhood are not to blame for the violence as the culture resulting in such behavior took root long before the protests made mass gang-rapes easier. The only difference between then and now is that now there are gatherings of thousands of people without any police presence or accountability, which didn’t happen when the country was ruled by Hosni Mubarak.

Part of why Egyptian women are so frustrated at being treated poorly now is due to their active involvement in the overthrow of Mubarak. If women and men are standing together to get rid of a corrupt leader, why should those women later be thrown aside and worse, attacked? Unfortunately, one side effect of the violence is that women avoid protests and neglect to take part in revolutionary changes, which will only hurt their cause later on.

One way for women to strengthen their status in society is to gain economic power – in countries where women see increased economic participation they wind up with more power in the home, in the government, and in the boardroom.

In some cases, this could lead to an increase in violence if men feel threatened. In fact, many claim this is inevitable – men in Egypt get more violent the more women make themselves heard in these large protests. This echoes the evidence that, psychologically, rape is not about sex but about power and control. If men realize they cannot control the women in society, they might be more likely to lash out against them.

It is for this reason that men must be a part of the societal change. At a local level, they must intervene if they see violence against a woman taking place. But on a societal level, the issue is much larger – police need to be told that finding rapists is a priority, and hospital workers (as well as other officials) must be taught how to talk to women who have been attacked – they are more likely to go to the police or hospital if they know they won’t be blamed, told it is their fault, or asked why it happened.

In order to enact this change, women cannot shy away from being a part of the revolutionary movement, and instead continue to make themselves heard and ensure that new leaders have their interests in mind.

Women have every right to take part in the protests in Egypt, and officials have a role in making sure that it happens. Egyptians are seeking justice after decades of poor treatment at the hands of dictators. Why should women be exempt from this new wave of liberation and human rights?

Are Sanctions Against Iran Still an Effective Option?

The US implemented a series of new economic and fiscal sanctions against Iran just prior to last week’s presidential election, continuing its current financial tactic of combating Iran’s desire to continue with its nuclear program. However, given the ongoing nuclear efforts, the question must be asked: are economic sanctions the most effective way to change Iran’s policies?

The question is particularly prescient now, just days after the Iranian people elected a new president. Much has been made of the new era since the “moderate cleric” Hasan Rowhani was voted in. However, the term “moderate” is relative, with Rowhani being hailed mostly in comparison to outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose rhetoric was more extremist and more violent (for example Ahmadinejad is a well-known Holocaust denier).

However, the West must ask itself two important questions before it can begin to hope that its long-standing fight with Iran will come to an end. First, what is the purpose of sanctions and are they effective? Second, what is the current domestic situation in Iran?

Economic sanctions – what are they good for?

Economic sanctions, most commonly in the form of trade barriers and restrictions on financial transactions, place economic and monetary pressure on a country in order to persuade a government to change not only economic but also social or political policies, both domestically and internationally.

The US originally sanctioned Iran in 1979 following the Islamic revolution and then tightened those sanctions in 2006 in response to the country’s nuclear program. Those sanctions increased in recent years, with the US and EU growing increasingly worried about Iran’s ability to start a nuclear war.

Iran claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and is intended for energy purposes, which would benefit the economy. But this message was muddled when international observers realized that Iranian scientists were enriching plutonium past what was needed for energy and entering into the territory of nuclear weapons.

Sanctions failed to persuade Iran to make changes to its nuclear program.  Negotiators are no closer to coming to a solution with Iran than they were one year ago, and many critics believe that a crucial tipping point has already passed. They argue that the US cannot provide relief by removing the sanctions, and that they have gone on so long that the US lost what support it had within Iran.  However, it is important to note that these are the same people who argue that the sanctions are having no effect.  In reality it seems sanctions are having an effect; the question is what type?

Unfortunately, as is common in these types of situations, the regime leaders targeted by the sanctions have remained largely unaffected by them – a fact that the Obama administration hopes to change with its most recent round of sanctions, which includes blacklisting 37 front businesses around the world that are used by people high-up in the Iranian regime to control real estate assets abroad.

For the most part, however, it is the citizens of Iran who are being harmed mainly by the decline of the Iranian currency, an acute shortage of medication, and job losses. Surrounding countries are also feeling the pain – for example, Iraq has lost a large constituency of tourists since the Shiites in Iran can no longer afford to visit religious sites in neighboring Iraq.

While it is only Iran’s financial and oil industries that are sanctioned, the repercussions are wide-spread. Banks worldwide are forbidden from conducting business with Iran, and as a result even humanitarian goods fail to get delivered for fear that companies will be blacklisted for getting payments from banks that conduct business with Iran.

What is the domestic situation in Iran?

There is a sprinkle of hope. What was needed was for the anger of ordinary Iranians to be vitriolic enough to spur a regime change, and it did…to a degree.

However, the excitement over a “moderate” cleric must also be scrutinized and tempered. In Iran, the Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khamenei has ultimate power. As moderate as Rowhani might be, everyone nominated for president had the express permission and acceptance of Khamenei – anyone he, or his conservative party, didn’t want running was forced out of the campaign. Any individual voted in had the support of the most extremist portion of the Iranian government.

As a result, it seems that more than anything the new president provides hope that Iran might become more reformist, but that is all for now.

Much has been made of Rowhani’s previous position as head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency since he acted as chief negotiator at a time when the US and Iran had relatively open relations. However, he has said that the time when Iran made the most nuclear advances was when it had good relations with western countries because there was no entity scrutinizing its research – a telling comment.

In addition, he is a close cohort of Khamenei and is unlikely to act in a way that is contrary to the Supreme Leader’s wishes.

Displaced hope in Rowhani could be dangerous. It is clear that for sanctions to be effective, we must have a partner in Iran who agrees to conditions for removing the sanctions. Regardless, it must also be taken into consideration that Rowhani is not as strong a partner as many in the West might hope.

Most telling is Rowhani’s first speech when he came to office, dictating that while he hopes to warm up relations with the US, foreign officials first “need to say that they will never interfere with the domestic affairs of Iran. Nuclear wishes of Iranians need to be recognized by Americans.”

And therein lies the problem: as long as Iranian officials insist on their right to cultivate nuclear weapons (or at least enhance plutonium past what is needed for nuclear energy) America and the EU will see the nation as a very real threat.

In fact, it is clear that Rowhani will have very little power regarding Iran’s foreign policy. While historically the local economy (which is the target of sanctions) is in the hands of the executive branch, the nuclear program, defense, and foreign relations remain under the control of Ayatollah Khamenei and his band of ruling clerics.

The election of Rowhani, the most liberal of the candidates, sends a sign to the leadership of Iran that the population is ready for change. But as long as the decisions about security, diplomacy, and trade are up to the clerics, nothing much will change.

The Fine Line Between Banking and Blacklisting in Lebanon

Lebanon’s banking sector is constantly walking a fine line when it comes to financial transactions with Hezbollah. On the one hand, banking officials want to please US regulators who see Hezbollah as a terrorist group; on the other hand, the support of the Lebanese public has turned Hezbollah into a major political party, and is therefore seen as a legitimate actor. This contradiction is frequently under scrutiny and came to a head recently when the US Department of the Treasury blacklisted two Lebanese exchange houses under Section 311 of the Patriot Act, denouncing them as a “primary money laundering concern”.

Lebanon is a familiar character in the world of illicit finance due to its covert banking system and a lack of transparent regulations; however, Hezbollah’s categorization as a political group there and a terrorist organization elsewhere will continue to put the country at risk for sanctions.

Lebanon’s Drug Connection

The Lebanese case is not simply about banking regulations, but delves into the relationship between financial crime and other illicit activity – as a group, Hezbollah has connections to international crime rings and drug smuggling that many other partakers in illicit finance do not have, which makes the issue of banking even more complicated.

In the most recent case, two moneychangers, Kassem Rmeiti & Co. for Exchange and Halawi Exchange Co., were accused of laundering money for the Lebanese drug czar Ayman Joumaa and using those funds to finance Hezbollah (and therefore, terrorism).

This is not the first time that Joumaa and his connection to Hezbollah have come under US Treasury fire. In 2011, the Treasury department sanctioned Lebanese Canadian Bank for laundering and redistributing the spoils of the illegal drug trade. Officials now allege that after LCB closed, Joumaa transferred his financial transactions to the two smaller and lesser-known money exchanges.

The link between Hezbollah and drug activity is not new. It is known that Hezbollah gets its funding from both legitimate and illegitimate sources, from narcotics trafficking (much of it related to the sizable Lebanese population in South America) to used car businesses, charities and beyond.

However, the link between Hezbollah and drug smuggling is unlikely to slow any time soon, as its largest financial supporter, Iran, continues to struggle economically and fiscally due to sanctions over its controversial nuclear program. As a result, Hezbollah will increasingly need to find financial sources elsewhere. In fact, the situation will continue to worsen as its other supporter in the region, the Shiite regime of Bashar al-Assad, fights the rebel groups in Syria for power.

Helpless Victims?

Regardless of the fault of bankers involved, some Arabic sources have decried the practice of blacklisting banks that interact with Hezbollah. Since Hezbollah is widely seen as a political group and is a prominent figure in Lebanon’s government, the majority of Lebanese banks must deal with members of Hezbollah, or so they argue. For the US to attack banks with any connection to Hezbollah is unfair and unjust, since only the US and Israel consider Hezbollah proper to be a terrorist group (other countries, namely European, only consider Hezbollah’s armed wing to be a terrorist group).

Businesses in Lebanon are now seeing the repercussions of this activity. At the same time, however, assuming that these businesses are blind-sided or acting under duress is faulty. Lebanon’s largest banking group, the Association of Banks in Lebanon, announced that it would abide by all US sanctions and has even hired American legal council to help it increase transparency and stability.

Therefore, it could be said that the banks and financial institutions involved are doing so with the full knowledge that they are out of compliance with previously stated standards. Indeed, truly legitimate businesses refuse to take part in crime-related financial activity.

In some ways, the Arab reports are correct. As long as Hezbollah is considered a political party and is active in the government, financial institutions will be forced to deal with members of the group. Yet, as long as Hezbollah is considered a terror group by the US, the Treasury Department will be blacklisting Lebanese banks.

The US Response

In truth, groups such as Hezbollah have merged the line between politics, terrorism, and social works so thoroughly that it is next-to-impossible to ferret out the funds used for illegal activity. Members of Hezbollah hold government seats and in much of the country Hezbollah provides basic needs such as education, medical care, and infrastructure for communication. To take money away from Hezbollah is just as likely to deprive these sorts of activities from funding as it is to prevent the funding of another bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria (which most countries, even those that officially categorize Hezbollah as a political group, acknowledge was planned and carried out by members of Hezbollah).

However, until intelligence officials are consistently able to keep track of what money goes where, depriving groups that act as social movements as well as terror supporters will continue to raise the hackles of those who focus on social justice. Unfortunately, as long as Hezbollah funds both hospitals and terrorism, banks in Lebanon will be hounded for their interactions with the group.

Ticket to Ride Doesn’t Expand Saudi Women’s Freedoms

In what many be seen as a positive step for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, religious police (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) have finally permitted women to ride bicycles in public –with restrictions, of course. They must be in the company of a male, wear appropriate clothing, and ride only for recreational purposes; pointedly, using bicycles for transportation is forbidden by the ruling.

As a result, the most freeing aspect of the decision – giving women increased access to participate in the workforce – is conspicuously absent.

At its core, a bicycle is a tool for transport; one that is cheap, efficient, and renders the user independent. Taking this into account, it is unsurprising that their use has been limited. Women in Saudi Arabia cannot work without the express permission of their male guardian and are forbidden from coming into contact with unknown males, restricting their ability to leave the house.

This leaves women’s position in the economy in a highly precarious state, which is normally a shame because countries where women work and have increased control over the family’s finances tend to flourish economically. However, Saudi Arabia is different from most developing countries in that it can afford to keep women from participating in the work force. The abundance of oil keeps the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) high and lessens the need for a large, active and efficient work force.

Saudi Arabia is working on expanding its economy and in particular, strengthening its non-oil economy. Relying on one export is an unstable way to run an economy, particularly one as large as Saudi Arabia’s. Saudi authorities know that oil prices and demand are unreliable, and government revenue is exceedingly important for the economic security of a country that imports the majority of its food, as Saudi does. In order to create a more prosperous and economically stable nation, it will eventually be forced to make use of the large portion of underutilized human capital.

Even universities are trying to get around the restrictions on women. Saudi Arabia houses the world’s largest women-only university, where many students are forced to telecommute when they cannot get to their classes.

The Saudi Ministry of Labor estimates that there are roughly 100,000 Saudi women in the workforce, about 21% of all women in Saudi Arabia.  Opportunities for women are expanding, and they are now allowed to become doctors, lawyers, and even own businesses. Private sector workplaces are allowed to mix men and women.

However, if something as simple as getting to work is forbidden, these gains will mean nothing in the long run.

Women-only “cities” (industrial areas) are one solution that the government has come up with to keep women and men separate and yet still allow women a vocation. However, if transportation to these areas is not sufficient and women are not permitted means of transportation on their own, they must rely on male family members to accompany them to and from work.

Some argue that giving permission for women to ride bikes in recreational areas is a baby step – however, it can also be seen as emphasizing the limited extent of women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia and showing just how little autonomy they have.

Last year’s objection to the ban on women drivers made waves, but the use of bicycles is equally important. Most people who do work in Saudi Arabia don’t work far from their homes, and bicycling could be the thing that allows a woman to get to work or in other cases, stay in school.

Women are major contributors to the economy when they are allowed to be. Study after study shows that giving women control of the household income results in more educated children and a healthier family. Indeed, women in the workforce improve a country’s “human capital” – healthcare, education, and other needs that improve the lives of those living in the country.

In particular, women are more likely to invest in their daughters’ education than men are, creating a cycle of economic advancement for women and society as a whole.

The question is, how likely is it that women will be integrated into the Saudi economy? Saudi Arabia is not a developing country that desperately seeks economic growth, a common criteria for a rise in the number of working women. While poverty is high, the government and those in the royal family remain rich thanks to the country’s oil wealth. While the rest of the Arab world was afflicted with Arab Spring protests and rapid change, Saudi Arabia paid off unhappy portions of the population to prevent similar protests, or simply out-powered them, as it did with its small Shia population. As long as Saudi Arabia can afford its current economic arrangement, the situation for women will remain the same.