Since the middle of November, COVID-19 cases have hit record-highs for the pandemic across the world. Countries around the world are pushing to get healthcare workers and the general population vaccinated to ease the burden of increased cases on health systems, economies, and citizens. The logistics of obtaining and delivering the vaccine have proved a slow, arduous task in many countries across the world.
However, Israel has reported success in rapidly vaccinating health care workers and the general population. At the end of December and early January, Israel reported that it had administered vaccines to around 17% of the population. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel has secured enough vaccines to have all Israeli citizens vaccinated by March 16th of this year. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared, “We will be the first country to emerge from the coronavirus. We will vaccinate all relevant populations and anyone who wants to can be vaccinated.” He went on to say that Israel will be a “model-nation” for how to exit the coronavirus.
A significant portion of Israel’s borders is made up of 5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Israelis within the defined borders of the state number at 8 million, making Palestineans comprise 39% of the population. Israel occupies the West Bank, meaning most of the territory is under the control of the Israeli government. Gaza Strip has been blockaded, and the Israeli government controls all resources entering and exiting the area. However, Israel has no plans to vaccinate any Palestinians even though they are inoculating residents living in Jewish settlements in occupied territory. They sight the Oslo Peace Accords from the 1990s, saying that Palestine is responsible for their own healthcare. So far, the only Palestinians that have received any vaccines are those living in East Jerusalem, since they have Israeli residency and access to Israeli healthcare.
Within Israeli territory, Palestinians have carried the higher burden of COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita. Of the people who get COVID-19 in Palestine, 1.1% will die from the disease. In Israel, this number is 0.7% due to better access to higher quality healthcare. Israel has begun to give vaccines to medics, nurses, and doctors working in the 6 Palestinian hospitals, but they were not available until the past few weeks. Vaccines are still unavailable to Palestinians with high-risk health conditions and those over 65, even though all Israelis over 40 are now eligible.
The human rights body of the United Nations has released a statement saying that it is Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power to provide equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. There has been a huge inequality in vaccine distribution between Israel and Palestine, and the people of Palestine need vaccinations like those in the occupying power of Palestine.
UPDATE (March 29, 2021): According to BBC News, in early March, Israel decided to start offering the vaccine to the some 130,000 Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem or coming to work in Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In other parts of the West Bank and in Gaza, the situation continues to be very bleak – infections are rising, new restrictions are being imposed, and vaccination efforts have been much slower to start. The Palestinian authorities have begun administering vaccines supplied under the international Covax vaccine-sharing scheme, which is intended to help poorer countries access supplies, and the UAE has donated 20,000 doses of the Russian-made vaccine to residents of Gaza. There is some argument over who is responsible for vaccinating Palestinians, with Israel pointing to the specification in the Oslo Accords stating that “Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of Health in the West bank and Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side, including the health insurance system.” On the other hand, the United Nations issued a statement saying that according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel (the occupying power) is “responsible for providing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.” In any case, now that the vaccine is in greater supply, Israel has begun including Palestinians with work permits in the vaccine rollout.
In March 2016, The European Union and Turkey made an agreement stating Turkey would keep all asylum seekers who arrived on the Greece border in return for billions of dollars. This deal has put many asylum seekers at risk due to the dangerous environment in Turkey. However, this continues to be accepted and there are no signs of change in the future due to Greece’s incomplete assessment of Turkey as a safe third country. In February 2020, Turkey retracted their statement, saying they would not stop refugees going into Europe. Turkey is the country with the most refugees – 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Since the Syrian government started bombarding their citizens with air strikes, no other European country has tried to host Syrian citizens. When Turkey finally opened its borders into other European countries, the asylum seekers were met by armed Greek border guards, tear gas, rubber bullets, and razor wires. Turkey opened its borders to force the European nations to stop ignoring the crisis in Syria. If the international community does not step in more unarmed civilians will continue to face violence in Syria, and the situation in Turkey will worsen.
What is the status in Turkey?
Turkey has been home to over 3.7 million refugees, providing them with free public services, health care, and gainful employment; there are many obstacles Syrian refugees have to go through to get these. For example, Turkey adopted a work permit in 2016, but they must be requested by employers, who are often unwilling to cover the costs and face the administrative hurdles of hiring a refugee. As a result, most refugees work in low-paying jobs, such as jobs in small textile workshops and construction.
Furthermore, Turkey does not sign off on international refugee law. Therefore, they do not allow many refugees to obtain legal status. Many Turkish authorities also force the refugees to go back to Syria, leading them to want to flee to a safer place regardless of the conditions, such as Greece.
Greece’s Response to Turkey Opening Borders
Greece has broken European Union and international law. The government is suspending the registration of any asylum claims and deporting anyone for any reason something that goes against Geneva’s Convention on Refugees. The core principle states that a “refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”Close to 40,0000 migrants are being held in camps with short food supply, poor sanitation, and tensions with locals. Although the United Nations Refugee Agency did urge Greece to address its overcrowding and precarious conditions, not much has improved. Once refugees arrive, they are not allowed to leave until their asylum requests are processed, leading to the 90,000 cases backlog.
What about the rest of the European Union?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned NATO allies and European allies that if they “do not share the burned with us, we will open the gates” . President of the European Commission described Greece as Europe’s shield in migrant crisis. They also proposed financial and material support to prevent people from entering Greece, because once they do they will continue to spread in Europe.
What should Happen next?
Europe should take a new approach to safeguarding the human rights of refugees and start sharing the responsibility for allowing them to live in dignity and peace. Many of the people leaving their countries do it out of desperation, and European governments need to ensure asylum seekers have fair procedures. Also, they must control border control and unlawful acts by authorities. Instead of hoping that the problem goes away by having migrants go to different places, the European Union needs to address the reasons why people are fleeing Syria.
The recent explosion of the port in Beirut, Lebanon has garnered widespread international attention. While it is still unknown what caused this explosion, two things are known: explosive material had been stored there for years, and the Lebanese government was aware of this fact. For many years now, both government corruption and negligence have been causing human rights abuses felt across all Lebanon, so the explosion in Beirut, while one of the deadliest manifestations of this corruption and negligence, is no anomaly.
The Lebanese Government
To understand the culture and politics of Lebanon, it is important to understand the way the Lebanese government is set up. When Lebanon first gained independence, the government was divided up so that the several religions in the country would be represented in the government. To do this, it was decided that the President would be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament would be a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister would be a Sunni Muslim. In principle, this was a good way of ensuring political representation for each group. However, many problems have occurred because of this. Today, each religious group defends their own government representatives without holding them accountable for their corruption and negligence, and instead blame other groups’ politicians and representatives when problems arise in Lebanon. This has not only allowed for corruption to go unchecked, but it has also caused the divisiveness and sectarian conflict that has become characteristic of Lebanese society.
While the extent of government corruption has been mostly speculative, an accusation leveled against one of the top politicians in Lebanon last fall seemed to confirm many Lebanese citizens’ suspicions about Lebanese politicians’ corruption. The politician in question is Najib Mikati, previous Prime Minister of Lebanon. Mikati is Lebanon’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion. Many people have alleged that this accumulation of wealth could only have been the product of illegal activity, and this allegation seemed to be confirmed in October 2019, when a prosecutor pressed charges against Mikati, accusing him and his family of stealing millions of dollars that were meant to be used as housing loans for low and middle-income Lebanese citizens. Despite the fact that Mikati denied this accusation and it has yet to be shown to be true, the accusation was enough to gain traction among the citizens of Lebanon, who used this as conclusive proof of widespread government corruption. While this is only one instance, most of the politicians in Lebanon are millionaires, which leads many to believe that all are involved in some form of corruption.
Economic Decline and Revolution of 2019
While government corruption is in and of itself a problem, this corruption has also had negative ramifications on the economy; it has been argued that it is the primary cause of the steep decline in Lebanon’s economy. In 2018, economic growth for Lebanon was just 0.2 percent, with a 30 percent unemployment rate for youth, and due to these conditions, citizens of Lebanon were becoming increasingly critical of the quality of life in Lebanon, with many explicitly blaming politicians. In an attempt to improve the economy, Lebanese politicians began imposing taxes on many different commodities. While this angered many people, the revolution of 2019 did not begin until the government imposed a tax on WhatsApp, a free messaging service popular in the Middle East. It must be understood that the revolution was not just about the WhatsApp tax, as this was merely one of many contributing factors. In reality, much of the anger that spurred the revolution was due to both the dire conditions in Lebanon and the Lebanese government’s decision to place the burden of fixing the economy on the citizens, despite the fact that the politicians’ own corruption is what has led Lebanon to the brink of collapse.
While government corruption is to blame for the bleak conditions in Lebanon, the coronavirus has only further exacerbated these issues. Since the first outbreak in Lebanon, there have been several lockdowns, all of which have negatively impacted the economy. The most damaging impact has been the devaluing of the Lebanese Pound, which was already losing much of its value before the pandemic, but has now lost over 75 percent of its value. The devaluing of the currency not only bears negative consequences on the health of the Lebanese economy as a whole, but it has also made it impossible for many in Lebanon to afford basic necessities. As a result of the devaluing of the currency, prices of medicine, food, and rent have all increased exponentially, nearly 40 percent of the population has been pushed below the poverty line, and almost one million people have insufficient access to food.
Due to government corruption and negligence, Lebanon has been slowly moving towards total collapse. As the country reels further into political, social, and economic unrest, the people of Lebanon have become more and more convinced that the government is not concerned with either their protection or livelihood. However, this is not the first time the Lebanese people have suffered at the hands of their government, and for this reason, voices of resilience and hope are ringing through the streets of Lebanon; just as the people of Lebanon have overcome other hardships before, they have a conviction that they too will overcome this. As a testament to this, many Lebanese people have been calling Beirut a phoenix, for despite the destruction caused by the explosion, the citizens of Lebanon believe that Beirut will rise from the ashes.
The coronavirus has spread to virtually every country of the world, but due to differences in privilege and access to resources, many countries are unable to adequately address this pandemic as well as other countries are. However, for countries in the Middle East, in addition to these differentials, the pandemic has also further exacerbated many preexisting problems that the region faces, namely political, economic, and social unrest. While this outbreak has had ramifications on several facets of life in the Middle East, this blog post will be focusing on the outbreak’s impact on sectarianism and the refugee crisis.
The Middle East is marred by the Sunni-Shia conflict, and geopolitics are heavily influenced by this divide. Because of this, the divide is often invoked when something disastrous occurs in the region, with each side blaming the other, and the coronavirus outbreak has proven to be no exception. Although the coronavirus has spread to all Middle Eastern countries, Iran, a Shia-majority country, has been disproportionately impacted; as of March 31st, Iran has had 44,605 coronavirus cases and 2,898 deaths, making it one of the countries with the most cases in the world. Further, Iran has now been identified as the source of spread to other Middle Eastern countries; some of the earliest identified cases in the Middle East were all of people who had recently traveled to Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran. Despite the fact that people were aware of the outbreak in Iran, visitations to holy shrines in Iran were not discouraged, and people continued to travel to these holy sites. Any large gatherings during this time pose a risk, but shrine visitations are especially risky; many people engage in practices at shrines, such as kissing and touching the shrines, that lead to an increased likelihood of spreading. Since the outbreak is speculated to have spread from Qom, the city where one of the holiest shrines, the shrine of Sayyida Fatima al-Zahraa, is located, it is not unlikely that transmission did occur like this.
Because the spread has been identified as coming from Iran, many Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East have used this as an opportunity to justify further prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims. For example, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia who recently traveled to Iran for shrine visitations were labeled as traitors, leading some to call for their execution. In other countries, such as Lebanon, preexisting sectarian conflict has only gotten worse. It has been claimed that the first case in Lebanon came from Iran, leading many to blame the Shia Muslim population of Lebanon. Further, the Lebanese government continued to allow flights from Iran up until mid-March. Due to this, many have criticized Iran’s influence in Lebanon, specifically its influence on the government.
Despite the scarcity of resources and bleak outlook for refugee camps, measures have been taken to ensure that refugees are protected as best as they can be from the coronavirus. For example, many refugee camps have been sanitized with anti-bacterial spray. Certain organizations, such as Islamic Relief, have donated supplies, including rubbing alcohol and medicine that treats certain symptoms of the coronavirus, to ensure that if an outbreak does occur within a camp, there are some necessary resources available. Finally, the UNHCR has appealed governments for $33 million in funds to provide refugees access to hygiene kits, protective gear, and sanitary water, among other things, that could help deter the spread of the coronavirus.
Recently, an IHR Intern wrote a blog about racism and discrimination that arises during outbreaks such as this one. While Asians have largely been victims to racism during this period, in the Middle East, Iran and Shia Muslims have been targeted, highlighting that people do indeed try to blame such events on others when, in reality, there is no one that should be blamed. Further, times like this also highlight the level of privilege many of us live in; while we have the privilege to access resources and to distance ourselves from one another, other groups who lack such privileges, namely refugees, cannot practice any of these things. Thus, while we are all impacted by this outbreak, it is important to recognize that many people, in addition to worrying about the coronavirus, face other obstacles during this time as well, and these groups should be kept in mind.
“Wash your hands.” “Avoid close contact with others.” “Stay home.” These are the CDC’s recommendations for protecting yourself against the coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19. For those of us fortunate enough to have clean water and soap and space and a home, that is helpful advice and easy enough to follow, even if it is somewhat of a disruption to our normal lives. Unfortunately, these recommendations are completely irrelevant to the millions of people across the globe who live in conflict zones and refugee camps where fresh water is scarce, sanitary facilities are lacking, and the healthcare infrastructure has been decimated by war and continuous violence. In places where day to day survival is already a key concern, the novel coronavirus poses a new kind of threat, one that the struggling healthcare systems in these countries is not prepared to take on.
While the U.S. government and media have focused on individual vulnerabilities, such as age and underlying respiratory conditions, very little has been done to address social and structural vulnerabilities, including limited access to basic services, health care, safe water, sanitation, and hygiene, in some of the most dangerous places in the world. Overcrowded refugee camps are a virus’ dream – they provide conditions in which the virus can spread rapidly and easily. Individuals living in these places are already prone to respiratory problems due to air pollution and living in close quarters. Unsanitary conditions and lack of housing, food, and clean water exacerbate the risk of contracting an infectious disease, and the lack of access to basic health care makes fighting any kind of infection difficult. The coronavirus is highly contagious and has a very high global mortality rate, even in places where social distancing and healthcare are accessible, and this rate will likely be significantly higher in conflict zones where large numbers of displaced people live. Preventing the virus from entering these spaces is the only hope, but as Dr. Esperanza Martinez, head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross, has said, “this is uncharted territory,” and it is unclear how effective containment strategies will be in reality (or if they are even possible in certain places).
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 126 million people around the world are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 70 million who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, mostly due to violence. COVID-19 is adding a new layer of uncertainty and fear to the already precarious and vulnerable status of these individuals and families. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration have suspended refugee resettlement programs, and many governments worldwide have stopped the intake of refugees who are fleeing violence and food insecurity. Cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in war-torn areas in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, and Ninevah, a displaced persons camp in Iraq, as well as in several African countries, including war-torn Libya, Cameroon, and the Congo. This post considers how this global pandemic will likely impact people living in three particularly dangerous and vulnerable countries in the Middle East and West Africa: Syria, Yemen, and Burkina Faso.
Nine years into the seemingly endless civil war in Syria, more than 380,000 people have died, dozens of towns and cities razed to the ground and half of the country’s entire population displaced. Targeted attacks have left Syria’s once thriving public health care system in shambles. Hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or damaged to the point of not functioning. Medicine and medical supplies are limited, healthcare workers are few, and travel to the still-operational clinics and hospitals is out of the question for many of the sick and suffering. Of particular concern is the refugee camp in Idlib, a town in the northwestern province near Turkey, where many displaced individuals now live. The conditions of the camp are dire – there is limited access to soap and water and overcrowding makes social distancing impossible – so self-protecting is a major challenge.
Syria reported its first case of coronavirus a few days ago, from a woman who had recently traveled to Iran, a country that is backing the Syrian government in the civil war and where Shia pilgrims frequently travel. There are now five confirmed cases (the actual number is suspected to be much higher), and there is growing fear that the virus is spreading unimpeded throughout the northwest, where there is limited capacity to test and monitor the situation, but experts have warned that “if the disease starts, it will spread massively.” Jan Egeland, director general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has warned that COVID-19 could “decimate refugee communities.” Containment is the only hope, but the shortage of supplies, including test kits, makes this unlikely.
The United Nations has labeled the situation in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed yet in Yemen, but the country is bracing for a devastating catastrophe if and when the virus arrives. Since the U.S.-backed war in Yemen began five years ago, Saudi and Emirati coalitions have leveled 120 attacks on medical facilities throughout the country. These attacks, including airstrikes, ground-launched mortar and rockets, and attempts to occupy hospitals and clinics, have led to widespread disruptions in access and service to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women, children, and persons with disability. With a mere 51% of the country’s health centers operational, there is a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Even if people in this area can get to a hospital, many hospitals don’t have electricity, rendering a ventilator — a potentially life-saving device for people suffering the most severe symptoms of COVID-19 — out of the question. The decimated healthcare infrastructure is unable to control preventable disease (there was a cholera outbreak a few years ago) and is completely ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Both the Houthi rebel group (aligned with Iran) and the government recognize the threat the virus poses and are implementing precautionary measures, such as closing schools and halting flights into the area. However, both sides are amping up their rhetoric and are posed to blame the other if and when cases of COVID-19 are confirmed. The United States, for its part, has cut off emergency aid to Yemen, citing the Houthi’s interference in the distribution of supplies and services to starving Yemenis (likely a Saudi-directed approach), but humanitarian officials have warned that this decision will create major funding gaps in efforts to provide hand soap and medicine to clinics and to staff health centers with trained healthcare workers. Yemen’s basic healthcare programs are heavily reliant on foreign aid – about 8 out of 10 Yeminis rely on some form of aid.Eliminating this source of funding could mean suffering and death for millions of displaced persons in Yemen.
On March 18, Burkina Faso, the impoverished West African country of 20 million people, registered its first confirmed case of COVID-19. A week and a half later, that number leapt to146 cases, with hundreds more suspected, making it the hardest hit West African country so far. This tiny, conflict-scarred country is no stranger to hardships, including poverty, drought, rampant hunger, and militia-led coups. In 2019, clashes between government forces and militia groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda led to more than 2,000 deaths in Burkina Faso and forced more than 700,000 people to flee their homes. This escalation of violence has led to the closure of 135 health centers in the country, and an additional 140 have reduced their services, leaving 1.5 million Burkinabe in dire need of humanitarian health assistance. With a healthcare system that has been ravaged by war, a mere three facilities in the country are able to carry out the tests, and only a few hundred test kits have been provided. As part of the government’s response, Malian refugees once displaced into Burkina Faso are being forced back into Mali, where ongoing violence inhibits humanitarian and medical access to affected populations. COVID-19 will exacerbate an already dire situation — it is feared that an outbreak would see fatality rates of ten times higher than the global average. “These populations are already very vulnerable to diseases that are otherwise easy to treat,” says Alexandra Lamarche, senior advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International, “but that’s not the case when they have no access to water or proper sanitation or health care.” She adds, “We could watch entire populations vanish.”
Against a common enemy?
Rarely does a disaster – natural or otherwise – affect the entire world. The coronavirus is a different story, unlike anything we have witnessed in the modern age. It is exposing the fragility of even the most advanced economic, technological, social and medical systems, and it poses a grave threat to humans the world over. The virus doesn’t discriminate on the basis of status or religion or skin color or any of the other things that divide us or give us cause to fight each other. It travels across borders and between enemies, and the more people it infects, the greater the risk for everyone. Just like the virus, the distribution of basic human rights must not be qualified on the basis of anything other than humanity. Turning a blind eye to the suffering and inadequate conditions of the world’s most vulnerable populations only facilitates the spread of the virus. In a practical sense, limiting the spread of the virus in refugee camps and conflict zones in Yemen and Syria and West Africa is just as important as it is in wealthy countries if the goal is to eliminate the virus and end this global pandemic. That requires distributing resources and investing in large-scale infrastructure improvements in places where people are not able to follow the protocols for containment under the current conditions. As we scramble to make enough surgical-grade masks for healthcare workers in the United States to wear, we need to be concerned with sending as many as possible to medical facilities in places around the world that are under-served and over-taxed, including displaced persons camps. We cannot hope to protect ourselves if we refuse to protect our fellow humans, no matter the distance or cultural difference between us. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called this “the true fight of our lives,” insisting that we put aside our differences, which now seem small and inconsequential, and turn our aggression toward a common enemy. “That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”
I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.
Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.
The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.
Freedom of Speech
The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.
Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.
This past winter break, I visited Saudi Arabia with my family. While there, I noticed that many women were active in the work force, working as police officers, salespeople, and even airport security. Under the preconceived notion that women were not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia, I was surprised to see this. Slowly, I began to realize that the Western perspective about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia was not entirely correct. So, after I came back from my trip, I decided to look into different sources to try to get an accurate portrayal of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
Women’s Rights Narrative
After conducting extensive research, I realized that while there is no denying that Saudi Arabia still has many improvements to make in terms of gender equality, there are several women’s rights that have been historically implemented or are currently being established. Almost always, women in Saudi Arabia are portrayed as oppressed, and again, while there is an undeniable lack of many rights for women, it is not a fair assessment to only discuss what rights are not realized; it is important to recognize the rights that they have as well. While I cannot say for certain why this particular narrative is often propagated, it can be argued that the mainstream media is committed to portraying Islam in a negative light, and because Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law, or Islamic Law, it follows that it will be portrayed negatively. As the media does this, people begin to argue that Islam is in and of itself misogynistic and is thus incompatible with progress and civilization. While I will not be going in too much depth about the rights Islam gives women, I will note that it is important to remember that culture and religion are not interchangeable terms and should not be treated as such; Saudi Arabia may govern using Sharia Law, but many of their restrictive practices are rooted in culture, not Islam. Thus, the purpose of this post is to provide a counter-narrative to show that what the media portrays pertaining to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is not an entirely accurate depiction.
While there is a dearth of women in the employment sector, seen through the fact that only 22 percent of Saudi womenparticipate in the workforce, there are no legal restrictions on which jobs women are allowed to work in, with garbage collecting and construction being the only exceptions to this. Sharia Law encourages women to work, so the lack of women in the work force is not due to restrictive religious practices, but rather to restrictive cultural practices. Further, Sharia Law allows women to earn and manage their own finances, making employment especially appealing to women who want to be financially independent. While the number of working women is low, Saudi Arabia is currently attempting to further integrate women into the workforce, with a goal of a 30 percent participation rate by 2030. While this is mostly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia wants to replace non-Saudi workers with Saudi Arabian citizens, it is still commendable that women are a part of this plan.
Perhaps most interesting is the emphasis Saudi Arabia has placed on women’s education. Saudi women have had access to education for several decades; women have been attending universities since the 1970s. Recent advances made highlight the country’s commitment to providing opportunities for women in education, namely the 2005 study abroad program, which sends thousands of Saudi women to the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, to obtain an education. Another very impressive advancement is Saudi Arabia’s first all-women’s college, Princess Noura bint Abdulrahman University, founded in 2010. The purpose of the school is to give women better access to fields that are traditionally male dominated, such as medicine and pharmacology. Due to these improvements and the general importance placed on women’s education, women currently represent 52 percent of university students in Saudi Arabia.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has invested in specific spheres of women’s rights, such as employment and education, and in recent years, the Saudi Arabian government has made progress by rescinding many restrictive practices and laws. When Saudi Arabia is included in the discourse pertaining to the rights of women, none of this is mentioned; only the shortcomings are. While I am the first to admit that Saudi Arabia still has much work to do in terms of women’s rights and human rights in general, it is important to acknowledge what they have done right.
In early August, Israa Ghrayeb, a 21-year-old Palestinian woman, went out with her soon-to-be fiancé on a chaperoned date. As all couples often do, Israa and her fiancé posted a video of their time together on social media. This innocent, loving video would soon incriminate Israa; after seeing the video, three male members of her family were angered, claiming that she had dishonored the family by appearing in public with a man who was not yet her husband. A few days later, these relatives physically attacked Israa, and due to her injuries resulting from this attack, she was hospitalized. Shortly after her hospitalization, a video filmed outside of Israa’s hospital room circulated online, in which Israa’s screams and intermittent thuds can be audibly heard; she was being beaten again. Israa died a day later. However, it is unfair to merely state that she died; Israa was murdered, the victim of an honor killing.
What are Honor Killings?
Honor killings and crimes are committed against a family member who is deemed to have acted socially or culturally unacceptably, and thus is seen to be bringing dishonor to the family. These are almost always carried out by male relatives, and the victim is almost always a woman; 93 percent of honor killing victims are women. According to the United Nations, 5,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings every year. Thus, while males are sometimes victims of honor killings as well, the following discourse pertaining to honor killings will focus solely on female victims.
What’s to Blame?
It is important to begin by noting that honor killings are strictly rooted in culture. Because honor killings are largely carried out in the Middle East/North Africa regions and South Asia, which are Muslim majority areas, Islam is often blamed for encouraging this practice. However, Islam cannot be identified as the culprit in these situations, as it strictly opposes such treatment of women. Further, women being murdered by male relatives or partners is not exclusive to Muslim majority countries; in France, 120 women were killed by their partners in 2018. Considering this is a phenomenon that is not restricted to one culture or region, the culprit is something that is shared across most societies of the world: misogyny, or prejudice against women. Most societies are still largely patriarchal, and thus have problems with women’s rights. While this is the case, many men within these societies are aware of the injustices women face and advocate for change, so it would be unfair to label all men as misogynistic. At the same time, though, many other men do ascribe to misogynistic ideologies, and often times, they act upon them. Honor killings are a blatant example of this; when males believe that their honor is tied to the behavior of the women in their lives, it is clear that misogyny is to blame. Further, to kill a girl in “honor” is to suggest that the girl is not her own person, but rather an object that is owned, emphasizing the misogyny underlying honor killings.
“The devil is not in the body of women; it is in your mind,” a powerful statement that was displayed on a sign of one of the protestors, is a fundamental notion that must be understood. The ideas that women are inherently inferior, and that women’s bodies are for men to control, are ideas that must be eradicated from our cultures and from predominant male thinking. To do this, certain steps must be taken. First, there needs to be a cultural upheaval involving both men and women to put an end to misogynistic belief systems. This is an effort that begins at a very grassroot level, and starts with changing mentalities of future generations; when boys and girls are raised the same, when boys are taught to respect and value women, when girls are empowered and are made to believe that they are not subservient or inferior to men, we slowly move towards making misogynistic ideologies obsolete. It is important to note this is not an effort that must only be undertaken by communities in the Arab world, but rather is an effort that should be undertaken by communities world-wide. Second, laws need to be put into place to hold men accountable for their abuse of women. It is insufficient to merely pass laws without also enforcing them, as men will believe that they can get away with their crimes without suffering any consequences.
Until the aforementioned changes are made within these societies, it is unlikely that any progress will be made. However, this is not an option; these societies were complicit in the deaths of many women and girls, including Israa. While they cannot bring back the lives that were taken, they must make these changes to ensure no more lives are taken in the name of “honor.”
The Second Arab Spring has risen, but this time it is much more peaceful, democratic, and youth-centered than the first. Why is this important?
2011 was quite the year for everyone except me. I still attended elementary school, could not ride a bike or swim, and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Although nothing great happened to me, the world had changed drastically for those in the Middle East, especially the youth. That event, which changed the way many Arabs and Middle Easterners viewed their governments, was called the Arab Spring. Fast forward to 2019, I’m a freshman at The University of Alabama at Birmingham and Middle Easterners are fighting for equality and a democratic style of government. Then and now, human rights violations such as inequality and representation serve as focal points for protest and revolution, allowing for them to stand up for what they believe in and fundamentally change their government.
So, what exactly was the Arab Spring?
Basically, the Arab Spring consisted of many pro-democracy protests that took place in many majority-Muslim countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain. Like many other social movements, the Arab Spring started with a “single act of defiance.”
In December of 2010, a street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, from Tunisia set himself on fire to protest the seizing of his vegetable stand by the police due to him not getting a permit. Bouazizi’s sacrifice set aflame the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, where the many protestors fighting for more social freedoms caused Tunisia’s authoritarian president for 20+ years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to renounce his position and flee the country. This revolution in Tunisia had caused the country to become more socially democratic and involve the people in its political process due to Tunisia’s first elections occurring in 2011.
Such a great change in government by a country in the Middle East had caused others in the region to also protest, with protests occurring in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, although many succeeded and others failed.
Although Bouazizi’s death served as a catalyst for the spreading of pro-democracy fervor, the death of Egypt’s Khaled Said by police officers became another martyr in the fight for democracy. Through his death, an Egyptian Google Executive from Dubai by the name of Wael Ghoneim became a prominent activist, creating a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said,” bringing in thousands of members.
Egypt’s Arab Spring, springing from Said’s death, called for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, then President of Egypt. After resigning, he was “charged with ordering the deaths of protesters,” of which “more than 800 people were killed.” Once Mubarak stepped down, a former political prisoner by the name of Mohamed Morsy came into power democratically. Although he was chosen by the people, Morsy made it so that no court could overturn his decisions, solidifying him as an autocrat. After many protests and conflicts with the Egyptian military, Morsy “was ousted in a military coup,” leading to the establishment of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s former military chief, as President through 96% of the vote.
Was the Arab Spring ultimately successful across the Middle East?
Although there were some democratic successes in both Tunisia and Egypt through electing leaders democratically, other countries in the Middle East, such as Libya and Yemen resulted in continued conflict and war many years after the Arab Spring.
Libya, though ousting Muammar Gaddafi from his reign, remains in conflict. Libya has essentially been divided through the many militias and political factions that exist today, fighting endlessly to grab power. The situation has been so rampant that many “migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are forced” to dangerously travel to Europe through the Mediterranean, all in an effort to flee human trafficking and violence.
At first, Yemen successfully removed its President of 30 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, instead of a democratic response, an “armed uprising and foreign military intervention” caused Yemen to undergo a brutal civil war. It is through this war that Yemen experienced the worst cholera outbreak, large-scale famines across the country, and the killing of many civilians through bombs and landmines. These issues continue to be present, with no end in sight as to when it will end.
So, the Arab Spring, although deadly, resulted in some Middle Eastern countries to move towards democracy and others toward chaos and autocracy. It’s not like there’s going to be any other event like this soon, right?
The protesters do not trust any political leader. They believe that current leaders have not kept to their economic promises and reforms. And as such, many want to start over and introduce new politicians and parties.
The protests are peaceful. Unlike protests from before, many current protests lean pacifist, even through brutal responses from the military. It is through these protests that widespread support is achieved and that countries are willing to listen.
The protesters are rejecting sectarian divisions. In Lebanon, for example, religion and ethnic identity form a crucial part of how the government is formed and how people are treated. These protesters have essentially decided to do away with these divisive tactics and move towards equalizing all in government.
These characteristics directly coincide with many Algerian protests that began on February of 2019. During a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Doha Center in partnership with Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, Haoues Taguia, a researcher for the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, described how Algerians are distancing themselves from being a parallel to the Arab Spring. He noted that these protests are relatively peaceful, combined with the fact that a large portion of the population from “all walks of life” came to participate, legitimizing the movement. Due to a lack of leadership within the movement, these protests will be initially successful, but chaos would ensue in the years to come without a solid and stable leadership structure. During the same event, Shafeeq Garba, a professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, also advised that other civilians of MENA countries should follow Algeria’s example in order to create dialogue for change. He noted that “in the violent alternatives to this, civil wars, everyone loses, and that if these revolutions don’t succeed, they will ultimately lead to failed states.”
Lebanon is another interesting case where protests are fundamentally changing the way that a legitimate government should operate. These protests came to fruition on October 17 due to new taxes on WhatsApp calls, which caused protesters to light “fires on main roads and [block] highways, while banks, schools, and universities closed.” This new tax became the tipping point for those agitated with the Lebanese government and how their politicians are manipulating the wealth and resources that Lebanon contains. Protesters have gone so far as to create a human chain across the country as a form of protest while also involving more and more students into the fray. According to Fatima al-Sheikh, a freshman student protester, many students thought that the sectarian leaders “looked out for [their] interests, even though [the students] knew they were corrupt and oppressive. But now [the students] feel that with our hearts, and we can’t go back from that.” These protests have raged on for more than a month. With elections soon, only time will tell whether or not these protests will ultimately succeed or rather be only one of many protests in the MENA region that result in chaos and a fractured country.
Arab Spring 2.0 may only seem like a relatively new phenomenon for the MENA region now, due to the rippling effects the first Arab Spring had and still has to this day in countries like Yemen and Libya. However, rising protests against a corrupt and unfair government have spawned all over the world, from Latin America (my recent post concerning Chile’s protests) to the Middle East. Since many of these protests have been led by students it just really comes to show how concerned many college-aged people are about whether or not their respective government will be able to fairly implement policies that benefit the entire nation rather than just the ruling class. In terms of Lebanon and Algeria, both countries are fighting to revamp their respective governments. By fighting to create fair elections that emphasize the importance of the people and not just the ruling elitist class, protesters in the MENA region symbolize the importance of human rights values such as equality in a government through democratic and fair elections.
When some ask me where I’m from, and “here” does not suffice, I do not say that I am Arab; I say that I am from Jerusalem. “Arab” is sometimes a bad word or foreign enemy that comes between me and this person, whereas “Jerusalem” is something they can relate to or has not been claimed by the same narrative. They both mean the same to me, but “Arab” carries an antagonistic or uneasy connotation into new relationships- where I want others to be open to understand me as an individual first and then have that built into their perspective or definition of an Arab. Societies provide advantages to certain identities and disadvantages to others prompting me to pick and choose in my immediate surroundings and context.
Identity can be wielded as a powerful and dangerous tool. It can be used as a guide when you are lost by giving you something to grab on with a purpose or goal to strive for and increase your self-esteem, confidence, and certainty while reducing stress or anxiety. When an identity is represented in our immediate context, people use it to understand, relate and form alliances or organize (politically) to defend their interests as a group. Further, I may assume one identity in its defense declaring my right to speak about it and for it, even if I am not especially informed on the way it has formed in the international world.
Being an Arab-American in times where Arabs and Americans are so polarized here, I realize I do not fully identify with or understand either side. However, even though I’m trying to develop my own platform, as a link, I am expected to speak on behalf of the “other.” In this position, I feel like a mediator or spokesperson, responsible for debunking an Aggressive Arab nature or a hateful and ethnocentric American nature, while facing hostility, collective suspicion, and surveillance. Sometimes I am claimed and others I am rejected by each of these groups.
Every day I face realities that disconnect me from each group. An intimate one is my relationship with my white family. Before I blocked them, I would log into Facebook to find explicitly anti-Muslim or extreme Zionist articles that family members posted on my timeline. Still, my family is so loving in person, not wanting to face actual truths that weaken their own identity. They claim me as family, but then connect me to this identity that is so ignorantly represented and antagonized- the same way I imagine sectarian conflict separating MENA identities such as the Shia and Sunni Ummah.
Recently, in my class which is focusing on terrorism, someone told a story of how she became friends with her Muslim employer and that “no, they’re not all terrorists,” but just like the rest of us. Through the entire story, she looked and gestured at me, seemingly sharing consolation or seeking approval. Even though I did appreciate her good intentions, in the moment I was separated from the rest of my classmates, marked as other, and given the permission to approve her response to so many. Oddly, we demand recognition for ostracized groups in the same ways it’s been denied. Through identity politics, we demand respect for oneself as other or different.
Eventually, I realize as much as this position is a burden, it is also a great privilege. In the MENA region, most identify as “Arab” or “Muslim.” They faced similar histories and events and believe in a common text, so no one’s claim is as unique, distinct, or loud as mine is in an American backdrop. As an Arab or Muslim overseas, voices are muffled in with the rest of the people sharing your identity. Here, as many people there are that hate or fear me because of my foreign identity, others want to hear from me. I get to add to their definition of what these identities entail like what it means to be a Muslim, imposing my own narrative on the group.
I am also privileged to live in a country where its democratic policy- whether it has been fully realized or not- holds citizens from different backgrounds to bring their perspectives and issues to build from; not a country where an authoritarian figure or identity imposes their own opinion of what policy should be. Depending on the context, sometimes an identity victimizes me and sometimes it empowers me.
Growing up, my identity was not represented on SAT, ACT, or many other censuses. I usually had to check the “white” box even though I have learned to be proud of different aspects, tribulations, or stories of my heritage. I want to represent my ethnicity in the American success story.
The argument for the inclusion of more races or the option to select multiple races represents what power minorities have to demand better recognition from the government. MENA region forms a greater narrative about the act of reporting identity. Groups were put under the rule of another identity and their own was denied which led to cultural suppression and persecution. Eventually, these groups that have been historically ignored or harmed demand the right to be protected.
Taking on a group identity gives us a sense of belonging and affirmation from other members. We may feel that we are part of something bigger, not insignificant, alone, or unheard. Committing or dedicating yourself to other members’ rights and responsibilities they expect from you grants purpose or direction. Your problems are group problems and your voice is supported and amplified to fight the threat together. You can split responsibilities or blame and there is more guidance and reinforcement to relieve you. However, to switch from an individual focus to a group focus, you may have to take on and accept values or beliefs you do not particularly agree with, adopting self-stereotypes or assimilating to the dominant, and sometimes blinded, discourse.
People of the MENA region faced a long history of sectarian violence that disabled unity which could effectively challenge or transform governments. Instead, it broke them apart, silencing their voice and in some cases making them dependent on foreign voices or aid. When the united Ottoman Empire was dissolved, colonizers split the area and its people while autonomous religious and cultural groups were also divided to reduce their power or say, in governance. Pause to imagine if it was possible to make America and an Arab middle-eastern state one state. Justified by the need for organization or governance of these diverse and divided citizens, ruling powers, even foreign, muted civil activity and imposed their way of life or opinions of policy on others. So divided, lacking an integrative identity, leaders and powerful figures or politicians may grab or monopolize resources and rights for their smaller groups crating a zero-sum competition. Sectarian polity in these areas was inflamed and harsher scrutiny or repression excluded many even in the case of a revolution. Personal and factional needs overwhelmed the sense of a common identity and instead of standing together, people joined opposing organizations to represent them. When an identity splinters, others need to be reinforced. Because, on your own, you are more easily erased.
Identity politics can urge mobilization around one identity or one aspect of your makeup, and you are pressured to take that as your defining feature even though you cannot be represented so reductively. To become a more impenetrable united force, the individual is integrated by assimilating dominant norms. Sometimes your identity’s label separates you more than your issue position. We may have the same values as someone but will never know because we are unwilling to socialize with outsiders and challenge this group or ideology that we have devoted ourselves to. When identities meet politics that have greater or long-term consequences, these divisions weaken our ability to form policies based on expected outcomes or truth-seeking. It’s more triggered by the “us” vs “them” battle.
Politics exploit these feelings to rally funding, resources, or a larger audience to win different supports. Then others grab onto these resource-rich identities. For example, anyone under the claim of a religious organization may win the support of foreign clergies who supply them with food or protections. Then, the leaders of these organizations win the support of desperate or oppressed populations.
In MENA, a religious identity also provides guidance for apolitical peoples searching for an ideology within which to frame their suffering or experience. It promotes faith and offers solace for ones suffering or oppressed with a promise of a bigger purpose. Religious groups mourn a supposedly more ethical past and presume religious instructions to return to this society. People’s fears, resentments, faith, and suffering can be exploited by power under religious identities. This becomes even more dangerous if people cling to these collective truths so desperately.
We are faced with very complex decisions and circumstances. It would be too hard to weigh all the options and make decisions without these prior ideas or instructions on what we should do. However, you can get too tied up in your responsibilities or devotion to these identities. While identities can connect us and give our insecurities a stronger voice or support, they can also polarize groups or exploited by power-hungry mobilizers. These labels may effectively imprison you or constrain what you in what you allow yourself to explore or believe. Something intended for inclusion may trap you in estranging conflict.
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