By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
Life for women in ISIS controlled areas of Syria and Iraq is notoriously oppressive. We are inundated with media reports of women being captured and sold as sex slaves, corporal punishment for violations of morality codes, forced marriages and worse. The number and intensity of women-repressive regimes has been growing in recent years. Saudi Arabia is a familiar case, but since the Iranian Revolution and even more so the rise of the Taliban, the global Jihadi movement and its latest representative ISIS, women have been the direct target of repressive regimes.
This is puzzling because some of these societies were previously relatively egalitarian and social norms are considered sticky and persistent. This may seem like a new phenomenon, however the targeting of a group in society is not new in repressive regimes. Many regimes in the past such as Serbia in the 1990s or even Nazi Germany directed mass-mobilization against minority groups in order to strengthen their regimes and avoid political unrest. In these societies previously assimilated communities were shattered within the span of a few short years.
Looking more closely women-oppressive regimes shows that the repression of women goes hand in hand with other changes: mainly the mass mobilization of society without a reciprocal rise in formal political participation. In all of these cases, there was some kind of popular mobilization: the Syrian civil war, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. However, the demands of the people were not met with formal steps towards democratization. To pacify society, leaders chose targeting women as a strategy that allowed mass-participation in a state project without threatening the regime.
Under the Ba’ath party Syria was relatively egalitarian: women served in the military, participated in the workforce, were educated alongside men and were present in the public sphere. In the span of only a few years, life for women under the ISIS regime has dramatically altered: women are no longer seen in the public sphere and do not participate in public life. Even to simply leave their homes, women must be completely covered and accompanied by a male family member.
Though far less extreme, Turkey is undergoing a similar transformation. Despite having previously egalitarian policies toward women (women hold 47% of academic positions, makeup 33% of the countries core of engineers), Erdogan’s party has channeled domestic popular unrest by turning against the Kurdish minority and women. In recent years Turkish politics has been characterized by discriminatory expressions and anti-women policies. Then PM, Erdogan publically stated that ‘women are not equal to men’ and that equality is against nature. Deputy PM Bulent Arinc announced that women must be chaste and should refrain from laughing in public. These statements accompanied moves such as transforming the Ministry for Women and Family into the Ministry of Family and Social Policies and re-naming the parliamentary commission on Gender Equality into the Equal Opportunities Commission. Accompanying these state policies has been a disturbing rise in domestic violence incidents and murders of women.
Though all of these examples come from Islamic societies, it would be wrong to assume that Islam is the cause for the repression of women. As noted above, in these societies, women were previously integrated into social and professional life to a far greater extent. Some traditional elements exist upon which leaders can capitalize, but like every religion Islam can have a variety of political interpretations and can in fact be compatible with different types of political and social arrangements.
The rise of women repressive regimes, in particular under ISIS and the Taliban, is similar to pre-WWII in Germany. Prior to the rise of the Nazi regime, German Jews were completely assimilated into German society. They were highly educated, participated in civil society, held high positions in the state administration and were not segregated geographically or institutionally. Within the span of a few short years, Jews had not only lost their ability to participate in formal state institutions but had become outcasts in society. Some would argue that anti-Semitism was an ever-present factor in Germany society and rest of Europe but in fact as Hannah Arendt argues, the very logic of the totalitarian system was based on the targeting of Jews. Fascist regimes themselves are a direct product of the emergence of mass-society.
Social science research on political development claims that when old conservative structures could no longer handle the demands of the masses or adjust their strategies, new types of parties emerged to respond to the new needs. Since these parties were built on popular mobilization but were non-democratic they had to channel the desire to participate in other direction. Using the underlying anti-Semitic sentiment, the Nazi regime allowed the masses to participate in public life by repressing Jews. This was a task that any member of society (except the Jews) could be a part of while simultaneously creating a sense of solidarity and relieving demands on the state.
A similar process occurred in former Yugoslavia where Serbian elites channeled the mass mobilization that followed the collapse of the communist regime towards the Croats. Like Ba’ath Syria or Weimar Germany, the two populations were highly integrated and yet within a very short period of time neighbors turned against each other and violence erupted. In all three cases, turning against an internal population was a way channel mass mobilization without democratization. Similarly, women repressive regimes can be explained by internal variant of the rally-around-the-flag effect where leaders consolidate their rule around nationalist chauvinist sentiment.
We acknowledge that the egalitarian nature of previous regimes in the Middle East was the result of forced secular authoritarian governmental policies. There is no reason to feel nostalgic for these regimes, however, the current situation for women has been rapidly deteriorating and we should understand that the causes for this are the very logic of the new regimes themselves.
If policies against women are considered a part of the political strategy of non-democratic regimes rather than as unfortunate outcome of conservative societies, then leaders should take seriously the condition of women when designing foreign policy.