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Women and Islam: A Debate with Human Rights Watch

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
An Egyptian woman looking on during a rally to mark the one year anniversary of the revolution, Tahrir Square, January 25, 2012

To Kenneth Roth:

In your Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, “Time to Abandon the Autocrats and Embrace Rights,” you urge support for the newly elected governments that have brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia and Egypt. In your desire to “constructively engage” with the new governments, you ask states to stop supporting autocrats. But you are not a state; you are the head of an international human rights organization whose role is to report on human rights violations, an honorable and necessary task which your essay largely neglects.

You say, “It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name,” but you fail to call for the most basic guarantee of rights—the separation of religion from the state. Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling. And while “moderate Islamist” leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control. You, however, are so unconcerned with the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities that you mention them only once, as follows: “Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate.

Nor do you point to the one of the clearest threats to rights—particularly to women and religious and sexual minorities—the threat to introduce so-called “shari’a law.” It is simply not good enough to say we do not know what kind of Islamic law, if any, will result, when it is already clear that freedom of expression and freedom of religion—not to mention the choice not to veil—are under threat. And while it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood has not been in power for very long, we can get some idea of what to expect by looking at their track record. In the UK, where they were in exile for decades, unfettered by political persecution, the exigencies of government, or the demands of popular pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood systematically promoted gender apartheid and parallel legal systems enshrining the most regressive version of “shari’a law”. Yusef al-Qaradawi, a leading scholar associated with them, publicly maintains that homosexuality should be punished by death. They supported deniers of the Holocaust and the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, and shared platforms with salafi-jihadis, spreading their calls for militant jihad. But, rather than examine the record of Muslim fundamentalists in the West, you keep demanding that Western governments “engage.”

Western governments are engaged already; if support for autocrats was their Plan A, the Muslim Brotherhood has long been their Plan B. The CIA’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood goes back to the 1950s and was revived under the Bush administration, while support for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e Islaami has been crucial to the “soft counter-terror” strategy of the British state. Have you heard the phrases “non-violent extremism” or “moderate Islamism?” This language is deployed to sanitize movements that may have substituted elections for bombs as a way of achieving power but still remain committed to systematic discrimination.

Like you, we support calls to dismantle the security state and to promote the rule of law. But we do not see that one set of autocratic structures should be replaced by another which claims divine sanction. And while the overthrow of repressive governments was a victory and free elections are, in principle, a step towards democracy, shouldn’t the leader of a prominent human rights organization be supporting popular calls to prevent backlash and safeguard fundamental rights? In other words, rather than advocating strategic support for parties who may use elections to halt the call for continuing change and attack basic rights, shouldn’t you support the voices for both liberty and equality that are arguing that the revolutions must continue?

Throughout your essay, you focus only on the traditional political aspects of the human rights agenda. You say, for instance, that “the Arab upheavals were inspired by a vision of freedom, a desire for a voice in one’s destiny, and a quest for governments that are accountable to the public rather than captured by a ruling elite.” While this is true as far as it goes, it completely leaves out the role that economic and social demands played in the uprisings. You seem able to hear only the voices of the right wing—the Islamist politicians—and not the voices of the people who initiated and sustained these revolutions: the unemployed and the poor of Tunisia, seeking ways to survive; the thousands of Egyptian women who mobilized against the security forces who tore off their clothes and subjected them to the sexual assaults known as “virginity tests.” These assaults are a form of state torture, usually a central issue to human rights organizations, yet you overlook them because they happen to women.

The way you ignore social and economic rights is of a piece with your neglect of women, sexual rights, and religious minorities. Your vision is still rooted in the period before the Vienna Conference and the great advances it made in holding non-state actors accountable and seeing women’s rights as human rights. Your essay makes it all too clear that while the researchers, campaigners, and country specialists who are the arms and legs and body of Human Rights Watch may defend the rights of women, minorities, and the poor, the head of their organization is mainly interested in relations between states.

Meredith Tax
Centre for Secular Space

Sultana Kamal
Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh

Fatou Sow
Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)

Faizun Zackariya
Muslim Women’s Research and Action Front (MWRAF), Sri Lanka

And thirteen other women’s rights organizations around the world; the full list can be found on the Centre for Secular Space website. A petition to HRW can be found here.


Human Rights Watch replies:

In the introduction to Human Rights Watch’s most recent World Report, released on January 22, Kenneth Roth wrote that Western governments cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well. That was the hypocritical stance of the West when, for example, it acquiesced in the Algerian military’s interruption of free elections that the Islamist Salvation Front was poised to win and then in the brutal suppression of that party in the early 1990s, or when President George W. Bush cut short his “democracy agenda” after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006 and the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected in Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2005.

Western governments should reject this inconsistent and unprincipled approach to democracy. Human Rights Watch called on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect rights. As rights activists, we are acutely aware of the possible tension between the right to choose one’s leaders and the rights of potentially disfavored groups such as women, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities. Anyone familiar with the history of Iran or Afghanistan knows the serious risks involved. However, in the two Arab Spring nations that have had free and fair elections so far, a solid majority voted for socially conservative political parties in Egypt, and a solid plurality did so in Tunisia. The sole democratic option is to accept the results of those elections and to press the governments that emerge to respect the rights of all rather than to ostracize these governments from the outset. As Roth wrote:

Wherever Islam-inspired governments emerge, the international community should focus on encouraging, and if need be pressuring, them to respect basic rights—just as the Christian-labeled parties and governments of Europe are expected to do. Embracing political Islam need not mean rejecting human rights, as illustrated by the wide gulf between the restrictive views of some Salafists and the more progressive interpretation of Islam that leaders such as Rashid Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia’s Nahdha Party, espouse. It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name. So long as freely elected governments respect basic rights, they merit presumptive international support, regardless of their political or religious complexion.

The signatories of the above letter disagree. In their view, Islamic political parties that come to power “remain committed to systematic discrimination.” We, too, are deeply concerned about that possibility and have been spending a great deal of time monitoring the conduct of Islamic parties, pressing them to respect all rights, and condemning any conduct that falls short. Human Rights Watch has a long history of standing up to governments founded on political Islam that discriminate against women, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities. But we would not reject the possibility that a government guided by political Islam might be convinced to avoid such discrimination.

For example, there is a significant difference between the brutal reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the conservative-religious government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, which despite its share of abuses has not used Islam as a justification for repression. Given the many diverse interpretative strains of Islam, we believe it best to press newly elected Islamic governments to respect the rights of all rather than to take action that would preclude that possibility categorically.

The people who signed the above letter are not content with that approach. They would insist on “separation of religion from the state,” presented as “the most basic guarantee of rights.” But that is obviously not what the people of Egypt and Tunisia, when given a choice, voted for. So what exactly do the letter writers propose? A military coup should not be recommended lightly. Taking the position that adherence to democratic principles can be achieved only when non-Islamic parties prevail, as Bush did, is a disaster for those principles. Promoting tolerance of women and gays by way of intolerance for Islam, an approach epitomized by Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, does not seem a productive approach.

Of course, any electoral choice must be constrained by international human rights law, but there is no internationally recognized right to separate religion from the state—a separation mandated by certain national constitutions, such as those of the United States or France, but not others, such as Norway or the United Kingdom. That is why Human Rights Watch focuses instead on pressing all governments, regardless of their secular or religious basis, to respect and defend such legally recognized rights as the right to practice one’s religion freely, to organize and speak out against one’s government, and to avoid discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.

And while one would hardly know it from the letter, Human Rights Watch has done extensive work in these areas, challenging, for example, Hamas for barring female students who did not wear head scarves from school, Salafists in Tunisia for occupying a university campus, and Egyptian forces for attacking women demonstrators and subjecting them to humiliating “virginity tests.” Indeed, such issues were a major part of Roth’s news conference in Cairo releasing Human Rights Watch’s recent World Report.

Focusing on the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the letter’s signatories seem to suggest that pressing the Brotherhood to respect rights will be futile, citing statements made by people in exile who are alleged vaguely to be “associated with” the Brotherhood and actions of more extreme Salafists who are not Brotherhood members and whose conduct took place before the Brotherhood gained power and had any capacity to stop them.

Predicting the future is always perilous, and the risk of Brotherhood rule going awry is real. The Salafists, whose candidates for parliament secured some 24 percent of the vote to the Muslim Brotherhood’s 47 percent, will undoubtedly be a reactionary force, and the military still has not relinquished power. However, Brotherhood officials since winning the parliamentary elections have been proceeding cautiously and making some encouraging statements. Certainly we will criticize them strongly if they engage in abusive practices, but for now we are actively pressing them to transform those positive early signals into governing policies founded on respect for the rights of all. We hope the letter’s signatories will join us.

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

Sarah Leah Whitson
Director of program on the Middle East and North Africa

Liesl Gerntholtz
Director of program on women’s rights

Graeme Reid
Director of program on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights

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