Empowering Muslim women is the key to degrading and ultimately destroying medieval and reactionary fanaticism.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee rightly cited the work that Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi did to lead the "struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education," but it was Malala’s work on behalf of girls and women that may be even more central and important to advancing peace in the world today. As I have written before, the systematic repression of women is history’s greatest injustice and one that must be addressed before any era can rightfully call itself just or modern. But beyond this core concern, in a world in which one of the greatest international threats comes from the spread of Islamist extremist groups, it is urgent that we also realize how essential empowering women is to defeating jihadists.
The correlation between the repression of women’s rights and instability in the modern world is absolutely clear. Each year, the World Economic Forum produces a Global Gender Gap report. In 2013, it tracked 136 countries on the education, economic empowerment, health, and political empowerment of women. Consider the world’s hot spots for extremism. Some, like Somalia, Libya, and Afghanistan, don’t even make the list. But of those that do, Nigeria ranks 106, Bahrain is 112, Qatar is 115, Kuwait is 116, Jordan is 119, Turkey is 120, Algeria is 124, Egypt is 125, Saudi Arabia is 127, Mali is 128, Morocco is 129, Iran is 130, Syria is 133, Pakistan is 135, and Yemen is dead last at 136. On the issue of economic empowerment, the bottom 10 from No. 127 to No. 136 are Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, Iran, Mauritania, Yemen, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Syria.
On other lists, a similar correlation between repression of women and extremism and instability can be found. A 2011 Newsweek list on the best and worst places for women put (in worsening order) Sudan, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Niger, the Solomon Islands, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Yemen, Afghanistan, and Chad as the bottom 10. Saudi Arabia, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria were just barely better. India, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Nepal, Peru, Turkey, Sudan, Afghanistan, and the DRC made it on to a similar Marie Claire 10 worst places list this June. And yet another ranking showed the bottom 10 (in worsening order) as Iraq, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Mali, Guatemala, Sudan, the DRC, Afghanistan, and Chad.
Not only do countries that treat women badly do badly economically, politically, and socially, but countries in which extremist ideologies have taken root frequently treat women worst of all. In each case they have twisted their religious and cultural inheritances to promote practices that are abhorrent and indefensible, or they simply fail to recognize the rights or the promise of the women and girls among them. This has been taken to extraordinary extremes by groups like the Islamic State. In its slickly produced online English-language magazine, Dabiq, the group defends its enslavement of Yazidi girls and women and the taking of them as concubines by arguing that the practice is a "firmly established aspect of the Sharia." Why enslave girls and women? Because not to do so would apparently create temptations toward "fornication and adultery" too great for the men of their would-be caliphate to handle — men who are apparently powerful enough to make all the important decisions but who melt to butter when in the presence of a woman who is not some other man’s property.
Clearly, these brutal thugs fear the innate power of women; unsurprisingly, they are terrified of compounding that via further means of empowerment such as education. Few stories illustrate this so well as that of Malala, just a 15-year-old when a Taliban gunman entered a bus on which she was traveling, demanded to know which among the passengers was the girl whose writings and activism sought only to ensure poor girls the right to go to school, and shot her in the head. Claiming credit for the attack, the Taliban’s spokesman called her a "symbol of the infidels and obscenity" and justified it as a threat against Islam.
That so many of the countries on the lists of the world’s worst places for women are Islamic clearly illustrates a problem with which Muslim leaders must grapple as they shape their theology and societies for the future. Holding back half the population or worse, tolerating their mistreatment — or even murder, as in the case of honor killings — is clearly not seen by the vast majority of the world’s diverse community of 1.6 billion Muslims as tolerable. New models are evolving in places like Abu Dhabi and the Turkish business and educational communities that demonstrate that women’s empowerment is a rising tide well worth harnessing.
In some communities in the Middle East in the midst of these crises, strong currents of change are afoot. In 2003, Shirin Ebadi of Iran won the Nobel Peace Prize in specific recognition of her work for women. In 2011, Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman, (along with Liberia’s Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Leymah Gbowee) was similarly honored.
Today, other symbols of these emerging models of greater tolerance and empowerment are now seen joining Malala on the front lines of the battle with extremists. Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri, 35, of the United Arab Emirates led Emirati Air Force F-16s in the initial wave of strikes against the Islamic State and, it was announced, would lead future missions as well. And in some of the most inspiring stories of the battle against extremists in Syria and Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga units often composed largely of women have fought bravely and successful against the Islamic State and other militants.
In one September story on ForeignPolicy.com titled "Meet the Badass Women Fighting the Islamic State," one of those fighters was profiled in a story by Mohammed A. Salih. Her nom de guerre is Avesta. She was identified as commanding "a group of 13 fighters, eight of them female, from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a rebel group that has fought the Turkish state for three decades in pursuit of Kurdish rights." Coolly, she assessed the threat posed by the jihadists by saying, "The Islamic State fought rigorously. But it was not as severe as our previous fights with the Turkish army…. The Turks have warplanes and air power." Tragically, the day after the story ran here at FP, we were forced to include the following update:
Avesta was killed on Sept. 12. According to a spokesperson for the PKK guerrillas in northern Iraq, she was leading a unit in a joint PKK-Peshmerga operation to retake a village near Makhmour when a bullet fired by an Islamic State militant struck her in the neck. She was put in a Peshmerga Humvee headed for the hospital in Makhmour that was struck by an improvised explosive device. She died soon after.
But Avesta was by no means alone. According to Syria Deeply, almost a third of the fighters in the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (in Kurdish, the Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat, or PYD) are women. Kurdish women have been fighting the Turks for decades and have developed a particular appetite for the fight against jihadists given the latter’s extraordinarily oppressive attitudes toward women. One such soldier was quoted by PBS as saying: "I believe in a greater cause, which is protecting our families and our cities from the extremists’ brutality and dark ideas…. They don’t accept having women in leadership positions. They want us to cover ourselves and become housewives to attend to their needs only. They think we have no right to talk and control our lives."
But the stories of Malala, Mariam al-Mansouri, and Avesta are aberrations in a world in which women’s roles are still deeply circumscribed. It would be a mistake to suggest that the current fight is one between pro-woman vs. anti-woman forces, given that some members of the anti-Islamic State coalition are notorious for their mistreatment of women — such as the Saudis, who have yet to grant women the right to drive cars or any sort of real political or economic empowerment.
That said, if reversing the spread of extremism and ultimately defeating it is the strategic imperative that must guide not just our battle against the Islamic State but also our relations with all other such groups from sub-Saharan Africa (remember Boko Haram and the kidnapping of hundreds of girls?) to the Middle East to Pakistan and beyond, we must see it as a multifront battle. Part of this is promoting the political participation of moderate alternatives to the extremists, such as the Sunni groups in Iraq for which we pushed Nouri al-Maliki out of office, asserting that we seek better representation in the Iraqi government (though we have made precious little progress in that respect to date). Part of it is defeating the armed jihadi fighters we confront on the battlefield. And part of it is creating a more vibrant model for these societies that offers greater economic opportunity and a better quality of life for all.
As Larry Summers has written, "[I]nvestment in the education of girls may be the highest return investment available in the developing world." That’s why closing the gender gap is so central to the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals. But to truly ensure that women’s issues are addressed fairly requires that women be granted a representative political voice as well as ensuring equal protection under the law. None of these things is possible in the extreme ideologies embraced by jihadi groups, nor are they possible in the so-called "moderate" environments of some of America’s allies in the war against the Islamic State. But to promote fair treatment of women, undo centuries of oppression, educate them, and give them economic opportunity — while inflammatory even to some of our friends — is the only sure way to deny a future foothold to those with dangerous fringe views and, at the same time, do what is right and in the long-term interests of the countries in question.
With this in mind, we need to rethink how we refer to, and even contemplate, women’s issues worldwide. When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prioritized such issues during the first term of Barack Obama’s administration, she was derided even by some of her colleagues for seizing on a "soft" issue. But her focus on using American resources to support education and women’s rights in places like Afghanistan remains the only way to lasting peace in that country — a fact not fully appreciated by some in the White House. (Remember the notorious, stunningly misguided comment from one official that women’s issues were a rock in our rucksacks, impeding a speedy departure from Afghanistan.)
In the context of the current situation, it is clear that not only is this an issue of the greatest possible national security importance, but one likely only to grow in significance as we further look for ways to stabilize the world’s least stable places, create opportunity for struggling economies, and combat the ignorance and fears of institutional misogyny with the examples of success offered in societies with their fair share of women leaders. (It is not an accident that the top countries in the Gender Gap Report also rank high atop quality-of-life indices worldwide.)
Empowering women undoes centuries of injustice and enriches societies. But it also can play a vital role in helping to defeat some of the most dangerous ideologies and organizations found anywhere on the Earth today. It is for this reason that those groups are so scared by a teenage girl like Malala or by the progress represented by the likes the women currently fighting extremism in the Middle East. They represent the kind of change that can permanently relegate the medieval philosophies and practices of groups like the Islamic State to the ash heap of history where they belong.