Even observers who are used to the cruel executions of the Islamic State found this video exceptionally barbaric: The short recordings that the Free Syrian Army supported by Turkey posted online at the beginning of February showed the defiled corpse of Barin Kobanis, a Kurdish fighter who had been captured, lying on the ground. „Fighters“ bared her torso and mutilated it. A soldier stepped with his boot on her left breast and said, „She is beautiful.“ „The PKK sows are our war booty” commented another.
Why did the soldiers acted so cruelly? Because their hatred for Barin Kobani was enormous. She not only embodied the determination of the Kurds to rebel against Turkish or Arab foreign domination. The fighter symbolizes a phenomenon that is feared by the region’s potentates and large parts of the population alike: people who claim equal rights and fight for them, because they are women.
From Morocco to Iraq, from Syria to the southern tip of Arabia – the entire Middle East has been caught up for years in an existential crisis. Social differences and tensions are on the rise, ethnic conflicts are escalating, countries collapsing. Poverty and political restrictions are rampant. Climate change is progressing faster here than in most other continents, its consequences threaten the survival of the region’s 425 million inhabitants.
Thus, instability and terror replaced petroleum and dates as main export goods. The causes for this development are complex. The best approach is surprisingly simple though: Those who wish more democracy, prosperity and a safer future for Arabia and its neighbors have to, like Barin Kobani, demand emancipation.
Europeans should not lecture Arabs
One thing upfront: Although equal rights for women are nowhere as advanced as in Western Europe, Europeans should not be preaching from up high. Even 100 years after Britain finally conceded to women the right to vote, equality of sexes is still not completely achieved in the West. In the OECD, women’s salaries are on average still 16 percent below those of men, and only 2% of women are entrepreneurs. The World Economic Forum confirmed in 2016: we too have still a long way to go before attaining complete emancipation.
It’s a common problem: 90 percent of all states have sections in their legal codes that discriminate against women. The issue is not whether to argue on a moral level. Those demanding emancipation defend hard realpolitikal European interests. Only when women in the Middle East attain emancipation, further wars, poverty, terror and new waves of refugees flooding Europe can be averted.
The women’s situation in this region is bad. One does not have to turn to extreme examples such as Saudi Arabia. Women lack equal rights in every Arab state. According to the World Economic Forum, women are nowhere as discriminated against as in the Middle East. Rima Khalaf, secretary of the commission for Economy and Society in West Asia at the UN (ESCWA) once said that there were plenty of occasions to celebrate Arab women’s achievements in science, literature, and art. Above all, however, one should pay homage to „their ability to survive“.
Pregnancy as the leading cause of death for girls
The bare survival is indeed in many places already an accomplishment - especially considering how widespread child marriage is in Arab states. Every seventh girl is already married before reaching the age of 18. In Lebanon, 41 percent of the girls of Syrian refugees are married when they are still children, in Iraq 25 percent of women under 18 are already married, in Egypt 17 percent. Some are given by their own parents for „temporary weddings“ – an Islamic euphemism for religiously sanctioned prostitution - to rich Arabs from the Golf States, to improve their economic situation. This is devastating for the brides: Pregnancy is worldwide the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19. In addition, children brides have an elevated risk to be infected with HIV or to become victims of domestic violence. The tragedy of this practice goes far beyond the fate of those individuals. It is the starting point of a vicious circle, which drags the entire Arab world downwards.
Marriage often forces minors to abandon their educational path – if their misogynist environment ever allowed them to embark on it. Young, uneducated mothers are an economic burden for every state: They give birth to more children to whom they can impart only less education. When they grow up, they join an army of uneducated, unemployed workers. According to an UNESCO estimate in 2008, 40 percent of Arab adults – 70 million people – were illiterate. But in the 21st century, when Apple is probably worth twice as much as the oil giant Saudi Aramco, countries can no longer become rich by selling raw materials to the world. Broad prosperity is only generated if everyone creates new knowledge and disseminates it worldwide. With this level of education, how should the Arab world invent the next iPhone? Especially if it forsakes half of its human potential - only 24 percent of Arab women are allowed to work. That‘s the lowest rate worldwide.
Lack of education also has political consequences. The social contract of Western democracies is based on the maxim of the American Revolution: „No taxation without representation.“ A broad middle class supports the state with its taxes. The state is obliged to provide its citizens with services in the form of social security and health insurance, infrastructure, education and personal safety. But in states where the majority of the population is very poor, and where elites are financing the country - be it absolutist Gulf Sheikhs, who own the oil wells of their countries or the generals of Egypt‘s army, which accounts for 40 percent of gross national product (GNP) – another social contract is in place. Here subjects have no right to speak up because the rulers bear all costs. The police mutated from friend and helper to an instrument of oppression. That Arab men today are poor and unfree is due to the fact that they withhold freedom, education and wealth from their wives.
Ultimately, this is also reflected in foreign policy. As stated in the book Sex and World Peace, there is a clear correlation between the country’s status of women and its peacefulness. The more emancipated a society, the more it is stable, peaceful and tolerant, and the fewer wars it wages. Women‘s rights correlate closely with general life expectancy, the absence of corruption and the governability of a country. And yes: the more emancipated a country, the wealthier it is.
Emancipation could trigger a chain reaction
Emancipation is not a political panacea, but at this point in time probably the best equivalent for it. If all women in the world had equal rights, the world economy would grow by 12 trillion dollars by 2025 – as if suddenly the US and Chinese economies were joining simultaneously. This applies especially to Arabia, where women are most discriminated against: The integration of women in Egypt’s job market would, in a few years, increase its GDP by 34 percent, according to estimates by the International Monetary Fund. Emancipation could be the beginning of a chain reaction: first, it leads to more education. More educated women will have less children. Working mothers who completed their education invest, as numerous studies prove, much more than fathers in their children’s health, nutrition and education. And in their employers’ success: according to studies, companies where women are more represented, are more successful - with an average of 47 percent higher return on equity than their chauvinist competitors. Emancipation would thus be the onset of general prosperity in the Arab world.
Emancipation would also revolutionize this region’s reactionary political culture. Once Sunni men are forced to accept women as their equals, they would have to revise the dominant current radical interpretation of Islam. Stripped of its ideological foundation, such an Islam would no longer be able to justify international terror. It could allow tolerance of “the Other” – be it a Shiite, Christian, Yezidi, Kurd, maybe even a Jew. Formerly labile states would be consolidated, ailing economies revitalized, wars and conflicts less likely. There would be less motivation to flee to Europe.
Cultural relativism is dangerous: understanding misogynist practices and customs, such as genital mutilation, polygamy, honor killings or the compulsory wearing of headscarves is detrimental to national security interests. Even some elites in Arabia recognize this in the meantime, such as Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi, who, last summer, demanded the „equality of women before the Law „ or Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who finally allows women to drive a car.
Europe needs to support such efforts more decisively. Demanding emancipation is not only a moral stance but rooted in existential and realpolitikal interests. The strategy of the aid organization Millennium Challenge Corporation can serve as an example. Its commitment depends on whether women in the recipient state can work, sign contracts, open a business, be heads of households, or travel freely. In some cases, this has had a MCC effect - through reforms deployed to obtain US funds.
At every transaction with Arab states Europe must insist on similar unequivocal terms and create guidelines. European companies should only build factories where women can work on the assembly line and participate in executive decisions. In joint ventures women of both sides should sit on the board. Government cooperation should depend on the revocation of misogynist laws. Not only for the sake of Arab women’s freedom, but in order to make Europe wealthier, safer and, yes - maybe even a bit more ethical.