It is a fair observation to claim that the state of the Middle East is in constant flux. From one day to the next tensions flare in one area or another. As a whole, all appearances are the Middle East is becoming increasingly volatile with even stalwarts of moderate politics flirting with extremism to the extent it has captured global attention.
Countries once considered moderate are moving along the continuum of political ideals towards the extreme of fundamentalism once again. For those of us who live in 'enlightened' countries it is hard to figure how a country can revert to fundamental fanaticism with mounting pressure to sit down at the table of international centrism and become a part of global brotherhood.
But at every turn countries such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to be closing ranks and shutting out the rest of the world -- except when it suits their purposes such as with Iran currying favor with the United States during nuclear talks and then buzzing our warships and taking American military personnel hostage for venturing into their waters. Or, even worse, making off-hand remarks about the demise of Israel within their lifetime. Why this backward trend towards isolationism and antagonism? The answers to this and related questions are multifaceted and complex, and are the stuff of a 'series' not a single article. These issues and others will be revisited in the weeks to come but for the purposes of this column let us now turn our attention to the effect political extremism can have on the female population in the Middle East.
Now, organizations representing the interests of a variety of stakeholders have been verbally handwringing over the future of one segment of the Middle East population or another for the past several years. For example, there has been much lamenting about the loss of childhood of youth who have been living through the extended war on Syria. There are journalists and activists who rant with indignation about the political oppression that survived an Arab Spring in many countries and seems no more willing to release its stranglehold on the political systems today than a decade ago. And then there are those who have worried endlessly about the relentless state of the female population being confined to what appears to outsiders to be a permanent second-class citizenship.
My reading followers realize that my most passionate (but not sole) cause is girls' rights and empowering these impressionable young females to step into their rightful role as active participants in global challenges for the next generation. But to do so these girls must be able to enjoy the same rights as their male counterparts, and to believe they are entitled to them as well. The question is whether or not it is realistic to expect this objective to withstand the current realities of the Middle East as they are today.
Let us take Saudi Arabia as an example. Presently, the country is ruled by King Abdullah, who is their prime minister as well. For all practical purposes there are no democratic behaviors at play in the country despite its multiple ministries and a council. The royal family is firmly entrenched in power, and, as a result, increasingly the political undercurrents of dissatisfaction ripple through the country. Even as other Middle Eastern nations remain front and center in the news -- including Iran, Iraq and Syria, the Saudis recently seemed to want to bully their way into the spotlight by announcing they had beheaded 19 people in one day only a month prior, as if they were attempting to rival the world's most hated terrorist organization -- ISIL.
Now, even as I wax long on the state of political affairs in general, the aim is to narrow the reader's attention to the ramifications for girls in the region, including what was once considered the fairly moderate -- or at least not disruptive -- state of Saudi. So, let us now consider this. Flying under the radar of male-dominated societies, most people are unaware of the plight of females in Saudi. Nor, then has the consideration been given to the ripple effect it has on young girls. For example, did you realize that women in Saudi Arabia cannot open their own bank account without the permission of their husbands? Or that they were just given the right to vote in local elections? They are not permitted to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male guardian. Traveling is prohibited and for all practical purposes so is driving a car.
It should come as no surprise they are not permitted to wear makeup or modern dress. But it is 'beyond the pale' to learn they may not swim or compete in sports. Why, they can't even try clothes on when shopping, and, gasp, the purchase of a Barbie doll is simply nonexistent.
While some of these restrictions are more about style than substance, literally, the fact that one half of the population is able to place any form of curtailment on the other is confounding! But for the segment of the repressed population to accept these limitations is almost beyond comprehension. That is likely because we live in a free society and cannot imagine being reared in an environment where oppressive expectations drive all aspects of life.
There are articles that will claim the female Saudi population is highly educated and not only accepts these controls willingly but believe they are necessary. This way of thinking is no different than in the days of slavery when the captive made excuses for the captor. Too, with the birth of each new baby girl the subjugation continues and further exacerbates the hopes of the next generation of females to break these bonds.
At the same time, it is not possible to do more than speculate about the state of the female population in general. While, it is heartening to learn there is a segment of the female population that is educated, current figures show that only a mere 13 percent of the entire Saudi Arabian workforce is female -- a telling figure with regard to equal rights.
So the true response to the question raised at the outset of this article -- as to how rising tensions in the Middle East will affect girls' rights, particularly those in Saudi Arabia -- one might reply with the observation that it seems it could hardly get worse. In the case of women for whom nearly every movement is restricted it doesn't seem possible that things could get any worse. But under the circumstances -- maintaining the status quo hardly seems like striking a blow for Middle Eastern girls either.
A favorite saying of mine has always been 'the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world'. It was coined by William Ross Wallace in 1865 and reveals that even nearly two centuries ago men were aware of the preeminent power of motherhood, with all else taking a back seat to this position. The cliché affords women the respect they deserve that comes with the unmatched responsibility of bearing and raising the next generation who will take over the reins of the world and continue the quest of the human race. But the treatment of girls in the Middle East is the antithesis of this notion, and perhaps the most vexing thing of all is Middle Eastern girls are not even aware there are alternatives for them to live more fulfilling lives.
We watched in awe as one Malala Yousafzai stood up at the risk of her life to speak for her generation. She took a bullet for her troubles but rose again undeterred to continue her commitment to raising awareness about the plight of young girls in the Middle East and the tremendous waste of human potential. Can we as females in a free society in which we enjoy full and equal rights of men -- as it should be -- refuse to turn our backs on our 'younger selves'? Girls who have no conception of freedom will not be able to pass that on to their daughters. Really, how many generations must endure these restrictions before we unite and spread equality from one end of this globe to another? It is not freedom for some and not others. The girls of the Middle East are counting on us.
The deeper concern is extremism is burgeoning in lock-step with insecurity, not only in the Middle East but in adjacent countries as well. This is an unsettling reality for all stakeholders and will be the basis for further editorials on this subject.