By Hayat Alvi
The female half of the human species is about to become endangered in the Middle East and Asia.
Despite all the technological advances, the Arab Spring uprisings and revolutions, and modern concepts proliferating in a globalised world, girls and women still face dire threats, even disappearance. In some cases it’s literal, physical disappearance, and in other cases, it’s more metaphorical.
Just this week a Cambridge University study revealed that most Jordanian teens believe “honor killings” are justified and acceptable. The Cambridge Institute of Criminology found that “almost half of boys and one in five girls interviewed in the capital, Amman, believe that killing a daughter, sister or wife who has ‘dishonoured’ or shamed the family, is justified,” Al Jazeera reports.
According to the study, these attitudes are not based so much on religious beliefs, but more so “include patriarchal and traditional worldviews, emphasis placed on female virtue and a more general belief that violence against others is morally justified.”
Jordan has one of the highest rates of “honor” murders of girls and women in the Middle East, along with Saudi Arabia, Kurdish territories, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and India. Muslim-majority countries have the highest numbers of so-called honor murders, but non- Islamic communities with deeply entrenched patriarchal customs and social structures obsessed with female virtue and chastity as representing family or tribal honor also don’t hesitate to kill perceived violators. While males sometimes are targeted too, the vast majority of honor murder victims are females.
In addition, while India may be making leaps and bounds in economic growth and development, under the surface an astounding number of women abort female fetuses, caving into socio-cultural demands and perhaps family pressure due to a preference for male children.
We are witnessing the female demographic in the Middle East and South Asia slowly being killed, despite some laws on the books in a few places that criminalize such practices. Enforcement of these laws is poor, and the courts slap honor murderers on the wrist, if that. Some might take the idea that girls and women are being killed off in these regions as an exaggeration, but consider that over the next several decades, if these practices go unchecked, the deficiency in the number of women may cause serious crises. That is already the case in parts of India, where the killing of female foetuses has led to shortages of women for men to marry.
Another ominous impending doom for females in the Middle East and South Asia is the ideologically-supported notion of rendering girls and women invisible, especially in the public sphere. Thanks to the spread of Salafi/Wahhabi hard-line, ultra-conservative and misogynist views, which are spreading far and fast throughout these regions, very young girls are being forced to wear headscarves. In India I have seen Muslim families with toddlers and infants wearing Hijabs.
Plus, the rise in the number of women wearing head-to-toe Burquas and Niqabs is shocking. Again, these measures are meant to render females invisible in public space. This is not in the literal sense, but in a more metaphoric context. Cover your girls, babies and toddlers, teens and young women, as well as older and elderly women. Why? It is being packaged in religion, but that is not the real basis for it. The core reasoning behind it is pure misogyny, behind the façade of religion.
Girls and women are a distraction and the source of temptation and sin, say the long-bearded clerics and Salafists. How a one-year-old girl serves as the source of sin is beyond comprehension, but this is what’s happening on the streets of countless Muslim communities in the Middle East and South Asia. Let’s not forget Muslim communities in the West, too.
In the UK and France, for example, we see similar trends and manifestations of religious and traditional cultural orthodoxy suppressing girls’ and women’s rights and freedoms, often out of fear of them becoming “corrupted” by Western values and lifestyles. However, the real reason is simply control. Men in ultra-conservative societies feel tremendously empowered by controlling the female populace.
To be fair, let’s also mention that often women in these societies are as complicit as men in embracing these attempts to render females invisible.
Sometimes it’s out of sincere belief, and sometimes it’s out of fear of their community’s harsh reactions against them if they fail to comply.
In my research about female genital mutilation (FGM), which is yet another brutal attempt to render girls and women devoid of their “femaleness,” I learned that within the Somali community, more women than men impose FGM on girls in their immediate and extended families. Grandmothers, mothers, mothers-in-law, aunts and other relatives often keep the practice alive by imposing it on newer generations.
I have listed and described three major literal and metaphoric means of rendering girls and women invisible and/or devoid of their femaleness: honor murders and female feticide, Burquas/Hijab, and FGM.
So, what do we see on the horizon if all of these practices and customs continue in these regions and societies decade after decade? Will the female of the human species ultimately face endangered status? And, what if she even comes close to extinction? Many scholars predict that the next world wars will be over natural resources, especially water sources.
That may be true.
But the endangered woman crisis just might hit us from left field when we least expect it.
Hayat Alvi is an Associate Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the US Naval War College. The views expressed are personal.