Consensual sex remains a taboo topic in today’s Middle East, needless to mention rape. Religion plays a central role in the societies and legal systems of the region, so the issue of rape is seldom discussed. Countless victims live in secrecy, without ever seeing their attackers brought to justice, because of an inbuilt fear of being judged or socially shunned. This was not the case for Iman Al-Obeidi, the lawyer who ran into a room full of foreign journalists in Libya and announced she had been gang raped by 15 of Gaddafi’s men.

Image Courtesy of Daniel Crompton

It’s barely been a day since the dramatic scene of Iman being muffled, restrained and driven away, but the Libyan government has already started a campaign to smear her character. Iman is now being referred to as a prostitute on Libya’s state TV, one whose own sister appearing to testify against her character (under obvious coercion). This perfectly demonstrates the stalemate that Arab society finds itself in; being caught in the rigid dichotomy between the true teachings of religion and how it’s been practiced.

Aside from Iman, whose revelation served a higher political purpose, most women live in silence. However, been a number of instances in which victims of rape in the Middle East have spoken out – if not to seek closure for themselves, to raise awareness on the matter. From Iran to Saudi and Lebanon, the laws that exist to deter men from committing rape are flimsy or not enforced. There’s no official statistics on rape in any of the countries of the Middle East for two reasons:

1. Not many people report being raped – either out of fear of social repercussions (difficulty getting married or “tarnishing” the family name) or out of the simple sense of shame with the fear they won’t be believed.

2. The Arab governments secretly like to sweep ‘dishonorable’ or ‘shameful’ matters under the rug.

Israeli poet and writer Yvette Nahmia-Messinas acknowledged the problem of rape in the region in an article entitled “Middle East’s Paradigm Shift: Rape is No Longer Accepted Here”, urging the “women and men of the Middle East [to] condemn the rape of [y]our bodies, the rape of [y]our dignity and freedoms”.

Flawed laws on rape in the region:

Iran: One of Iran’s Imams was quoted stating that rape was permissible under the laws of Islamic Shari’a in certain instances. It must be stated that Mesbah Yazdi is a controversial Cleric who by no means speaks in the name of Islam as a religion, but is the religious mouthpiece of Ahmadinejad’s oppressive regime. Here are some of the disgustingly shocking things he said:

Q:Can interrogator rape the prisoner in order to obtain confession?

A: The necessary caution is for the interrogator to perform the ‘Vozoo’ (ablution: the act of cleansing mandated by Islam before praying) first and say prayers while raping the prisoner.If the prisoner is female, it is OK to rape through vagina or anus. It is better not to have a witness present. If it is a male prisoner, then it’s OK for someone else to watch while the rape is committed.

Q: Is raping of men and young boys considered sodomy?

A: No, because it is not consensual. Of course, if the prisoner is aroused and enjoys the rape, then caution must be taken not to repeat the rape

Lebanon: Lebanon’s laws on rape give men one message: if you want to marry a girl who doesn’t want you, you can just rape her. “One of the absurd laws on the books allows a rapist to be exempt from prison if he marries his victim,” said Ezzat Mroue, vice-president of the Women’s Rights Committee (WRC).

Rape is far from the Middle East’s last taboo, but it is definitely one of the most secretive and destructive ones. It baffles me as to how a society like Lebanon’s can be so liberal and moderate but at the same have laws pertaining to women, which are nothing less than barbaric. Or even worse, how a country like Iran can preach religion and holiness and at the same time justify the act of rape – for any reason.

Is our media still censored today? We have freedom of speech and the right to information, but does that mean we’re getting all the facts we need? As waves of protests and calls for political change hit the Middle East, the world’s media is watching closely in search for human rights violations and massacres, everywhere but in Bahrain.


Image courtesy of Ra'ed Qutena

We watched as Zein El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia collapsed and as Husni Mubarak resisted and failed to maintain his dictatorship over Egypt. We watched, as country after country in the region, fell to this wave of protests and political uprisings, Libya, Jordan, Syria and most importantly: Bahrain- the country about which we’ve heard the least news. Why?

This isn’t due to a lack of protesting or to the restoration of a fictional state of civil order and stability by the GCC* troops, which entered the country earlier last month, but to blatant media censorship and and pressures on the media to concentrate elsewhere.

Bahrain is different to Libya or Egypt and Tunisia in one critical way: in its sectarian demographic. Bahrain is a predominantly Shi’ite country and there are very few of these in the modern Middle East. Aside from Iran, Iraq and arguably Lebanon, the region is run and ruled by Sunni royalty and dynasties who maintain friendly ties with the West. Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty has exercised a policy of alienation and marginalization with its 70-80% Shi’ite population. By denying the Shi’ites adequate social and political representation and banning them from undertaking any jobs in the country’s national army or police force, the Al-Khalifas have created a rift in the very core of Bahraini society, one that will last for generations to come.

The day the GCC troops rolled into Bahraini land, an invasion was committed, in the eyes of the majority of Bahrain’s population. As the foreign troops came in, the international media was squashed out, even Qatar’s Al-Jazeera lessened its reports on the country’s escalating situation. The Bahraini royalty was worried that giving the Shi’ites equal rights in their country means yet another emerging Shi’ite country in the region. Iraq’s Shi’ite majority only received political representation after the fall of Saddam and Lebanon too, when Hezbollah was officially incorporated into the Lebanese political playing-field. Bahrain’s equally worried neighbors, namely Saudi, have sent over troops in order to avoid one thing: similar uprisings in its Eastern oil rich province, whilst arresting and muffling the voice of dissent in tandem.

The U.S. fears an Iranian invasion. Iran lies directly across the Persian Gulf, and it is the modern world’s first self established Shi’ite republic, founded in 1979. But does this justify the world’s silence and ignoring of the issue of the massacres which are ongoing in Bahrain?

Reporting and new-gathering by journalists has been virtually impossible and extremely dangerous due to the government’s need to ensure that the world hears nothing of the war they waged against their own people. Regardless of this, exchange of information is facilitated by the world wide web, and if the media wanted to know, the evidence is there: Bahrain is facing the worst crackdown on its oppressed Shi’ite majority since the start of the Al-Khalifa rule 200 years ago.

Here is a link to some videos and material on Bahrain’s crisis, compiled by an anti-government activist from within. The numbered sentences in red are links to archived material.

http://www.freewebtown.com/mojahd91/index.html

* The GCC is the Co-operation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf or the Gulf Co-operation Council. This is an economic/defense unit with Saudi, UAE, Kuwaiti, Qatari, Bahraini and Omani members.

I had the chance to speak to two Egyptians at the critical time when their country is battling calls for reform and regime change- one in favor of Democracy and the other, a Mubarak loyalist.

Image courtesy of Crethi Plethi

Joanna:

What is happening in Egypt now?

“Massacres by the police against their own people, bloodshed and destruction, civil disorder and anarchy. This isn’t the Egypt I know and love, this is hell.”

Why aren’t Mubarak’s promises of reform enough?

“He’s been here for too long and enough is enough, besides, when we asked for reforms initially, he met our peaceful protests with violence- there’s no room in our government for bullies and thugs, this has been Egypt’s reality for too long.”

Why is the time for change now of all times?

“It just feels right, the Egyptian youth moved at the same time and I joined in, I never dreamt of the day in which I could openly say Mubarak, you ruined the livelihood of Egypt and its people, you are corrupt and you need to leave us- and now!”

What do you want to see happen in Egypt?

“Against all the odds, we are all speaking out against dictatorships in our country, we want democracy, we want to chose who governs us. No more fixed elections and extended presidential terms with no viable political opposition parties.”

Salma:

What is happening in Egypt now?

“This is Western intervention and foreign people playing with our affairs. This is not about democracy or freedom- this is a conspiracy. Sadly, Egyptians have fallen for it and Egypt is now facing a crisis”.

Why aren’t Mubarak’s promises of reform enough for the protestors?

“Because it’s simple- reform is not what they want, it’s social instability and the destruction of Egypt. Under Mubarak, Egypt was stable and life went on, look at what’s happening now, it is scary, no-one feels safe.”

What do you want to see happen in Egypt?

“I want this all to stop and for the Egyptians who are standing against their fellow Egyptians to stop this. We cannot allow foreign intervention in our society and we cannot turn our backs to a leader who has done only good for the country. I hope this all calms down soon.”

Only time will tell what is in store for Egypt, but as the days go by, the international calls for Mubarak to step down are only getting louder and more clear.

With the uprisings in Tunisia succeeding and Egypt wishfully following suit, the Arab world is filled with potential candidates to follow. The Middle East was in a state of stalemate, with an unspoken fear resonating amongst societies throughout; criticism of the government was dangerous and not-to-be-risked. That was the case, until Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire, in protest of the deteriorating living conditions in Tunisia, sparking the flame of revolution in the entire Middle East.

Image Courtesy of Takver

The Middle Eastern leaders had succeeded at instilling a genuine sense of fear into the populations of the Arab world, leaving the calls for change muffled until today, but everyone wants a piece of this action.

Here are a few that could do with some change about now:

Lebanon:

Since its creation, Lebanon adopted a sectarian model of governance which has proven to be faulty and destructive to society. This rigid model of governance creates a rift in Lebanese society, causing people to identify with their sect first and their collective Lebanese identity second. Additionally, Lebanon has not had a census taken since 1932, and it common knowledge that this is out-dated and highly inaccurate. Lebanese society has faced much difficulty throughout its foundation and much of this has been based on specific sects within the country, feeling socially and economically alienated and politically marginalized.

Bahrain:

Bahrain is a country with in unique political and social position. The majority of Bahrain’s population is Shi’ite- it is estimated that they comprise 70-80% of the country’s total population. The country is ruled by the Al-Khalifa dynasty, which is a member of the Sunni sect. The Al-Khalifas have created a significant social divide in the country by banning members of the Shi’ite majority from joining the army or police force, whilst recruiting Sunni foreigners for these jobs. This is a blatant case of the political oppression of millions of people and it is unlikely that they will remain silent forever.

Palestine:

The Palestinian situation has remained a highly complex one, since it started in the early 20th Century. The Palestinian people have existed in a position of stateless limbo for years, whilst their invading force, Israel had managed to establish itself an internationally recognized Israeli state. The constant violations by Israel of the United Nations resolutions set out to determine the land-share in this controversial situation, have resulted in a lack of faith in the abilities of the international community and the United Nation’s resolutions. The Palestinian Authority has achieved very little and the Palestinian civilians can only be expected to endure oppression, invasion and violations for so long.

The Arab world needs radical change in order to achieve its full potential and consequently flourish. The right path has been unveiled for the first time, so who’s next in line for change?

Only one country has officially recognized a Palestinian State, based on the 1967 borders; and that country, randomly enough, is Brazil.

In a public letter addressed to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas on Friday, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian President, recognised Palestine as an independent state and implied the importance of a return to the 1967 borders. Da Silva’s decision to send the letter, came as a response to a a personal request made by President Abbas on November 24, according to the letter published on the foreign ministry’s website on Friday.

“Considering that the demand presented by his excellency [Abbas] is just and consistent with the principles upheld by Brazil with regard to the Palestinian issue, Brazil, through this letter, recognises a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders,” it said. Da Silva described the “legitimate aspiration of the Palestinian people for a secure, united, democratic and economically viable state coexisting peacefully with Israel” and backed it.

Israel’s Reactions:

Israel is not happy. An spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said: “The government of Israel expresses sadness and disappointment over the decision by the Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva a month before he steps down”. The official Israeli response was that Brazil’s “Recognition of a Palestinian state is a breach of the interim agreement which was signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1995 which said that the issue of the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be discussed and resolved through negotiations,”.

And the Issue of Settlements?

Well, how can negotiations achieve anything when Israel is continuing to build settlements on the land that the Palestinians intend to build their ‘future state’ on? Isn’t it bad enough that Israel is a recognized state whilst the Palestinian people live in occupation, without being internationally unrecognized?

UN resolution 242 maintains that Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem and all land acquired by Israel after 1967 is rightfully Palestinian land and according to Al Jazeera online, “the international community backs Palestinian demands for a state in most of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, all territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 six day war”.

The Israelis are increasing the number of settlements daily, with that in mind, the Peace Plan doesn’t sound like it’s going very far.

Why’s there such hostility from Saudi Arabia towards Iran, when all Iran’s done since the Islamic Revolution is spew hatred back at the United States? The recent Wikileaks which indicate that the Saudi King Abdullah asked the U.S. to bomb Iran come as no surprise to many in the region. Iran’s direct ties to Saudi have been minimal but the countries are more like secret enemies than friendly neighbors. The most logical reason Saudi and Iran have this intense relationship (or lack thereof) is the Sunni- Shi’a divide, which only seems to be growing in the region.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is reportedly said to have urged Iran‘s foreign minister to “spare us your evil” in a meeting that only emphasized the increasing Arab- Sunni hostility to the Iran. The U.S. leaked state department cables list a series of complaints from the Saudis and other Gulf countries, including Egypt and Jordan, on “issues from Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, to its involvement in Iraq and support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas”.

“You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters,” the Saudi monarch was quoted as telling Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran’s foreign minister. “Iran’s goal is to cause problems,” he continued in a conversation with a senior White House official. “There is no doubt something unstable about them.”

Abdullah declared: “May God prevent us from falling victim to their evil. We have had correct relations over the years, but the bottom line is that they cannot be trusted.” US diplomats recorded similar comments earlier this year from the United Arab Emirates, described as being “46 seconds from Iran as measured by the flight time of a ballistic missile”.

It seems like the Sunni- Shi’a divide has exploded in the aftermath of the Iraq war. With Saddam gone, the Shi’a majority now rules and Iran’s nuclear ambitions have gotten its Sunni neighbors in a mess.

According to Al Jazeera, the  “strong undercurrent of rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims dates back centuries but increased markedly after the overthrow of the shah and the Islamic revolution in 1979 and is now viewed as a struggle for hegemony in the region. The conservative Sunni-ruled regimes in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states detect the “hidden hand” of Iranian subversion, sometimes where none exists. Tehran’s fervent support for Hezbollah and Hamas are seen as ways of extending Iranian influence”.

Iran has become a self sustainable power which has endured harsh sets of economic sanctions and continued to peruse nuclear ambitions in parallel. In addition to this, Iran aids any of its fellow Shi’a, which have been oppressed by the predominantly Sunni regimes of the region.

A UAE Sheikh was quoted in Wikileaks, to have said: “Iranian support for terrorism is broader than just Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran has influence in Afghanistan, Yemen,KuwaitBahrain, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and Africa”.

The Sunni states seem to have aligned themselves with Saudi and the Shi’a populations (often oppressed under Sunni rule), to Iran. Saudi seems worried that Iran’s expanding its nuclear capacities and in return, has made a military alliance with Pakistan (a Sunni country with nuclear abilities). It’s an unspoken battle between the two competing for control of the region… indirectly at least.

According to the Guardian newspaper, Wikileaks revealed that ‘Lebanon’s defense minister offered U.S. officials advice on how Israel could defeat the militant Hezbollah group in a future war and vowed to keep the Lebanese army out of the fighting’. The classified memos were published in full on Thursday by the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which was given an advance copy of the document by WikiLeaks.

This revelation is a significant addition to the already mounting tensions, resulting from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s anticipated findings. The STL has caused deep divisions within the Lebanese government, which includes Hezbollah along with pro-Western blocs led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated Prime Minister.

Today, after the Wikileaks revelations, it is widely assumed that an outbreak of violence is likey to occur if the court indicts members of Hezbollah, who claims that the court is biased. It accused members of the Saad Hariri’s government of collaborating with the U.S. against them now, in addition to during the war with Israel in 2006.

“The diplomatic records exposed on the WikiLeaks website this week revealed a 2008 conversation between the Lebanese Defense Minister, Elias Murr, and U.S. officials in Lebanon, in which he offered advice on how Israel could defeat Hezbollah in a future war”, the Guardian reported.

Wikileaks revealed Murr to have said “If Israel has to bomb all of these places in the Shiite areas as a matter of operational concern, that is Hezbollah’s problem,” in the wake of the 2006 war. Murr also said that he would ensure that the Lebanese army would not get involved in the 2006 war as well as the next war. Murr added that “the objective [of the wat with Israel in 2006] was for the army to survive a three week war “completely intact” and to be able to “take over once Hezbollah’s militia has been destroyed.”

It is no surprise that Elias Al Murr’s office has completely denied that  he made any such comments, insisting that the Wikileaks reports were “out of context and inaccurate.”

The question in my head right now is: Why would the likes of Elias Al Murr feel the need to rid themselves of the resistance that protects them from Israel? Is the material gain (as promised in the form of  international aid) worth selling your own people over? Lebanese society and its governance are unique in the sense that they are defined and formulated based on sect first and the common Lebanese identity second. How can that work when the Lebanese people are fixated on their differences, whilst completely disregarding their common Lebanese nationality?