A talk with Hu­man Rights Watch’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Ken­neth Roth

Direc­tor of HRW Ken­neth Roth dis­cusses the op­pres­sion of women in the Mid­dle East

Executive Magazine - - Contents - By Jeremy Ar­bid

The sub­ju­ga­tion of women — of­ten un­wit­nessed, over­looked or oth­er­wise ig­nored — is to­day’s great­est chal­lenge fac­ing equal­ity among the gen­ders in the Mid­dle East, says Ken­neth Roth, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Hu­man Rights Watch (HRW). In Beirut, pre­sent­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s an­nual global re­port on hu­man rights prac­tices, Roth spoke with Ex­ec­u­tive about women’s rights in Iraq, Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt and the se­vere op­pres­sion of women oc­cur­ring in those coun­tries.


“The ide­o­log­i­cal sup­pres­sion of women,” says Roth, in ar­eas un­der the con­trol of ISIS, namely Syria and Iraq, de­fines the now familiar bar­bar­ity cen­tral to the ji­hadist group. While much of the at­ten­tion on ISIS, for West­ern me­dia, has fo­cused on its ex­e­cu­tion of pris­on­ers, it is ISIS’ treat­ment of women — al­beit un­der­re­ported — which un­der­lines its rights vi­o­la­tions.

Among its most acute atroc­i­ties, Roth ex­plains, is the group’s treat­ment of Yazidi women — a Kur­dish sect tra­di­tion­ally con­cen­trated in the north­ern Iraqi prov­ince of Nin­eveh. In HRW’s 2015 World Re­port, Roth wrote that ISIS “mil­i­tants have en­slaved, forcibly mar­ried, and raped Yazidi women and girls.” In 2014, the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, an ad­vo­cacy group, re­ported doc­u­mented cases of Yazidi and Syr­ian women kid­napped into slav­ery. The or­ga­ni­za­tion said it also has ev­i­dence of Yazidi women sold into mar­riage to ISIS fighters for $1,000 each. Roth adds that ‘mar­riage’ un­der ISIS is re­ally a “eu­phemism for forced rape,” and that it epit­o­mizes ISIS’ ut­ter dis­re­gard for women as hu­man be­ings.

Com­ing upon an aban­doned ISIS mil­i­tary check­point, Iraqi Spe­cial Forces and Kur­dish Pesh­merga found two women naked and chained who had been raped mul­ti­ple times, The New York Times re­ported in Au­gust. To sup­ple­ment its in­sa­tiable dom­i­neer­ing ap­petite, ISIS — in Al-Bab, a city in the Aleppo prov­ince of north­ern Syria — has set up a so called mar­riage bureau to wed sin­gle women and wid­ows to the ji­hadist group’s fighters. “They’re re­ally al­most just treated like chat­tel and handed out to fighters as sort of the prizes of war,” Roth says. ISIS, in de­fend­ing its ac­tions, has re­ferred to the Qu­ran to jus­tify its kid­nap­ping, sub­ju­ga­tion and forced rape of Yazidi women. In ISIS’ fourth is­sue of Dabiq, its English lan­guage on­line mag­a­zine, the group notes that “women could be en­slaved” and that upon their cap­ture “the Yazidi women and chil­dren were then di­vided ac­cord­ing to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Is­lamic State.” The ma­li­cious­ness of the ji­hadist group is not unique, Roth says, adding that “in many ways it harkens back to the Tal­iban era in Afghanistan or to some of the abuses in Saudi Ara­bia.”


“Un­der King Ab­dul­lah, there seemed to be some com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing the rights of women. I say some be­cause he op­er­ated very slowly, very in­cre­men­tally,” Roth ex­plains. While women’s rights in Saudi Ara­bia are un­doubt­edly not fa­vor­able, a slow mov­ing ef­fort to­wards grant­ing more rights to women has be­gun in the last few years.

List­ing the im­prove­ments, Roth ex­plains that not too long ago, in 2011, the late king de­clared women would be able to vote and run in the 2015 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions, as well as be el­i­gi­ble for ap­point­ment to the Shura Coun­cil — 30 women were

ap­pointed in 2013. There has also, he says, been a grad­ual in­crease in the pro­fes­sions that are avail­able to women.

Saudi statis­tics on its la­bor force demon­strate the king­dom’s in­clu­sion of lo­cal women. While cer­tain types of pro­fes­sions might still be off lim­its to Saudi women, their ac­cess to the la­bor force has in­creased markedly in the past five years. Of the to­tal Saudi fe­male pop­u­la­tion 20 per­cent were em­ployed or ac­tively look­ing for jobs in 2014, ac­cord­ing to Saudi Ara­bia’s Cen­tral Depart­ment of Statis­tics and In­for­ma­tion 2014 la­bor force sur­vey. But in 2009 that fig­ure stood at only 12 per­cent: in five years the num­ber of eco­nom­i­cally ac­tive Saudi women has in­creased by over 1.1 mil­lion.

The statis­tics por­tray just one an­gle of Saudi Ara­bia’s in­cre­men­tal ap­proach to­wards fe­male in­clu­sion in the la­bor force. An ad­vi­sor to the Saudi Min­istry of La­bor de­scribed pro­posed poli­cies to The New York Times in Novem­ber to pro­mote fe­male la­bor force par­tic­i­pa­tion — the build­ing of child­care fa­cil­i­ties nearer to places of work and the cre­ation of jobs in the in­dus­tries of health­care, man­u­fac­tur­ing and in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy — which, if im­ple­mented, could fur­ther open the door to the la­bor mar­ket for Saudi women.

While Roth ac­knowl­edges this as a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment, he coun­ters with what he de­scribes as the main ob­sta­cle for Saudi women will­ing to work: the ar­chaic guardian­ship law. Un­der the law, the most ba­sic de­ci­sions in a woman’s life can­not be made with­out the con­sent of her male guardian. This lack of agency, Roth says, makes it very dif­fi­cult for Saudi women to op­er­ate in mod­ern so­ci­ety. Were a woman to find gain­ful em­ploy­ment in the king­dom, she must still ob­tain per­mis­sion to show up for the job and she still can­not drive her­self, he adds.

Roth also points out that the change that be­gan un­der Ab­dul­lah is not cer­tain to con­tinue. His or­ga­ni­za­tion has no idea where King Sal­man stands on women’s rights. “We still have a blank slate on this, and he him­self is old and in­ca­pac­i­tated, so it’s just not clear how much he is go­ing to be able to push things for­ward.” Some ret­i­cently voice their con­cern. The re­cent ap­point­ment by Sal­man of Muham­mad Bin Nayef as deputy crown prince and sec­ond in line to the throne is trou­bling news for women and hu­man rights ad­vo­cates, an anony­mous let­ter to the new king pub­lished in Politico points out. And Roth agrees; un­der Ab­dul­lah, Bin Nayef served as min­is­ter of the in­te­rior where he or­ches­trated the de­tain­ment of fe­male driv­ers, im­pound­ing their ve­hi­cles. In one rare case, two fe­male driv­ers were re­ferred to a court es­tab­lished to try ter­ror­ism cases — not for driv­ing, but for speak­ing about the in­ci­dent on so­cial me­dia. Bin Nayef, says Roth, has “given no in­di­ca­tion that he is go­ing to pur­sue or let alone build upon King Ab­dul­lah’s will­ing­ness to coun­te­nance a slight open­ing for the rights of women.”


For Roth, fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion (FGM) re­mains one of Egypt’s most de­struc­tive women’s rights vi­o­la­tions, and the prac­tice is con­sid­ered as a form of tor­ture un­der the UN Con- ven­tion against Tor­ture and Other Cruel, In­hu­man, or De­grad­ing Treat­ment or Pun­ish­ment. Ac­cord­ing to UNICEF, an es­ti­mated 125 mil­lion women around the world have un­der­gone the pro­ce­dure. The prac­tice of FGM in Egypt re­mains high — 91 per­cent of women be­tween the ages of 15 and 49, which rep­re­sents 27.2 mil­lion Egyptian women — have been sub­jected to cut­ting of ex­ter­nal fe­male gen­i­talia, in­clud­ing par­tial or to­tal re­moval of the cli­toris, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 UNICEF re­port. FGM was banned by the Egyptian gov­ern­ment in 2008 — yet im­ple­men­ta­tion of the law has not been a pri­or­ity. But years of ac­tivism and ed­u­ca­tion by Egyptian civil so­ci­ety, Roth says, may be dis­pelling the cul­tural taboo of ques­tion­ing FGM lead­ing Egyp­tians to think of it as a wide­spread prob­lem of public health and hu­man rights abuse.

In Jan­uary 2015 — in the first in­stance Egypt has ap­plied the law — a doc­tor was con­victed of man­slaugh­ter for per­form­ing FGM on a 13 year old girl, forced by her fa­ther to un­dergo the pro­ce­dure, who died soon af­ter. The doc­tor re­ceived a two year pri­son sen­tence, the max­i­mum al­lowed un­der the law, while the fa­ther re­ceived three months of house ar­rest. In re­sponse to the girl’s death, lo­cal ac­tivists launched the Kamla cam­paign aim­ing to elim­i­nate the prac­tice of FGM un­der the slo­gan “Our daugh­ters are com­plete. Why do we want them to be in­com­plete?”

While Roth does high­light the sig­nif­i­cance of the con­vic­tion, he also clar­i­fies with con­text — sev­eral years of in­ter­nal tur­moil and strug­gle have in­ten­si­fied what was an ex­ist­ing prob­lem: the sex­ual ha­rass­ment of women in public. HRW re­ported in July 2013 that 91 women were raped or sex­u­ally as­saulted dur­ing protests against then Pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Morsi in Tahrir Square that June. Sim­i­larly, a graphic YouTube video, first posted in June 2014 but be­lieved to be dated much ear­lier, de­picted a woman stripped naked, as­saulted and dragged through the mid­dle of Tahrir Square as she at­tempted to es­cape a large group of male as­sailants. The public ha­rass­ment of women on the streets of Egypt, Roth points out, is “in­dica­tive of a broader dis­re­gard for women and the treat­ment of them not only as sec­ond class cit­i­zens but peo­ple who can be freely abused.” In­deed, statis­tics from UN Women put it bluntly — 99.3 per­cent of Egyptian women and girls sur­veyed in 2013 said they’ve been sub­jected to one form of sex­ual ha­rass­ment or an­other.


Though there have been oc­ca­sional and mod­est steps to­wards equal­ity be­tween the gen­ders, the un­rest rag­ing across the re­gion makes sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ments and im­prove­ments for women’s rights dif­fi­cult. “Women,” says Roth, “con­tinue to suf­fer se­vere re­pres­sion in most coun­tries of the Mid­dle East. There are ma­jor coun­ter­vail­ing pres­sures and a lot of the big steps to­wards ba­sic equal­ity and women’s rights have not been taken by many of the gov­ern­ments in the re­gion.” Where they can, women are fight­ing back.

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