Women’s Rights: The Human Rights Issue of the Century

The video depicting the abhorrent flogging of a Pakistani teenage girl by the Taliban in the Swat region has sent shockwaves around the world. Rightly so. The recent controversy over a law that was passed (and is now under review) by the Karzai government in Afghanistan illustrates that, eight years after the fall of the Taliban, there is still a long way to go for women’s rights in the region. We now know that Karzai is far from the patriot the Bush administration would have had us believe. Fortunately, Barack Obama has distinguished between his new Afghan strategy and the issue of women’s rights in that part of the world.

It would be tragic if the progress made to advance women’s rights, minimal as it is, was abandoned as part of a political deal to keep “American allies” in power. When we observe the atrocities that many women still face in many parts of the world—too often in countries where Islam reigns—it is time to state loud and clear that women’s rights is the human rights issue of the 21st century.

It was encouraging to see Obama give his first foreign interview to Al Arabiya and to see his first foreign trip to a European country be in Turkey. It is a sign of the high regard he holds for the Islamic world. Clearly, the current  US government understands it must revert to the role of broker in the Mideast peace process and this requires an extended hand to the Muslim countries of the region. Moreover, security imperatives around the planet dictate that the Obama administration engage the Muslim world in finding solutions to existing problems. In so doing, no one should wish that these American initiatives ignore cultural and political realities in Muslim countries. The only caveat, however, should be that retrograde religious beliefs cannot take precedence over fundamental human rights as recognized by the United Nations Charter.

The mistreatment of women in different parts of the world is not just relegated to Muslim countries or religious precepts. However, so long as public floggings, restrictions on mobility and education, barbaric punishments under Sharia law, and honour killings are tolerated, leaders in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Somalia should not get a free pass from the international community. That must be a cornerstone of the Obama foreign policy.