On November 27, 2016, the liberal website Elaph marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which had occurred two days earlier, with a report on the situation of women in Algeria and the rising violence against them. The next day, Ahlam Akram, a Palestinian journalist, researcher and human and women's rights activist who resides in London, responded to this report in an article titled "Legally Sanctioned Violence in Arab Societies." She wrote that the report's findings are valid for women not only in Algeria but across the Arab world.
Akram blamed the situation of women in Arab countries on political Islam, on religious programs in the media, and on the Arab governments that do not do enough to protect them from violence and sexual harassment. The laws in Arab countries, she said, not only fail to protect women but even encourage men to perpetrate crimes against them on the pretext of defending the family honor. Moreover, laws by themselves will not be sufficient; they must be accompanied by educational and informational activity to change attitudes towards women in society and restore their lost dignity.
The following are excerpts from her article:
Ahlam Akram (image: Alzawraapaper.com)
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"I was unable to write about women on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence [against Women, on November 25], not because I had forgotten about them, but due to the frustration that paralyzes me every time I write on this issue, and [also] because the negative responses [I receive whenever I write about it] make me feel like someone [trying to] inflate a balloon with a hole in it. But the report today in Elaph about an increase in violence against women in Algeria upset me, although it did not surprise me, for this has [long] been the situation in all Arab countries, especially in the last 40 years. [The last four decades] saw the emergence of political Islam, and also the advent of visual media, which devotes many of its reports to those who fund its channels. The religious parties are obviously the richest [political forces around], and therefore fund all those [religious] programs whose only contribution to society is [to create] ideological confusion. [These programs] focus on [Islamic] texts removed from their spiritual context and on hadiths of dubious authenticity that contravene [the values of] justice and compassion and draw a link between Islamic identity and the woman's body [via the concept of family honor]. Some of the discussions [on these programs] deteriorated so far that I was sorry I had ever listened to them and hoped that no child or adolescent boy had heard them.
"The report on [the state of] women in Algeria proves that the laws intended to protect them from violence and [sexual] harassment are ineffective. No laws will be effective unless accompanied by media programs, curricula, and honest and objective discussions to restore women's lost dignity. After the media and religious preachers consistently established the inferiority of women in society, the government recently confirmed this by [passing] unfair laws that disrespect them. Women's dignity cannot be restored without acting to ensure that all these forces, who are responsible for severely harming their status, express appreciation for them in order to restore [society's] faith in [women].
"I am certain that the report [in Elaph about the state of women in Algeria] does not reflect the real [statistics] on battered women, since many cases are never reported, based on the principle of concealment or avoiding shame. Many women are buried alive in the name of this principle, especially those who were sexually abused by a family member. When a woman fails to complain [about abuse], it is not out of conservatism or ignorance regarding her rights, but because she is following this principle of concealment and fear. She also fears the consequences of filing charges, because how many shelters for abused women do we have in Arab countries? And [even if she finds a place in a shelter,] what will happen to her? Her father or brother will sign a paper promising to come and collect her like a sheep and not to hurt or slaughter her, but the minute he leaves [the shelter with her] he will slaughter her in public and people will actually applaud him, isn't that so? Under the laws pertaining to [family] honor, he will not be punished, and even if he is, it will be a light punishment. [He will spend] a few months [in prison], and very soon a decree of pardon will be issued – because [Arab] society is blatantly chauvinistic...
"The principle of [family] honor, which has been linked to the woman's body, completely controls her fate. Different [Arab] countries may have [somewhat] different attitudes towards this principle, yet it always hangs over the woman, [exposing her to] the threat of murder or of being married off to a man who raped her, and in both cases laws have been passed that protect the murderer or rapist. The saddest thing is that [even] if the perpetrator of an honor killing is incarcerated, the prisoners and jailors treat him with respect, and when he is released society celebrates, because he washed away [the family's] shame. And the embarrassing fact is that, according to the [U.N.'s] latest Human Development Index report, no few women in Arab countries believe that men have the right to be violent towards them or beat them. In Algeria the percentage of women [who believe this] is 68%.
"What drew my attention in the report [in Elaph about the state of women in Algeria] is that the head of the National Union of Algerian Women, [Nouria Hafsi], attributed [the report's findings] to the loss of certain aspects of [Arab] society, such as [its] 'culture and morality,' without asking who it is that creates this morality. How can a woman who faces violence from every direction raise a normal generation and create a healthy society that produces [young people] with moral values? The suffering of this woman, who represents most women [in Arab society], breaks my heart because it is caused by the people she loves most, people in her own family, and also by the society and state that are supposed to protect her.
"It was years ago that I heard this sentence from a female relative, but it echoes in my mind to this very day: 'Your livelihood depends on the service you provide.' It took me years to understand the meaning of this statement in depth. Yes, this sentence causes me to lose sleep and reminds me that I am without rights. As a woman, am I deprived of the right to work and required to stay home because whenever I leave my home I am provoking the devil? Does my perfume turn me into a whore? [Why] am I denied the right to inherit the same share as my brother in our parents' estate? If I oppose [all this], does it mean I am defying God? [As a woman,] when my husband passes away I am deprived of financial rights... My family and society enslave me, saying that this is Allah's will, when it is [actually] the farthest thing [from Allah's will]."