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Op-Ed: Repression of women increases in Muslim world amid the pandemic

A new report by UN Women reveals that the COVID-19 crisis has intensified gender-based violence around the world: “The report observes that lockdowns and quarantine measures placed by many countries mean that millions of women are confined with their abusers, with limited options for seeking help and support.”   However, in the Muslim world, even before the pandemic, gender-based violence such as honor crimes, female gentile mutilation, rape and domestic violence was already an extremely big issue since it was extremely widespread.  Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed a giant issue into an epidemic of its own right, from Turkey and Iran to Bangladesh and Pakistan.  

Sadly, even though this is the situation, Turkey is considering pulling out of the Istanbul Agreement on women’s rights.  To add insult to injury, according to Ahval, Yeni Aki columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak called individuals that support the international conventions related to violence against women “prostitutes.” The AKP’s Women’s Branch reportedly filed an official complaint against Dilipak and he was also condemned by 26 different NGOs.   Turkish researcher Bartu Eken explained, “Abdurrahman Dilipak is a writer who is loved in Islamist circles in Turkey. But he is not particularly liked by the supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party, an unofficial ally of the Justice and Development Party.  He is also not liked by some Justice and Development Party supporters,”

“His discourses can sometimes be very harsh, and sometimes they are taken as absurd,” he added.  “CHP, which is the Kemalist party, is also positioned against Dilipak. The Peoples’ Democratic Party also approaches it antiphrastically.  I think Abdurrahman Dilipak has no direct impact on politics. Even sources close to the government do not agree with him.  Of course, the CHP and Turkish women reacted negatively to this rhetoric, but it is possible to say that he did not create much of an agenda.”   Nevertheless, former Israel Consul General Eli Shaked does believe the very fact that the Turkish government is mulling pulling out of the Istanbul Convention is a concern in itself, especially from a European perspective, even if the Turkish government does not agree with Dilipak: “This is another layer of conflict and tension and disagreement between Turkey and the rest of the developed world.  It seems that Erdogan does not take seriously what the world is saying about him or against him.”

However, women in Iran are not fairing much better amid the pandemic.  Iranian political theorist Reza Parchizadeh proclaimed, “Under the Islamist regime, the coronavirus pandemic has affected women in Iran in a special way.  The predefined social roles for women put them at higher risk for getting the coronavirus in Iran.”   Simultaneously, numerous media reports have confirmed that domestic violence and child abuse has risen in Iran amid the pandemic to epidemic proportions. 

At the same time, Iranian human rights activist Manel Msalmi proclaimed that the situation is even worse for Ahwaz and other minority women, especially if they happen to be political prisoners: “Several Ahwazi and Iranian women were detained recently in Sepidar prison and most of them were labor rights activists just like Sepideh Gholian, who was tortured and humiliated in prison.   The prison is overcrowded, so there is a high risk that the coronavirus will spread rapidly.  There were forced confessions and psychological pressure.   The human rights conditions during the pandemic are extremely inhumane.  The international community and women’s rights activists should act to support women in Iran, who are not only tortured in prison but who are also exposed to the coronavirus and threatened by the regime.”

“In light of the coronavirus, the suffering of Ahwazi women has increased immensely,” she proclaimed.  “Due to the existence of employment discrimination based upon their ethnicity, many Ahwazi women are forced to work in beauty salons, as sellers in the market and event halls for that is one of the few fields open to them.   However, after the implementation of the curfew, these shops and venues were forced to close down, but they are still obligated to pay all business expenses, including renting the stores and venues.  Ahwazi women are treated this way because they possess a female Arab identity that the regime wishes to eradicate.”   

During the last lockdown in the South Asian country, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a women’s rights group, reported that the plight of Bangladeshi women was getting worse by the day: “The lockdown has made women and children more vulnerable to domestic violence and abuse as many of them are confined to their homes with no outside support. Women were tortured physically, mentally, faced financial restrictions from their husbands, and there was increase in the number of marital rape incidents.”  Once the lockdown was eased, Shipan Kumer Basu, President of the World Hindu Struggle Committee, noted that domestic violence continued to rise unabetted and there was also an increase in the number of rapes.  He emphasized that Hindu women suffered the most torture in Bangladesh, for they faced not only repression at home but also from their Muslim neighbors: “Our women have no freedom in today’s Bangladesh and are tortured because they are Hindu.”\

Similarly, the United Nations reported: “In Pakistan, mental health professionals providing online therapy sessions also report that they have seen a rise in the cases of domestic abuse in the wake of the COVID 19 lockdown in Pakistan. ‘Domestic abuse has already been a haunting problem in Pakistan; more cases are surfacing in this time of anxiety and depression for all.’ A pandemic deepens economic and social stress coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, increasing gender-based violence exponentially. Evidence suggests that financial, domestic and health pressures during the lockdown increase domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence. Pakistan is no exception where incidents of domestic violence have been occurring at an alarming rate. ‘In a developing country like Pakistan with already very low indicators of socio- economic development, an epidemic is likely to further compound pre-existing gender inequalities.’” 

Although Pakistan has lifted their coronavirus lockdown, Basu noted that gender-based violence continues in the country at a high rate unabetted: “90 percent of Pakistani women have experienced some sort of domestic violence at home.  47% of married women in Pakistan have experienced sexual abuse, particularly marital rape.  One third of girls between age 15 and 19 are also exposed to physical abuse in Pakistan.  The conditions created by the pandemic only make this situation worse, given that these women and girls have even less support in an age of social distancing than they would have gotten before the pandemic.   In a country like Pakistan, such support was always minimal and most women and girls that are abused do not even bother reporting these incidents, yet the pandemic transformed these horrific conditions into something even worse.”          



Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and the editor of the Economic Peace Center, which was established by Ayoob Kara, who served as Israel's Communication, Cyber and Satellite Minister. For close to a decade, she has been an Israel-based journalist, specializing in radical Islam, abuses of human rights and minority rights, counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground-breaking book endorsed by Former Israel Consul General Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara that discusses how the media exploits the life stories of Palestinian female terrorists in order to justify wanton acts of violence. Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.