Nayera Ashraf, Eman Arsheed, and Lubna Mansour: three names that we need to honour and remember for all they could have been. These three young women were murdered by their disgruntled partners — in under a week. The crimes have shaken the Arab world and triggered a flood of debate on social media, locally and internationally, in the quest to try and make sense of such heinous crimes and find an explanation for what seems an impossible question: Why?
On the surface, all three girls have paid the ultimate price for the same reason: for rejecting the men in their lives. They have been ripped out of their prime and had their lives cut short simply because they made a decision to put their future and their happiness first, for choosing to leave a relationship in which they did not feel happy, fulfilled, or respected, for taking ownership over their lives and not settling for less; a decision, that most reasonable people would view as a natural right for all humans (men and women alike).
But, unfortunately, to dig deep into the hows and whys of this behaviour towards women reveals a very complex pattern. And let’s keep in perspective the fact that for every Nayera, Eman, and Lubna, there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of women in this region and beyond who are facing spousal violence, control, jealousy, threats of retribution and a life of misery. Living a life in which they feel trapped and long for the day they will be free. They could be struggling with a husband who, despite all efforts and reasonable logic, refuses to grant them a divorce and makes their lives, their children’s, and even his own, a living nightmare. To be fair, most of these women will not end up facing such a drastic fate (thankfully murder is still a rare action), but this does not mean that their lives aren’t worth protecting.
Men must start questioning their motives and realizing that we all have one thing in common, which is that we all have just one life to live. This applies to women and it should go without saying that if someone does not want to share their life with you, then they cannot be forced. Both sides will end up unhappy, miserable and full of regret. It is much braver to accept the situation, let go of resentment, go on to rebuild a healthier and happier life while keeping in mind the welfare of children, if involved.
But this is not just a regional issue: violence against women and girls is a global occurrence that is not confined to any particular geographical location, race, ethnicity, society, culture, age group, or socio-economic status, and I’m sorry to say that it happens all too often.
While murder may be the extreme, spousal abuse takes many forms including wife-battering, psychological and sexual abuse. It is recognised that far too many women suffer throughout their lives from these and other types of abuse: lack of parental or spousal care and protection, female genital mutilation, shortage of educational opportunities, confinement at home, child marriages, forced marriages, the repercussions of temporary and polygamous marriages, disavowal and rejection, honor-related violence directed at both married and unmarried women, and abuse from other family members (such as in-laws, parents, uncles and brothers). Outside the home, they experience many forms of sexual harassment, violence and commercial exploitation. Moreover, the risks of violence have increased with the crises we are facing daily (war, armed conflicts, and uprisings) and the rise of extremism.
In many of these cases, the violence against women is not only tolerated but efforts are made for their justification, which actively discourages victims from disclosing the details and often results in the withholding of punishment from the perpetrators. It is shocking and disturbing to know that following Nayera’s death, an Egyptian TV presenter suggested that the murdered university student had been at fault for not wearing a veil, sparking a wave of outrage by social media users, claiming that the victims of such acts were in fact responsible for their own deaths by letting their hair down and wearing tight clothing, saying, “(Men) will hunt you down and kill you. Go on – personal freedom ... if your life is precious to you, leave your house looking like a burlap sack”. This is victim-blaming of the very worst kind.
According to the United Nations, an estimated 736 million women (almost one-third of the world’s female population) have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence from partners or non-partners at least once in their life (30 percent of women aged 15 or over). This figure does not include non-violent sexual harassment, but if it did we’d have to include the unbelievable figure of 97% of women aged 18 – 24 who have suffered this appalling abuse.
In the Middle East and North Africa, it is estimated that 40 – 60 percent of all women have experienced sexual harassment in public. In the multi-country study, the majority of respondents said that the harassment mainly consisted of lewd sexual comments, stalking or following, or even staring or ogling. What is even more disturbing is that between 31 and 64 percent of male respondents admitted that they had carried out such acts. The study revealed that younger men, men with more education, and men who had experienced violence themselves as children were more likely to engage in street-based sexual harassment.
So why do some men apparently struggle with control issues? Why do so many have troubled and unstable lives because of unhealthy attitudes, and from where did they learn them? There are many reasons of course, but it does becomes clear that men, just like women, are also victims of societal, cultural and so-called traditional “norms” and expectations.
I would like to list a few reasons based on my own personal analysis, on why control of women (I say control because that is the route that leads to everything else) happens in Arab and other societies throughout the Asian continent.
We live in a world of wonder, where anything seems possible and, given time, where we really can make a difference. But when I say ‘we’, I mean women and men, working together to create a better life for ourselves and our children. Women’s rights are human rights to which we are all entitled. The right to live free from violence and discrimination, to be educated, to own property, to take an active role in society and have equal opportunities. It is NOT the right to be murdered. It is NOT the right to be victim-blamed. Ask the families of
Nayera Ashraf, Eman Arsheed, and Lubna Mansour about their rights – and please, remember their names.
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