Nov 29, 2007

Middle Eastern Countries: Barbaric or Civilized?

My dear girlfriend wrote me, angry about a woman in Saudi Arabia who has been sentenced to an extreme punishment after having been gang-raped. Yes—the victim of a horrible crime was herself punished for the “crime” of being alone with a man just prior to the gang-rape (the case is currently under review). Hello?!? Of course it's these sorts of insane outcomes (such as “honor killings”) that give Middle Eastern countries a barbaric reputation in the West.

But first of all, there are many countries that make up the Middle East, each with different styles of government, with different levels of women's rights, and with varying flavors of secularity versus religiosity in control. Is it fair for well-educated, even well-meaning Westerners to lump these 19 countries (subject to debate—is Turkey a Middle Eastern country? Egypt? Algeria?) together.

Ever since September 11, 2001, I've been exposing myself to more information about Middle Eastern cultures and governments—bit by bit, because there are many countries—unable to shake the feeling that Middle-Easterners as “bad guys” is an impaired view the American media would unjustly lead us to believe.

So just how do the Middle Eastern countries fall on the spectrum of barbarism versus modern rights? That’s not so easy to parse, but if I can narrow it down to two big criteria, here’s what I’d choose: women’s rights and secularity in government.

Women’s Rights

Naturally, the picture is complex, but it’s not as bad as you might think. Out of the 17 Middle Eastern countries that allow voting (three do not!), 15 allow women to vote and to hold public office. In Jordan, for instance, which has the wonderful Queen Rania as one of its sovereigns (as beautiful as a movie star and as populist as a modern Evita), women have equal rights with men. Jordan is a monarchy with an elected government, much like in the UK, except the Prime Minister is appointed by the king. Israel is as modern as any other European or North American country. The majority of Middle Eastern nations allow women to vote and be elected to public office, with only a few holdouts. While in Kuwait, a law has been introduced to allow women to vote. Technically, Islamic law doesn't have anything against women's rights. It's the extremists who may be in power who do. Bottom line? 88% of voting Middle Eastern countries already have some degree of women’s rights, judging by the right to vote and to be elected to public office.

Women can vote and be elected:

Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Palestinian territories, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen, Morocco, Tunis, Algeria, Iran, Turkey

Women cannot vote or be elected:

Kuwait, Saudi Arabia

There are no elections:

Syria (holds presidential referenda in which women can vote), United Arab Emirates (UAE), Libya

Secular versus Theocratic Governments

As most Westerners would agree, governments that are secular protect civil rights and individual rights better than those that blur separation of church and state, much less those that are outright theocratic. Said Zainab Al-Sawaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress and a noted human rights activist, “In previous centuries and even in recent decades, Middle Eastern societies were more secular . . . now many of the Middle Eastern societies say that religion and politics are one thing.” And there is much debate in Middle Eastern societies about what constitutes a secular government. Sometimes secular governments become associated with military ones, such as in Turkey and Algeria. And then where do monarchs fit on the gamut between secularity and theocracy? Any government that is an “absolute monarchy” is, granted, one from which to run screaming at all haste, although not so for a “constitutional monarchy,” such as Jordan’s. Here is an informative listing of Middle Eastern countries and their type of governments, gleaned from Wikipedia:

Middle Eastern Countries and Their Types of Government




Islamic Republic




Parliamentary Democracy (Developing)


Constitutional Hereditary


Constitutional monarchy


Absolute monarchy



Saudi Arabia

Absolute monarchy

United Arab Emirates

Federal Constitutional Monarchy




Parliamentary democracy


Constitutional monarchy




Presidential republic


Semi-presidential republic (democracy)

Gaza Strip

Palestinian National Authority Hamas

West Bank

Palestinian National Authority Fatah

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