Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /afs/ir.stanford.edu/group/womenscourage/cgi-bin/blogs/wpmu-settings.php on line 45
A Window for Action » Women's Courage

A Window for Action

March 3rd, 2011 by wsallman Leave a reply »

To: Secretary Clinton

From: Warner Sallman, Policy Planning Specialist on the Middle East

Subject: Protecting women’s rights in the Middle East

Date: March 2, 2011

Executive Summary

Secretary Clinton, as you know, the Middle East is undergoing possibly the most widespread political upheaval in the modern history of the region. Riots and protests beginning with the proliferation of a Tunisian man setting himself on fire in protest to the oppressive government has sparked revolution in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Libya. While the long-term outcome of these revolutions is still unclear, it is evident that major political changes to the governmental structures in the countries will result. This is a unique opportunity for the United States to use its influence in the region to empower women in these countries. While a complete roll-back of the patriarchic nature of these states will not necessarily be possible, there is a political opening that the U.S. should exploit to not only assist women in the region but promote its democracy and security agenda. As the Iranian Revolution in 1976 demonstrated, revolutionary leaders can exploit women for short-term political gains but renege on promises once the dust has settled. Therefore it is vital that the U.S. use the leverage it has in the region to fight for women’s rights now before the new political institutions continue the history of marginalization.

Background and Issues

Democracy promotion as a security strategy was enshrined in U.S. foreign policy during the George W. Bush administration and remains one of President Obama’s goals for the world. President Bush believed in the democratic peace and that over the long-term, elevating democracy as an international political ideal would help it proliferate and bring stability to unstable regions. In fact, Jack Levy, a renowned political scientist, has called the democratic peace “as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.”[1] As the diplomatic branch of the government, the State Department should be spearheading the democracy promotion agenda.

U.S. policy in the Middle East has historically favored short-term security interests over long-term goals. Support for oppressive autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Bahrain’s Hamad bin isa Al Khalifa for oil and military interests have generated a negative view of the U.S. in many of the agitating forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This is a particular problem for the struggle against terrorism. While the attacks of 9/11 were launched from Afghanistan, the actors were Saudi Arabian citizens steeped in the teachings Sayyid Qutb, one of the leading theologians of the Muslim Brotherhood.[2] Groups like al-Qaeda are transnational in their membership and organizational structure and to attack the root motivations of this group requires a regional approach. With women deeply involved in the current upheaval, the situation presents the greatest moment for reshaping the U.S.’s image and the women in these revolutions are one of the key factors for achieving this.[3]


The key problem in the region is the political structures in place are unsustainable and require reformulation should stability be established. As studies have shown, female participation in government has numerous benefits for stable political structures. When women are involved, government corruption decreases dramatically and people have a higher confidence in their government.[4][5] Both of these issues are at major factors in the current dissatisfaction with governments in the Middle East. In fact, women are a vital component in the revolution itself, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. The U.S. should activate and expand the programs already in place to ensure that these women have a voice in the new government. First, the U.S. should increase its public support of the UNIFEM political development program for women.[6] This will elevate the international importance of the program and can be matched with an increased level of financial and logistical support. Second, the U.S. should offer its assistance in advising the transitional governments. This is especially possible in Egypt and Bahrain where the U.S. has strong military ties.[7][8] Finally, the U.S. should support for the nongovernmental  programs working on these issues in the region, namely the National Democratic Institute and the International Republic Institute.[9] These organizations are actively promoting female political leadership in the Middle East, and the U.S. should use their connections to assist female leaders in becoming key players as the political systems evolve. Without a doubt, this political window presents the best opportunity the U.S. has had in helping to reshape the political landscape of the Middle East. Democracy has both internal and external stability implications and merits promotion in these countries. With these principles in hand, the U.S. can help to remake its image as a supporter of the Arab people and friend to the Muslim world, while helping to empower one of the most marginalized groups in the world.

[1] Owen, John M. “Iraq and the Democratic Peace.” Foreign Affairs. November/December 2005. www.foreignaffairs.com.

[2] Hasan, S. Badrul. Syed Qutb Shaheed. Islamic Publications International. 2nd ed. 1982.

[3] Bennhold, Katrin. “Women’s Rights a Strong Point in Tunisia.” The New York Times. www.nytimes.com. Feb. 22, 2011.

[4] Dollar, David, Raymond Fisman and Roberta Gatt. “Are Women Really the Fairer Sex? Corruption and Women in Government.” The World Bank Development Research Group. October 1999.

[5] “Women in Politics: 60 years in retrospect.” Inter-Parliamentary Union. Geneva, Switzerland. Feb. 1, 2006.

[6] El-Jazairi, Lara. “UNIFEM Supports Women’s Political Empowerment.” United Nations Development Programme. www.undp.org.sy. Nov. 3, 2008.

[7]“Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain Eyes Unrest Warily.” CBS News Online. Feb. 16, 2011. www.cbsnews.com

[8] Younes, Alie. “The Nature of American-Egyptian Military Relations.” Palestine Chronicle. Feb. 14, 2011. www.palestinechronicle.com

[9] Cincotta, Howard. “U.S., Mideast Organizations Promote Women’s Political Engagement.” America.gov. May 28, 2010.


1 comment

  1. vaughanbagley says:

    Wow. Great topic and great recommendations. I love your point that the US tends to extend the arm of democracy in the short term when our own national security feels unstable, but retracts long term, leaving upheavel in its wake. I paraphrased your statement here and please correct me if I am wrong but that is how I interpreted it and I greatly agreed. If we are going to take it upon ourselves to be the beacon of hope and democracy throughout the world, especially in the middle east, I believe we need to finish the job and ensure safety and equality for all. Ironically, when we go in to democratize another country, we are temporarily exacerbating the inequalities. As we have learned in this course, women’s rights are particularly affected during times of conflict. While it can be debatable whether it is our initial responsibility to spread democracy in the first place, it is undoubtedly our duty to demolish those inequalities after the conflict has ceased. And what better way to do this than through women’s empowerment. I also think that it is vital that you are not only writing to the State Department, who is at the forefront of Human Rights issues, but also to Secretary Clinton herself, a woman who knows better than anyone else the importance of having women in high government positions, and the peace of mind that can bring to all citizens, but especially other women.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.