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While the rest of the world enters a new year, the Arab world is stuck in some archaic ways of the past and needs to change.
Just a couple of weeks ago, as most of the nation spent time preparing for the holidays, doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland were busy performing another surgery on the face of Aesha Mohammadzai, the young Afghan girl whose iconic image appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 2010. The surgery lasted over nine hours, and was the fourth surgery she has underwent in hopes of reconstructing her nose. At the tender age of 12, her father sold her to a Taliban fighter. Married at age 14, she was a servant for her in-laws, who kept her in an outbuilding with their animals. After a failed escape attempt, she was returned to her husband, who, along with his brother, took her to the mountains, cut off her nose and ears, and left her for dead.
Stereotypes can be frustrating, especially when they imply that your ancestral homeland is barbaric, that its culture is archaic, and that its associated religion is oppressive. They are even more frustrating when consistently perpetuated—so much so that the stereotype begins to look less like a generalization and more like an observation. In the “Arab” or “Muslim” world this seems to be exactly what’s happening. As the rest of the world evolves, grows, and progresses, this world is—in many respects—stunted. In South Asia, stories like Aesha’s are way too common. Well documented in the award-winning film Saving Face, women in the region are often victims of domestic abuse involving acid violence, leaving them with near-permanent facial disfigurement. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive and may be refused service at restaurants if not accompanied by a male guardian. And a recent Saudi government program has been put in place that notifies men via text message when their wives or daughters attempt to leave the country. The laws of the region find equally antiquated punishments: they range from laws allowing stoning for adultery in Iran, to lashings for being outside the home without a male guardian in the Swat region of Northwest Pakistan.
Even in Western societies, this backwards thinking has left its mark—albeit on a significantly smaller scale. I’ve seen girls from South Asian or Arab families living in Western countries who are given significantly less freedom than their male siblings, and frequently are told that marriage is more important than becoming financially independent. And while they are afforded substantially more educational opportunities than their old-world contemporaries, social pressures can limit the range of professional fields they may wish to enter. These outmoded mentalities reach beyond just gender roles, with many communities suffering from a sort of “ethnic monolithism” where differences in nationality, regional identity, or religious sect, serve as fault lines for socializing. Not to mention the cultural enigmas that are interracial marriage and homosexuality.
This lack of progress in the Arab world on these issues isn’t due to political powerlessness. Its people have demonstrated the ability through the Arab Uprisings to overthrow authoritarian rule, protest mockery and disrespect of their faith, and defend the sovereignty of its nations when they believe imperial encroachment is looming. And in the West, organized efforts to combat anti-Muslim sentiment, for example, are abundant. But when it comes to issues of women’s rights and ethnic tolerance among our own, the response (if there is one at all) is not nearly as strong. The reaction to domestic abuse or sectarian violence ought to be as passionate as efforts to fight religious discrimination. The solution requires not only repeal of dated laws, but also a change in attitude and priorities. When a few cartoons of the prophet Muhammad appear in a Danish newspaper, the Arab world is in uproar. Yet when tangible harm is done to their own people by their own people we don’t see nearly the same knee-jerk response. Arabs and Muslim in the Western world need to be more active as well. There’s no shortage of organizations designed to protect civil liberties of the minority groups that originate from the region, but where are the organizations designed to identify and facilitate change of the oppressive practices found throughout the Arab world?
Girls like Aesha can’t merely be unfortunate cases of violence, I believe we are seeing part of a profoundly troubling trend. These cases have to be a wake up call for change. The Western world is convinced we are an out-of-date people with a cruel culture and a repressive religion—and if we sit back and do nothing, they will be right.