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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Today, the New York Times featured a very discouraging article about the attitudes  many in the Middle East still  harbor towards female victims.  Although these attitudes are certainly not limited to the Middle East or to Arab culture, the interviews in the article, many with women, show how much still needs to be done to change the common perception that female victims of brutal crimes “deserve” what has befallen them.
By Mona el-Naggar
October 12, 2010

 

CAIRO — An Egyptian real estate tycoon falls in love with a Lebanese pop star. After three to four years, she decides to leave him. He pays another man $2 million to kill her. She is found dead, with her throat slit. He is found guilty of inciting and ordering the murder.

And what do women here have to say about the homicide victim? Mostly, that she deserved it.

The story of Hisham Talaat Moustafa and Suzanne Tamim has engrossed men and women of all ages in the Arab world for more than two years now. In the latest episode last month, Mr. Moustafa, who was also a prominent politician and leading member of Egypt’s ruling party, was saved when an Egyptian appeals court reduced his sentence from death to 15 years in jail.

The fact that Mr. Moustafa, who has wealth and influence, has whittled down his spell in prison to the point where he now looks like he might walk away from his crime has enraged public opinion on several levels.

Political analysts have characterized Mr. Moustafa as the ultimate symbol of corruption in a country where the rich and ruling elite can afford to act with disregard for legal accountability and social justice. Human rights activists have lamented what they see as political meddling in the rule of law. The general public in Egypt, 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day, are simply bewildered by the millions Mr. Moustafa spent, first to win his lover’s heart, then to kill her and now to save his life and eventually get out of jail.

Yet there has been no outpouring of sympathy for Ms. Tamim, who was killed at the age of 30.

“She made him kill her, and she deserves it,” said Sherine Moustafa, a 39-year-old Egyptian corporate lawyer, an opinion that was echoed by every woman of dozens interviewed. “If he killed her, this means she’s done something outrageous to drive him to it,” reasoned Ms. Moustafa, who has no relation to the convicted businessman. Both her sister and mother, who sat next to her, agreed.

This is the standard argument presented, more even by women than by men, in the Arab world, where strict patriarchal traditions continue to hold female victims responsible for crimes against them by men. If a woman is sexually harassed, then she must have been dressed provocatively. If raped, she somehow must have put herself in a compromising position. If pregnant out of wedlock, her conduct is to blame. And if she is murdered, then she must have committed an even more abhorrent crime.

“This is a common spontaneous response, even among educated social workers,” said Azza Baydoun, a Lebanese researcher in gender and women’s studies who wrote a book analyzing attitudes and circumstances surrounding crimes of violence against women in Lebanon. “It is the old idea of Eve seducing Adam, which originated in our part of the world.”

In the case of Ms. Tamim, who was only 24 when she vaulted to stardom in 2002, it was perhaps all too easy to find fault. As details about her numerous relationships seeped out following her murder, she became widely depicted and perceived as a seductress who pounced on her suitors. Arabic newspapers and television ran popular images of the diva flaunting her body in a black leather cat suit or pursing her lips perfectly for the head shot.

In the Arab world, such behavior is tolerated only in the entertainment business. Otherwise, it is seen as a sign of moral depravity that can lead to the demise of a woman’s reputation and standing. So Arab women are unable to empathize with the victim.

“We don’t want our daughters, sisters or mothers to be or look like her,” said one such woman, Soha Hassouna, a 38-year-old Egyptian banker. “I’m glad this happened so she can be an example to our children.”

Mr. Moustafa, according to police reports, hired Mohsen al-Sukari, a retired Egyptian state security officer, to travel to Dubai and kill Ms. Tamim. Mr. Sukari stayed in a hotel close to Ms. Tamim’s residence, and on July 28, 2008, knocked on her door, disguised as an employee of the building. When she opened the door, he slit her throat.

According to varying accounts published in the local news media, Ms. Tamim fled Egypt in 2007 when Mr. Moustafa refused to marry her because he could not win his mother’s consent (this was after keeping Ms. Tamim mostly secluded in a suite in the Four Seasons hotel he owns in Cairo). Mr. Moustafa felt betrayed when Ms. Tamim abandoned him after he had spent close to $7 million on gifts and transfers to her account in Switzerland, an amount that appeared in a Swiss court ruling and was published in the Egyptian daily newspaper Al Shorouk.

Rumors and theories abound, but what is certain is that when Mr. Moustafa failed to win back Ms. Tamim, he had her killed for $2 million.

“We are very judgmental, we forgot the crime, and we remember how she dresses,” said Rima Sabban, an Emirati sociologist and assistant professor at Zayed University in Dubai. “This shows that our society is still not elevated to the point of respecting the rights of individuals, or women in this context.”

Mr. Moustafa, who had an estimated net worth of $800 million in 2007, was chief executive officer of Talaat Moustafa Group Holding, the largest publicly traded property developer in Egypt. He was married (and still is) to the mother of his three children when he decided to pursue a relationship with Ms. Tamim. He has taken a second wife, a practice that is legally permissible for Muslim men, on more than one occasion.

“So we have a victim and a criminal, both of whom were married several times, but our society disapproves of the victim’s lifestyle,” said Ghada Shahbandar, an Egyptian human rights activist. “If a woman departs from the very confined role set out for her by society, if she’s not modestly dressed, if she’s not the good wife and mother, if she chooses a career that is not up to social approval, then she deserves whatever happens to her, ranging from sexual harassment to a killing.”

Mr. Moustafa still has the right to appeal and win an even more favorable verdict. But in addition to the many privileges that have spared his life so far, just the simple fact that he is a man has allowed him to get away relatively lightly with murder.

See original posting at The New York Times

 

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