Sacrificing Women's Rights For "Popular Rule:" Why Equality is Essential
Over the past week Libya’s interim prime minister Abdel Rahim al-Keib has made numerous statements about human rights, at times announcing high priority to the protection of rights in his administration, at others hinting that some Libyan citizens (notably women) shouldn’t expect too much.
Judging from experiences in other countries women may not fare better after a dictatorship or autocratic rule than before it. In 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a bill that made women subordinate to men, allegedly in an attempt to win votes. And earlier this year, peaceful female demonstrators in Egypt were submitted to forced virginity tests and brought before a military court a full month after Hosni Mubarak had resigned.
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether the current political set-ups in Egypt, Libya, or Afghanistan are more democratic than what came before, it is valid to ask whether women’s rights often are sacrificed for the sake of popular rule. In last month’s Tunisian election, the Islamist party Ennahda won approximately 40 percent of the votes, making many worry that this country, with arguably the most advanced legal protections for women rights in the region, might slide backwards. Others countered that Islamism and feminism aren’t necessarily opposites but can, in fact, be linked.
The truth of the matter is, however, that without certain potentially unpopular back-stops to protect the rights of the disempowered, majority rule (or ruling party rule) does not always protect equal rights for all. Indeed in the most extreme cases, state officials accused of wanting to annihilate entire groups of people within their own country can be democratically elected.
It is noteworthy that governments seeking to limit the human rights of a particular group often use the same justifications, regardless of geography or political set up. The two most popular excuses are these: 1) our culture does not support that kind of thing; or 2) we just have a different way of doing it.