Progress on UN development goals marred by ‘honor’ system

Gender inequality persists and women continue to face discrimination on all fronts.

Veiled women in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia  521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser )
Veiled women in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser )
With the deadline to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals just around the corner, where do we stand on MDG No. 3 – women’s rights and gender empowerment? Recent progress reports indicate improved gender parity in primary schooling, more wage-earning jobs held by women, and increased women’s representation in the world’s parliaments.
However, encouraging as these indicators may be, the metrics do not account for the “honor” system, a cultural norm that hinders progress toward the achieving the development goals.
According to the UN’s 2013 MDG Progress Chart, Western Asia (which includes the Middle East) is lagging behind in accomplishing MDG No. 3.
Three indicators are described: equal girls’ enrollment in primary school; women’s share of paid employment; and women’s equal representation in national parliaments.
While girls’ school enrollment is described as “close to parity,” women’s employment and political representation are described as “low share” and “very low representation,” respectively.
These indicators barely hint at the reality. If we pull back another layer, and examine women’s health and security, we will find that the region is woefully far from achieving the target goals. Gender inequality persists and women continue to face discrimination on all fronts.
In Egypt, 99.3 percent of women and girls have been sexually harassed, making it one of the worst countries in the Arab world to be a woman, according to a poll of gender experts. Sexual harassment has risen in the wake of the revolution, reaching the level of “epidemic.” Yemen is also in the running for one of the worst places to be female, according to the World Economic Forum. 35% percent of Yemenite girls are not enrolled in school. In September 2013, an eight-year-old bride in Yemen died on her wedding night from internal injuries.
She was forced by her family to marry a man five times her age. In Yemen (as with other Muslim-majority countries), a woman is considered to be half a witness in a judicial hearing.
Moving to Saudi Arabia, women are banned from driving, prohibited to vote (until 2015 potentially) and are unable to leave their home, travel abroad, or in some cases even have surgery without permission of a male guardian.
The MDG 2013 progress chart ignores many systematic, culturally-ingrained human rights abuses that define daily life for millions of women in Western Asia.
These widespread practices find justification through the honor system, a concept foreign to many Westerners.
“Honor” in this context is an abstract view that a family’s reputation and position is vested in the body, sexuality and choices of female members of the family.
Honor manifests itself in many ways, including female genital mutilation (FGM), forced and child marriages, restrictions to education and political representation, and violence and killings to preserve the family’s name and status.
Honor is explored in depth in my new documentary film, Honor Diaries. Honor Diaries is the first film to break the silence on honor violence against women and girls worldwide. The film offers an exclusive conversation with nine leading women’s rights activists who have personal and professional ties to honor violence. The featured women have dedicated their lives to eradicating honor violence in places in the Middle East and Africa, as well as the United States, Canada and the UK, where honor violence and honor killings are on the rise.
As we close in on 2015 and review our progress toward the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals, we cannot ignore the concept of honor. How can gender equality and women’s empowerment be achieved large-scale without first addressing the honor system that dictates the lives of so many women and girls? Honor Diaries features the personal stories of nine women’s rights activists, and their work to end systematic control, discrimination and violence against women in honor-based societies. The film’s featured women have ties to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, as well as the UK, Canada and the US.
On camera, the group speaks candidly about some of the most pressing challenges facing their communities: early and forced marriage, honor violence and killings, access to education, female genital mutilation and more.
The author is the producer/ writer of Honor Diaries, and an attorney specializing in international humanitarian and human rights law. She received her BA and JD from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and is a member of the New York Bar. She is currently pursuing her LLM in International Law and Human Rights.
To learn more about this topic, join Paula Kweskin at the Jerusalem premiere of Honor Diaries on Wednesday, March 19 at the Lev Smadar theater. For more information: