Women are collateral damage in U.S. Middle East foreign policy

Anet McClintock | Middle East & North Africa Fellow

For decades, women in the Middle East have experienced discriminatory policies, oppressive practices, and have suffered the regression of women’s rights that is often a by-product of war.


Most U.S. administrations since Bill Clinton have expressed sympathy for these women, condemned oppressive political regimes, and asserted a desire to improve women’s rights in the Middle East. At best, these are just statements to signal the country’s liberal values, and at worst, deliberately used as justification for controversial foreign policies. Either way, these policies rarely deliver good outcomes for Middle Eastern women and often leave them at a greater disadvantage.


One of these women is Loujain al-Hathloul. In March 2018 she was arrested by Saudi forces in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She had been driving, something that is legal for women to do in the UAE, but not in her home country, Saudi Arabia. This was not the first time she had been arrested for the act. For years she staunchly campaigned for the rights of women to drive in Saudi Arabia. The timing is also significant–only two months after al-Hathloul’s arrest, in June 2018, Saudi women were given the right to drive.


This is why al-Hathloul’s sister, Alia, made an impassioned plea to U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to pressure Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman to release her sister. Despite widespread demand, Pompeo did not breach the subject. Alia al-Hathloul described Pompeo’s actions as ‘apathy’. And perhaps this best describes the U.S.’ approach to women’s rights in the Middle East–not intentionally detrimental, but inadvertently callous.


The U.S. has long been a champion of women’s rights internationally. From Eleanor Roosevelt’s involvement drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to Hillary Clinton bluntly stating ‘women’s rights are human rights’. The U.S has even directly acknowledged the bravery of women championing women’s rights in the Middle East. In 2012, several women from the Middle East received the International Women of Courage Award–Maryam Durani, for her work on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, and Samar Badawi in Saudi Arabia.


Despite these symbolic acts of solidarity with the women’s rights movement in the Middle East, concrete policies failed to materialise. President George W. Bush famously stated in 2002 “...the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes … today they are free”.


After the September 11 attacks, photos of Afghan women wearing burqas appeared across the American media where President Bush and the first lady framed the war on terror as a fight for the dignity of women in Afghanistan. Almost twenty years later, any gains made for women rights in Afghanistan have largely been superficial, with little substantial changes made to address the day to day discrimination and persecution of Afghan women.


When President Barack Obama delivered a speech about American foreign policy in 2011, shortly after the start of the Arab Spring, he accurately noted that ‘History shows that countries are more prosperous and more peaceful when women are empowered’. But the administration approved over US$100 billion worth of weaponry and arms to Saudi Arabia, who were conducting a devastating campaign against the Houthi militias in Yemen.


The war in Yemen, raging since 2015, has deteriorated rights for women in the country. Over 2.6 million Yemeni women are at risk of domestic violence, which has accelerated under the conditions of the war. Women are also the population at greatest risk of food insecurity in the country, compounding their already-dire circumstances and making them one of the most vulnerable demographics in the regions.


The current administration has done little to improve foreign policy for women. In the case of Iran, the U.S. government is quick to note how women’s rights have regressed in Iran, while actively trying to minimise reports from the State Department detailing violations of women’s rights. The department’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran using harsh sanctions has also left Iranian women as one of the most vulnerable and economically disenfranchised groups in the country.


Will the approach to women’s rights in the Middle East change under a Biden government? President-elect Biden has shown he is willing to take on Mohammed bin Salam over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and end unconditional support for the ally over the war in Yemen. It is possible a Biden administration may consider how U.S. foreign policy impacts the rights and livelihoods of women and use their position as a world leader to promote greater rights for women under the governments of allies.

For now, women like Alia Hathloul continue to advocate on behalf of her sister, and the twelve other women who are still imprisoned more than a year after Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving. But unless the American government makes women’s rights a core tenant of its foreign policy decisions in the Middle East, women will continue to be disproportionately disadvantaged.


Anet McClintock is the Middle East & North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.