Turkey: Gender, sexuality and the criminal laws in the Middle East and North Africa: a comparative study by Dr. Sherifa Zuhur

Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR) - NEW WAYS
The study examines the common aspects of criminal laws in the Middle East & North Africa related to sexuality, providing a historical perspective & insight into the amalgamation of tribal, religious, colonial laws & their impact on modern codes.
Providing a thematic comparative study of constructs of honor, adultery, honor crimes, rape, sexual abuse, abortion, marital rape, homosexuality, sex work, FGM and similar issues, the article explores how human rights violations in the domain of sexuality are legitimized by law in the region and how oppression of sexuality in perpetrated by the existing penal systems.
The first such comparative and comprehensive article on the issue, Gender, Sexuality and the Criminal Laws in the Middle East and North Africa: A comparative study offers an in depth historical and contemporary analysis of sexuality and penal codes in the region, as well as discourses of gender, sexuality in the criminal systems. The article is both a unique resource and a powerful advocacy tool for ongoing reform initiatives in the region.

Download a copy from the Women for Women's Human Rights (WWHR) - NEW WAYS website.
A review of ''Gender, Sexuality and the Criminal Laws in the Middle East and North Africa'' a publication of Women for Human Rights - New Ways by Kathambi Kinoti, AWID

What issues does this resource tackle?

''Gender, Sexuality and the Criminal Laws in the Middle East and North Africa'' is a publication of Women for Human Rights - New Ways, which is a Turkish-based NGO. According to the author Dr Sherifa Zuhur, the codes of criminal law in the Middle East and North Africa ''consistently remind us that the primary social identification of women is as reproductive and social beings who are constrained by men, the family and the state.'' She says that omissions in the law and legal loopholes demonstrate that the society hold power over women, and that men's lives, testimony and value outweigh those of women (WWHR 9). As the law has transformed over the ages, it has transferred women's authority over their bodies from their communities to their husbands, and in some rare instances to themselves.

The study discusses the concept of honour in Arab society. This encompasses not only male honour (''sharaf''), in the sense of family reputation, chivalry, honesty, generosity and socio-economic and political power, but also female honour (''ardh''), which extends to female sexuality and the sexual use of their bodies. According to the author, the honour of a woman was besmirched if she ceased being a virgin before marriage, or if married, she was unfaithful to her husband. Women's honour obligations corresponded to men's lineage privileges such that the ultimate violation of female honour was for a woman to bear an illegitimate child. In the Arab culture the conceptualization of masculinity and femininity closely adheres to the conceptualization of male and female honour.

The author says that early Arab societies simultaneously valued and constrained female sexuality and reproduction. Although women's reproductive value was acknowledged, their value was seen as being less than that of men. The study gives the example of the practice of 'diyya' or blood money compensation, by which the family of a murdered woman was entitled to half the compensation of the family of a murdered man. The rationale for this practice is also said to be based on the fact that in the Quran the inheritance a man is entitled to is double that of a woman.

The resource tackles the following topics:
  • Murder in modern penal codes
  • Honour crimes
  • Rape as a political crime
  • Incest and sexual abuse
  • Marital rape
  • Illegitimacy
  • New reproductive technologies
  • Female Genital Mutilation
The report discusses the issue of adultery, which in many Islamic states is a crime punishable by flogging or execution by stoning. It emerges that extra-marital sex in relation to women, is treated very differently from that of men. For instance, whereas a woman in Egypt is liable to two years' imprisonment for adultery, a man faces not more than six months for the same offence. However, several Arab countries have decriminalized adultery, making it only a ground for divorce.

The publication also tackles the vexed question of honour crimes, which is the system of guarding women's sexual expression and punishing their sexual lapses. It reports that one third of the nation of Jordan's murders are honour killings, where the average sentence for such a killing is seven and a half months' imprisonment. Despite the fact that honour killings are premeditated murders, neither shari'ah law nor modern laws have appropriately penalized the practice, due according to Dr Zuhur, to the strong influence of the clan system and popular beliefs about women's sexuality.

Rape is another crime addressed by the publication. According to the author, the differentiation between single and married women when it comes to the issue of rape serves to illustrate the patriarchal management of female sexuality found in Arab society. Whether or not the victim of a rape is a virgin or not has financial compensation implications. The distinction between the true victim of rape - whether a woman, her family and her clan - underlines women's historic lack of self-ownership.

''Gender, Sexuality and the Criminal Laws in the Middle East and North Africa'' shows that penal laws in most Arab countries treat women differently from men than women based on the definition of their sexual roles. The author says that it is problematic to uphold equality of the sexes given the cultural context of today's Arab societies. Penal codes clearly discriminate against women and contradict international human rights norms due largely to cultural relativism that permits countries to sign a treaty but make reservations based on their culture and religion.

Who would find this resource useful?

This resource is helpful for sexuality rights advocates, those seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the status of women under Islamic law, and women's rights advocates working in Islamic countries, or countries with deeply traditional cultural contexts that differ significantly from Western (and modern) articulations of human rights. With its comprehensive comparison of laws and practice, it is a useful resource for comparative analysis, and to equip women's rights activists with facts.