In the gallery of authoritarian governments undercutting the rights of women and threatening democracy around the world, five nations stand out for a special reason. Donald Trump has made the leaders of Brazil, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey his friends and accomplices.
In all of these countries, according to mounting evidence in numerous studies, women’s reproductive rights in particular have become targets of repressive policies. Women are also often victims of state violence.
India, a startling example for a democratic nation, is especially newsworthy.
With all the baggage of his antiwomen policies and actions in the United States, Trump is scheduled to travel to India in late February to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This trip comes against the backdrop of women side-by-side with men being beaten by police on the streets and university campuses of Indian cities as they protest new anti-Muslim citizenship laws.
No quarrel with Modi on that count. Trump has just proposed an extended ban (or limitations) on travel to the US to six more nations with large Muslim populations, four of them in Africa: Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania. Kyrgyzstan has also been added to the ban, as well as Myanmar, where the Muslim Rohingya have been the victims of prolonged lethal assault by the largely Burmese Buddhist military.
In the Muslim majority territory of Kashmir, nearly six months after a heavy Indian Army occupation was imposed, thousands of women and their families are still without male breadwinners who were taken into Indian detention without explanation. A loose coalition in the US Congress is forming to oppose Modi’s Kashmir policies, backed by a Congressional Research Service report warning that the Hindu nationalist government’s actions could taint India’s democratic credentials.
On Kashmir, Trump has given India a pass.
Across India, violence against Indian women and foreign female visitors is endemic. In December 2019, the US and Britain issued travel advisories for India, saying that women should “exercise caution,” given the rising number of crimes against women there.
In 2018, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of experts found India to be “the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labor.” Afghanistan was second, with Syria and the US tied for third — an effect of the #MeToo movement in America, experts concluded.
Indian girls in some parts of the country suffer genital mutilation. Honor killings and forced marriages are common, according to many reports in the Indian media and advocacy groups. Female fetuses continue to be aborted because of a cultural preference for sons, an illegal but persistent procedure.
On to Brazil, whose controversial hard-line right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, was Modi’s official chief guest at the annual Republic Day parade, with its huge military participation. Prabhash K. Dutta, a commentator in India Today, a leading news magazine, called attention to what he saw as Bolsonaro’s disturbing personal views and why he should not have received this prestigious invitation.
“Bolsonaro is a leader with known shades of misogyny and homophobia, and for targeting indigenous people,” he wrote.
When Bolsonaro was elected president in October 2018 (he took office at the beginning of January 2019) the New York-based International Women’s Health Coalition issued a warning of what might come.
“The election of Jair Bolsonaro . . . poses a serious threat to human rights, particularly for women, the LGBTQI community, indigenous people, and Afro-Brazilians,” the Coalition’s president Françoise Girard, said in a statement. “His rise to power follows a contentious election that featured violence and extreme rhetoric by the right wing, countered by women-led mass mobilization against Bolsonaro’s misogynistic, racist, and homophobic views.”
The statement, alluding to the previous gains by strong Brazilian women’s rights movements, added: “Bolsonaro’s opposition to gender equality and his disparaging treatment of women threaten hard-earned sexual and reproductive health and rights in the country. . . . His government will pose a threat to the women’s movement, and civil society organizing more broadly.”
One of Bolsonaro’s first presidential decisions was to downgrade human-rights policies and subsume the rights ministry into a newly created ministry of women, family and human rights.
A new minister, Damares Alves, was appointed to head the department. Alves is an evangelical preacher who co-founded a group that rescues indigenous children from danger and converts members of indigenous communities. She opposes abortion and advocates abstinence from sex among the young. In 2016, she famously said, “It is time for the church to govern.”
Bolsonaro, invited to the White House by an eager soulmate, Trump, in 2019, delivered a welcome message: “Brazil and the United States stand side by side in their efforts to share liberties and respect to traditional and family lifestyles; respect to God, our creator; against the gender ideology of the politically correct attitudes and fake news,” Bolsonaro said. Trump reportedly smirked his approval.
In the Arab world, stretching across much of the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt and Saudi Arabia present different cases for numerous reasons, but both have not been confronted in any meaningful way on human rights, particularly those of women, by Trump or by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Egyptian government, under the military rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, faces growing pressure from a broad civil society opposition to his mistreatment of protesters, with hundreds of deaths and tortures in custody. Meanwhile, Trump has called him “my favorite dictator.”
In its World Report 2019, Human Rights Watch catalogued arrests of Egyptian women and harassment of women’s rights organizations on charges of publishing “false news,” publicly insulting officials or belonging to terrorist groups. “Egypt continues to prosecute dozens of people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Human Rights Watch added in its report, based on 2018 information. “Unlike other countries in the region, Egypt has taken no steps to ban forced anal examinations of people accused of homosexual conduct.”
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy with a crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who cornered power through ruthless moves. They included the alleged brutal murder of the Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic, Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The Saudis have apparently flattered their way into winning acquiescence from Trump not to tap into American power to press for full prosecution of the case.
Over the last several years, the Saudis have announced reforms that they said would give women more rights and power over their lives; for example, allowing women to drive or travel alone. However, those claims are being increasingly scrutinized and questioned. On Jan. 23, the editors of “The Week,” a British publication, compiled a fascinating roundup of articles from numerous publications, saying that some of the new rules lack clarity and still have to be tested more fully.
“While the reforms were positively received at the time, campaigners have now said that they are much less extensive than they initially appeared to be and women remain ‘second-class citizens’ in the country,” The Week found. Women are still harassed by authorities when they try to beautify themselves with makeup or wear a decorated abaya, the long black cloak worn in public. Women are required to limit the amount of time spent with men to whom they are not related, and “unlawful mixing” can lead to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women typically face harsher punishment.
In July 2019, Forbes Woman published a list of the 20-most dangerous places for solo female travelers. Such warnings, mostly intended for women traveling alone as tourists or on business trips, often reflect the conditions under which local women live as well.
The Forbes list is based on a new Women’s Danger Index, created by the journalists Asher and Lyric Fergusson. It includes Egypt, ranked No. 7, Saudi Arabia at No. 12 and Turkey at 13 — not an Arab nation but a regional player. In Turkey, a bill has been introduced in the legislature that would grant amnesty to men convicted of statutory rape if they married their victims.
“It is the latest example of how governments around the world are failing to protect women — and even institutionalizing inequities that put them in danger,” Kate Dannies, an assistant professor of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post on Jan. 29.
All such tribulations and burdens will follow many women who participate in the 2020 commemorations and review of the promises made at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. On the other hand, the US delegation at the UN’s annual women’s rights gathering in March is likely to arrive fixated on rooting out abortion wherever it may be found or suspected globally. The Americans, committed to holding the line on the reproductive rights of women and girls, will have allies in Trump’s favorite countries, where advancing women is not high — if at all — on any government list.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.