THE BLOG
01/08/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

United Nations No Defender of Muslim Women's Rights

Nelson Mandela's passing focused the world on his great achievements, while ignoring the increased sexual violence during the period of his leadership in South Africa, a country often described as the "rape capital of the world." Violence against women is rife in other African states and the mislabeled Arab Spring swept in much abuse. As custodian of the world's moral high ground, the United Nations could do more to tackle this scourge, particularly in some Muslim societies.

The recent international global campaign, "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence," called for groups and individuals to focus on militarism and gender-based violence. However, the campaign fell short as it failed to highlight Islamist violence against women associated with the Arab Spring uprisings and the radical militias that have terrorized women in Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.

A recent report found that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Freedom Party (FJP) tended to blame victims for the sexual harassment they suffered, and were probably behind mob attacks on women during the street protests that followed the party's election to power. The FJP also encouraged Female Genital Mutilation as a religious obligation.

In Morocco, where sexual violence reportedly affects 40 percent of 18 to 24 year old women, a long anticipated bill to criminalize violence is being evaluated. The Islamist government excluded women from the drafting process but under pressure from activists, they have been forced to create a review committee.

Women are targets of violent Islamists in Nigeria and northern Mali, despite French military intervention in the latter. Rape and forced marriage are commonplace, and stoning and public whipping for sex outside marriage is enforced as part of an extremist version of Islamic Sharia law.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) did not focus on Islamist mistreatment of women in the "16 Days of Activism" campaign, and also overlooked persecution of female apostates, Christians, Kurds and Baha'is.

Voting patterns in the UN are unlikely to support Muslim women's rights. The influential Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-member UN voting bloc, has previously supported criminalizing insults to religion in order to avoid criticism of Islam. It would be understandable if they ignored a campaign against Islamist oppression of women.

Moreover, such a drive might be unacceptable to some OIC member states that have registered reservations to the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination from Women (CEDAW), because some of the articles conflict with Sharia.

Many Muslim majority countries reject the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Instead, they acknowledge the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which is grounded in Sharia. Yet they see no conflict in their membership of the UN Human Rights Council, which is based on the UDHR, and where they tend to vote en bloc and defend each other against criticism.

Women reformers like Wajeha Al-Huwaider of Saudi Arabia and Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi have drawn attention to the archaic discriminatory laws and patriarchal cultural practice that afflicts some Muslim societies. Superimposed on these restrictions, the ascent of radical Islamist ideology has enabled the spread of a medieval misogyny, occasionally aided by women themselves, including the Muslim Sisterhood, and the female Iranian police squads that beat and arrest women demonstrators.

Defenders of women's rights have been thwarted by the U.S. Administration's disregard of reformers, and backing for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, despite Egypt and Tunisia deposing their Brotherhood affiliated governments.

Women's rights were also hindered in the UN when Iran was elected to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), and Islamist Sudan was nominated to join the UN Human Rights Council and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which elects members of CSW.

Although the UN does important humanitarian work, it is overgrown with the weeds of a dysfunctional bureaucracy and spineless leadership, and has become a watering hole for states that are prepared to sanction sex discrimination and extremist ideology without fear of serious challenge by the world body.

The Arab Human Development Report 2005 offered guidance regarding Muslim women's rights, noting that "an Arab renaissance cannot be accomplished without the rise of women... Directly and indirectly, it concerns the well-being of the entire Arab world." The Report also encouraged Arab states to remove all reservations incompatible with international treaty law, in particular CEDAW, and to cease using the pretext that CEDAW is contrary to national law.

The UN has significant political capital, and a mandate to take moral, not merely consensus positions on human rights in general, and women's rights in particular. By persistently sidestepping Islamist misogyny, the world body is discredited as a travesty of the universal values it claims to uphold.