International Women’s Day – 100 yrs.

On Sunday in the Ivory Coast women were massacred in an ambush while protesting peacefully in the streets. Last week in Libya women were gunned down while being used as human shields by mercenaries.

young women protesting in Libya (Yahoo)

Still, women are out in protest across the Middle East and beyond, asking insistently for change and fundamental fairness for their place in society. But women have taken part in revolutions before in the Arab/Muslim world and their plight has consistently remained unchanged with the change-of-the-guard. They are sent back home with few gains to impact their immediate lives and little to show for their sacrifices. Economic participation remains limited, social inclusion is inhibited, and a future involving full civic participation with rights and choices is no more a broad-based reality today, as we mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, as it was 100 years ago.

Why is there such resistance to women’s inclusion in civic life, along with rights and economic freedom, across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa?

Some contemplate that it may be religion. Some think it must be the nature of the Eastern woman. Some have come to believe it is simply the eternal destiny of Arab/Muslim women to serve, rather than to be served. Truth be known, it is tradition…simply deep-rooted Tradition.

Muslim women protesting in Egypt

It has been long ingrained in mythology and legendry, that the good Eastern woman is to serve quietly, and to subserviently live out her days as her master and patriarch dictates. Today, as modernity would have it, many young women in the East are questioning the wisdom of this tradition, and its applicability to their emancipated instincts. After all, women across the Arab world and in Muslim Iran have increased their presence in universities and have attained levels of education previously unseen among women in generations prior. Today more than half the students enrolled in universities across the Middle East are women, although only a baffling 5% are represented in the work force.

Still, the state of women in Muslim countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia is worrisome. Not because they are battered and beaten just as the men are amidst the brutal crack-downs confronting protests, but because for as long as their emancipation is only in the minds of women, and not in the folklore that creates the Muslim lifestyle, women will continue to be battered and beaten at home as well as on the streets.

Reform must begin at home, and affect society from the bottom up. Women who live in societies where they are expected to cover their heads as a condition of being female, necessarily live in a society that expects them to be subservient. That is not to say that all women who choose to wear head-coverings are subservient. No. If that is a choice made of free will and not higher command, then it is independent of coercion and emblematic of a faith that is to be respected. The trouble presents itself when tradition compels the woman to look and be marked as separate and apart from the men, who remain uninhibited by a dress code that is necessarily debilitating. Hijab by its nature is debilitating. From its most basic to its most oppressive forms, Hijab hinders one or more of the senses and is part and parcel of a tradition to disable and debilitate women by limiting their power of movement and perception.

Contrast in Cairo

When I see pictures of emancipated women with free flowing hair and traces of make-up yelling in protest on the streets of the Arab world along-side their veiled sisters, I worry. I worry that the two sides are not hollering for the same kind of change. One is risking life and limb for change that she thinks will mean equality and emancipation for women and the acceptance of their full participation in civic society, while the other is taking part in an exercise to consolidate the power of religio-centered politics with an allegiance to fundamental Islam rather than to the rule of law and the influence of equality in civic life.

They stand next to each other, grudgingly smiling at one another in a civilized exchange that gives hope to the idea of respectful co-existence, thrusting their fists and voices into the sky as one – one voice for change. They both agree on the idea of rejecting the order they have now and can unite over a call for a new socio-political order. But the new order will not suit them both the same.

Modern women protesting for real change

To see change in the Middle East go toward fundamental fairness and equality for women, the vernacular of society has to change. The culture of domestic life must begin the change just as fundamentally as the politics do. Tradition has to shift from one that trumpets the subservience of women to one that champions their empowerment. Grass roots organizations have to begin in the villages and towns across wide swath of these regions to raise a collective howl against the prevalent but silent domestic exploitation of women. These organizations must begin to change hearts and minds and win people over to the idea that women are equal creations in the eyes of god and man, and that they must be bestowed the rights that make a human whole.

No government anywhere across the domino landscape of revolutionary Middle East today will step in and proclaim the equal rights of women, and actually proceed to bequeath those rights to them. Not without the sustained and committed pressure of regular men and women in society at large – who stand up and assert that fundamental fairness and not a skewed custom of conventions long out-dated should rule the land – will any revolution on the streets of the Arab/Muslim world translate into practical changes in the lives of women there.

These days, to celebrate 100 years of International Women’s Day, female talking heads and pundits in the West, who have attained the emancipated role of ‘role models’ sitting in the comfort of lawful lands, theorize about the plight of women in Arab and Muslim countries displaying the courage for change. They proclaim that until women attain educational and economic equality they cannot be truly empowered.  But to begin to attain that equality they must battle Tradition – and that tradition will be tightly held in place by strong willed men who loath to give up the power it gives them.

If ever there was a time for the emancipated institutions of women to come together for a cause it is now. Women across the Arab world have a chance to turn the corner and establish a pathway to fundamental change against business as usual for governments vis-à-vis the rights of women. Well funded, well connected, well networked organizations that aid, empower and represent the rights of women should come together, strategize and make a plan to establish grass roots efforts wherever possible and to introduce basic education to women and girls. Only this way can we help to change the landscape of civil society and the vernacular of mythology that feeds into a tradition which has historically ill-served the women of the Arab/Muslim world.

Starting this year, on the 100th anniversary of a long-standing global struggle, stand together. Make a difference. Change lives forever.

ARAB REFORM MUST START AT HOME

Women on the streets of Cairo - Jan 30, 2011

Scroll through all the photographs and footage of the mass protest movements in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt and you will not be hard-pressed to find some women in the crowds. Perhaps fewer here and more there, but they are present and making their voices heard. Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian human rights activist and former political prisoner told NPR “women and girls are beside the boys, are in the streets. We are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy, and a new constitution where there is no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslim and Christians, to change the system and to have real democracy.”

women tunisa protest (NPR - Jan '11)

While these countries, indeed the greater region, is looking toward “freedom” with an emphasis on “reform”, they would do well to look inward, as individuals and as a society, to see what they need to reform at home – not just what their governments need to reform from the top down.

At this point, we all accept the truth that widespread corruption, unrewarding social and economic conditions coupled with repression and lack of political freedom has become a volatile combination that gives Arab regimes everywhere reason to worry about popular uprisings. We associate the protests with throngs of Arab male youth. But these bleak circumstances apply just as well to young Arab women, some of whom have made it onto the streets with clenched fists and gone home with tired vocal chords; many of whom aspire to greater things than being married off before they’re ready, being expected to bear more children than they can take care of, and living a sequestered life of domestic service, as rewarding as that may be to those who choose that path. The trouble is, reform must start at home. And at home, in most of these countries, life continues unchallenged under autocratic rule: the rule of the patriarch. Choice for women is still scarce and the freedom that comes with the right to choose is still illusive.

yemen child_bride

Take a look at Yemen and you’ll see some of the most repressive cultural practices against women. More than half of Yemenese girls are married off before the age of 18. A law introduced last year to declare “child briding” illegal was brought down with Islamist protests.  There is no culture of education for women/girls, and fathers admittedly think it’s a waste of time to educate their daughters. They see them as simply a labor force, to be used while they are in possession, and to be paid for once they are married off. The logic is that once married, the girls are now a labor force for the groom’s family and the patriarch should pay for the purchase. This tradition leads to the abuse of women and girls over the duration of a lifetime. Reform has to start at home.

Rural mother and child in Egypt

Take a look at Egypt and you will find that more than a quarter of its children live below the level of poverty (less than $1US/day) and in rural areas that number is far higher, according to the UN perhaps as high as 45%. This may explain why families feel the need to sell their daughters to servitude, in order to be able to feed the rest of the family. Education in rural areas is a non-starter, often even for young boys, much less the girls. Basic health care and hygiene are unavailable to an estimated 5 to 6.6 million children in Egypt, according to IRIN. The women who are largely tasked with caring for and raising these children fare no better. They were likely brided at an early age, had children in an uncontrolled way and have little resources and no education by which to support them. The men dictate the rules of the family and the women have no say in the husband they spend their lives with, the age at which they bear children or the number of children they bear.

A prominent voice on the Egyptian uprising recently told of a twitter message where a young Egyptian woman said at a demonstration she attended in support of women judges in Egypt, a man who opposed the appointments of women to the State Council, an influential court which governs matters of administrative law in Egypt, yelled at the women “a woman menstruates so she shouldn’t be a judge”. A male lawyer yelled “Go home and cook for your husbands.”  Does that sound reform minded to you?

Tunisian women out for a stroll

Tunis, on the other hand, enforced relatively equal treatment of its women. A civil rights code created in 1956 legalized the near equal status of women to men in the eyes of the local law.  In Tunis, under Ben-Ali, women were banned from wearing head scarves in schools or government offices. Ben Ali and his predecessor made sure Tunisia was governed ruthlessly, but secularly. Tunisian women are described as “unique in the Arab world” for enjoying greater freedoms than their Arab neighbors.

NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reports Tunisian women have the same rights to divorce as men, and polygamy is illegal. “Women here have had access to birth control since 1962 and have had access to abortion since 1965 — eight years before Roe v. Wade gave American women the same right.” Now that’s reform minded.

But we will be watching closely to see what transpires in the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolution, and how women continue to fare, particularly if Islamists rule the land without a commitment to separate mosque and state.

HIV: A Bigger Threat to Women than Men

When I was a freshman in college (back in the 20th century) I had a lecture class that was designed to open our eyes, both literally and figuratively, to the world early in our scholarly endeavors. I clearly remember the first day of that lecture when the professor told us that “in 10 years one out of every 12 men in this room will be infected with HIV/Aids.” Back then HIV/Aids was a man’s disease. It was introduced to us as an illness brought on by homosexual male sex and would affect largely men. Although the illness was gut-wrenchingly tragic back then for lack of developed drugs to control it, and the numbers of new infections were staggering, women and girls felt largely immune.

Today, the face of AIDS is changing, and it is decidedly more female. According to the World Health organization (WHO) exactly one half of the world’s AIDS population is female. That represents 20 million women worldwide. In fact, the CDC says that “ if new HIV infections continue at their current rate worldwide, women with HIV may soon outnumber men with HIV”. (http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/women/index.htm ). The number of women living with HIV/Aids today may even be higher than the 20 million documented, since across wide swaths of this earth AIDS is still a stigma and never properly diagnosed in women. So it would not be unreasonable to say that perhaps already, more than half of the earth’s modern Aids victims are female.

In parts of Africa, men who contract AIDS are convinced, through a combination of superstition and folklore, that they can cure themselves by raping a female virgin. That leaves a population of women vulnerable to the most heinous of attacks, compounded by the attendant death sentence that the attack is likely to pass on.  Victims as young as 2 and as old as 70 have been reported. In India, the fastest growing segment of the population becoming infected with AIDS are young women. That is largely because, according Dr. Suniti Solomon, Founding Director of the YRG CARE Center in Chennai – India,  young men who have AIDS are too timid to come forward with the stigmatized disease and keep it a secret from their young brides and their families. Often, not only do their young brides contract the disease, but tragically, so do the children they forcibly bear. (http://www.explore.org/interviews/dr-suniti-solomon/).

Here in the States, according to the CDC, the incidents of AIDS in adolescent and adult women rose dramatically from 7% in 1985 to 26% in 2002. More than 10% of new cases reported occur in women under the age of 25. (see: http://womenshealth.about.com/od/aidshiv/a/hivaids.htm). In the developed world, successful antiretroviral therapies help to prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS and can relieve the immediate death sentence that the disease carries with it in underdeveloped parts of the world, where medical care and modern medicine are not readily available.

The primary method of HIV transmission worldwide is through heterosexual sex. Over 90% of new adolescent and adult HIV infections occur in this manner (although in the US that percentage dwindles down to 42%). Anjali Gopalan, Founder of the NAZ Foundation (India) Trust in New Delhi, runs a home and shelter/orphanage for women and children living with HIV. (http://www.nazindia.org/about.htm).

One of her biggest challenges is to advocate for young women and children who find themselves rejected by their families once they have contracted HIV/AIDS from their husbands, who have often died or otherwise abandoned them. These women have no means by which to care for themselves or provide for their children, who are often also HIV Positive. Girls, she observes, are married off at a younger and younger age and are incapable of caring for themselves and their children under the best of circumstances. Once they reach the NAZ Foundation with HIV/Aids they have been rejected and shun by everyone they know and have nowhere else to turn. The orphaned children are often stigmatized and prevented from being able to join mainstream society. They need support, education and psychological help to regain some dignity and be able to go on to contribute to society, rather than remaining ostracized for the rest of their young lives.

Across the African continent, HIV/Aids is spread most prolifically through rape. Men, it turns out, rape because of a sense of sexual entitlement, according to two studies done by Rachel Jewkes in South Africa. “Other popular motivating factors included a desire to punish women who rejected or angered them, and raping out of boredom”, observes Jewkes. (see: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101126/ap_on_re_af/af_south_africa_rape).

In Zimbabwe, the myth that that if a man rapes a virgin he can cure his AIDS, has perpetuated the steady increase of Aids in the African subcontinent, and exacerbated efforts to introduce drug treatments and a drive toward education about HIV/Aids. In the meantime, it has left countless girls and women raped and infected with Aids. Both the rape and the infection carry with them the stigma that prevents these girls, in most cases, from returning to their families, ever being able to marry, or to re-join their communities. They are ostracized and shun and must rely on the aid of outsiders to stay alive. (http://www.tapestriesofhope.com/).

So now tell me, in the 21st century, is HIV/Aids still a problem afflicting mostly men? Or is it fast becoming one of the biggest problems facing women around the globe? The readily transmittable nature of HIV/Aids, coupled with the prevalence of rape, forced child marriage and the severe stigma still attached to HIV/Aids around the world makes this disease an ominous threat for the world’s impoverished women.

see also: http://facts.kff.org/upload/jpg/enlarge/7%20C%20Women%20as%20Share%20of%20People%20Living%20with%20HIV%20AIDS%20by%20Region_2008.jpg

UN Women and Iran

I don’t mean to differ too starkly from my usual diatribe, but the hoopla about Iran joining the board of the newly formed UN Women, and comparing its track record to that of Saudi Arabia on women’s issues, is really misplaced.

Through my research, and personal experience, I’ve had to make note of the fact that women fare far better under the patriarchal control of Iranian laws than they do in Arab countries under the control of authorities that impose a tribal version of traditional Islam that, simply and unequivocally, dis-serves women.

Tehran - Summer 2010

Not to say that Tehran looks like Paris, but neither does it feel like Riyadh. To begin with, we in the West seem to believe we corner the ideological high ground on women. To be sure, we do intellectually. That is not to say that women everywhere are not as bright as those in the West, but that as women of the west we spearheaded (at least 1.5 generations ago) the movement toward empowering women intellectually, legally, culturally and constitutionally. As a result, women in the west began seeking college educations, entering the workforce, and succeeding in a manner that gave them credibility and by extension, the ability to speak out. It is by virtue of women’s achievements in the Western world that so many aid groups have cropped up in the Western hemisphere to help countless women in the East. I would list them, but there are too many to list. A “google” search will yield hundreds of pages with organizations large and small. Each is dedicated to the empowerment of women – from the ones with a global reach to the smallest grass roots movements that focus-in on intimate groups of women and lift them by sheer will and financing cobbled together by — well, women.

But the intellectual empowerment that led to financial strength, which enabled women to begin to spread the word does not equally apply to sexual empowerment. Western women are credible because they are educated and wealthy, by a global standard. The combination garners due respect around the world. But their sexual emancipation does not garner the same respect, nor does it lend us any credibility around the world. It is here that I scoff at the collective western cry against the inclusion of a country like Iran on the board of UN Women. Iran has proven not to be against the intellectual empowerment of women.

Saudi studentIran is not Saudi. To begin with, Iran was not a Muslim society. Islam was brought to Iran (Persia at the time) by the Arab conquests of 633-651AD, and foisted upon its people. Persians will pledge that Islam never really took root of their soul and that to this day, they separate themselves from its strictest scriptures. In fact, women in Iran have the undeniable right to drive, go to school and on to universities where they now comprise statistically more than 50% of the nation’s students, vote, inherit (although at half the rate of men if intestate), divorce, re-marry, work outside the home and even roam the streets without a burka or chador. Yes, they do have to cover their hair and can’t wear revealing clothes. But Iranian women constantly test those perimeters and live to tell about it.

Iranian women in protest in Tehran

 

To the Muslim eye, the “freedom” in the West that is defined by the freedom of thought is applaudible, but the freedom of sexual expression is frowned upon. Ask a Muslim and they will tell you that they treat their women better. I can’t agree. But I comprehend what they are trying to convey. They believe that the instinct to protect women from the male predator is a respectful thing, but that the forward impulse by western women to be with multiple men is a disrespect to the female entity. In Islam, the chastity of the woman is equivalent to the honor of the family, and by broader definition, society. For this reason, a raped woman is an embarrassment to her family. But again, by statistic, fewer raped women are shunned by their communities in Iran than in most of its Arab neighbors. I remember Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani and her stoning sentence.  (see post at http://womenfound.org/2010/07/09/honor-stoning-stomach-turning/). That sort of state action cannot be condoned or qualified in any way. But  in relation to the area, Muslim Middle East, Iran is a sanctuary for women, dare I say it. Not that I propose Iran is an oasis of freedom and equality, but for every horrific tale of discrimination that comes out of Iran, there are plenty of instances of triumph for women. Today women in Iran occupy positions as scientists, lawyers, doctors, writers, artists, movie-makers, members of parliament, teachers and professors, as well as mothers, wives and daughters. The older they get, the higher they are held in regard as the matriarch of the family, and the ones with the greatest decision making power in the household. This is true of families who are poor with multiple children, to the more modern families who are educated and have fewer children. Across the board, the girls are expected to be as smart as the boys and if the resources exist, they are to study as hard as the boys and achieve as well as they do. The difference is that as a traditional society, the women are expected to marry earlier and bear children after marriage. ‘Stay-at-home Dads’ are still a non-starter. But that is a cultural referendum, not a legal one.

Iranian women in Iran

 

Saudi is a different matter. It is the only country in the world where women cannot drive, nor can they vote. They are rarely seen in the public sphere and when they do venture out, they must be accompanied by a male relative. They do not comprise a surprisingly large percentage of the university population in the country, nor can they be elected to public office. They are subservient to their men in far greater numbers than in Iran, particularly in the villages outlying the cities; and stoning as a form of punishment for immoral digressions are far more frequent. Even within the cities, abuse and beatings within the family nucleus are appallingly widespread and tragically tolerated by authorities and communities alike. Children are married off at an early age, and not much is expected of them other than reproduction.

Women on the streets in Saudi Arabia

 

So if there is protest against Saudi having a say in the global empowerment of women, perhaps it is well-placed. But in fairness, Iran is a respite for women in Muslim Middle East and certainly cannot be compared to Saudi Arabia – no matter how much we may prefer King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz to President Ahmadinejad. To the extent that UN Women; “The UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women” is looking to empower women, not sexually – but intellectually, emotionally, culturally and financially, they will be enriched by the participation of Iranian women who have succeeded in navigating a decidedly up-hill thoroughfare obstructed by a patriarchal system that could have impeded their progress, but ultimately didn’t. 

 

young Iranian women demanding equality

 

For perspective see also:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2010/10/iran-saudi-arabia-women-united-nations.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/03/world/03nations.html

http://www.frumforum.com/iran-saudis-poised-to-join-un-human-rights-body\

http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_women_in_Iranian_parliament

http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2008/0305_education_salehi_isfahani.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_rights_in_Saudi_Arabia

http://www.ideationcenter.com/home/ideation_article/47143812

http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=182

http://payvand.com/news/09/aug/1264.html

Shyima and the US…the story of trafficking and a 2nd chance

 by Sarah Hudson

On April 3, 2002, an anonymous caller phoned the California Department of Social Services to report that a young girl was living inside the garage of 28 Pacific Grove. A few days later the owner of the home, Nasser Ibrahim opened the door to a detective from the Irvine Police Department. When he was asked if any children lived there beside his own, he first said no, then replied, “actually, a distant relative.” He said he had “not yet” enrolled her in school. She did “chores just like the other kids,” according to the police transcript. A ten year old Shyima was upstairs cleaning when Ibrahim came to get her.

Shyima at 11

While searching the house, an officer asked one of the Ibrahim children if anyone other than his immediate family lived in the house. He said, Yeah. She’s uh — my — uh — How do I say this? Uh … My dad’s … Oh, wait, like … She’s like my cousin, but — She’s my dad’s daughter’s friend. Oops! The other way. Okay, I’m confused.” He eventually admitted that Shyima had lived with the family for three years in Egypt and in California. The police put Shyima in a squad car as they noted her hands were red and caked with dead, hard-looking skin. For months Shyima lied to investigators, saying what the Ibrahims had told her to say. When police searched the house again, they turned up several home videos showing Shyima at work. They also seized a contract signed by Shyima’s illiterate parents permitting her to work for this family in California.

Dusty Egyptian Village

 

Shyima’s story is just one – of many. An Egyptian report published earlier this month by the Unit for the Prevention of Trafficking Children said there is “a new subculture of brokers existing in Egypt that are promoting the benefits of selling and marrying off underage girls”. Tens of thousands of children in Africa and Egypt, some as young as 3, are recruited every year to work as domestic servants. They are on call 24 hours a day and are often beaten or sexually assaulted if they make a mistake. Children are in demand because they earn less than adults and are less likely to complain. Shyima would have complained, but who would she complain to? And where would she go? She eventually told investigators, “He told me that I was not allowed to say anything… That if I said anything I would never see my parents again.”

 

Egyptian villager children

According to a 2001 survey by the Moroccan Government, in the city of Casablanca alone there are more than 15,000 girls under the age of 15 working as maids. A “maid” in many corners of the world has multiple meanings separate from one who works as a domestic servant for pay. A study by the U.S. State Department found that over the past year, children have been trafficked to work as servants in at least 33 of Africa’s 53 countries. Children from at least 10 African countries were sent as maids to the U.S. and Europe. But the problem is so well hidden that authorities, including the U.N., Interpol and the State Department, have no idea how many child maids now work in these areas. Once behind the walls of gated communities much like the Ibrahims, these children have no access to the outside world and never go to school. Their chances at a normal life are destroyed. They live as modern-day slaves, just like Shyima, whose story is pieced together through court records, police transcripts and interviews.

 Shyima had just turned 10 when the Ibrahims, a very wealthy Egyptian couple, brought her from a poor village in northern Egypt to work in their California home. For a year before that, Shyima had worked in their lofty Cairo apartment. Her father, a bricklayer, had become very sick a few years earlier so her mother had found a “maid recruiter” to find work for their most eligible daughter. Shyima’s parents signed a contract effectively leasing her to the couple for 10 years and told Shyima to be strong. Every month, her mother came to pick up her salary. Shyima cried when she found out she was going to America in 2000. She arrived at LAX on Aug. 3, 2000, and the family brought her to their spacious five-bedroom, two-story home, decorated in the style of a Tuscan villa. She was told to sleep in the garage. It had no windows and was neither heated nor air-conditioned. Soon after she arrived, the garage’s only light bulb went out. The Ibrahims never replaced it.

From that day on, Shyima lived in the dark.   She was told to call them Madame Amal and Hajj Nasser, terms of respect. They called her “shaghala” or servant. Their five children called her “stupid.” If you could fly the garage where Shyima slept 7,000 miles to the sandy alleyway where her Egyptian family now lives, it would pass for the best home in the neighborhood.

The garage’s walls are made of concrete instead of hand-patted bricks. Its roof doesn’t leak. Its door shuts all the way. Shyima’s mother and her 10 brothers and sisters live in a two-bedroom house with uneven walls and a flaking ceiling. None of them have ever had a bed to themselves, much less a whole room. At night, bodies cover the sagging couches.

When Shyima’s mother was shown a snapshot of the windowless garage, she made a clucking sound of approval. Shyima’s mother, Salwa Mahmoud, said her father believed she would have better opportunities in America. “If she had stayed here in Egypt, she would have been ordinary like us,” said Awatef, Shyima’s older sister. “It’s much cleaner than where many people here sleep,”  she says and tries to explains that Shyima’s treatment in the Ibrahim home is considered normal, even good, by Egyptian standards.

Shyima now

Shyima would awake before dawn and often worked past midnight to iron their clothes, mop the marble floors and dust the family’s crystal. While the family slept, she ironed the school outfits of the Ibrahims’ 5-year-old twin sons. She woke them for school, combed their hair, dressed them and made them breakfast. Then she ironed clothes and fixed breakfast for the three girls, including Heba, who at 10 was the same age as the family’s servant. Neither Ibrahim nor his wife worked, and they slept late. When they awoke, they yelled for her to make tea. While they ate breakfast watching TV, she continued to clean the house. She vacuumed each bedroom, made the beds, dusted the shelves, wiped the windows, washed the dishes and did the laundry. She earned $45 a month working up to 20 hours a day. She had no breaks during the day and no days off. Her employers were never satisfied. “Nothing was ever clean enough for her Shyima testified. She would come in and say, ‘This is dirty’, or ‘You didn’t do this right’, or ‘You ruined the food’”.

At one point, Shyima started wetting her bed. Her sheets stank and so did her oversized T-shirt and the other hand-me-downs she wore. Once while doing the family’s laundry, she slipped her own clothes into the load. “Madame” slapped her. “She told me my clothes were dirtier than theirs. That I wasn’t allowed to clean mine there,” she said. She was given a bucket to wash her clothes in the garage. She hung them to dry outside, next to the trash cans. When the couple went out, she waited until she heard the car pull away and then she sat down. She sat with her back straight because she was afraid her clothes would dirty the upholstery. It never occurred to her to run away. “I thought this was normal,” she said.

Shyima when she first tasted "freedom"

After investigators found Shyima and took her from the home, she went without sleep for days at a stretch, she was nervous and scared. She was put on four different types of medication, had horrible mood swings and moved from foster home to foster home.

Investigators arranged for her to speak to her parents. She told them she felt like a “nobody” working for the Ibrahims and wanted to come home. Her father yelled at her for being ungrateful. “They kept telling me that they’re good people,” Shyima said in a recent interview. “That it’s my fault. That because of what I did my mom was going to have a heart attack.” Three years ago, she broke off contact with her family. Since then she has refused to speak Arabic and can no longer communicate in her “mother tongue”.

During the 2006 trial, the Ibrahims described Shyima as part of their family. They included proof of a trip she took with the family to Disneyland. Shyima’s lawyer pointed out that the 10-year-old wasn’t allowed on the rides, she was just there to carry the bags.

The couple’s lawyers tried to retaliate by collecting photographs of the home where Shyima grew up, including close-ups of the feces-stained squat toilet and of Shyima’s sisters washing clothes in a bucket.

In her final plea, Madame Amal Ibrahim told the judge it would be unfair to separate her from her children. Enraged, Shyima, then 17, told the court she hadn’t seen her family in years. “Where was their loving when it came to me? Wasn’t I a human being too? I felt like I was nothing when I was with them,” she sobbed. The couple pleaded guilty to all charges, including forced labor and slavery. They were ordered to pay $76,000, the amount Shyima would have earned at the minimum wage. Their sentence was 3 years in federal prison for Ibrahim, 22 months for his wife, and then deportation for both.

“I don’t think that there is any other term you could use than modern-day slavery,” said Bob Schoch, the special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles, in describing Shyima’s situation. Shyima was adopted last year by Chuck and Jenny Hall of Beaumont, Calif. They live near Disneyland, where they have taken her a half-dozen times. She graduated from high school this summer after retaking her exit exam and hopes to become a police officer.

Shyima, now 19, has a list of assigned chores. She wears purple eyeshadow, has a boyfriend and frequently updates her profile on MySpace. Her hands are neatly manicured. But in her closet, she keeps a box of pictures of her parents and her brothers and sisters. “I don’t look at them because it makes me cry,” she said. “How could they have done that to me? They’re my parents.”

Meanwhile, on a recent afternoon in Cairo, Madame Amal Ibrahim walked into the lobby of her apartment complex wearing designer sunglasses and scarf. After almost 2 years in a U.S. prison cell, she’s living once more in the spacious apartment where Shyima first worked as her maid. “The apartment is adorned in the style of a Louis XIV palace, with ornately carved settees, gold-leaf vases and life-sized portraits of her and her husband”. Before the door closed behind her, a little girl slipped in carrying grocery bags. She wore a shabby T-shirt. Her small feet slapped the floor in loose flip-flops. Her eyes were trained on the ground. She looked to be around 9 years old.

Stand up if you know about Rwanda…

Raise your hand if you think you know all about the genocide in Rwanda. It left, by many estimates, one million people dead and scores raped and maimed. Now ask yourself if you know what happened to women in the Rwandan conflict. Most people have heard of the genocide but few know the role the degradation of women played in that conflict, and how central the systematic abuse of women was to the Hutu mission to cleanse Rwanda of its Tutsi minority.

Rwanda rape victim and mother

The Hutu and the Tutsi were, at their origin, culturally indistinguishable tribes until German colonizers came to Rwanda in the early 1900’s. In 1916 Belgium seized Rwanda (and Burundi) from Germany and solidified its rule by 1918. The Belgian rule over Rwanda lasted from 1818 to 1962 during which they established an apartheid-like system using the strategy of divide and rule. To accomplish that end they began to distinguish the Rwandan population by their occupational and physical characteristics.  The Hutu, comprising the majority of the population, were peasants and farmers with physical characteristics resembling the Ugandan or Tanzanian populations. The Tutsi minority were land-owners and cattle-herders with longer legs and necks more akin to the European self image. Together with their greater asset value the Tutsi were anointed as the ruling class, and hence the seeds of resentment were sewn. Belgium soon came to view the power of the Tutsi as threat to their colonial rule and began to hand some key posts and chiefdoms to Hutu. The division of power led to the first Rwandan bloody conflict in 1961 when the UN intervened to oversee elections. Rwanda gained its independence, but the divide had been cemented and the Hutu remained resentful of the power that the Tutsi had been handed by the Belgians.

The Hutu Ten Commandments clearly demonstrate the resentment of the Hutu against the Tutsi. The central theme of those commandments hinges on regaining some measure of pride and stolen legitimacy from the Tutsi. Central to that goal is the humiliation of their women. The first three of the commandments focus on women and the role of the Hutu versus Tutsi woman:

1. Every Hutu should know that a Tutsi woman, whoever she is, works for the interest of her Tutsi ethnic group. As a result, we shall consider a traitor any Hutu who

  • marries a Tutsi woman
  • befriends a Tutsi woman
  • employs a Tutsi woman as a secretary or a concubine.

2. Every Hutu should know that our Hutu daughters are more suitable and conscientious in their role as woman, wife and mother of the family. Are they not beautiful, good secretaries and more honest?

3. Hutu women, be vigilant and try to bring your husbands, brothers and sons back to reason.

Tutsi family

These “commandments” laid the groundwork for the humiliation of women to come during the genocide between April and July 1994 when millions of people were massacred and as many as 500,000 women were raped and torchered in the name of Hutu supremacy.

“Gender hate propaganda was perhaps the most virulent component of the propaganda campaign. Propagandists portrayed Tutsi women as enemies of the state, used by Tutsi men to “infiltrate Hutu ranks.” Propagandists claimed Tutsi women were more beautiful and desirable, but “inaccessible to Hutu men whom they allegedly looked down upon and were ‘too good for.”‘ This characterization led to what one Tutsi woman explained as an indescribable hate. As such, “[r]ape served to shatter these images by humiliating, degrading, and ultimately destroying the Tutsi woman.”

Propagandists presented Tutsi women as sexual objects. Extremist literature contained cartoons that portrayed Tutsi women in sexual positions with various politicians. The literature also depicted Tutsi women as prostitutes who used their sexual charms to seduce the Western forces stationed in Rwanda.

…These images and characterizations clearly affected the psyche of the participants in the genocide. Rape survivors have recounted statements of their violators such as:

‘We want to see how sweet Tutsi women are’;

‘You Tutsi women think that you are too good for us’;

‘We want to see if a Tutsi woman is like a Hutu woman’;

‘If there were peace you would never accept me’.

These statements reveal that propagandists’ efforts success-fully demonized Tutsi women, thus increasing their vulnerability to sexual violence throughout the genocide.

Leslie L. Green, Columbia Human Rights Law review, 2002

The Hutu militia often raped then humiliated women in public squares. Many female victims recount horrific tales of repeated rape and then mutilation and humiliation to add insult to the injury. Some had their breasts or buttocks cut-off in order to be left with the physical scar of the rape. In Rwandan society, Hutu or Tutsi, a woman who’s chastity has been compromised can no longer be married, bear children, or hold a respectable place in society. So the trauma of the rape would be re-lived with added tragedy for the women who were left to live.

Tutsi rape victim

The campaign against women was brutal, and left no woman or girl untouched. Victims of rape from the Rwandan genocide are documented to have been as young as 2 years old, and as old as 60. The demoralization of the Tutsi population was carried out by virtue of the systematic degradation of their women.

Rape has since been codified as a crime that is particularly virulent because it is a gender based hate crime committed against women with multiple consequences both physical, and more chronically, psychological. The UN has declared rape as a crime against humanity. But it is still widely used as a tool to establish control over populations by those who wish to dominate them. Why is it that the degradation and rule of women is such an essential part of taking over a people? Is it because the identity of communities is so essentially tied into the women? Is it because women pro-create the next generation?

If women are so esteemed as to embody the virtue of the society they are a part of, then why not respect and protect them, instead of using them as the sieve of every man’s anger and frustration?  Rwanda was a disaster that was witnessed by a paralyzed globe that looked-on like spectators aghast at what man could do to man. But Rwanda is not the end of genocide, and the systematic humiliation of women is to uniquely a Hutu strategy. It is still practiced the world over, while people still turn a blind-eye and walk away from what they will no doubt, in hindsight, condemn.

For perspective see:
http://academic.udayton.edu/race/06hrights/georegions/africa/Rwanda01.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutu_Ten_Commandments
http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/5918/Africa-Belgian-Colonies.html
http://thehumancondition.wikispaces.com/Rwanda
http://emilytroutman.blogspot.com/2009/06/problem-with-solution-war-in-congo.html
http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/genocide_in_rwanda.htm

A Knock at the Door…

Last night just before dinner-time, as the sun was setting and the eerie dusk of a rainy day had sent in, our door knocker clanked loudly against the silence. Alarmed I looked up at my husband who instinctively uttered “uh-oh”.

In a split second I remembered where I was and retorted, “what do you mean uh-oh? Go see who’s at the door”. You see, we live in a safe suburb with mowed lawns, alarm company patrol cars and a functioning government in tact. Still, a sudden knock at an off hour can send our hearts racing, even if for an instant, until we remember we are not in a law-less land.

The knock at the door was a woman looking to sell us some magazines, because she was a single Mother of 4, trying to make a fresh start after, to her own admission, she had made some mistakes. My husband had stood outside in the drizzle for 30 minutes listening to her tale, and finally assented to buying two books from her list, for our two kids, who were safely playing video games downstairs, blissfully unaware of the intrusion.

I was alert, but still, safe inside the house working on dinner, secure in the knowledge that my husband would be back inside soon enough. Sure enough, he was.

Iraqi woman

But the sense of alarm stayed with me through the night. Not because I was frightened but because I was all too aware of the fact that in too many corners of the world, the same knock would have been a harbinger of hell knocking just before dinner-time. There would be no safety if I were a woman and mother of 3 in Baghdad, for example, in the same situation. The knock would most likely have been a warning sign for the end of my husband’s life and an impending rape for me. I cringe to think about the possibilities for my children. Where would I turn? Nowhere. Where would I be able to go? No place. How could I have escaped the brutality that would have come? I couldn’t have.

In 2003 Suzanne Goldenberg writing for the Guardian wrote from Iraq that “Amid the ordinary lawlessness of a city of 5 million with a barely functioning police force, there are particular horrors for women.” Those horrors have grown since 2003. Today armed thugs kidnap the family members of rival gangs and either beat them, rape them and then either tear them from limb to limb or discard the beaten lump of a human by the way-side. The lucky ones die. The unlucky ones are later killed by family members in the name of “honor”. Not so honorable.

Iraqi women

Women are under effective house arrest across Iraq. A nation that once boasted a secular society replete with educated women who were part of the work force as teachers, dentists, doctors, hair dressers and more, Iraq’s women are now relegated to the role of men’s property and a tool for settling scores. Abduction and rape has become a way for gangs to get back at one another for deeds and mis-deeds. Kidnapping and rape have become so common as to simply have evolved to a pass-time men engage-in simply because – well, because they can.

In 2003, all of the women Goldenberg spoke to recounted some horror of abduction. She notes soberly that “in a society like Iraq’s, where a family’s reputation is measured by the perceived virtue of its women, [a] woman suspected of transgressing social codes suffers extreme consequences for bringing shame on her family….She may even be murdered by her family to wipe out the stain on their reputation.”

Life in Iraq

“We know of a lot of cases against women,” says Nidal Husseini, a nurse at Baghdad’s forensic institute. “When a girl is kidnapped and raped and returned to her family…the family will kill the girl because of the shame.” (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/oct/11/iraq.suzannegoldenberg)

“Iraqi traditions are hard,” Says Mari Samaan, an Iraqi psychologist quoted by Women’s e News. “Every woman without a husband or family watching over her is seen as prostitute. I have seen girls raped by armies and militias and then killed by her own families.” (see: http://womensenews.org/story/war/101011/in-syria-iraqi-refugee-daughters-risk-being-sold)

So a knock on the door at dusk in Baghdad is likely to bring more than just an impoverished mother selling books or magazine subscriptions to try and make a living. In fact, impoverished women in Iraq sell their teenage daughters to brothels and traffickers with unspeakable consequences. In 2009, Rania Abouzeid wrote for TIME Magazine from Baghdad that “the buying and selling of girls in Iraq, [is] like the trade in cattle,” A resident says “I’ve seen mothers haggle with agents over the price of their daughters.” (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1883696,00.html).

With rampant crime in Iraq, a woman may find herself suddenly widowed. Tradition dictates that she will be unfit to marry again and unable to hold a respectable place in society. She is likely to be ostracized by her family, shun by the community and ultimately sold into prostitution. Many would rather end up in prison than in a brothel. Some are lucky enough to make that arrangement, if they have a friend or acquaintance on a police force they can pay to save their lives. Many aren’t that lucky and live their final days in the horror of a modern-day Baghdad Brothel or shipped to neighboring countries with no better circumstances.

“Hinda” an anti-trafficking activist in Iraq who was raped at 16 and disowned by her family soon thereafter tells TIME that she has been beaten by the security guards of pimps who suspect her of encouraging young victims to escape or offering them help.

“In the past week she has received several death threats, some so frightening and persistent that she penned a farewell letter to her mother. “I’m scared. I’m scared that I’ll be killed,” she says, wiping away her tears. “But I will not surrender to that fear. If I do, it means I’ve given up, and I won’t do that. I have to work to stop this.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1883696,00.html#ixzz12kmARogK

What can you do to stop this? Write your representative to the Congress and you state Senators to help Iraqi women escape a brutality that goes against everything we believe in, here in the States. We said we would liberate Iraq. Now let’s stand by their women who are imprisoned at home. Log onto thelistproject.org and join a growing chorus of voices committed to helping innocent Iraqis.