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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

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.

Rape, Violence, Twitter and Haiti

By: Jane Helpern

 

When the devastating earthquake struck Haiti last January, celebrities rushed to their twitters and blogs to broadcast their feelings about the tragedy, and more importantly to inform the public about what they were doing to help, and how the rest of us could get involved too. One of the most vocal members of the Hollywood community was musician and native Haitian Wyclef Jean, who, through his twitter account, asked that the public text “Yele’’ to 501501 in order to donate $5 to his Yele Haiti Foundation.

Rape Victim in Haiti

With twitter’s unprecedented ability to dispense “news” to millions of individuals in 140 characters or less, an entire uncharted pathway for charitable giving, instant communicating and information sharing is beginning to clear. Today, nine months after the initial shock of the quake, relief efforts and American interest in the state of Haiti have greatly dissipated, abandoning Haitians to fend for themselves in the rubble and uncertainty that remains.  Camps continue to house thousands in squalid conditions with little safety, while women and girls are routinely subject to unchecked physical and sexual assault.

On  September 23, 2010 an intrepid Mother Jones journalist named Mac McClelland live-tweeted her journey to the hospital alongside a girl whose tongue was bitten off during a gang rape in Haiti.  Via twitter, McClelland sent out frequent updates about the girl’s condition for the duration of the ambulance ride, and upon arriving at the hospital, “tweeted” that the male doctor scolded the victim, saying it was “her fault she got raped bc she’s a slut and smokes pot.”

14 year old rape victim

There are few subjects that are as universally hush-hush as rape and sexual violence.  Even here in the states there exists the widespread perception that women who get raped were either “asking for it” or that the victim secretly “wanted it.”  Sexual violence against women is a hard subject to stomach, and the case documented by McClelland is particularly unsettling and difficult to look at, due to the savage and brutal nature of this crime and the fact that the victim had already survived the trauma of the earthquake less than a year ago.

Due to its immediate, short-hand nature, Twitter lends itself to being a “fluffy site” rich with catchy quips, witty one-liners, political satire, and celebrity buzz.  You can imagine the backlash when unsuspecting inhabitants of the twitter-verse, accustomed to receiving the latest in shocking political scandals and celebrity sex tapes straight to their blackberries, caught wind of the atrocity committed against this young woman in Haiti.

Haitian tent-city rape victim

“She was choked so hard that all the blood vessels in her eyes popped, but doctor says they’ll heal,” read one of McClelland’s tweets.  Phil Bronstein, Vice President and Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, blogged to the Huffington Post, “The topic itself also turned some tweeters off; sexual violence is a touchy subject and not something normally served up in the midst of the cultural peep shows of high-ranked search engine stars like Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher.”  Bronstein poses the question: whether using this type of blunt and brash social media when discussing subject matter of this nature is effective in raising awareness or whether it simply offends the public and forces them to look away?

Bronstein’s point is valid but mostly in the sense that it highlights how backwards the priorities of the mainstream media consumers are.   If twitter and Facebook are the most efficient ways to shed light on a topic, or product, or celebrity, or an event, then in the name of human rights, women’s rights, and equal rights, it is absolutely imperative that no matter how uncomfortable we might feel when faced with the reality of violent sexual crimes, we must force this issue which is truly a global epidemic to be examined and combated head on.

As long as taboo stories such as McClelland’s are relegated to sparsely trafficked niche publications and websites, the media will perpetuate this nation’s ability to deny legalized rape, and domestic violence, and gendercide, and female genital mutilation.  October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and on the 1st of the month President Obama presented his proclamation.  He notes,

 

Waiting at a clinic in Haiti

“We have broken the silence surrounding domestic violence to reach thousands of survivors, prevent countless incidences of abuse, and save untold numbers of lives.  While these are critical achievements, domestic violence remains a devastating public health crisis when one in four women will be physically or sexually assaulted by a partner at some point in her lifetime.  During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we recognize the tremendous progress made in reducing domestic violence, and we recommit to making everyone’s home a safe place for them.”

 It is inevitable that McClelland’s “live-tweeting” would insult many a twitterer, but what should be more offensive is the jarring statistic that one in four women will be a victim of domestic, and often sexual, violence in her lifetime.  Twitter is just one more tool we have at our disposal to tear down the veil of silence women and victims of sexual and domestic violence have been forced to wear through fear and shaming tactics.  Just as Wyclef Jean was able to direct a generally unsympathetic generation’s attention to Haiti relief, McClelland, and those reporters brave enough to follow in her footsteps, have the ability to do the same for the women of this world, many of whom have no other support system or voice.

Peace, Prosperity, Equality and Misery…

Women rejoice: 

The Afghan Constitution of 2004 is arguably one of the most progressive legal documents in terms of women’s rights in the region, according to afghan-web.com. It guarantees women’s equality before the law (Article 22), women’s education (Articles 43 and 44), the right to work (Article 48), the right to health care (Article 52), support for women without a breadwinner (Article 53), the physical and mental wellbeing of mothers and the elimination of customary practices that are contrary to Islamic prescriptions (Article 54), and women’s representation in both houses of parliament (Articles 83 and 84). In addition, Article 7 stipulates that the state respects the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

 The problem is that none of these laws are implemented.  

21 year old repeatedly beaten by Afghan husband

For centuries, according to Afghan Web, an Afghan news resource based in the US, women have been denied these rights either by official government decree or by their own husbands, fathers, and brothers. Women in Afghanistan still endure some of the most restrictive societal laws on earth and are forced behind closed doors and pulled veils to keep them removed from life. The government does little to uphold laws enacted to protect women and their rights. Many live in fear. Few escape. Some manage to get to foreign run NGO shelters. Nevertheless, they live in fear, often having had to forego the right to raise or ever see their children, in exchange for living in safety. (see: rawa.org)  

Still we, pat ourselves on the collective back for ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban, and pretend that this alone has emancipated the women of Afghanistan and given them equality. Not so. Not even close. Change takes more hard work than bombs falling from the sky and a few people pushed into hiding where they harden their stance and spread their venom more intently at a closer range. It takes the painstaking work of people on the ground, creating awareness, changing belief systems, altering attitudes and questioning loyalties to a tradition that is abusive.  

Zarin Hamid who serves as a Peace Fellow for the Advocacy Project in Kabul, Afghanistan writes in her blog from the Afghan capital Kabul that “despite this degree of presence on the international and national scene, women are shut out of the decision-making and policy creation that goes on in other areas”. Women’s achievements, she observes, still pale in comparison to the abuse and violence they endure. She writes that “many face violence, discrimination, and intimidation… due to endemic cultural practices and to the conflict that contributes severely to the terrible plight of women in Afghanistan.  [Women] continue to face tenuous circumstances and in many parts of the country continue to bear the brunt of the upheavals and brutality of the conflict.” (see: http://advocacynet.org/wordpress-mu/zhamid/)  

Afghan women at the Parwan Center - Afghanistan

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many would conjecture that life for Afghan women has improved. Under the Taliban women were forbidden from going to school, working, or even seeing a male physician – which often meant not being able to see a physician at all. The simple act of child-birth had become a perilous tightrope of life and death for many young Afghan women and girls who were married forcibly and bore children before they were ready. The recently adopted Afghan constitution states that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether male or female – have equal rights and duties under the law”. Under Hamid Karzai’s post invasion government women have been allowed to return to work and school. They are no longer forced by law to wear the all covering burqa, and have even been appointed to prominent positions in the government. Despite all this, however, many challenges remain. The repression of women is still prevalent in rural areas where families continue to restrict their own mothers, daughters, wives and sisters from participation in public life. They are forced into marriages and denied a basic education. Numerous schools for girls have been burned down and little girls have even been poisoned to death for daring to go to school (see our earlier posts). http://www.afghan-web.com/  

Health:

As long as Afghanistan remains a patriarchal society dominated by the notions harbored by men, the availability of health care for women is only as good as the willingness of men to engage in the concept that women need separate and independent health care for their physical well being.

I will not take my wife to a male doctor even if she dies,” said Pir Gul from Paktika Province, southeastern Afghanistan, explaining that such a thing went against tradition. http://www.afghan-web.com/health/women_paktika.html. His wife’s life hung in the balance during a difficult child birth. Mid-wives are these womens’ saviors, and with little training, child birth is perilous in Afghanistan where 70-80% of girls are forced into early marriage. With no birth control and no education, and a culture that tolerates plenty of abuse, a life expectancy of 44 years among Afghan women seems like a miracle.  

Mohammad Tawasoli, an Imam at a mosque in Wardak Province, central Afghanistan, tells the local community to maintain a two-year gap between pregnancies and to to avoid child marriage in order to enable mother and child remain healthy. “Islam does not allow the killing of the fetus”, he explains, “but it also does not want mothers to face health risks because of… constant pregnancies,” Tawasoli preaches. The Imam will have more influence on the community that science ever could. “Islam does not oppose delayed pregnancies if this helps the health and well-being of mothers,” he told IRIN in Kabul, adding that those who think otherwise believe in superstition rather than true Islamic principles.Afghan-Web suggests “religious scholars such as Tawasoli wield strong influence among people in rural communities where high rates of illiteracy and lack of awareness about health issues contribute to the deaths of thousands of mothers and children every year.” 

Burqa-clad Afghan women and child (AP Photo/John McConnico)

 
Family 

“I was put into chains for a whole month by my father. I ran away twice but was returned home by the police. Everybody says I am the guilty one, that my father has the right to beat me,” says Fahima, a poor Afghan girl who embodies the life of the countless girls who often resort to suicide as their only way out.  

According to Amnesty International women in Afghanistan continue to suffer widespread abuse that remains largely unaddressed. In a report released in 2008, the London-based rights group says few Afghan women are safe from the threat of violence. In the report entitled Afghanistan: Women Under Attack, Amnesty International finds Afghan women are at daily risk of abduction, rape, and forced marriage, as well as being traded as chattel to settle disputes and debts. (see our post: http://womenfound.org/2010/03/16/12/) .

School:  

Girls often face abuse for going to school

Afghan education authorities say they are facing a difficult task of convincing parents to send their daughters to school as attacks on female students have increased in recent months. (see: http://law.rightpundits.com/?p=1509). 

Three girls sustained severe burns in the southern town of Kandahar this year when unknown men sprayed acid on up to 15 girls. One of the girls might permanently lose her sight. In a land where an educated woman is a demanding woman, education for girls and women is frowned upon.  

Life: 

Registered cases of physical violence against women and girls in Afghanistan have increased by about 40 percent since March 2007.  

UN agencies caution that the dramatic increase in the number of reported cases of violence against women does not necessarily mean that gender-based violence has increased. “There is an increased awareness among the law enforcement authorities, so it is not [necessarily] an increasing trend of violence  but that there are more people coming forward to report the violence” said Ramesh Penumaka, representative of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Afghanistan. The expectation is that nobody would or should talk about gender based violence when it happens within the confines of the private home. Women and their rights be damned, we have an image to protect, goes the logic. When the woman dies it’s called protecting the family “Honor”.  

However, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) estimates that gender based violence has reached “shocking and worrying” levels in Afghanistan and efforts must be redoubled to tackle it. “Our findings clearly indicate that despite over six years of international rhetoric about Afghan women’s emancipation and development, a real and tangible change has not touched the lives of millions of women in this country,” said Suraya Subhrang, a commissioner on the rights of women at AIHRC. See a story of abuse: http://www.afghan-web.com/woman/domestic_violence.html   

Death:  

Sarah, 20, set herself ablaze in a desperate bid to end her life after four years of marriage to a drug addict in Sheendand District in western Afghanistan. Her family extinguished the fire and took her to the hospital. “I was sad when I opened my eyes in the hospital,” the severely burnt woman told IRIN. Sarah’s husband is a jobless drug addict who often beat her for alleged “insubordination”.    

“I wanted to die and never come back to this life,” she told IRIN from her bed in the Herat city hospital. (see: http://www.afghan-web.com/woman/self-immolation.html)  

“Domestic violence against women not only has serious physical and mental effects on women but also causes other grave problems such as self-immolation, suicide, escape from home, forced prostitution and addiction to narcotics,” according to a study by the AIHRC in 2007 [http://www.aihrc.org.af/Evaluation_Rep_Gen_Sit_Wom.htm].

Afghan-web.com estimates that in one month period nearly 50 self-immolation cases were recorded by Herat city hospital alone. Only 7 were saved. “Ninety percent of the women who commit self-immolation die at hospital due to deep burns and fatal injuries,” said Arif Jalai, a dermatologist at the Herat hospital.  

More than six years after the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001 many women still suffer domestic and social violence, discrimination and lack of access to unbiased say women’s rights activists. The Russian invasion was scary, the Taliban was a nightmare, and now the War on Terror has been disappointingly similar to what came before it. Violence and tribal fueds still control the streets, corruption still runs rampant in government, joblessness and hunger abound and women remain unprotected and frightened in a landscape that is both physically and emotionally brutal to them.

evolution of 1985 photograph by Steve McCurry: Cover of National Geographic

The Afghan Girl:  

In a follow-up story by Cathy Newman on a Photograph by Steve McCurry which was featured on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, a woman named Sharbat embodies the difficult life of an Afghan woman lucky enough to survive the string of armed conflicts that have plagued Afghanistan.

Here are excerpts from the story. See the entire article at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text/1

“There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war,” a young Afghan merchant said in the 1985 National Geographic story that appeared with Sharbat’s photograph on the cover. She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day the sky bled terror. At night the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, stabbing her with dread.

“We left Afghanistan because of the fighting,” said her brother, Kashar Khan, filling in the narrative of her life. He is a straight line of a man with a raptor face and piercing eyes. “The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice.” Shepherded by their grandmother, he and his four sisters walked to Pakistan. For a week they moved through mountains covered in snow, begging for blankets to keep warm.  “You never knew when the planes would come,” he recalled. “We hid in caves.”  

It is the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan. Invasion. Resistance. Invasion. Will it ever end? “Each change of government brings hope,” said Yusufzai. “Each time, the Afghan people have found themselves betrayed by their leaders and by outsiders professing to be their friends and saviors.” 

Full post: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2002/04/afghan-girl/index-text/1

Update: TIME Magazine cover: http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20100809,00.html

“Open Faced” Democracy…

“Democracy thrives when it is open-faced”

Michele Alliot-Marie French justice minister   

France's fight against the face-veil (bbc.co.uk)

The lower house of the French Parliament, today, voted overwhelmingly (335 to 1) to approve  a bill proposing to ban wearing the full Islamic veil in public. Both the Niqab and Burka would be banned under the proposed law – which still needs to pass the upper house of the French Parliament in September.   

Even now, opposition groups have vowed to begin a legal battle to claim the law as being unconstitutional in Europe. So far as the women in question have been heard to speak or address the issue in France, they have stated that they wear the Islamic head-dress willingly and voluntarily. Indeed, most practicing Muslim women who live under Hijab voluntarily will tell you that they do not perceive their coverage as a limitation.   

That said, it is undeniable that the full forms of the Islamic veil for women have struck and offensive chord with Westerners. France has just been the first to pick-up the gauntlet. Although the proposed bill banning the Niqab and Burka, Islam’s most debilitating covers, makes no reference to Islam, it has been compared to a “walking coffin or a muzzle”, by Andre Gerin of the Communist opposition party.   

The "Burka"

The "Niqab"

The Council of State, France’s highest administrative body, warned in March that the law could be found unconstitutional on the grounds of limiting freedom of religion. What proponents will likely argue is that the Niqab and Burka are only worn by an estimated 2000 women in France. This makes it a minority practice that does not reflect the standard practice of Islam. It does however, limit the state’s ability to identify the women when need be and it flies in the face of the principles of France and French living.   

I have to wonder aloud: why would people who feel the need to follow the strictest strictures of Islam want to live in the West where, although Islam may be welcome, its extreme form is not?    

The French, it seems to me, have worked and fought hard to create a secular society that they covet. Who can blame them for wanting to protect that secularism? For many French people, it is that secularism - that freedom – that allows, indeed enables, them to be on the forefront of technology, industry, economy and the arts. To them, limiting their secular ways is tantamount to limiting their progress and their life-style.   

Though Belgium and Spain are considering similar legislation, it seems for now that France’s Parliament has taken on one of the thorniest issues facing European countries today. These nations have offered generous immigration and asylum policies to the influx of Muslims in their midst, and while Europeans near and far will be watching to see where the trend takes them, the Muslim world will watch to see how to react. Likely, the Muslim world will not simply turn a blind eye to this law, once it passes.    

The Bill, as it is currently proposed, will levy a fine of 150 euros ($190) for women who break the law and 30,000 euros (roughly $38,000) and a one-year jail term for men who force their wives to wear the burka. Clearly, France wishes to put the onus on the men. According to a BBC report, France has determined that the majority of the estimated 2000-3000 women who wear the Burka or the Niqab in France are young women, and many are converts. The assumption is that the men are exerting a great deal of control over these young and perhaps vulnerable, newly minted, Muslim women and the State is stepping in to protect them. It can legitimately be argued that the State does have a duty to protect its citizens and that the control Muslim men exact over their women is a form of coercion and abuse. Under French law, as in most Western legal systems, that conduct – if proven – would be punishable by law.   

The battle is likely to wage for years. Muslims will not turn away from this as a battle lost and a chance to learn and move on. From faith-inspired men acting alone to State’s whose legitimacy rides on their ability to coerce women into coverage, the wheels of establishment Islam will begin to turn toward the undoing of a law legally passed by a sovereign nation’s Parliament. They will mount a virulent opposition campaign against the French and the Parliament, and they will likely issue Fatwa’s (recall Salman Rushdie) and call for the heads to roll (recall the Dutch Cartoonist who dared to satirize the prophet Mohamed). No doubt, this will only enrage the French, and indeed any other country that dares to take on the issue, and harden their stance against allowing full face veils in their communities and societies.   

…And once again, we will have a cycle of hatred and violence with no end in sight.   

   

Honor Stoning… stomach turning

Today, Iran, a country that racked up 388 executions last year nearly leading the world as state executioner - second only to China – suddenly announced that it would commute the impending stoning to death of a 43 year old woman accused of adultery. 

Sakineh Mohamad Ashtiani

Sakineh Mohamad Ashtiani has already served 5 years in prison and endured 99 lashes of a whip for her “crime”, which was proven in a court comprised of Shiite Muslim male judges who based their decision on “judges knowledge” versus established fact. 

Ashtiani is not alone. There are at least a dozen other women in Iran who are under a legal death threat by stoning, according to Mina Ahadi, a human rights activist in Germany who helped Ashtiani’s children launch an international campaign opposing their mother’s stoning. It was that campaign and the pressure it leveled against the Iranian government and its image around the world, that many believe stopped the imminent inhumane punishment. 

I have always urged in this blog that as civilized people in lawful communities, we practice the collaborative howl and cry that rages against injustice around the world. Today, as I contemplated arguing that it is our duty as civilized people to demand that stoning be banned worldwide, not as policy interventionism but as part and parcel of human rights, I tuned into the BBC which was having a discussion on Ashtiani’s stoning. To my surprise, there was a guest, an Iranian woman named Leila, who was arguing that adultery is a crime worthy of punishment. Hu?? She must have been the speech writer who inspired Ahmadinejad’s declaration at Columbia University in 2007 that “there are no homosexuals in Iran”. 

In the meantime, it remains an open question whether Ashtiani actually committed adultery. According to aid groups, she was forced into prostitution by a husband who could not provide for the family. Her children: son Sajad, 22, and daughter Farideh, 17, have said that their mother had been unjustly accused and punished for something she did not do. Ashtiani herself recently recanted a confession she had made at the time of her charging, claiming it was made under the duress of Iranian style interrogation. 

Adultery, may we open our eyes, exists. It’s not particularly Western or Eastern. It knows no race, religion or nationality. It is an act combined with emotion attributable to the human condition, and although it can not be said that all people do it, it can be surmised that many across this globe do. If it were to be punishable by death, we would likely be looking at a globe with a 50% population reduction. Clearly, I jest but you get the idea. 

eyes behind Muslim veil

All this comes against a backdrop of France debating a law that would fine veiled women and subject their, presumably Muslim, husbands to incarceration for forcing their wives to wear the veil. The issue points to the ownership control wielded by men over women in traditional Muslim societies. In Ashtiani’s case she was forced into prostitution. In many other cases male control encompasses a wide range of directives on life style and conduct that is dictated from the top down.

Male control is hinged on the “patriarchal gender system” that prevails in wide swaths of the Muslim world from East Asia to North Africa. The system, regardless of religion, features kin-based extended families, male domination, early marriage (and consequent high fertility), restrictive codes of female behavior, the linkage of family honor with female virtue, and occasionally, polygamous family structure, according to a Library of Congress study entitled: Women in Muslim Societies. http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/Women_Islamic_Societies.pdf . 

The linkage of “family honor” with female virtue is the sticking point. That is the kernel that breeds the rest of the inequitable, often non-sensical and abusive control wielded by uneducated and uninspired men over their women. The veil and the segregation of the genders in every aspect of public life form part of that “gender system”. 

Amnesty International defines “Honor” or “women killings” as killings that are carried out by men based on the deeply rooted belief that women are objects and commodities, not human beings endowed with dignity and rights equal to those of men. “Women are considered the property of male relatives and are seen to embody the honor of the men to whom they ‘belong’.” 

Women’s bodies are considered the repositories of family honor. “Honor” killings occur because women are viewed as harboring the responsibility of upholding a family’s honor. If a woman or girl is accused of, or more commonly suspected of, engaging in behavior that could taint male and/or family status, she may face brutal retaliation from her relatives that often results in violent death. Even though such accusations are not based on factual or tangible evidence, any allegation of dishonor against a woman often suffices for family members to take matters into their own hands. http://www.amnestyusa.org . 

Tragically, women in these restrictive  societies can die for conduct that hardly rises to the level of criminal. Among the offenses women have been murdered for in the name of “honor” are: talking with an unrelated male, consensual sexual relations outside marriage, being a victim of rape, seeking a divorce, or refusing to marry the man chosen by one’s family.

Last year the LA times ran a series of stories on life in Iraq. Honor killings remain one of the most thorny issues for post-invasion Iraq’s women. Women have been documented to have been knifed, hanged or shot to death in front of their young children, for alleged conduct that was supposed to have compromised the honor of the men in the family. In the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian who’s plight has made it into the main-stream western media, it was her grown children who ultimately succeeded in making her case appealing to the world’s conscience. Thousands of other women are murdered violently in front of their children, who traumatized, turn their untreated grief into psychosis and continue to perpetuate cruelty for yet more generations ahead. 

 http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/23/world/fg-iraq-woman23 

In an increasingly public globe, threaded together by the world-wide web and an insatiable media, public pressure and a global outcry against state murder, crouched behind honor can make a difference. It did in Iran today. And in India New Delhi announced on this very same day that it would take “a tough stance against the increasing number of honor killings in the country”. It has established a Group of Ministers to seek advice from the state governments regarding changes that could be made to the Indian penal code and other central provisions to end honor killings. “The main aim of the law would be to bring such killings under the ambit of law of land,” according to one minister. 

Women News Network image

Read more: http://www.allheadlinenews.com/articles/7019226435?Indian%20Government%20Gets%20Tough%20On%20Honor%20Killings#ixzz0t8bbrwFL
 

Pakistan (http://www.gendercide.org/case_honour.html) and turkey (http://www.jihadwatch.org/2010/02/girl-buried-alive-in-honor-killing-in-turkey.html) seem to endure the largest number of honor killings. While stoning may not be the method of choice, the killing of women for their “actual or perceived immoral behavior” (Yasmeen Hassan, “The Fate of Pakistani Women,” International Herald Tribune, May 25, 1999) is unconscionable and should be flatly and unequivocally rejected by the people who share this earth. 

It’s not tradition, or culture, it’s just wrong. Say it. Believe it. Demand it.