Category Archives: blog for action

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

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.

Women and Water

By: Sarah Hudson

 

Gundulpet village – India

In rural Africa, it is the women’s job to gather the water for the household. These women often walk ten miles or more every day to fetch water and in the dry season it is not uncommon for women to walk twice this distance.

 The water wells at the end of these journeys are “often little more than waterholes dug out deeper and deeper as the dry season progresses”. The water wells can be very difficult to reach, with steep sides, which sometimes can collapse and the paths to these wells are narrow and slippery and often result in death or serious injury.

I am a fortunate woman by this standard…I can walk into any market at any time of the day or night and pick up a bottle of water from the vast variety in front of me. Not only am I able to drink the essential amount of water my body needs but I am also being filled with electrolytes, zinc, antioxidants and various other ingredients that our lavish supermarkets, gas stations and restaurants have to offer. It is not this simple for women in most developing countries. It is actually a painful, life-threatening and heartbreaking experience when it comes to the simple issue of water.

Ethiopian women carrying water

As well as travelling such long distances, women often have to wait their turn to collect the water. Waiting times can be up to six hours which makes the journey even more treacherous and takes away time from their families. During the dry season, some traditional sources almost dry out for several months each year and it can take up to an hour for one woman to fill her bucket as she waits for the water to slowly filter through the ground. To avoid such long waits many women get up in the middle of the night to get to the water source when there is no line to wait in.

There are also many health risks that these women and their families endure due to the water itself and the process in collecting the water. Most of the time the water is filthy and filled with trash, flies and sometimes feces. Also, animals often drink at the same source. The contaminated water often causes illnesses such as diarrhea and dysentery, which are responsible worldwide for the deaths of thousands of children under the age of five every day. Also, the water containers that the women bring with them usually hold about 20 liters of water, which weigh 20kg. Constantly carrying such heavy weights have severe health implications particularly on the head, back or hips. Backache and joint pains are extremely common, and in some cases curved spines and pelvic deformities can result, creating complications in childbirth. Pregnant women sometimes keep on carrying water until the day they give birth. (see: http://vimeo.com/15336764)

Some shocking statistics on this issue (source http://wateraid.org):

 -884 million people in the world do not have access to safe water. This is roughly one in eight of the world’s population.

-2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to adequate sanitation; this is almost two fifths of the world’s population.  

-1.4 million children die every year from diarrhea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation – 4,000 child deaths a day or one child every 20 seconds. This equates to 160 infant school classrooms lost every single day to an entirely preventable public health crisis.

-7 out of 10 people without sanitation live in rural areas.

-Diarrhea kills more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

 -Children living in households with no toilet are twice as likely to get diarrhea as those with a toilet.

-Every year, around 60 million children in the developing world are born into households without access to sanitation.

-One gram of human feces can contain 10,000,000 viruses, 1,000,000 bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, 100 parasite eggs.

-The average person in the developing world uses 10 liters of water every day for their drinking, washing and cooking.

-The average European uses 200 liters of water every day for their drinking, washing and cooking. North Americans use 400 liters.

-On current trends over the next 20 years humans will use 40% more water than they do now.

-Over the past 10 years, aid to health and HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased by nearly 500%, while aid to water and sanitation has increased by only 79%.

Recently the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles had an exhibit highlighting water and the world called “Water: Our Thirsty World. Click through the photographs here: http://www.annenbergspaceforphotography.org/exhibitions/water_exhibit.asp.  The exhibit “features the work of award-winning photographers looking at our most precious resource from environmental, social, political and cultural perspectives.”
Click through to see how important a role water plays around the world.

Why can’t we, as a civilized globe, come together with all the plentiful resources we have, and make basic clean water accessible to all people? While researching this piece, I came upon many wonderful organizations that are doing their best to help and eventually eliminate this persistent issue. Please check out the following websites and organizations:

 www.water.org
www.wateraid.org
www.lifewater.org
www.thewaterproject.org
www.usaid.gov
www.globalwater.org

 Also, check out “blog action day” at http://blogactionday.change.org/. Or click onto their site, change.org, from womenfound.orgSupport us, support the world – together we can do much good…