Category Archives: Reform

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.

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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.