Category Archives: REFUGEES

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