Category Archives: Women/Womanhood

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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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

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.   

   

PEOPLE not PROPERTY… zero tolerance for trafficking

human-trafficking-sale

Every year, hundreds of thousands of women and children are abducted, deceived, seduced, or sold into forced prostitution. According to a book by Siddharth Kara, Sex Trafficking: the Business of Modern Slavery, they are coerced to service hundreds if not thousands of men before being discarded. “These trafficked sex slaves form the backbone of one of the world’s most profitable illicit enterprises and generate huge profits for their exploiters”. (image from theinspirationroom.com) 

Kara, the first Fellow on Human Trafficking with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University compares the trafficking of humans to the trafficking of drugs and observes poignantly that “unlike narcotics, which must be grown, harvested, refined, and packaged, sex slaves require no such ‘processing’, and can be repeatedly ‘consumed'”.

According to the US Department of State, The modern re-emergence (“re-emergence” because modern-day trafficking of mostly women and girls is being compared to the trans-Atlantic slave-trade from Africa to the Americas) of trafficking in human beings is said to be linked to the deepening interconnection among countries in the global economy, overpopulation – with its consequent production of so called “disposable people” – and the economic and other vulnerabilities of the victims.

Around the world, millions of people are living in bondage. They labor in fields and factories under brutal employers who threaten them with violence if they try to escape. They work in homes for families that keep them virtually imprisoned. They are forced to work as prostitutes or to beg in the streets, fearful of the consequences if they fail to earn their daily quota. They are women, men, and children of all ages, and they are often held far from home with no money, no connections, and no way to ask for help.

This is modern slavery, a crime that spans the globe, providing ruthless employers with an endless supply of people to abuse for financial gain. Human trafficking is a crime with many victims: not only those who are trafficked, but also the families they leave behind, some of whom never see their loved ones again. Trafficking has a broad global impact as well. It weakens legitimate economies, fuels violence, threatens public health and safety, shatters families, and shreds the social fabric that is necessary for progress. And it is an affront to our basic values and our fundamental belief that all people everywhere deserve to live and work in safety and dignity.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, 2009

What exacerbates the trade is the vicious cycle which is comprised of failing third world government infrastructure and resources to police the remote corners of their lands, while traffickers, motivated by profits, have nothing standing in the way of them and poor young women and children in rural areas. Most traffic victims are nabbed from their home villages in rural areas in developing countries around the world where regulation, policing and prosecution are more theory than practice. Poverty and lack of education is rampant, and lives are easily won and lost.

In China, the nation’s “one child” population control policy has led to a disproportionate number of boys being born to families who often aborted female fetuses if they could. Now, women are trafficked in from neighboring Burma, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea and sold to Chinese families. These women are often drugged and abused on the way there, after being tricked into traveling with the promise of a better life, an education or a job. Then find themselves alone in a foreign land, without papers or a passport, virtually prisoner to their “owners”: men who have paid a trafficker for their wives. See:(http://www1.voanews.com/english/news/asia/Trafficking-in-Foreign-Women-Rises-in-China-97858749.html). 

Sadly, even in South Africa during the euphoria of the World Cup games, some studies estimate that about 100,000 people may fall prey to human trafficking schemes, according to newamericamedia.org (http://newamericamedia.org/2010/07/sex-trafficking—big-business-during-the-world-cup.php). Most of them will be women and children. Some will be taken to South Africa to be sold as prostitutes. Others will be abducted and trafficked in their own land using a variety of schemes by ever-ingenious traffickers including posing as photographers looking for models to men posing as soccer camp organizers. “They’ll go up to a group of kids and say, ‘Oh, I see you’re playing soccer, would you like to go to a soccer camp?’ There may be a few games that come out of it, but it’s all a plan to later abduct them and force children into sex slavery,” says Danielle Schneider, a lifelong teacher who trains instructors who work with underprivileged kids near Cape Town, South Africa. During the 2006 Word Cup in Germany an estimated 40,000 women were trafficked into that country, according to the “2010 Stop Human Trafficking” campaign.

Salvation Army/Leo Burnet campaign to end trafficking

This year, the Salvation Army in South Africa worked with Leo Burnett to highlight the harsh realities of human trafficking. They developed a hard hitting idea that put children on sale in fashion boutique windows. The message emphasizes the tragedy of putting a price tag on human life. The text: “Human trafficking is a serious crime. Help us end the exploitation”.

 Closer to home, in Ocala, FL, three people were charged with human trafficking dozens of victims from Haiti in 2008, (http://www.ocala.com/article/20100706/ARTICLES/100709817/1402/NEWS?Title=Three-charged-with-human-trafficking-on-Alachua-County-farms); and just recently the BBC produced a multi-part series on human trafficking in the UK, perpetuated often by diplomats with immunity from criminal charges. Staff from the Saudi Arabian and Nigerian missions have been suspected of human trafficking and sexual assault. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/london/10436729.stm).

UNODC anti human-trafficking image

 Now the UN has embarked on a campaign to raise awareness regarding human trafficking and “modern-day slavery”.

Raising awareness about human trafficking is the aim of a new campaign by the United Nations. The victims are extremely likely to be women and children. In order to tackle the problem more effectively, the UN has published figures documenting this modern slavery. In Europe, it is thought that 70,000 new victims arrive each year and stay on average for two years. The figure is half the total estimated number of 140,000. The vast majority are brought over for prostitution – in a market worth 2.4 billion euros a year. (www.euronews.net). See: (http://www.euronews.net/2010/07/02/un-targets-human-trafficking-for-prostitution/).

Victims are mostly women and children who endure heart-wrenching circumstances, under sub-human conditions for the sole purpose of enriching their traffickers and satiating a perverse need harbored by their subjugators. Tragically, women traffic and enslave other women and girls in greater numbers than can be believed. Many victims of human trafficking are nabbed at a young age and are forced into servitude, whether physical or sexual labor, for as many years as they can bear it. In the end they are either discarded as trash or used to their deaths, without a voice, rights or any representation. Most are too frightened in a foreign land to reach out to any civilian or even local authorities for help.

The UNODC is the only UN agency that focuses on the criminal justice element of the crime of trafficking. It is there mission to capture and prosecute the organizers and perpetuators of kid-napping and human trafficking which is defined as “the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them.” (UNODC).

As members of society, we should focus on the moral and humane aspect of this crime. Zero tolerance is how we should view global trafficking.

“Virtually every country in the world is affected by these crimes. The challenge for all countries, rich and poor, is to target the criminals who exploit desperate people and to protect and assist victims of trafficking and smuggled migrants, many of whom endure unimaginable hardships in their bid for a better life.”

 http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/index.html

For the first time ever…

Elena kagan

For the first time ever there are 3 women on the United States Supreme Court (this follows another recent breakthrough of 4 women in space this year). Although few projected a contentious confirmation hearing for Elena Kagan, the most recent history making female confirmed to the court, even fewer thought it would go this well.

The 50 year old Solicitor General, whose record on the bench was nearly non-existent and her thoughts on the law were hard to discern, guided her questioners through a labyrinth of questioning that was designed to thwart her, until she masterfully meandered through it and brought Congress out the other end with her. She emerged into the sun-drenched light of confirmation, and made history by stepping onto a court now comprised of more women than ever.

So have we entered the “age of women”, asks Christia Freeland of the Washington Post? (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/01/AR2010070105218.html)

As the founder of Womenfound, I sure hope so. But I must refrain and observe that we’ve got a long way yet to go. The article above laments that it is not, indeed, the age of women because women have not yet made their way sufficiently into the hallowed halls of power and money. Christia Freeland declares that “[t]he areas where the real money and power reside are [still] occupied almost exclusively by men.” This may be true, but I see women’s inequality from a different angle, the angle seen when looking from the bottom up – not the top down.

From my standpoint, women remain on an unequal footing from men, not because they haven’t made phenomenal strides in business, politics, media and in the sciences, but because in the undeveloped or under-developed world they are still so far behind as to lack basic rights such as education, reproductive freedom, voting rights, inheritance rights, representation and even equal protection of the law in the face of abuse and criminal behavior perpetuated on them. This is why women remain unequal: because other than in the few developed pockets of the world, women remain largely oppressed, downtrodden and falsely persecuted throughout their lives. Sadly, they die silently knowing their daughters will live the same tragically restricted lives.

In some corners of the world women and girls are denied the right to gain an education. Similarly, in some countries physicians cannot be trained in the female anatomy and are incapable, as doctors, to render effective medical attention to women and their unique needs. No one needs me to tell them that the lack of education disables women from advancing in any field; but I will impart that the lack of medical attention reduces women’s life expectancy in many corners of the world to their 40′s. How much can any woman achieve without an education by the age of 40?

So no, its not that women don’t hold impressive positions of money and power in the Western world. The problem is that they haven’t even gotten started in most of the rest of the world.

Christia Freeland

Freeland concludes: “Feminists should applaud Kagan’s poised performance on Capitol Hill, but let’s not stop there. The job now is for women to accumulate their own capital.” I couldn’t agree more. Let’s nod at our collective strides – including Freeland’s – and keep nudging forward.