On International Women’s Day, Demand That Uprisings Throughout The Middle East Overturn Patriarchal Tradition

The Huffington Post: This guest opinion was written by Maryam Zar, JD, an Iranian-American, who returned to Iran in the late 1980s, and worked in advertising. In the early 1990s she was an editor at the Tehran News, an English language daily in Iran, a position she held until 1995 when she returned to the U.S. She founded Womenfound, Inc. this year, an organization with a mission to raise money and awareness for women in need around the world.

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. Still, despite these attacks, women are out in protest across the Middle East and beyond, asking insistently for change, fundamental fairness, and their rightful place in society.

Women have taken part in revolutions before in the Arab/Muslim world, and, despite a change-of-the-guard, their plight has consistently remained unchanged. They are sent home with little impact to their immediate lives despite their sacrifices. Economic participation remains limited, social inclusion is inhibited, and full civic participation is still illusive, even as we mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

Why is there such resistance to women’s rights and economic freedom across the Muslim world?

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 Muslim women to serve, rather than to be served.

Truth be known, it is tradition … simply deep-rooted Tradition.

It has been long ingrained in mythology and legendry that the good Eastern woman is to serve quietly and to live out her days subservient to the dictates of her master and patriarch. 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.

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 their emancipation is only in the minds of women. It has not permeated the folklore that creates the Muslim lifestyle. Until it does, many women will continue to be battered and beaten at home as well as on the streets.

Women who live in societies where they are required 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. However, when tradition compels the woman to be marked as separate and apart from the men, there is an element of control. From its mildest 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.

When I see pictures of emancipated women with flowing hair and make-up, yelling in protest on the streets of the Arab world along-side their veiled sisters, I worry. I worry that the two groups are not hollering for the same kind of change. They stand next to each other, grudgingly smiling at one another in hopes of respectful co-existence, thrusting their fists and voices into the sky as one voice for change. But the new order will not suit them both the same. One is risking life and limb for change that she thinks will mean equality and emancipation for women, while the other is taking part in an exercise to consolidate the power of religio-centered politics with its influence in civic life.

To see a change in the Middle East toward fundamental fairness and equality for women, the vernacular of society has to change, just as fundamentally as the politics. No government anywhere across the domino landscape of revolutionary Middle East today will proclaim the equal rights of women, and actually bequeath those rights to them without the sustained and committed pressure of regular men and women in society, who stand up and assert that fundamental fairness and not a skewed custom of long out-dated conventions, should rule the land.

Tradition trumpets the subservience of women; it must yield to democratic systems that champion their empowerment.

As we mark 100 years of International Women’s Day, talking heads and pundits who have attained the emancipated status of ‘role models’ sit in the comfort of television studios and theorize about the plight of women in Arab and Muslim countries who are displaying the courage for change. The pundits proclaim that until women attain educational and economic equality they cannot be truly empowered. But to begin to attain that equality women must battle Tradition — and tradition will be tightly held in place by strong willed men loath to give up the power it gives them. For that reason, pro-democracy organizations everywhere, must raise a collective howl against the prevalent domestic exploitation and abuse of women in villages and towns across the Arab world.

Well-funded, well-connected, well-networked organizations that aid, empower and represent the rights of women should come together and fuel grass roots efforts that provide basic education to women and girls across the Muslim world. These organizations must win people over to the idea that women are equal and that they must have all human rights.

Starting this year, on the centennial of a long-standing global struggle, let us stand together, make a difference, and change women’s lives forever — for the better.


Women Protesters: The Changing Middle East Landscape

posted February 1, 2011 – The Levantine Review

Reform Must Start at Home, argues columnist

By Maryam Zar, JD.

“It’s been interesting to interview women protesters here in Egypt. I ask them if they’re worried that a more democratic Egypt would be a more fundamentalist country, more oppressive for women, and they say no. And they’re a bit reproachful that I should doubt democracy, and I walk away from these interviews feeling a bit ashamed….” Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times columnist, on 2/1/2011

Secular and Islamist women protesters in CairoSecular and Islamist women protesters in CairoScroll through all the photographs and footage of the mass protest movements in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt and you will be 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. An Egyptian human rights activist and former political prisoner, Nawal El Saadawi, 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.”

While these countries, indeed the greater region, are 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.

A girl in hijab protestsA girl in hijab protestsAt 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.

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.

A Muslim woman protests against MubarakA Muslim woman protests against MubarakTake a look at Egypt and you will find that more than a quarter of its children live below the level of poverty (less than $1 US/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 into 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 nor 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?

Tunisia, 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 Tunisia, 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.

Today, with reform being the new buzz word across the Middle East, and Arab rulers young and old scramble to show they are reform-minded before their streets crowd with disgruntled youth demanding their ouster, let’s make sure the rights and reforms due to women are not overlooked.


Lost and WomenFound – Handling Anger And The Value Of Women Friends

November 25, 2010 by Maryam Zar in The Mind Valley Press

”When you get angry, there are various physiological changes in the body, because anger triggers the fight-or-flight response,” says Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., author of Health and Optimism and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “The adrenaline gets hyped up, the heart beats faster, the respiration becomes more rapid and shallow – and digestion stops.”

So that explains the rage that triggers a reaction that looks unfamiliar to most women when they get angry. I have heard so many women I know complain that they have “lost it” over something, and that they then felt drained. But why do we lose it?

Typical Triggers

A recent study published in “Women and Anger” showed that typical triggers of anger in women concerned issues of:
1. power
2. justice
3. responsibility

Women get angry when:

a. they can not meet their own expectations
b.  they can not change frustrating circumstances
c. when family members, friends or co-workers fail to live up to expectations or
d. when they believe they are being treated unfairly or disrespectfully

I read once that women erupt in anger when they feel overwhelmed and pressured. For middle-class working Mom’s that sense of being overwhelmed is compounded by fatigue and a relentless parade of demands that cease only at bed-time, and even then, not nearly for a long enough stint.

Shame and Guilt

Nonetheless, we get angry and then we feel ashamed and guilty, as if we have no right to reach a breaking point. It turns out that anger has deeper roots than the momentary trigger that makes us mad.

According to researchers at Missouri State University women feel ashamed of feeling angry and try to control it or hide it. When they can’t they try to apologize for it. But numerous studies suggest that instead of covering it up, women need to delve in deeper and see where the anger comes from.

Looking Inside

Anger is the manifestation of the underlying issue and anyone who gets outwardly angry more often than they are comfortable with should apparently take the time to look inward. I know many people who act out in anger (often in front of the people they work hardest to protect: their children) only to then sink deep into guilt and depression over being a ‘bad mom’ or an ‘ugly person’.

What worries me is (a) how common lack of anger management is, (b) how uncommon seeking help for it is, and (c) how easily women lambast themselves for being flawed human beings.  Everything I’ve read suggests the same remedies to anger ranging from exercise and meditation, to talking it out or sharing thoughts with a good friend.

Friends and Super-Women Myths

Recently, my seventy-something year old mother was telling me that after nearly 50 years of marriage, her female friendships remain a source of joy and texture for her in life. It made me think that although the closest people to us tend to be the ones we live with, ie: husband, boyfriend, children etc., perhaps as women our greatest cushions are our “girl-friends” or the other women in our lives. It is among the girls that we talk out our problems and listen to one another, we break down over some issues and support each other over others. We are all women. We need each other to feel like we’re being heard, or to feel like we’re there for someone else.

Perhaps in the modern-day, when women expect so much of themselves – and find it harder and harder to take prolonged “breaks” from the relentless demands of super-womanhood – we should be willing to listen to each other’s anger and help validate it, and then calm it.

As I like to close with some moral, today I’ll offer the following: Stand by your friends. You never know when you’ll appreciate that they’re standing by you…


PB&J here – loss of childhood there…

by Maryam Zar • at { View Profile }

This morning I was making a PB&J for my daughter (recycled my son’s from yesterday) and noticed that the oil had risen to the top and I had to stir the peanut butter to make it creamy. I wondered why I don’t buy skippy – no mixing there. It’s loaded with whatever magical chemical it takes to keep the peanut from separating from the butter. Then I got to the jelly. My sister-in-law had made us fresh strawberry jelly, but the jar was now empty. So I resorted to store-bought jelly – which has no trace of fruit – soft and spreadable with just the right color. My occupational hazard is that I matriculate through my daily life with thoughts of impoverished, abused, beaten, downtrodden and miserable people who exist around the world under squalid conditions and dire circumstances that I dare say I wouldn’t survive. So here again, making lunch boxes sends me into a psycho-foray into the world of need. It occurs to me that here in the developed world even peanut butter and jelly comes in the most convenient form known to man. No need to mix or even struggle to spread; the jelly squirts perfectly from a bottle and the peanut butter may give you cancer but at least its spreadable. Everything is made so convenient that we have to think hard to remember that no other people on earth have it this easy. I remember a few years ago a big corporation based in the States had developed a cleaning fluid that would clean by itself – no scrubbing. But sales were low in Italy so the company set out to do a survey. They found that Italian women shun the new “easy” cleaner. They said any cleaner that takes out the sweat of scrubbing can’t be legitimate. They opted for the scouring powder. Last night I was putting my daughter to bed while she was twirling around in her new hip-hop dance phase. I couldn’t help but think that in a different place on earth this would be the toughest moment. I would be worried what the night held for my adorable, innocent daughter who at present has no concept of how harsh the world can be toward women and girls. In some places we would be preparing to marry her off soon – by force of culture or tradition – or greed or need. In any case, the pain of the mother who knows her child has to be wrenched away from her grasp only to meet the cruelty that lies ahead would be devastating. Yet millions – yes millions – of women and children endure this colossal pain generation after generation. I wish I could say I see change on the horizon – but I don’t.

Read the entire article at:


Watching Women’s Progress

How nice that for the generation winding its way through schools across this land today even space can be conquered by men and women alike.

by Maryam Zar • at { View Profile }

Its been a while since the space shuttle Challenger blew up in our sights on its way to space. Seven crew members on-board the shuttle died in the fiery flurry we witnessed from Earth. I remember the day. I was in high school, and I still remember thinking first of Christa McAuliffe: the only woman on-board and the first member of the Teacher in Space Project.

Today three women aboard the Discovery shuttle took off for space where they will meet-up with a fourth woman who is waiting for them aboard the International Space Station. Their arrival will set a record for the most women in space at once – ever. This is a wonderful milestone for women. Astronauts have forever had a male visage. How nice that for the generation winding its way through schools across this land today even space can be conquered by men and women alike.

Last week I was invited to speak at a three-member panel for homeless women attempting to re-enter the work-force. Before I got there I had my own preconceived notion of a “homeless” woman. After I left I had entirely another. These women were articulate, well-informed, curious people taking-in as much information as they could about the evolving world around them in order to figure out how to re-integrate. They weren’t disheveled women without aspiration or skill. Many were college educated women that had been spun aside while the world raced toward development.

One of the questions I was asked was whether being a woman has ever hindered me in my journey toward where I am today. I had do say that it had not. But all I could remember at that moment was my four years in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent and a couple of those years as an English newspaper editor. The women at the paper were so acerbic toward me for so long that I remember thinking it was women who mistreated women more often than the men. Another panel member who is an attorney, clearly a more male dominated world than my current fund-raising environs, had to admit that she didn’t feel the downward pressure of men either. She confided though that a female colleague of a generation before hers was, for decades, the only woman in the firm. So yes, gender discrimination is a reality, but at least in the States, it is becoming history as women ascend in greater number to higher positions than ever before. Lest we forget Hillary Clinton’s “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling, or even Sarah Palin’s realistic ambitions to attain the highest office in the land.


Giving Birth – uniquely female but debated by all…

by Maryam Zar • at { View Profile }

Scott Roeder the man who killed George Tiller, a Doctor who performed abortions, got a life prison sentence this year.

Abortion, as many of you know, is legal in the United States by operation of law decided by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade in 1973 (410 U.S. 113 (1973)). How long that law will remain in place is debatable. But years ago I remember reading that researchers had found that the reduced crime rate in NYC in the 80′s could have been partly due to a reduction of unwanted pregnancies and, by definition, unwanted kids. The theory was that fewer unwanted births had resulted in fewer children being ill raised by parents who either didn’t want them or couldn’t properly raise them. As a result, there were fewer children growing up to be mal-adjusted adults who would then go out and perpetuate crimes.

Today I read that the teen birth rate in the U.S. dropped by 2% in 2008. That has to be good news. Teens are not generally ready for the demands of child rearing in a responsible way. Most teens aren’t ready to give-up all that necessarily needs to be foregone by way of free time and whimsical socializing in order to rear an infant or raise responsible children.

Further, the birth rate among women aged 40-44 increased by 4% to 9.9 births per 1,000 women, the highest rate since 1967. I had my last child when I was 40, so I fall into that category. Honestly, when I was younger I never would have guessed that I would consent to having a child in my 40′s. Too old, I thought. But now, I am in the company of many women in their 40′s with young children. Knowing now what kind of patience it takes to be a level-headed, thoughtful mother, and knowing how many miniscule sacrifices have to be made personally on the part of a mother in order to be a good “Mom”, I think 40′s may be the ideal time to become a mother. For one thing, you’ve had four decades to think it through, and presumably, if you’re doing it now, you mean to be there.

Abuse rates among women in their 40′s seem to be less than younger mothers who still have the fiery reactions associated with youth. Divorce rates are lower among women who marry older, rather than younger – perhaps because expectations become more realistic with age compared to the idealism of youth. Whatever the reasons, it is good news that women are choosing to have children at a later age, when they are more prepared or purposefully ready to have them.

If crime rates can realistically be tied to unwanted pregnancies and ill-raised children, then older mothers are a blessing.


Battling for Balance

I’m always speeding from one task to the next, and I’ve convinced myself that they’re all necessary.

by Maryam Zar • at { View Profile }

As I sit here today I am planning three events in my head. It’s Thursday, and all three will be over by Sunday night. I’m slammed but happy.

Yesterday, I had a client in my store who is a Ph.D., life coach, corporate advisor to N.Y., L.A. and D.C. big-wigs as well as a therapist. No sooner had I started speaking than she realized that I was a self-imposed busy person. I’m always speeding from one task to the next, and I’ve convinced myself that they’re all necessary. Some are for fulfillment of family and some for fulfillment of self — many are a combination of both. But am I right?

I meet a stream of women on a daily basis who come into my store, Womenfound, with a challenging tales of balance. Some lambast themselves for being too calm and not “putting themselves out there” enough. Some lament that they work too hard to be home for family and suspect they have missed out on something. Some are desperately trying to balance home versus work, career versus personal goals, and still feel somehow failed in one realm or another. Few walk in to tell me they’ve got it right. At least the ones who are emotionally honest and psychologically rich enough to think inwardly all question some aspect of the balancing act that has become synonymous with being a modern woman.

So, is this the challenge of the 21st century for women. After all, our husbands don’t seem inclined to think as long and hard about their balance of personal fulfillment and career advancement. On strained days I often accuse my husband of having the luxury of waking up, taking a shower, dabbing on his cologne and heading to Starbucks for a calm cup of coffee and a pleasant ride to work. By then I’ve already multi-tasked three kids, multiple breakfast requests, two lunch boxes, one ride to school during which I administered a spelling test or two, and I’m heading to work to see if I can put my new start-up on the proverbial map.


30 minutes at the ER… A lifetime of work ahead…

by Maryam Zar • at { View Profile }
me and my ER baby…
Photograph: Marzi Zahiri

I’ve been a bit absent recently. I’ve gotten on my key pad to write: first about adoption and all that it entails for the adopting family and the needy child that gets yanked out of their, albeit uncomfortable, environment and expected to assimilate to a new one. Then about the children of incarcerated parents: did you know the Department of Justice has estimated that approximately 1.5 million children under the age of 18 in the US had an incarcerated parent at the start of this decade? The separation that arrest and lock-up entails, especially if its repeated, for children of all ages leads to a plethora of long-term ills that the child, and we as a society, continue to grapple with decades after the incarceration is over. Within the same two weeks of absence I even sat down to blog about the usefulness of aid in areas of this world where tradition is so deeply rooted that what we may identify as a situation in need of aid, the intended recipients may identify as following along the lines of tradition. Repeatedly, it is the women that recognize the need for change and become agents of it in their communities. Sadly, many of them are met with a fate that often debilitates their efforts for good.

So all this was swirling in my head while I searched for a focal point to begin on, until I was jarred back to my own reality last night at 2am. My youngest son was loudly gasping for air while he sat up in his crib looking longingly at the door for his Mom to walk in and save him. There can’t be a more excruciating pain than to be the helpless mother of a needy child.

As I picked him up to soothe him I realized he has a cough that sounds like its coming from the belly of Hell and he’s gagging on his own saliva. “How did we descend from healthy kid to gasping for air in four hours”, I thought? As usual my mind crept in the nagging question: “What would a poverty stricken uneducated mother of 7 do in the slums of the third world at the same moment?”


Women and Money (at home and abroad)

by Maryam Zar • at { View Profile }
Womenfound – dedicated to the cause of women.
Photograph: maryam zar

Who controls the finances in your household?

“Women now account for more than half of the workforce. Additionally, men have suffered the brunt of job losses in the recent recession, meaning that more and more women have been entering the workforce and those that were in it already, are now working longer and harder to make up the difference and make ends meet.  Women are now economic engines, and their progress in the labor force is intrinsically tied to our future prosperity as a country.”


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