When certain practices are rampant in a society, it requires a paradigm shift in public thinking to get them outlawed.
A Turkish court took a huge step in the direction of just such a shift when it handed out life sentences to five members of a family found guilty of instigating the honour killing of a 16-year-old Kurdish girl. Naile Erdas's brother, father, mother and two of her uncles went to prison for life, while another uncle was sentenced to 16 years for neglecting to report the slaying. Erdas's brother shot her in October 2006 after she was raped and got pregnant.
Mazlum Bagli, who researches honour killings at Turkey's Dicle University, called the court ruling "a first" in terms of its severity. The sentences send a strong message that such killings will not be tolerated. Hopefully, this ruling and future verdicts like it will resonate as a deterrent through patriarchal Third World environments where killing a female relative who is seen to have violated repressive cultural taboos about chastity is considered a duty to clear the family's name.
In 2006, 1,806 girls and women were slain in honour killings, according to the U. S. State Department, while another 5,375 committed suicide after being pressured by their families to do so.
According to the BBC, the average sentence handed down for an honour killing is six months. The Turkish sentence may be the first, but it is to be hoped that many more will follow as other courts emulate this precedent. It is the only way the scourge of honour killings will finally be eradicated.
January 29, 2009
Iraqi Women Vie for Votes and Taste of Power
By SAM DAGHER
BAGHDAD — Amal Kibash, a candidate for the Baghdad provincial council, is running a bold and even feverish campaign by most standards. With elections coming on Saturday, she is trolling for every vote she can muster.
“You are going to vote for me, right?” she quizzed passers-by on a stroll recently through her neighborhood of Sadr City, which was until May a battleground for Shiite militias. Giant posters of her veil-framed face were draped on several buildings, some of which still bore the marks of recent fighting.
In Basra, where until a year ago banners warned women that they would be shot if they wore too much makeup or ventured out of their homes without a veil, another female candidate, Ibtihal Abdul-Rahman, put up posters of herself last month. Encouraged by security improvements throughout the country, thousands of women are running for council seats in the provincial elections.
Of the estimated 14,400 candidates, close to 4,000 are women. Some female candidates have had their posters splattered with mud, defaced with beards or torn up, but most have been spared the violence that has claimed the lives of two male candidates and a coalition leader since the start of the year. But on Wednesday, a woman working for the Iraqi Islamic Party was killed when gunmen burst into her house in Baghdad and shot her 10 times in the chest, according to an Interior Ministry official.
For many of the female candidates, the elections offer a chance to inject some much needed fresh air into councils that are plagued by deep corruption and dominated by men and big political parties that are often ultraconservative.
But even if they win, they face numerous hurdles, particularly the entrenched attitudes of most Iraqi men, who view women as either sex objects or child bearers who have no place in the rough-and-tumble arena of politics. “This is the mentality,” said Safia Taleb al-Suhail, a member of Parliament and the daughter of a prominent Shiite tribal leader assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in Lebanon in 1994. “We have to change it. How can we change it? By fighting.”
She is leading a group of female Parliament members who are lobbying to make sure that the same constitutional provision that mandates that 25 percent of all seats in Parliament go to women is applied to provincial councils as well. Currently, it is not.
While Iraq in the 1950s was the first Arab country to name a female minister and adopt a progressive family law, the leadership aspirations of women were mostly quashed under Mr. Hussein’s macho government. The situation became further complicated for women after 2003, with the ascendance of religious parties.
Ms. Suhail and others were instrumental in lobbying Iraq’s American administrator at the time, L. Paul Bremer III, to include the quota for women in the country’s first transitional constitution. It was preserved in the current Constitution because many felt that it was the only way to ensure the participation of women in a male-dominated culture.
When it was published in October, the law regulating the provincial elections omitted the quota for women; it remains unclear whether the omission was deliberate or just an oversight. The electoral commission has ruled that the law as written is acceptable, saying that women are ensured of adequate representation by the requirement that a woman be chosen after every three men in any winning slate.
But Ms. Suhail said that many of the candidate slates did not have enough women in them to meet that requirement, while other slates were made up of fewer than four candidates, all of whom are male.
Mahdiya Abed-Hassan al-Lami, a women’s rights advocate, and candidate in Baghdad running on the slate of a former prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, said that while she supported the quota system, it has been manipulated by the major political parties, both secular and religious, to marginalize women. Most of the women chosen for the large candidate slates are there for their family and tribal connections and loyalty to the sect or party, she said, rather than for their qualifications.
“If women are simply followers they cannot fulfill their roles properly,” said Ms. Lami, who is a teacher and a practicing Shiite. Her campaign has focused on reaching out to her network of women, particularly in some of the most destitute slums of Baghdad.
Ms. Kibash, another female candidate who is running on Mr. Jaafari’s list, is currently a member of the Sadr City municipal council, but she and other women on the council are prevented by the men from sitting on the crucial and financially important Services Committee. She said the council was mired in corruption.
Despite the recent gains in security, some women continue to face threats, while others say the whole thing is a charade and not worth the effort.
Liza Hido sat on a municipal council but was forced to quit in 2006 after receiving threatening e-mail and text messages on her cellphone.
She is running again this year but, still concerned for her safety, she is keeping her campaigning discreet, putting up no posters and making no public appearances. Instead, she restricts herself to private gatherings.
Her friend Bushra al-Obeidi, a law professor at Baghdad University, has rebuffed all efforts to persuade her to become a candidate. She feels the odds are stacked against women, starting with laws she views as discriminatory and derogatory toward women — one allows a rapist to largely escape punishment if he marries his victim. Ms. Obeidi also has little faith in the commitment to gender equality among the current political leadership, which is dominated by religious parties.
“I assure you,” she said, “they are against women. They are lying to us.”
Ms. Suhail, the lawmaker, admitted that Iraqi women had failed so far to break into the top levels of the political power structure but said that this was no reason to give up.
February 13, 2009
Starting at Home, Iran’s Women Fight for Rights
By NAZILA FATHI
TEHRAN — In a year of marriage, Razieh Qassemi, 19, says she was beaten repeatedly by her husband and his father. Her husband, she says, is addicted to methamphetamine and has threatened to marry another woman to “torture” her.
Rather than endure the abuse, Ms. Qassemi took a step that might never have occurred to an earlier generation of Iranian women: she filed for divorce.
Women’s rights advocates say Iranian women are displaying a growing determination to achieve equal status in this conservative Muslim theocracy, where male supremacy is still enscribed in the legal code. One in five marriages now end in divorce, according to government data, a fourfold increase in the past 15 years.
And it is not just women from the wealthy, Westernized elites. The family court building in Vanak Square here is filled with women, like Ms. Qassemi, who are not privileged. Women from lower classes and even the religious are among those marching up and down the stairs to fight for divorces and custody of their children.
Increasing educational levels and the information revolution have contributed to creating a generation of women determined to gain more control over their lives, rights advocates say.
Confronted with new cultural and legal restrictions after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, some young women turned to higher education as a way to get away from home, postpone marriage and earn social respect, advocates say. Religious women, who had refused to sit in classes with men, returned to universities after they were resegregated.
Today, more than 60 percent of university students are women, compared with just over 30 percent in 1982, even though classes are no longer segregated.
Even for those women for whom college is not an option, the Internet and satellite television have opened windows into the lives of women in the West. “Satellite has shown an alternative way of being,” said Syma Sayah, a feminist involved in social work in Tehran. “Women see that it is possible to be treated equally with men.”
Another sign of changing attitudes is the increasing popularity of books, movies and documentaries that explore sex discrimination, rights advocates say.
“Women do not have a proper status in society,” said Mahnaz Mohammadi, a filmmaker. “Films are supposed to be a mirror of reality, and we make films to change the status quo.”
In a recent movie, “All Women Are Angels,” a comedy that was at the top of the box office for weeks, a judge rejects the divorce plea of a woman who walked out on her husband when she found him with another woman.
Even men are taking up women’s issues and are critical of traditional marriage arrangements. Mehrdad Oskouei, another filmmaker, has won more than a dozen international awards for “The Other Side of Burka,” a documentary about women on the impoverished and traditional southern island of Qeshm who are committing suicide in increasing numbers because they have no other way out of their marriages.
“How can divorce help a woman in southern parts of the country when she has to return after divorce to her father’s home who will make her even more miserable than her husband?” said Fatimeh Sadeghi, a former political science professor fired for her writing on women’s rights.
Janet Afary, a professor of Middle East and women’s studies at Purdue University and the author of “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran,” says the country is moving inexorably toward a “sexual revolution.”
“The laws have denied women many basic rights in marriage and divorce,” she wrote in the book. “But they have also contributed to numerous state initiatives promoting literacy, health and infrastructural improvements that benefited the urban and rural poor.”
To separate the sexes, the state built schools and universities expressly for women, and improved basic transportation, enabling poor women to travel more easily to big cities, where they were exposed to more modern ideas.
Ms. Afary says that mandatory premarital programs to teach about sex and birth control, instituted in 1993 to control population growth, helped women delay pregnancy and changed their views toward marriage. By the late 1990s, she says, young people were looking for psychological and social compatibility and mutual intimacy in marriage.
Despite the gains they have made, women still face extraordinary obstacles. Girls can legally be forced into marriage at the age of 13. Men have the right to divorce their wives whenever they wish, and are granted custody of any children over the age of 7. Men can ban their wives from working outside the home, and can engage in polygamy.
By law, women may inherit from their parents only half the shares of their brothers. Their court testimony is worth half that of a man. Although the state has taken steps to discourage stoning, it remains in the penal code as the punishment for women who commit adultery. A woman who refuses to cover her hair faces jail and up to 80 lashes.
Women also face fierce resistance when they organize to change the law. The Campaign for One Million Signatures was founded in 2005, inspired by a movement in Morocco that led to a loosening of misogynist laws. The idea was to collect one million signatures for a petition calling on authorities to give women more equal footing in the laws on marriage, divorce, adultery and polygamy.
But Iran’s government has come down hard on the group, charging many of its founders with trying to overthrow it; 47 members have been jailed so far, including 3 who were arrested late last month. Many still face charges, and six members are forbidden to leave the country. One member, Alieh Eghdamdoust, began a three-year jail sentence last month for participating in a women’s demonstration in 2006. The group’s Web site, www.we-change.org, has been blocked by the authorities 18 times.
“We feel we achieved a great deal even though we are faced with security charges,” said Sussan Tahmasebi, one of the founding members of the campaign, who is now forbidden to leave Iran. “No one is accusing us of talking against Islam. No one is afraid to talk about more rights for women anymore. This is a big achievement.”
Women’s advocates say that the differences between religious and secular women have narrowed and that both now chafe at the legal discrimination against women. Zahra Eshraghi, for example, the granddaughter of the revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, signed the One Million Signatures petition.
“Many of these religious women changed throughout the years,” said Ms. Sayah, the feminist in Tehran. “They became educated, they traveled abroad and attended conferences on women’s rights, and they learned.”
Because of the government’s campaign of suppression, the process of collecting signatures has slowed recently, and many women do not want to be seen in the presence of a campaigner, let alone sign a petition. Most feminist groups limit their canvassing now to the Internet.
But while the million signatures campaign may have stalled, women have scored some notable successes. A group that calls itself Meydaan has earned international recognition for pressing the government to stop stonings.
The group’s reporting on executions by stoning in 2002 on its Web site, www.meydaan.net — including a video of the execution of a prostitute — embarrassed the government and led the head of the judiciary to issue a motion urging judges to refrain from ordering stonings. (The stonings have continued anyway, but at a lower rate, because only Parliament has the power to ban them.)
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed was tired of seeing miserable books about Muslim women's lives, so she decided to write her own story - a chick-lit memoir of her arranged marriage. She speaks to Laura Barton
Laura Barton The Guardian,
Wednesday 18 February 2009 larger | smaller Article history
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, writer and commentator. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/Guardian
Buses roll by outside, the day unfolding in a succession of sirens and shouts, and in her small flat in west London, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is discussing how she came to find her husband. Janmohamed is better known as spirit21, a blogger who has provided a unique perspective on the life of a British Muslim woman over the last three years, addressing issues that range from the political role of Turkey to Jack Straw's comments about women who wear the veil. She is also now author of Love in a Headscarf, a book that hovers somewhere between chick-lit and memoir, as it follows Janmohamed's journey through the process of arranged marriage.
The memoir is irreverent and feminine: perhaps not the most conventional tone for discussing this topic. "I love chick lit," she says. "I noticed when I started reading it that it was very much about 'How do you find the prince?' And what I wanted to do was tell that universal story, but from the perspective of being a Muslim woman."
Janmohamed was always aware that her marriage would be arranged, and is frustrated by the common misconception that such unions bypass the desires of the bride and groom. "The Islamic view on marriage is that the man or woman should make an active choice as to who they want to marry," she says. "And there's no long-term dating procedure, but it's essential that the two people have met, that they've had as much discussion as they like and that they feel comfortable with each other."
Introductions are usually organised by parents and a designated matchmaker, but there was, she recalls, "a lot of frank discussion about what I would want in a partner" beforehand. She credits this with helping her to make an informed choice and teaching her about herself. "You look at your list and you think, 'Gosh, I'm so shallow!'" she laughs, "because it's 'good-looking, tall, handsome ...'"
In her memoir, Janmohamed focuses on the intersection between the cultural representations of love and the reality. "The big question I ask is, 'What is love?'" she says. "Because we all watch lots of Hollywood films, and it's always Prince Charming and you live happily ever after. And I still watch them, and I swoon at the hero, and I wish life was like that. But when you come from an Asian background it's different - it's all practical and serious, and if you fall in love at the end then that's very good, dear."
In the book's opening chapter, Janmohamed is introduced to her first prospective husband, and her expectation is that he is destined to be "Mr Right" - that the arranged marriage can exist in tandem with the rom-com. But as her search continues, she begins to recognise the disparity between these two ideas of love. "I think as you grow up and things don't work out as you think they will you get pushed to ask the questions - is my paradigm of the world something that is true? Are we shortchanged today because all we think about is romance? Or is the Asian tradition perhaps too staid?"
Janmohamed is keenly aware of how non-Muslims tend to view arranged marriage and Muslim women in general. She recalls visits to bookshops where she would find "shelves and shelves of misery memoir and all these women in black veils with camels walking in the background and titles like I Was Sold Into Marriage." She smiles flatly. "And the only other stories that we saw were of Muslim women who had somehow broken through this oppression, had decided that Islam was the source of it and had rejected it, and had gone off to be - and the only way to put this is in quotation marks - 'liberated'. And you know, this is a really serious issue, the idea that women don't get to exercise their free choice and are pushed into areas of life that they shouldn't be forced into: that does need to be addressed. But I think it's really important that as part of that wider picture of what it is like to be a Muslim woman there are some positive stories told." She lifts her hands. "I like being a Muslim woman!"
Janmohamed's parents emigrated from Tanzania in 1964, arriving with two suitcases, one son and £75 to their name. Their daughter followed soon afterwards, and was brought up in a fairly liberal north London home, familiar with her parents' culture and faith, while attending a local girls' school and mixing with people from different backgrounds. For many years she kept the three strands of her life - school, home and the mosque - quite separate, but finally began to reconcile them in her search for a husband.
This search began when she was 19 and studying at Oxford. The issue of education was an uncomfortable one, she recalls. Her parents had always encouraged her studies, "but there were people around saying 'Well, just make sure that you're not too educated because the men will be scared of you.'" Still, she stresses, this is another example of the universality of her story. "I think women generally have this idea that they have to giggle at men's jokes," she says, "and can't be too smart and can't make men feel like they don't know enough."
It took Janmohamed a decade to find the man she would marry, but today she hesitates to talk about her husband; she smiles nervously and explains that she doesn't want to reveal too much about the end of the novel. "What I will say is that he went through the whole process like all the others." During the years of her search she was introduced to more suitors than she can even remember, and the book recounts those would-be husbands who most influenced her thinking. "One of the fascinating things is that because the timescale is so shortened, you have to reveal yourself immediately. So within two or three meetings you would be saying, 'What do you want to do with the rest of your life? How many children do you want to have?' And actually I think that's very liberating; you know somebody very quickly.
"So there were men I would meet who were running very late and not think anything of it, not even an apology; and so you would think, 'That person clearly doesn't have any respect for me.' Or people who didn't want to spend any money, and I thought, 'Well, if you're not even going to spend any money to impress me at this stage, you're clearly not going to be very generous when we get married.'" More startling were the suitors who asked if she would consider not wearing a headscarf. "I found that quite shocking," she says, "because I wasn't forced to wear it, I'd taken that choice as an independent woman, and I expected of all the people in the world who would respect that choice it would be my husband."
The discussion of faith in Britain is, she believes, only just beginning. "I think in Britain it has taken a long time to be able to talk about these subjects - in the 60s and 70s it was about race, and you had to be very careful how you framed discussions about race. And now as we come into the 21st century that discourse is about faith. As Muslim women we seem to get stuck in the middle of this - because we look different," she says. "And I get really fed up with reading stories in the papers about how all Muslim women are oppressed. Even when I tell people I have a job and I'm educated and I travel round on my own, people still say, 'Well, you're still oppressed, you just don't know it.'"
"When Islam was first brought here in the seventh century it was extremely radical - which is a naughty word, you're not allowed to say the word 'radical' if you're a Muslim, because it means you're going to blow something up - but Islam was radical because the Prophet Mohammed said women are equal to men, black people are equal to white people, rich people are equal to poor people," she says. "I think Muslims look back to that and say to women, 'Look, you had rights that no one had anywhere in the world!' And that's right, but most Muslim women's lives are not like that. So Muslim women are caught in a gap; they're either told they're oppressed or they're not oppressed. But no one asks Muslim women what they think. And in the grand scale of literature, the voices Muslim women have are very few."
It was this want of a voice that convinced her to begin her blog, while working for a mobile telecoms company. "I started writing because I couldn't find anyone that was expressing a view based on critical thinking," she explains. "There's this view that the Islamic world is violent, oppressed and anti-democracy and all the other stereotypes. And then there's a view within the Muslim community - and we have to be honest about this - that says, 'The west is bad.' But I'm a British Muslim; I'm a Muslim and I'm from the west."
The success of the blog prompted people to suggest she write a book about being a Muslim woman. "And I would think, yes, I must, and it's very worthy. And when I sat down to write it I realised I didn't want to write a story that was 'This is Islam and these are the pillars . . .' People can read that in a text book. I thought I wanted to tell a universal story and the best story to tell is the story of love".
• Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is published by Aurum Press at £10.99.
March 4, 2009
In Turkey, Women Playing Soccer Vie for Acceptance
By YIGAL SCHLEIFER
ISTANBUL — On a recent cold, gray Sunday, two Turkish premier league soccer teams enthusiastically ran onto the field of a small stadium on the outskirts of Istanbul.
Turks are soccer mad, with games regularly attended by tens of thousands of boisterous fans. But at this game, between host Kartalspor and Ankara’s Gazi Universitesispor, the 22 players on the field outnumbered the people shivering in the stands.
The weather was probably not to blame for the poor attendance; it was more likely because of who was playing. The two teams are part of Turkey’s new women’s soccer league, and although Turks may be soccer fanatics, there is a deep ambivalence in this socially conservative, predominantly Muslim society about women playing the game.
Halfway through its 18-game inaugural season, the league has met a combination of indifference, curiosity and occasional hostility.
“Football is seen as a man’s game in Turkey,” said Nurper Ozbar, 30, the coach of Marmara Universitesispor, the top team in the second division of the league, which also has two youth divisions.
“We’ve had men come to watch our practices and yell at our players: ‘What are you doing here? You should be at home, cooking!’ ” said Ozbar, one of the few women accredited as a soccer coach in Turkey, and the only one in Istanbul. “It’s going to take time to change this.”
Turkey has thriving professional women’s basketball and volleyball leagues. Soccer, for the most part, remains a men’s-only zone. In a country of 70 million, only 798 women and girls are registered as players with the Turkish Football Federation, soccer’s governing body. In comparison, about 230,000 male players are registered with the federation.
For the players in the women’s league, just finding their way to a team can be a monumental challenge. Deniz Bicer, a midfielder with Gazi Universitesispor, the only women’s team in the Turkish capital, Ankara, has to travel almost two hours each way to get to practice.
“In my neighborhood, because it was seen as a man’s game, there was pressure on me and my family that I not play football,” the 18-year-old Bicer said after Gazi’s 3-1 victory over Kartalspor.
“People kept telling me this is a man’s game, you should be interested in other sports, but football is a passion for me,” she said.
The new league is Turkey’s second attempt at establishing women’s soccer. An amateur league of about two dozen teams existed in Turkey for a decade until it was shut down in 2002 amid allegations of mismanagement and rumors of affairs between female players — particularly scandalous in this country.
This time around, the Turkish federation appears intent on promoting the idea of women’s and girls’ soccer to a skeptical nation.
“A lot of our work is public relations, to convince families that girls can play football,” said Erden Or, 33, the federation’s development officer for women’s soccer.
“Some believe that playing football can harm a girl’s build and make her manly,” Or said.
“They believe that it’s a man’s game, so we have to show them proof that they can play football without a problem,” added Or, whose wife chides him for kicking the ball around with their 3-year-old daughter.
Or has been crisscrossing Turkey, staging panel discussions in different cities with coaches and female players and answering questions from worried parents and resistant physical education teachers. When he finds out about a girl whose parents refuse to let her play soccer, Or said, he phones them to help ease their minds.
“If she wants to play, I will call them directly, like a father inquiring about a bride,” he said.
Selling women’s soccer also requires dolling it up. One of the new logos for the league features a slender woman’s hand with long, red-painted fingernails cupping a soccer ball. The background on Or’s computer screen is a photograph of a soccer cleat with a stiletto heel.
Despite Or’s effort and some financial assistance from the Turkish federation, getting by is a struggle for most of the teams in the new league. The news media have mostly ignored it, and sponsors have been hard to find. Kartalspor had to forfeit an away game a few weeks ago because the team could not afford to make the six-hour trip to Izmir.
“We’re getting a lot of moral support, but not a lot of financial support,” said Ozbar, the Marmara Universitesispor coach. “We don’t have a sponsor, so I’m paying for our expenses out of my pocket.”
She added: “Our players don’t look at this as a profession because they can’t earn money from it yet. They can’t picture a life for themselves in football.”
There are some hopeful signs for the league. Although the first-division teams tend to come from more liberal cities, girls’ teams are sprouting in unlikely places, including in Hakkari, a town in the predominantly Kurdish and conservative southeast region.
In Sakarya, just outside Istanbul, the local women’s team’s winning streak has led to real crowds at its games.
“In Turkey, the biggest power is success,” said Sinan Panta, 41, the president of the Sakarya Yenikent Gunesspor Kulubu team, currently atop the women’s first division with 10 wins, 1 tie and 1 loss. “At our first game, there were 100 people. As we started winning more games, we’re now seeing 2,500 or 3,000 fans at our games.”
For next season, Panta said he had rounded up enough cash to bring in a Nigerian transfer, midfielder Onome Ebi, who played on her country’s 2008 Olympic team.
“The people here initially weren’t friendly to the idea that women could play football, but we’ve broken that idea down,” said Panta, a former professional player. “We’ve achieved our goal: we’ve made Sakarya accept women’s football. We’ve succeeded in a conservative place.”
At the Kartalspor-Gazi Universitesispor game, a motley mix of curious men and boys gathered in the stadium, a bleak, half-finished cement structure overlooking a busy highway. Standing nearby was Selmin Odabas, the mother of a player named Selin, a speedy 20-year-old striker for the home team.
“In the beginning, we didn’t want our daughter to play,” Odabas said. “We were worried that it would affect her posture, her character, even her sexual orientation. We put her in volleyball, in track, but nothing could stop her.”
As Selin’s skills improved — she was named to the national women’s team — their attitude changed, Odabas said.
She pointed out a wiry man nearby shouting encouragement at Kartalspor’s players and cursing their opponents.
“Now her father is a fanatic fan,” she said.
Bulent Cinar, a translator, contributed reporting.
What is your image of a woman in Afghanistan? Shrouded in a veil? Beaten by her husband? Poverty? Hopelessness? While this certainly is the case for many women in Afghanistan, there is another truth that we seldom hear or see. Afghan women have cause to celebrate International Women's Day, and they do so with courage and conviction amid the ongoing work of securing their human rights.
In the fall of 2001, when the world finally paid attention to the human rights catastrophe in Afghanistan, the only girls attending school were those lucky and brave enough to find a clandestine school in someone's home. Teachers risked death by providing math, science, and history lessons to girls in small groups. Despite threats from the Taliban, more and more children came, desperate to fill an insatiable hunger for learning. Today, more than two million girls attend schools through the Ministry of Education and women are upgrading their skills, learning English and computers, and paving a way to a more secure future.
During the 1990s, Dr. Sima Samar (now the Chair of the Independent Afghan Human Rights Commission) ran a refugee school for Afghan girls, defying the Taliban to "come and get me" as she educated girls the same as boys. Now, 85 of these same young women are some of the first female graduates from Kabul University.
Jamila Afghani is another symbol of the courage and struggle of Afghan women. Jamila contracted polio in her first year of life and walks with one leg in a brace, suffering severe back pain from untreated scoliosis. At the age of 14, she was shot in the head by the Soviets, leaving her with chronic pain in her ear. Yet, she was determined not to be a burden on her family, and so worked to secure several university degrees and founded the Noor Education Centre in 2001 to provide literacy and education to young women. The centre's programs include education in gender, human rights and children's rights, English classes, literacy training and health information. Vocational training and special classes such as sign language are offered free of charge. It also hosts the Nazo Annah Library and Internet Cafe, available to the public.
The success of programs like these, are due to the unfailing resiliency of Afghan women, and the assistance of the international community. With the support of Canadian donors, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan ( www.w4wafghan.ca) has provided $2 million in support of women-focused development projects in Afghanistan since it began in 1996. These grassroots projects are defined and delivered by Afghan women themselves. Most importantly, they are making a real, and lasting difference in the lives of Afghan women and their families.
The celebration of International Women's Day, therefore, is not taken lightly in Afghanistan. It isn't a one-day event, but rather, a week of celebration and significance. While that may seem odd, given the misogynist history of the country, it is precisely the ongoing challenges that face women in Afghanistan that have earned them the right to truly celebrate the victories they have secured. Of the total estimated 32 million people in Afghanistan, more than 70 per cent are women and children under the age of 18. Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. It has the highest maternal mortality rate, one of the highest rates of domestic violence, and is perhaps the only country in the world where suicide rates are higher among women than men. It is a place where women set them-selves on fire in appalling numbers to escape brutally abusive domestic lives, where girls as young as eight years old are married to elderly men and where 60 per cent of marriages are forced. The life expectancy is just over 44 years and only eight per cent of rural women over the age of 15 can read and write.
Despite the push to educate girls, half aged seven to 12 are not in school. The rate of completion of primary school for girls is only 13 per cent with the average length of attendance across the country at only four years for girls compared to 11 for boys. Only one out of nine girls who finishes elementary school will go on to the equivalent of junior high, fewer still to high school or beyond.
Celebrating International Women's Day in Afghanistan is therefore not about basking in the achievements of their mothers and grandmothers. It is about: - The hard-fought day-today successes of every Afghan woman who manages to educate her daughters; Every small, grassroots organization that provides literacy training to women; - Every family who decides that having an educated daughter is more important than marrying her off at the age of 12; - Every woman who decides to vote in the upcoming election, to make her voice heard.
It is true that Afghan women have been very long suffering, but they are not just a nameless, faceless entity, shrouded in misery. The reality of Afghan women is one of strength, resilience, courage, hope and solidarity. Despite the fact that the international community has invested only 1/25th of the military support and 1/50th of the humanitarian aid it invested in Bosnia and Kosovo, change for the better is happening in Afghanistan because of the women. Children are fed because of the women. Education is achieved because of the women. Health care and hygiene become priorities because of the women. Most importantly, human rights are discussed, promoted and respected because of the women. Afghan women are working hard to shape their lives and create a future where each can fully and openly celebrate International Women's Day.
Carolyn reiCher is the President and Co-founder of Canadian Women for Women in afghanistan. Her organization is hosting an event on March 7 With senator Pamela Wallin and Afghan journalist Khorshied Samad at the Central library. For tickets to the event call: 403-244-5625 or email@example.com
Seminar to mark women’s day at Aga Khan University March 7, 2009
Posted by ismailimail in Aga Khan University, Asia, Community Activities, Council sponsored, Pakistan.
Sunday, March 08, 2009 By Sadia Hanif
Women do two-thirds of the world’s work but receive only 10 per cent of the world’s income and own less than one pc, said Women Activity Portfolio Convenor Yasmeen Merchant in her welcoming speech at a conference held on Early Childhood Development at the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) Auditorium Karachi.
The conference was held to commemorate International Women’s Day and was organised by Aga Khan Council for Pakistan on Saturday. The audience mainly comprised of mothers who received answers to their queries about cognitive development of children from doctors and other AKU officials. Children’s development was also explained with the help of visual aids and research carried out by various teams of doctors at the AKU.
“The youth of the past was much better than the present generation,” informed Dr Zulfiqar Bhutta, chief of Women and Child Health-AKU and chairman of National Vaccine Research and Development Task Force. He explained various mistakes made by parents and also gave guidance.
Serena marks Women’s Day with colourful event
March 7, 2009
Posted by ismailimail in Asia, Fund for Economic Development, Pakistan.
Highlights of day include get-together of women from different walks of life, stalls of handicrafts, fashion show and poetry recital
Women rights activists vow to continue their struggle
By Mahtab Bashir
ISLAMABAD: Serena Hotel Islamabad on Friday organised a colourful event on its premises to mark International Women’s Day.
The daylong celebration included a gathering of women from diplomatic corps, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), public and private sectors, women achievers, celebrities and women rights’ activists and students. An overwhelming number of women participated in the event with the theme ‘women and men united to end violence against women and girls.’
As many as 30 stalls were set up by NGOs including Behbud, Uks, The Art of Living Foundation, Aangan, Rozan, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, Platform 7, Aurat Foundation, Sungi, Karakuram Handicrafts Development Organisation, PAF finishing School, NS elegance, Vanguard Books, Girl Guides Pakistan, Floral Arts, Sobia’s Beauty Salon, reiki healing, and child and adult psychiatrist Dr Ambreen Ahmed.
Thousands of girls mutilated in Britain
The NHS is offering to reverse female circumcision amid concerns that there are 500 victims a year with no prosecutions
Girls are brainwashed into believing circumcision to be a cultural, and, in some cases, religious obligation that should be kept secret
The NHS is to advertise free operations to reverse female circumcisions, with experts warning that each year more than 500 British girls have their genitals mutilated.
Despite having been outlawed in 1985, female circumcision is still practised in British African communities, in some cases on girls as young as 5. Police have been unable to bring a single prosecution even though they suspect that community elders are being flown from the Horn of Africa to carry out the procedures.
The advertisement will appear from next month on a Somali satellite TV station much viewed in Britain. It features Juliet Albert, a midwife who does the reverse operations, and promises, in English and Somali, confidentiality for victims of female genital mutilation.
The advertisement was expected to help to undermine demand for girls to be circumcised, and to popularise the reversal procedure, Ms Albert said. Thousands of such operations have been carried out at specialist clinics and hospitals around Britain and demand is growing slowly.
Female circumcision, which is done for various reasons, such as religious and cultural traditions, can cause severe health complications including infections and psychological problems. The procedure, predominantly carried out on girls aged between 5 and 12, can range from the removal of the clitoris to the removal of all the exterior parts of the vagina, which is then sewn up.
A study by the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development (Forward), estimated that 66,000 women living in England and Wales had been circumcised, most before leaving their country of origin. The government-funded research also found that more than 7,000 girls were at a high risk of being subjected to genital mutilation in Britain.
Sarah McCulloch, of the Agency for Culture Change Management UK, said that every year more than 500 British girls were having circumcisions. “A lot of them are done in the UK, but some still travel overseas,” she said.
She said that a code of silence in Britain’s African communities had allowed circumcisions to continue and prevented arrests. The unqualified female elders, known as “house doctors” because they act in secret in a family home, are flown into the country.
“What the communities do is they gather together and collect money to pay for the ticket for a ‘doctor’ to come from Somalia, Sudan, or whatever,” she told The Times. “And when she arrives here, she goes to a house and has the girls brought to her.”
While Scotland Yard is understood to have made investigations into female circumcision in the UK, and offered a £20,000 reward for information, no one has been successfully prosecuted for carrying out the procedure.
Detective Constable Jason Morgan, from Scotland Yard’s Project Azure, denied that police were complacent. “We don’t bury our heads in the sand and say it’s not going on,” he said.
It is illegal to take a person abroad for the operation but no one has been prosecuted for this either.
Ms McCulloch said that girls were brainwashed into believing circumcision to be a cultural, and, in some cases, religious obligation that should be kept secret. “It is something they simply do not discuss — if they do they’d be seen as betraying their family and their community and culture,” she said. “I know many girls who want to accuse their parents but can’t. They don’t want to take their parents to court.”
Waris Dirie, a former UN envoy for the prevention of female genital mutilation, said that it had no justification. Ms Dirie is a victim of the procedure and it haunts her to this day. “Female genital mutilation has nothing to do with tradition, religion or culture. It is the most cynical form of child abuse and a crime that has to be punished,” she told The Times.
Ms McCulloch said that men were becoming more vocal in opposition to female circumcision. “I’ve talked to some fathers who’ve made clear to their wives that they don’t want this done to their daughters — only for them to go out and come back to find their girls circumcised,” she said.
Lynette Parvez, head teacher of Kelmscott School in Walthamstow, northeast London, said that several teachers there would soon be trained to detect victims of female circumcision, and pupils at risk. Experts believe that most of the procedures are done during summer holidays when the girls have enough time to recover without suspicion about their absence.
While Ms Parvez is unaware of any cases at her school, which serves many pupils of African origin, she said that she had been shocked and appalled to hear that female circumcisions were taking place in the UK.
The women of Baghlan baking for their own financial independence
Source: United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)
Date: 15 Mar 2009
By Shamsuddin Hamedi, UNAMA
A new bakery in Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province, is helping women earn money for themselves and offering them a chance of financial independence.
Ten women were identified as needy and enrolled in the project by the Department for Women's Affairs and the Agha Khan Foundation.
The women were trained for 15 days on confectionery skills, management and marketing and now they're selling their products in the local market.
"The project is their property. We are technically supporting them and we are the facilitator of the project for the next six months. Whenever they are self-sufficient, then the Agha Khan Foundation will just support them with marketing," said Sayed Rahman from the Agha Khan Foundation.
The women don't receive any salary, but earn money from what they produce. Since starting the work in January they produce 50 to 60 kg of various pastries everyday, but they are aiming to produce 200 kg a day. Last month they made US$ 500 from sales. A bank account has also been opened for the enterprising bakery women.
"I have six children. Since I have started working here I can support my family and my children are happy that I am working and they are encouraging me to continue," Torpikai one of the baker women.
"Our production is clean, better and cheaper compared to the local market. We want all the organizations and people to buy our products and support the women," said Rabia the supervisor of the project.
By Farish A. Noor ~ March 11th, 2009.
Filed under: Syndicated Columns.
The stereotypes are familiar to most of us by now: Japanese men walking around in Western business suits while Japanese women are expected to follow behind them in kimonos; Muslim men enjoying themselves in Bermuda shorts and t-shirts while their wives and girlfriends are left with the burka to wear. We have seen it all over the world, time and time again; and yet the message doesn’t seem to come across loud enough. Cultural pluralism is a double-edged sword when women are expected to remain as the bearers of cultural, ethnic and racial identity above all else.
We live in an age of bad multiculturalism that has gone off the rails. One does not and should not use this as a stick to beat multiculturalism and deconstruction with, but the fact remains that for too long the appeal of pluralism has been mostly cosmetic. The age of the Benetton ad means that we value cultural difference when it is most apparent and laid out on display before us as a tableau of difference and diversity, but we forget that cultural differences are not merely contingent or accidental and that underlying these differences are very real power differentials as well.
It is for this reason that we should not fall into the trap of cultural relativism too fast or easily. At the recent regional conference on Advancing Gender Equality and Womens’ Rights in Muslim Societies organized by the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP) in Jakarta, representatives from all over the Muslim world re-stated the vital and sometimes neglected fact that from an Islamic point of view, men and women and equal in terms of their ontological origins and eschatologically equal in their final destiny and responsibilities.
Yet how often have we been told that men and women are not really equal in Islam, due to physical differences? And how many times have we been told that such differences – instituted in structures of power – are tradition-bound and culturally-specific to Muslims?
Here is where the challenge for the Muslim world today lies. Faced with the unprecedented and often traumatic effects of globalization, Muslim communities today – like many other communities in the developing world – have turned to tradition and cultural particularism as the last means of safeguarding their fragile and contested identities. Fearful of being overwhelmed by the tide of mass consumerist culture and drowned by the equalizing tide of homogeneous consumerism, they cling on to cultural difference as the last bastion of their identities.
But this steadfast refusal to accept that cultural identities are also manufactured, historical and thus contingent has become the suffocating double-bind that has stunted the growth and evolution of Muslims as well. Worst still, cultural pluralism has become the convenient excuse for all kinds of casual abuse of women and their rights, ranging from dowry killings to the mutilation of women with acid. Apparently for the conservatives among us, the denial of equal rights to women is and can be seen as a means of ‘protecting’ their identity and by extension the identity of Islam as well.
This paradox opens up a pandora’s box of unanswered questions: Why is it that whenever pluralism is called for in the defence of identity it is the women who have to take up the role of being the custodians and depositories of tradition? Why is it that men are allowed to enter the cosmopolitan space of public engagement, while women have to be relegated to the traditional roles that define them? Why is it that we fail to recognize that Muslim culture and identity have evolved and adapted over the past 1400 years and that being Muslim is not something that can be so easily essentialised?
Related to this are the manifold handicaps that affect non-Muslim commentators as well. As soon as cultural pluralism and the protection of cultural identity became the card that was used to defend misogynistic and patriarchal practices among Muslims (and other developing communities), Western liberals by and large found themselves paralysed and unable to comment any futher, their tongues stilled by the cry of political correctness. Thus practices like honour killings could no longer be condemned, for they were seen as ‘traditional cultural practices’ among Muslims – who were then relegated to the register of the strange and exotic.
How odd that the Western liberal conscience was unable to respond to these atrocities in the name of political correctness, for no liberal worth his or her salt would have tolerated such abuses done in the name of tradition if the victim was a Western woman! (And remember, they used to burn witched in Europe too, and those were mostly women.)
So while we all celebrate the wonderfully diverse and colourful plural world we live in today, let us not fall too much for the special effects: Cultural diversity and pluralism are sociological realities but they are also backed up by very real power differentials that can spell negative consequences for women and minorities in particular. A celebration of pluralism does not necessarily mean the tacit acceptance of the injustices that accompany such differences too. If anything, one can only claim to truly support pluralism if one looks at it through a critical eye, and emphasizes the universal equality that binds us all, nonetheless.
Muslim Women in U.S. Struggle to Balance Western Freedoms and Islamic Culture
Saturday , March 28, 2009
By Ruth Ravve
ADVERTISEMENTDEARBORN, Mich. —
The "call to prayer" is a sound heard five times a day in this city, but this is not the Middle East. It’s Dearborn, Michigan — which has the largest Arab-American population in the U.S.
Like other immigrant groups, many came here years ago in search of a better life. In the past few decades, the auto industry needed workers, so Michigan became a top destination.
Over time, thousands of the Muslim faithful from around the world settled here, opening shops and restaurants and turning Dearborn into a heavily Muslim-influenced community, replete with mosques in every section of town and traditional foods from places like Pakistan and Syria.
But while there are plenty of comforts from their home countries, Muslim women say they’re constantly caught balancing their lives between the freedoms they have in Western culture and the restrictions they face from religious and societal pressure. They worry about whether they’re following the habits of "a good Muslim woman."
Zeinab Fakhreddine, a Lebanese-American woman raised in Dearborn, walks down the street wearing a traditional two-piece suit and a Muslim headscarf, called a hijab. The scarf covers her hair and tightly frames her face. She says the hijab was designed as a way to honor women in Islam, by concealing their beauty.
In her community, she says, so many women are dressed this way, nobody looks twice at her. "It's kind of like a comfort zone in Dearborn, but when you leave here, it kind of becomes very different."
Outside Dearborn, it's a different story.
Despite the fact that Islamic groups are growing in major cities in the U.S., many Muslim women living here say assimilating into Western culture is still very difficult.
Many of the immigrant women come to the United States from Muslim countries where they have few rights. Women are not allowed to drive cars or keep their own passports in Saudi Arabia, for example. It is very difficult for a woman to go to school or even leave her home without a male relative escorting her in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In fact, life for Muslim women in the U.S. is so different that they say they're not sure whether to accept the sudden opportunities they have here, or reject them for fear that it doesn't fit within their religious followings.
"In our religion it's forbidden to listen to music and there’s some areas that we stay away from ... because we don’t listen to music," said Fakhreddine.
Also under Islam, it's acceptable for a man to have up to four wives at a time. While that's illegal in the United States, Islamic leaders say the religion designates the man as the head of the household.
"The big decisions are from the husband. Actually, we have to discuss everything with them," says Umia Mustafa, who moved here from Pakistan 10 years ago, after her parents arranged her marriage to a Pakistani man already living here.
She says in her religion, no matter where it’s practiced, there's no question who is in charge.
And sometimes clashes of cultures can have deadly consequences.
Last month, Buffalo resident Aasiya Hassan, 37, was found decapitated after she had been complaining to police about domestic violence. Her husband, Muzzammil Hassan, was charged with the crime.
While Muslim leaders caution against stereotypes and point out that domestic violence happens in all cultures, some women's rights leaders worry that Islam is being used to justify violence against women.
"The typical Muslim man, they always are very overprotective, they're very controlling over the women. They're not allowed to do this, they're not allowed to do that," says 23-year-old Fai Oman, who was born in Yemen.
She says she feels lucky to be living in the West because she has more freedom and security than she would have in her home country.
Taking on Western viewpoints and a less traditional look makes Oman stand out in the typical female Muslim community. She dresses in jeans and a low-cut sweater. Her dark hair is highlighted with blonde streaks, and her eyes are colored with bright blue shadow.
Some Islamic leaders fear women like Oman will become more common and that Western culture will have too much influence over generations of Muslim women who grow up and live in America.
"It does worry me because it's improper behavior [that] does lead to ... harm to the female," said Yemen native Sakainah Faleh, a teacher who tutors young Muslim girls in the proper ways of Islam.
She's concerned about Muslim women straying too far from the religion, she says.
But Muslim leaders like Amina Aharif, from the Council on American Islamic relations (CAIR), say that with so many women coming here from multiple Muslim countries, there are already different viewpoints and traditions influencing them.
Each comes to the United States with her own versions of cultural and religious practices, she adds.
"Just like America is a melting pot for people from all over the world, it is a melting pot for Muslims from all over the world," said Aharif. "It is such a diverse community."
April 5, 2009
Karzai Vows to Review Family Law
By CARLOTTA GALL and SANGAR RAHIMI
KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai ordered a review on Saturday of a new law that has been criticized internationally for introducing Taliban-era restrictions on women and sanctioning marital rape.
The president defended the law, which concerns family law for the Shiite minority, and said Western news media reports were misinformed. Nevertheless, he said his justice minister would review it and make amendments if the law was found to contravene the Constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees.
“The Western media have either mistranslated or taken incorrect information and then published it,” Mr. Karzai said at a news briefing in the presidential palace on Saturday. “If there is anything in contradiction with our Constitution or Shariah, or freedoms granted by the Constitution, we will take action in close consultation with the clerics of the country.”
If changes are needed, he said, the bill would be sent back to Parliament.
Human rights officials have criticized the law, in particular for the restrictions it places on when a woman can leave her house, and for stating the circumstances in which she has to have sex with her husband.
A Shiite woman would be allowed to leave home only “for a legitimate purpose,” which the law does not define. The law also says, “Unless the wife is ill, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.” Critics have said that provision legalizes marital rape.
The law also outlines rules on divorce, child custody and marriage, all in ways that discriminate against women, said Soraya Sobhrang, commissioner for women’s rights at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
While the law applies only to Shiites, who represent approximately 10 percent of the population, its passage could influence a proposed family law for the Sunni majority and a draft law on violence against women, Ms. Sobhrang said. “This opens the way for more discrimination,” she said.
Mr. Karzai signed the law last week after a vote in Parliament last month, Ms. Sobhrang said, adding that she had seen a copy of the law with his signature.
However, the presidential spokesman, Homayun Hamidzada, would not confirm that the president had signed the law and said only that the he was still reviewing it.
Mr. Karzai’s decision to review the law came after a storm of criticism in recent days. Canada called in the Afghan ambassador for an explanation, and NATO’s secretary general questioned why the alliance was sending men and women to fight in Afghanistan when discrimination against women was condoned by law.
Asked about the law at a news conference in Strasbourg, France, on Saturday, President Obama called it “abhorrent.”
“We think that it is very important for us to be sensitive to local culture,” he said, “but we also think that there are certain basic principles that all nations should uphold, and respect for women and respect for their freedom and integrity is an important principle.”
Also on Saturday, Italy’s defense minister said Italy was considering a temporary withdrawal of the women serving in its force in Afghanistan to protest the law, Reuters reported.
The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said the law represented a “huge step in the wrong direction.”
“For a new law in 2009 to target women in this way is extraordinary, reprehensible and reminiscent of the decrees made by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s,” Ms. Pillay said in a statement posted on her agency’s Web site. “This is another clear indication that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, not better.”
In addition to the clauses on when women may leave the home and must submit to their husbands, Ms. Pillay said she was concerned about a section that forbids women from working or receiving education without their husband‘s permission.
Ms. Sobhrang, who has been working on the issue for the last two years, said women’s groups and the human rights commissions had worked with Parliament to introduce amendments but then the law was suddenly pushed through with only three amendments. The bill as originally drawn up by Shiite clerics barred a woman from leaving the house without her husband’s permission, she said. The parliamentary judicial commission amended that provision to say that a woman could leave the house “for a legitimate purpose.”
Mr. Karzai cited that provision in a news conference on Saturday, pointing out that the final version of the law did not ban a woman from leaving her house. But Ms. Sobhrang said even as amended the law contravened the Constitution, which recognizes equal rights for men and women. The term “for a legitimate purpose” was open to interpretation, she added.
She said Mr. Karzai had supported women’s rights in the past but seemed to have given that up in recent months. Some Western officials have speculated that he signed the law to win the support of conservative Shiite clerics in coming presidential elections.
Yet the leading cleric behind the Family Law, Sheik Muhammad Asif Mohseni, complained last week that he was dissatisfied with the amendments that Parliament had made to his original draft. Speaking on his own television channel, Tamadun Television, he objected to the introduction of a legal age for marriage, “16 for women and 18 for men,” saying that people should be able to decide for themselves.
Human rights officials consider raising the marriage age a critical step toward ending the common practice of forced marriages and the marriage of young girls.
Another amendment gave women longer custody of young children in the case of divorce. In the original draft, women could have custody of a son until he was 2 years old, and a daughter until she was 7. The amended version raises the ages to 7 for boys and 9 for girls.
Ms. Sobhrang criticized both versions for not taking into account the interests and desires of the children.
April 15, 2009
Women, Extremism and Two Key States
There have been two recent reminders of the cost of extremism. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai signed a law that effectively sanctions marital rape. In Pakistan, a video surfaced of the Taliban in the Swat Valley publicly flogging a young woman screaming for mercy. Pakistan’s government compounded the indignity on Monday by giving in to Taliban demands and formally imposing Shariah law on the region.
Such behavior would be intolerable anywhere. But the United States is heavily invested in both countries, fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban and financing multibillion-dollar military and development programs. The cases represent an officially sanctioned brutality that violates American values and international human rights norms. They also sabotage chances of building stable healthy societies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, particularly venal politics are at work. Mr. Karzai, whose popular support plummeted because of government ineptitude and corruption, is running for re-election in August. The new law, which affects family matters for the Shiite minority, seems a bald, particularly creepy, pander.
It says of Shiite women: Unless she is ill, “a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband.” That is licensed coercion.
If let stand, we fear such rules — reminiscent of decrees issued when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s — could also have a negative impact on laws affecting the majority Sunni population. Instead of defending the law as he did, Mr. Karzai must ensure that it is rewritten to reflect principles of freedom and dignity for women.
In Pakistan, the video of the woman’s flogging proves the bankrupt nature of the army’s strategy. Failing to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, the army tried to appease them with a peace deal in February. It ceded the insurgents control of Swat, 100 miles from Islamabad, and allowed free rein for their repressive ways. The woman was beaten after declining a Taliban fighter’s marriage proposal, the head of the Peshawar Bar Association told reporters.
After resisting for weeks, President Asif Ali Zardari capitulated to political pressure and signed a regulation formally imposing Islamic law on Swat as part of the peace deal. We seriously doubt this will bring peace, and it will certainly not make life better for Pakistani women. It is unlikely that Mr. Zardari’s wife — the slain former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto — would have ever consented to such a craven sellout.
The one encouraging sign came last week, when Pakistan’s recently reinstated chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, publicly rebuked the attorney general and other officials at a court hearing for inaction in the flogging case. We hope this was not just grandstanding and that he and his supporters will find a way to make as powerful a case for this victim’s rights as they did for Mr. Chaudhry’s return to the Supreme Court.
Many Pakistanis have wasted their time decrying the video as a conspiracy intended to defame Islam and Pakistan. They should be demanding that the army — Pakistan’s strongest and most functional institution — defend against an insurgency that increasingly threatens the state. Like their military and political leaders, Pakistan’s people are in a pernicious state of denial about where the real danger lies.
When I met designer Zeynep Fadillioglu, she was giving instructions to her team of architects on the installation of a cutting-edge water feature.
The metal sphere created by British designer William Pye will dominate the entrance of the Sakirin Mosque.
The fountain, along with a modern glass chandelier from China made from thousands of individually crafted shards of glass, are central pieces in what is being seen as one of most radical mosque designs in Turkey in generations.
"Designing everything we tried to be contemporary, but not, let's say, too futuristic or avant garde," Ms Fadillioglu says.
"We don't want the public to reject the place. We want the public to feel part of the place, rather than watching it as an incredible art object. I think it should be their own place."
The internationally renowned interior designer sees herself as a product of Turkey's secular republic, which was established in 1923, and gave equal rights to men and women.
Dealing with major projects is nothing new for Ms Fadillioglu, who has made her name designing hotels and homes for the super-rich, from Turkey to Europe, India to the Middle East.
But she admits the chance to be the first woman in Turkey to be in charge of building a mosque was the opportunity of a lifetime.
"When I was offered this project I cried," Ms Fadillioglu said.
The mosque was commissioned by a wealthy Arab Turkish family, as a memorial to their mother.
"I think what is exciting is that I am a woman," she said.
"Especially at a time when so much is being discussed wrongly of Islam not allowing women to have equal rights. The fact that a woman can build a mosque disproves this."
“ We wanted to go with the flow of Islam, while at the same time creating something contemporary ”
She believes being a woman brings a different insight to building a mosque.
"I care more about the aesthetical side, I care more about the public, I try to give a place to be really left with God, rather than creating a symbol."
Despite Turkey's strictly secular status, much of the country remains religiously conservative, and the Sakirin Mosque is being built in one of the most religious parts of Istanbul.
Ms Fadillioglu admits she was expecting problems, but was pleasantly surprised.
"I did not face any problems whatsoever. I was more scared myself, I had the prejudice myself, that I would have problems. That's why I took very cautious steps and we worked as a team."
Ironically, she said she faced more problems from staunchly secular friends.
"People with Western values, they kept on asking me why I was building a mosque. People had all these confusions, that I was somehow selling out my secular ideals."
Fusion of influences
The aim of the Sakirin Mosque - combining the influences of the past and present, and East and West - has been a difficult balancing act, Ms Fadillioglu concedes.
"We worked here with a lot of Islamic craftsmen, contemporary craftsmen, with very different views on life, and all of them worked very well together. That co-ordination may be more difficult to achieve with a masculine figure. With a feminine figure it is more easily handled, I think."
The mosque construction comes as Turkey remains deeply divided over the role of religion within society.
In July the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly escaped being shut down. It was accused of seeking to overthrow the secular state, and the country's constitutional court handed down a fine and a severe warning.
An opinion poll released this month found that 68% of the country believes there is a conflict over religion and secularism. In such an environment Ms Fadillioglu hopes the mosque will become a symbol of unity.
"There are big discussions on whether Western values are to be integrated with Islamic values, or whether two different communities will remain divided.
"I think this mosque has all the Western and Eastern values nicely blended. We wanted to go with the flow of Islam, while at the same time creating something contemporary."
April 16, 2009
Afghan Women Protest New Law on Home Life
By DEXTER FILKINS
KABUL, Afghanistan — The young women stepped off the bus and moved toward the protest march just beginning on the other side of the street when they were spotted by a mob of men.
“Get out of here, you whores!” the men shouted. “Get out!”
The women scattered as the men moved in.
“We want our rights!” one of the women shouted, turning to face them. “We want equality!”
The women ran to the bus and dived inside as it rumbled away, with the men smashing the taillights and banging on the sides.
But the march continued anyway. About 300 Afghan women, facing an angry throng three times larger than their own, walked the streets of the capital on Wednesday to demand that Parliament repeal a new law that introduces a range of Taliban-like restrictions on women, and permits, among other things, marital rape.
It was an extraordinary scene. Women are mostly illiterate in this impoverished country, and they do not, generally speaking, enjoy anything near the freedom accorded to men. But there they were, most of them young, many in jeans, defying a threatening crowd and calling out slogans heavy with meaning.
With the Afghan police keeping the mob at bay, the women walked two miles to Parliament, where they delivered a petition calling for the law’s repeal.
“Whenever a man wants sex, we cannot refuse,” said Fatima Husseini, 26, one of the marchers. “It means a woman is a kind of property, to be used by the man in any way that he wants.”
The law, approved by both houses of Parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai, applies to the Shiite minority only. Women here and governments and rights groups abroad have protested three parts of the law especially.
One provision makes it illegal for a woman to resist her husband’s sexual advances. A second provision requires a husband’s permission for a woman to work outside the home or go to school. And a third makes it illegal for a woman to refuse to “make herself up” or “dress up” if that is what her husband wants.
The passage of the law has amounted to something of a historical irony. Afghan Shiites, who make up close to 20 percent of the population, suffered horrendously under the Taliban, who regarded them as apostates. Since 2001, the Shiites, particularly the Hazara minority, have been enjoying a renaissance.
President Karzai, who relies on vast support from the United States and other Western governments to stay in power, has come under intense international criticism for signing the bill into law. Many people here suspect that he did so to gain the favor of the Shiite clergy; Mr. Karzai is up for re-election this year. Previous Afghan governments, during the Soviet era and before the arrival of the Taliban, did not impose such restrictive laws, although in practice many rural women’s freedoms have long been curtailed. Rights advocates say the law for Shiites could influence a proposal for Sunnis and a draft law on violence against women.
Responding to the outcry, Mr. Karzai has begun looking for a way to remove the most controversial parts of the law. In an interview on Wednesday, his spokesman, Homayun Hamidzada, said that the legislation was not yet law because it had not been published in the government’s official register. That, Mr. Hamidzada said, means that it can still be changed. Mr. Karzai has asked his justice minister to look it over.
“We have no doubt that whatever comes out of this process will be consistent with the rights provided for in the Constitution — equality and the protection of women,” Mr. Hamidzada said.
The women who protested Wednesday began their demonstration with what appeared to be a deliberately provocative act. They gathered in front of the School of the Last Prophet, a madrasa run by Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric. He and the scholars around him played an important role in drafting the new law.
“We are here to campaign for our rights,” one woman said into a megaphone. Then the women held their banners aloft and began to chant.
The reaction was immediate. Hundreds of students from the madrasa, most but not all of them men, poured into the streets to confront the demonstrators.
“Death to the enemies of Islam!” the counterdemonstrators cried, encircling the women. “We want Islamic law!”
The women stared ahead and marched.
A phalanx of police officers, some of them women, held the crowds apart.
Afterward, when the demonstrators had left, one of the madrasa’s senior clerics came outside. Asked about the dispute, he said it was between professionals and nonprofessionals; that is, between the clerics, who understood the Koran and Islamic law, and the women calling for the law’s repeal who did not.
“It’s like if you are sick, you go to a doctor, not some amateur,” said the cleric, Mohammed Hussein Jafaari. “This law was approved by the scholars. It was passed by both houses of Parliament. It was signed by the president.”
The religious scholars, Mr. Jafaari conceded, were all men.
Lingering a while, Mr. Jafaari said that what was really driving the dispute was the foreigners who loomed so large over the country.
“We Afghans don’t want a bunch of NATO commanders and foreign ministers telling us what to do.”
By Lauryn Oates, For the Calgary HeraldApril 25, 2009
Licia Corbella's April 4 column, "Here's why the fight in Afghanistan is worth it" was a powerful wake-up call that the tone of the reactions to the proposed discriminatory law against Shiite women, now under reconsideration, is misplaced. She is indeed right when she reminds us that the question is not "why are we in Afghanistan," but rather, for whom?
For several years, our organization, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, has funded the orphanage Licia visited back in 2003. I was also in Kabul at that time, when Afghan men and women delegates came together to approve the country's new constitution, which made women and men equal citizens by law.
Afghanistan is emerging from 30 years of violent conflict, a period where it was largely ignored by the West except to flood it with weapons and then leave the fate of its citizens to the mercy of illiterate, trigger-happy, fundamentalist men. That era, and our subsequent inaction, is to our great shame. Now is our chance to make up for the past and we must get it right. Abandonment is not the answer.
Today, the girls of the Omid-e-mirmun Orphanage are enrolled in school. Many had to work long and hard to make up for missed years of schooling under the Taliban. They are excelling. One girl, aged 15, earned the highest marks this semester in her class. She taught herself English and sends me home with passionate letters to read on the long plane ride back to Canada, describing her dreams for the future. Parentless and poor, the world is nevertheless still wide open in her mind and her goals are so ambitious. The future is very different for this young woman than it was a decade ago. And that future desperately needs to be protected.
It is difficult to describe a sight more compelling than watching the youngest girls spread about, lying on the floor, quietly reading simple picture books to learn to read. The images of animals or illustrated, cartoon-like children with which they engage were illegal under the Taliban, who banned all images of living things. One of the older girls is an avid poet. She writes of Kabul's springs, the blooming of orange blossoms and flowing rivers. The Taliban banned any non-religious literature during their regime. They closed museums, burned books, murdered intellectuals and kept women as prisoners in their homes. The Omid girls will become adults in a new Afghanistan -- one characterized by sweeping changes set against old habits that die hard. They will grow up governed by a president and parliament elected by the people, yet under a government marred by corruption. They will be able to go to university, but their high school teachers risk being murdered by the Taliban -- for being women who teach girls. Some of them may start small businesses, but they live in a country where many people live on less than $1 a day. They may choose to run for a seat in parliament, where they will contend with old mujahedeen deeply averse to their presence. It will be a windy road, but along which some seeds have been planted -- and they must be allowed to grow. As Nick Grono of the International Crisis Group stated, "we shouldn't give up on our strategy of institution building -- the fact is that it's not so much that it has failed, but that we have hardly tried."
Canada's presence in Afghanistan enabled us to send a clear signal to the Afghan government that laws which discriminate against women have no place in our shared goals of justice, human rights and peace. This stands in stark contrast to the Taliban's days of power, when there was nothing but silence coming from the West in response to the regime of gender apartheid under which Afghan women lived. This time, the Afghan government was forced to listen.
A decade ago the Afghan women's movement was in no place to mobilize against the threat of such discrimination. Today, they are doing that -- with ferocity. I was in Kabul at the time the new law was publicly announced and witnessed the flurry of activity which immediately began as women's organizations, parliamentarians, intellectuals, writers and Afghan civil society mobilized. They started a petition, issued statements, made recommendations for repealing the law, met together to plan action, held a press conference, and organized a demonstration against the law.
My friend Shamzia now runs a successful women's cooperative in Kabul, something she could have never done under the Taliban. She often tells me, "Lauryn, if Canada leaves Afghanistan, you had better get me a visa to Canada, because the Taliban will be back, and I will be dead." She is not joking. Her anxiety over her fate if the international community chooses to once again walk away from Afghanistan again is shared by many women, with good reason. Rebuilding a shattered state, one where gender inequities have been amplified by poverty and extremism, was always going to be hard work. But so far the hardest thing about it has been getting a true commitment from players like Canada and the U. S. to make a promise to stick it out for the long run. It's a situation that has been rendered even less confident by the deplorable position of Canada's radical 'antiwar' movement on our role in Afghanistan.
In August, Afghans will go to the polls again. They will have the chance then to demonstrate whether they believe Hamid Karzai should stay in power, when women's hard fought-for rights were imperilled under his watch. Until then and beyond, we must stay vigilant in our solidarity with Afghans. We must listen to those like the girls of the Omid Orphanage, who want the right to dream of being doctors, lawyers, poets and politicians. We must learn something from the schoolgirls in Kandahar who returned to their classrooms after having acid thrown on them by Talibs -- because they wanted to go to school that badly. These are the voices we need to pay attention to, and who we must be fighting for. We owe them nothing less.
Lauryn Oates has been advocating for the rights of Afghan women and girls since 1996. She founded the Vancouver and Montreal Chapters of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, and is currently Project Director of the Excelerate Teacher Training Program (CW 4WA fghan)
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