Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Shobhaa De in conversation with Edit Schlaffer about SAVE's mission

During SAVE Global's recent trip to India, Edit Schlaffer talked to Shobhaa De, Indian author and journalist, about SAVE's mission. Shobhaa De has written 13 books and her columns in Bombay Times, the Sunday Times and The Week reach 10 million readers. The following article was published in the most recent edition of The Week and on Shobhaa De's blog

 Shobhaa De, renowned Indian journalist and author, spoke to Edit Schlaffer

Edit Schlaffer means business! It was easy to tell as much when she strode into my home late one afternoon. Her stride and voice indicated she was someone who was determinedly focused on issues that concern her deeply – her organization - SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) - reflects that unflinching commitment. Accompanying the Austrian lady was a beautiful assistant called Elaine. Both were unambiguously “ Ladies With a Mission” . After an hour long chat, I got a better understanding of their extraordinary mission.

Often, it is personal tragedy that ignites such fervour. She talked about empowering and inspiring women to stand up against violent extremism. She mentioned how society could transform itself if women were consulted on policy. She asked me several difficult and perplexing questions that demanded a great deal of introspection (“ What solutions can women offer to combat terrorism?”). As we chatted – easily and naturally – I began to understand her concerns better . Edit travels around the world meeting women who have suffered at the hands of violent men representing special interest groups of all hues, religious and political. The stories of those battered women are what she wants to highlight and eventually find peaceful resolutions to. She points out, “ Violent extremism is not a distant, abstract threat. Acts of terrorism could happen at your grocery store, your bus, your plane….” Scarey! But it is important to move beyond victimhood, her brochure states. “ For too long, in too many places, the potential of women to make meaningful change has been ignored and overlooked – this is a grave mistake.” Hear! Hear! She also stresses on reconciliation and dialogue, pointing out that “without the knowledge of the other, how will we ever live together?” She believes that without genuine contact and communication, the process of healing and moving forward remains incomplete.

The response mechanisms she recommends involve alternatives that reach out to young men and women who feel frustrated, confused and isolated in societies without adequate support systems. She talked about providing women with the required tools for critical debate to challenge extremist ideologies. As she points out, women are at the heart of the family. They are the first to recognize signs of anger in their children.Change starts in the home…. change starts with women. As she continued talking passionately about her work, I was moved to note her level of intensity as she described meeting the mother of the sole terrorist in custody after the 9\11 attacks in New York. At a conference in Vienna earlier this year, 15 courageous women from Yemen, Pakistan, India, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, came together to share their experiences and work towards a safer future.

The thinking behind Edit’s remarkable initiative is pretty simple : “ Women can transform society by sensitizing and mobilizing their own children susceptible to or already trapped by ideologies of violent extremism.” She has successfully launched ‘Mothers for Change’, a world wide campaign to involve women who can ensure safety and security in their immediate surroundings…. and act as an early warning system.Representing India is Vinita Kamte, the outspoken, fearless widow of the legendary Police Commissioner Ashok Kamte, who was killed during the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks on 26\11. From Hatred to Hope, is the apt heading for this segment that chronicles the efforts of women like Vinita, lone voices in a hostile environment, struggling to be heard. Despite the odds, these extraordinary women are managing to push for reform and change, no matter how daunting the task. There are several other ‘Vinitas’ across the world, most of them linked by a single common factor – the loss of a loved one at the hands of senseless terrorists. Tragedy is the ultimate leveler. But Edit’s tireless efforts are about the triumph of the human spirit … she wants to change the world, and fervently believes that her organization - ‘Women Without Borders’ - will emerge as the most effective agent of that change.

How right she is!

Correction: In the original article, Shobhaa De mentioned that Edit Schlaffer had lost her son. This is not the case. This is a confusion with the stories of Phyllis Rodriguez and Aicha El-Wafi, which were also mentioned in the conversation.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE in an interview with CBS

SAVE Executive Director Dr Edit Schlaffer talks with CBS News senior national security analyst Juan Zarate  about the importance of reaching out to young women in an effort to stop extremism globally. Sorry for the adverts at the beginning - the video starts after about 30 seconds!

Monday, December 13, 2010

MOSSARAT QADEEM: A great commonality flows between our countries

 Demolish the temple, demolish the Mosque,
Demolish all that can be demolished,
But do not injure the heart of people,
for that is where God resides.

This is the lesson that we, the women of Pakistan and India, have taken back with us from our dialogue organized by Save Global in Mumbai in November 2010. Save Global gave us the opportunity to listen to each other’s grief , share our concerns, develop understanding of each other’s pressing issues of insecurity, violence and poverty, connect with each other as good neighbors and not as enemies, feel each other as human, and build bridges of sisterhood on the basis of commonalities. Based on natural, historical and cultural factors, a great commonality flows between two important countries of South Asia, which one would imagine should be used for greater cooperation and hence progress and development.

It was the first time that the impact of extremism on women from both sides was shared. It also gave us the opportunity to tell everyone how this war on terror has affected the state and nation of Pakistan in myriad ways. It is we the people of Pakistan that are facing suicide attacks; it is our children who have been psychologically affected; it is our youth who have become the victims; and it is our women who have to bear the brunt. It is through such sisterly forums that we can share our insights, sufferings and feelings. SAVE Global provided us an environment to break down our misperceptions, distrust, and doubts towards each other and develop a common vision of peace and sisterhood for the Sub-continent. We believe that it is through such interactions at different levels that misperceptions regarding each other can be addressed.

We also realized that women have been totally ignored in peace negotiations or talks between Pakistan and India. It is high time that women are included in all peace talks between the two countries. 

In closing I would like to say:

Amongst the values held in special esteem in Pakistan and India are respect for the human personality, recognition of the primacy of spirit, the importance of religion in life, faith in the unity of mankind, the kinship of all religions, and devotion to peace and creative work.

To preserve these values and eradicate some of the suicidal conflicts of the 21st Century it is necessary to rewrite history on rational and human lines, to link politics with morality, to subordinate the idea of fanaticism to the concept of human brotherhood and unity, and to develop an active appreciation for the cultures, religions and attitudes of other people.

SAVE Global gave us the opportunity to rebuild bridges of sisterhood and friendship in the region.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Much more to Yemen than what we see in the news

Yemen is often portrayed by the news media as a failed state and terrorist haven. Alice Hackmann, who recently returned from two years in Yemen as a reporter for the Yemen Times, tells the other side of the story.

First published in Common Ground News Service. Photos by Women without Borders / SAVE.

 The beautiful architecture of Sana'a, Yemen's capital city

The British media’s focus on a young British Muslim woman who stabbed a British Member of Parliament last month once again shines a gloomy spotlight on Yemen. According to The Guardian, Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old student who stabbed the politician for supporting the war in Iraq, told the police: "I've been listening to lectures by Anwar al-Awlaki.... He's an Islamic scholar. He lives in Yemen."

As the media concentrates on al-Awlaki’s online sermons, his role in the launch of Al Qaeda’s new magazine, and the Yemeni government’s ongoing battle against Al Qaeda, the real Yemen has been drowned out. Yet it is this narrative – that of the vast majority of the population, not of a few hundred militants – that holds the key to better understanding, breaking stereotypes and perhaps ultimately less extremism.

Inside a coffee shop, near King’s Cross station in central London, British-born Yemeni Abubakr al-Shamahi, 21, sips his hot chocolate and talks passionately about his home country. Not once does he talk about extremism. Instead, he talks of corruption and his fear that donors’ money is not properly spent on long-term development, he laughs at Yemeni parents’ matchmaking, and he raves about the beauty of the old city of Sana’a. No one he knows has been influenced at all by the radical sermons of al-Awlaki.

This is the real Yemen. It is not al-Awlaki’s falsified narrative of a West-hating, militant-training Yemen. It is a country of over 22 million people – over 70 per cent of whom are under the age of 25 – struggling for development and the privilege to join the World Trade Organization. On Facebook, this is what the English-speaking youth in Yemen are telling the world. A Yemeni-Canadian, Issmat Alakhali, 32, attracted over 4,500 users to his page, “I know someone in Yemen and he/she is not a terrorist!” which he launched in January. More recently, Atiaf A., another young Yemeni, started a video project called “I’m Yemeni, I’m not a terrorist”.

And yet, in an interview last May, Al-Awlaki said that he enjoyed free movement among the tribes of Yemen because “the people of Yemen hate Americans.” This is not true. Most young Yemenis learn English because, apart from it being the international language of business, they also dream of emigrating to the United States or Europe to study or to work.
For the average young Yemeni, daily grievances are far more important than politics. Graduates hope to find a job. Young men struggle to accumulate enough jobs to be able to get married. New couples battle with price hikes. Nearly half of the population lives on less than two dollars a day and social development indicators – such as child malnutrition, maternal mortality and educational attainment – remain extremely poor, according to the UN’s World Food Program.

Yemeni children

In the north of the country, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have been displaced by six rounds of war between the government and the Houthi rebels. In the south, a growing secessionist movement threatens the unity of the country, while each month thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants arrive on the coast from the Horn of Africa. Nationwide, the next generation will struggle for water to drink as the country’s population continues to increase and its already depleted aquifers rapidly run dry.

Instead of focusing always on Al Qaeda, the international media should highlight the efforts of youth-led initiatives such as Resonate! Yemen, Me for My country, Ayoon Shabah (Arabic for “youth’s eyes”) and the Yemeni Children’s Parliament to tackle some of the country’s other issues. They should profile social entrepreneurs like Hayat al-Hibshi who set up the Assada Women’s Association to help girls from marginalised poor communities go to school.

The media should also highlight positive exchanges between the Muslim communities of Britain and Yemen, such as the British-Somali charity that helped to set up a day care centre for young refugee mothers in Sana’a earlier this year.

More media focus on positive community-led change in Yemen, instead of terrorism, would counter negative stereotypes of both Yemenis and Muslims in the West. The effect would be more respect for Muslims in the West, less feelings of alienation or anger among their children and, perhaps, less reason to listen to a radical preacher in the first place.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

SAVE Dialogue--Political Conflict Resolution Starts at Home!

For talks between two countries that have a long history of struggle and discord to make an impact on the ground, the recommendations that come out of the talks must resonate with the people who are directly impacted by the effects of the struggle. As representatives of civil society who are located at the critical juncture of family and community, women are best-placed to implement strategic recommendations on the ground. At the same time, women must necessarily be included in such talks to highlight real examples of the commitment to ending violent extremism on the global stage.

On November 28 and 29, SAVE Global hosted a ground-breaking dialogue between Indian and Pakistani representatives in Mumbai, India. These activists, academics, experts, terrorist attack victims, corporate sector representatives, and mothers came forward to participate in intense discussions and to make clear their commitment to reducing the enduring tensions between India and Pakistan. The talks were unique in two key aspects: first, the participants represented a wide range of fields beyond the political realm, and secondly, they were all women. This SAVE dialogue aimed to highlight women’s and victims’ experiences with violent extremism, and to provide space for their recommendations and best practices for combating radicalism.

On the first day of the dialogue, the Pakistani delegation and select Indian counterparts identified false stereotypes and misperceptions of ‘the other’ as one of the main causes of discord between the countries. They therefore carved out strategies for promoting exchange between key groups and deepening cultural and academic understanding of their counterparts. That afternoon, the participants walked the ‘terror trail,’ visiting the sites of the 26/11 terror attacks. As Shabana Fayyaz, an academic from Pakistan, noted, ‘Being here has helped me to internalize the attacks, and to understand how it must have been here.’ On the second day, over 20 individuals participated in the day-long talks; by the end, the group had come up with the following suggestions:

1. SAVE India and SAVE Pakistan representatives should gather in Lucknow to develop a multi-tiered manual on how to change perceptions of ‚the other‘

2. Increase School/Students Exchanges; implement a Big Sister / Little Sister program

3. Launch ‘This is Me, Who are You?’ programs to learn about the other

4. Continued, regular dialogue; next meeting to be held in Pakistan

5. Develop module to train women how to talk about these issues—remove topical taboos

6. Engage in media work to reduce mistrust

7. Create a network of witnesses of violent extremism to educate the young generation

8. Conduct pilot projects in both India and Pakistan, and then bring together a select number of women from each side to share best practices

These recommendations will be implemented on both sides and monitored by SAVE Global over the coming months.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

ARSHI SALEEM HASHMI: There is no "them" there is only "us" - women of Pakistan and India share their stories

SAVE Global organized a workshop in Mumbai on Nov 28-29 to provide a platform for women’s voices from both India and Pakistan rejecting the stereotypes about  each other and sharing the pain and sorrow that victims of terrorism in general, and women in particular, feel. Arshi Saleem Hashmi describes the benefits that both Pakistani and Indian women derived from the dialogue.

Arshi Saleem Hashmi, member of SAVE Pakistan, took part in the bridge-building dialogue

SAVE Global's bridge-building dialogue facilitated an emotional bonding between the victims of terrorism and religious extremism in India and their sisters in Pakistan who are suffering almost daily from the impact of violent extremism in many forms. It was made even more emotional and deep by the vulnerability of the women in Pakistan caused by feudal-religious orthodoxy.

Pakistani women from the nongovernmental sector, research and academia accepted the invitation and opened their hearts and minds to hear and feel the pain of their sisters in India. More than once, it occurred to SAVE Pakistan members that, despite the popular perception that the dialogue was in the context of “us” versus “them”, there was no “them” - it was all about “us”, the women of both India and Pakistan. We not only share a border, we share our feelings, emotions, pain, happiness and success.

It was heartening to see and hear Indian women victims of terrorism tell their stories; it was as if they were our own stories, using the same expressions, and voicing the same concerns and fears. It was decided that we must strengthen the bond and continue to build on the commonalities rather than discussing or highlighting differences. If it is all about perceptions, then perceptions can be changed in good faith.

Talking to Indian media was a great opportunity to let the people of India know that, despite the fact that Pakistan has become hostage to violent religious extremism, the majority of Pakistanis strongly believe in a moderate, prosperous Pakistan continuous with their South Asian identity. They would love to have more and more interaction with their eastern neighbor. There is hope that we can achieve this, because of a vibrant civil society that has maintained its existence and remained active in its struggle to save Pakistan from losing its South Asian identity, connection and bond. This civil society gives hope that people on both sides of the border, and especially women, will continue to take initiatives to demystify the myths about each other, and prevent dehumanizing of one another.

SAVE Pakistan strongly believes in this commitment to peace between the two countries, a goal that was expressed in the joint statement and future steps that we would be taking.

SAVE India provided this opportunity and arranged our meeting with the victims of terrorism, Indian media and civil society activists, teachers and researchers. It was a very positive initiative in an environment suffering from a trust deficit between the two countries. A step has been taken in the right direction, all we have to do is to sustain it, follow it and strengthen it. 

ARCHANA KAPOOR: Building on commonalities of culture, cricket and concerns - a bridge-building dialogue between Indian and Pakistani delegates

In November, SAVE Global traveled to Mumbai to conduct an income-generating workshop and a bridge-building dialogue between Indian and Pakistani representatives. Archana Kapoor, president of SAVE India, describes the projects and the impact that SAVE is making on the search for a peaceful solution to the India-Pakistan conflict.

Delegates from Pakistan and India came together in Mumbai for a 
groundbreaking bridge-building dialogue

The Pakistani delegation comprising civil society members, academics and a victim of terrorism had arrived. It was great to see them. We at SAVE India had been constantly worried that they would not get clearance until they finally joined us in Mumbai on November 29.

As the first step towards a meaningful dialogue, we assured the delegates that we were all there to look forwards and find solutions, rather than to rake up issues that were being dealt with at various other levels. For any dialogue, ground rules must be set. The parameters for our dialogue had to be fixed. The sensitivities of each of the participants had to be respected and most importantly, what was discussed had to stay within those four walls until a common consensus had been arrived at. Once this was done everything seemed so simple!

Thus began our two day interaction/dialogue with our neighbors and delegates from across the border. It was important to know what we as women first, and mothers later, could bring to the table and discuss in a forum that was definitely social but could not keep the political out, as the personal is political in the context of India and Pakistan.

SAVE Global provided this opportunity by sponsoring this dialogue and also setting the agenda. With experiences of working with victims of terrorist attacks in US, UK, Spain, Palestine, Israel ,Yemen and many other conflict zones, Dr Edit Schlaffer kicked off the dialogue. It was important for all of us to understand the issues plaguing each side. The problem of Pakistan was indeed different from that of India. They were not only suffering from problems of bad press, stereotyping and labeling as a country that has become the breeding ground of terror but also from the problem of terror attacks on innocents. Be it the SWAT valley, Lahore or Islamabad, the problem in the last few years has been aggravated and it is very difficult to say who is responsible for this. It was interesting to hear the points of view of experts who have worked with victims and who are doing their research on issues like Islamisation of Madrasas, terrorism and its causes, youth and radicalization. One thing that came out strongly was that women have a role to play - on the one hand when they are coping with victimhood and on the other hand they are also propagating terror as either mute spectators or active participants.

Thus the time has come to assimilate their energies, to discuss and debate with them and channel their energies positively. One way is of course to provide them with choices and this can be done by empowering them to access those choices. Income generation and livelihood skills along with life skills seemed a good option for Paiman Foundation, which has trained over 1000 women already and is carrying on these training programs on a large scale.

Families of the policemen on duty during the Mumbai terrorist attacks 
in 2008 discuss the livelihood project

SAVE India did the first pilot of Mothers for Change in April 2010. In a program called ‘Our Stories Our Future’ a 5-day workshop brought out the fears, sorrows and apprehensions of the mothers on one hand and their aspirations, hopes and expectations on the other. The program was a huge success, and it was important to go back with a concrete double program for these mothers who had opened their hearts to the SAVE team. Thus a livelihood program was announced for them. The beauty of the program is that it is a needs-based program that provides them with skills that they feel they need and which they feel would add to their confidence. After a thorough brainstorming session and assurance from the women that they would not back out, a basic computer training program, an accountancy training program and an English speaking course were announced. Vinita Kamte, the driving force of this program has committed her time and energy to see that this program becomes a success. The same Pakistani model will also be followed to provide life skills, including negotiation skills, to the beneficiaries.

It is important to use these income generation activities to create a platform for mothering change in the attitudes and mindset of the women. This could be their chance not only to voice their grievances but also to look at solutions to address their grievances against the extremist activities that their men and boys get into.

Build on commonalities, instead of stressing differences

The stories of those impacted by violent extremism in Pakistan and India were the most heart-rending part of the two-day dialogue. The story of Anjali Chemburkar, who lost her husband in the Trident hotel on 26/11, was very moving. Her spirit and courage despite her personal tragedy was not only inspirational for the women from India but also got a huge round of applause from the Pakistani delegates. In fact it gave others the courage to share their own stories of loss, grief, despair and hope.

The walk along the terror trail was disturbing for all. A comment made by Shabana haunted me last night. She said that ever since she had come to the Taj, she was internalizing what must have gone through the minds of those who were trapped here for more than 60 hours. The walk sent shivers down everyone’s spine. The common refrain among the delegates was, How could anyone ruin the lives of so many innocents? Could this tragedy have been avoided? The silence in the car on the way back itself reflected what was going on in the minds of all the delegates.

It was clear that perceptions about each other had to change. Though a handful of young men had destroyed the peace and tranquility of Mumbai there were millions in both countries who wanted to stretch a hand of friendship across the borders. Schools and universities could play a vital role in breaking stereotypes and changing perceptions. More dialogues and interactions at different levels are needed. Women have to join hands and become a force to be reckoned with.

It is time to build on commonalities of culture, color, cricket and concerns. There was no doubt that there are more reasons to work together and resolve the differences at the earliest stage than there are to allow the rift to continue. The love for Indian cuisine, music and Bollywood was stronger than any political differences.

It is time to break the barriers. It is time for women to lay the foundation for a strong bridge of friendship!!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Turning soft power into smart power: An income-generating workshop with victims' families

On the anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, the city is increasing its security measures. Rather than putting up barricades and bringing out sniper rifles, we should be looking for a long-term solution to challenge radical ideologies before they flourish. SAVE India is in Mumbai giving women the economic tools that lead to political and social empowerment, and thus the ability to influence their families and societies for a better future. Commentary by Edit Schlaffer.

The face of Mumbai has changed drastically over the past week; this bustling metropolis has taken on fortress-like qualities in preparation for the anniversary of the 26/11 attacks. Tanks, barricades, policemen, cameras, rooftop snipers, and undercover detectives have created a surreal environment—all this to make the city safe, but how safe is it really?

The morning of the 26th, a huge parade demonstrated India’s military might, which is an alarming juxtaposition to the thousands of policemen who have received only batons to protect the city. These measures serve more to highlight the perceived threats than to instill a sense of security and personal safety. We cannot live our lives behind concrete walls and invisible shields—alongside necessary precautions there must be a long-term vision to challenge radical ideologies before they can take root and flourish. Communities and families must be sensitized and strengthened to provide susceptible youths with alternatives to the allure of violent extremism.

An Indian State Home Minister recently visited Kasab, the only surviving terrorist of the 26/11 attacks, in jail here in Mumbai. When asked why he committed this heinous atrocity, he said he was young and disoriented, and looked for advice from the wrong places.

Families, and particularly women as the primary caretakers, can be a new front to combat violent extremism. But how can this work? The first step is to empower the women, so that their voices are heard and that they bring something to the table both economically in their families and in terms of political and social standing in their communities. Only then does the continuous mantra that women’s stronghold is the family become valid.

On November 24th, SAVE India and Vinita Kamte, whose husband shot Kasab in the arm before succumbing to his own injuries, launched ‘Soft Power to Smart Power: Acquiring New Skills,’ a computer and English-language training for the wives and daughters of the police officers who were on duty during the 26/11 attacks. The trainings are part of the Mothers for Change! campaign; recent studies have shown that there is a negative relationship between the percentage of women in the labor force and domestic terrorist attacks. Investing in women not only makes sense in economic terms, but also can be a key stabilizing factor.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Breaking the Silence on Violence

The 1989 Montreal Massacre converted November 25 into a rallying day for campaigns fighting violence against women. Today is White Ribbon Day and the first day of the annual 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women.Although we may see Western societies as gender equal, the hidden reality is that 45% of all women in Europe are estimated to experience gender-based violence at least once in their lives. These campaigns can help raise awareness and reverse this trend, says Emelie Laurin

First published in Polemics

On this day in 1989, an enraged gunman shot 14 women engineering students to death in a classroom in Montreal. The tragedy became known as the Montreal Massacre, and has for the last two decades been a galvanising force for movements aimed at the elimination of violence against women.

Today is the first day of the annual 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women. First organized by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, New Jersey, in 1991, the campaign brings groups from all over the world together in speaking out against all forms of gender violence.

Two Austrian dailies  recently published articles about an increase during 2009 in the amount of women and children seeking help in ”Wiener Frauenhäuser”, an organisation in Vienna that provides shelter and support for women and children experiencing domestic violence and abuse. The articles speak of an increase that amounts to 26 more women and 57 more children than in 2008, adding up to a total of 583 women and 571 children during 2009 seeking refuge in one of the four shelters provided by the organisation in Vienna. A rough 50 percent of the women turning to ”Wiener Fraunhäuser” during 2009 were migrants. Another shelter is planned for 2012.

In armed conflicts, women and children are ruinously targeted in campaigns of violence that are clearly gender – based, be it physical abuse, sexual violence, genital mutilation, forced marriage, trafficking and murder.

On our home ground, we repeatedly hear boasts of the emblematic features of our continent’s progress in eliminating gender inequality and promoting human rights, and we can find plenty of women holding top-level decision making positions. Since the end of the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s, there is also no real armed conflict to speak of. Yet, in our society, violence against women and children at the grass roots level – that is within the walls of family homes – is the most common violent crime and the greatest violation of human rights one can find in Europe today. In 2008, more than a thousand women in Austria reportedly fell victim to sexual violence according to the Statistical Database of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Appearing among the top 20 states of the Human Development Index apparently does not affect a state’s risks of showing up on indexes measuring less becoming trends. Considered to be a highly developed country demonstrating a low level of gender inequality, Sweden made it to number one on a list of countries reporting remarkably high levels of rape and crimes of sexual violence, according to a study conducted by the European Union in 2009.

This rather disturbing result was explained by the higher tendency in Sweden to report crimes of sexual abuse, but also by the prevailing values and norms relating to the society’s stereotypical notion of sexual violence. Contrary to what many still believe, sexual violence rarely involves an unknown man attacking a woman in a public, dark place. Rather, sexual violence and other gender-based violence occur in daily life, in situations where the victims are very much at home. In Europe, 45% of all women in Europe are estimated to experience gender-based violence at least once in their lives.

Today is not only the beginning of the 16 days for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, but also the end of the White Ribbon Campaign for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. White Ribbon is a campaign specifically organized by men working to reduce violence against women by educating men and boys.

The 16 days campaign, by contrast, aims not only at emphasizing the fact that gender based violence is a violation of human rights, but also encapsulates other days dedicated to highlight issues relating to Human Rights, such as World Aids Day on December 1, The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on December 2, International Day for Disabled Persons on December 3 and the Human Rights Day on December 10. More than 150 countries have participated in the campaign so far. It was officially recognized as a United Nation’s campaign day in 1999.
Here in Austria, the ”16 Tage Gegen Gewalt An Frauen” is officially acknowledged by representatives of state and municipalities all over the country who on November 25 symbolically hoist hundreds of flags carrying the slogan ”Frei Leben Ohne Gewalt” – A Life in Freedom Without Violence – as a sign of the Austrian community’s support for the campaign.

The day is particularly acknowledged here in Austria by the lobby ”Autonome Österreichische Frauenhäuser” (Independent Women’s Refuge in Austria) which functions as an umbrella organisation for establishments like Wiener Frauenhäuser. Being the main institutions in society with first-hand experience from the field, it makes sense that these establishments send out a particularly loud clarion call during these days.

What makes less sense is that while these 16 days of campaigning pass by, more than ten percent of all women in Europe will still face violence in the home every day, and women and girls will still make up nearly the entire group of the victims of international human trafficking who are used for commercial sexual exploitation.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Women in the Arab World: Moving Beyond the Stereotypes

Ambassador Sallama Shaker

First published by Peace x Peace on 17 November 2010

“The problem seems to be that once we see a woman wearing the Gulf clothes, which are black, we immediately get the impression that they are oppressed. We really should go beyond this clothes image.”

We need to be doing more in the Arab world to present a better understanding of the diversity of the cultures in the Arab world. Somehow I think that the United States is always under the impression that women are caged in the Arab world just because of the way that some of the Arabs seem to be dressed. Because of these images of women we seem to forget that there are so many business women and women entrepreneurs in the whole of the Arab world. And that the rate of education in the Arab world among women is one of the highest.

It is the role of the mass media and our role as educators to bring a better understanding of the cultures and religion in the Arab world. The Arab women in political, cultural, and social arenas need to play their roles as social agents of change and dissolve the stereotyped images that seem to always be projected in Western media.

We tend to forget that some of the clothes are national costumes. When we used to see Benazir Bhutto in her veil and national costume none of us got the impression that she was caged or oppressed. And we appreciate all the beautiful national costumes that are being worn by African women. The problem seems to be that once we see a woman wearing the Gulf clothes, which are black, we immediately get the impression that they are oppressed. We really should go beyond this clothes image. We need to understand the cultures and how right now there are influential positions that are held by women in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Libya and many other countries in the Arab world. We tend to forget that there was Tansu Çiller, the Prime Minister of Turkey. And we forget so many other Muslim women who played active roles in their society.

Another example is Suzanne Mubarak’s Women’s International Peace Movement. This movement draws from the whole Arab world as well as from Europe, the United States, and Latin America. A conference was held in the Library of Alexandria in Egypt in 2009 addressing the issue of illicit trafficking of women and how to stop this dangerous, violent act against women around the world. The conference also discussed how to maintain peace in the Middle East and the role of women as peace activists and agents of transformational, constructive change in their societies.

I really feel that the mass media needs to play a more constructive role in changing stereotyped images. We need Oprah to go and discuss, for example, all of the major activities done by women in many Arab countries. This will help stop the othering and the fear of those who are veiled. Because frankly speaking  in many parts of the world the veil is what you can describe as a sign of an identity.

I am sure that together we can make a difference. Educating the young future leaders everywhere in the United States and in Europe will definitely make a positive impact on changing these images.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SAVE India works to boost peace at the grass roots level

Peace talks between India and Pakistan at the highest political levels have been faltering for the last two years. Now politicians are calling for increased efforts at the grass roots, people-to-people level. SAVE Global is in Mumbai working with SAVE India on the anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks to bring women's voices into the peace dialogue. 

SAVE Executive Director Edit Schlaffer with Vinita Kamte, author of To the Last Bullet, in April 2010. 
Vinita's husband was killed while on duty during the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.

This week, the SAVE Global team is in India to build a foundation for the Mothers for Change! project, and to carry out a bridge-building dialogue between Pakistani and Indian women representatives to boost peace initiatives at the grass roots level.

The anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks are just around the corner. Since the attacks on 26 November 2008, peace talks between India and Pakistan’s foreign ministers have been on hold. In February this year, high-level representatives began to re-initiate the talks under pressure from the international community. Unfortunately most of the planned meetings have ended in stalemate or failed to take place.

President Obama urged for progress in the talks during his recent visit to India. It is in the interest of most western countries that the two rivals have an amicable relationship, due to the volatile situation in neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan and India must cooperate to stabilize the region, and many fear that the countries’ nuclear capability could make ongoing enmity very dangerous indeed.

It is clear, however, that talks that take place at the highest levels will have little to no effect at the grassroots level. Women—both as victims and as actors—have further been utterly neglected in these talks.

Societal stability and the wellbeing of future generations are at stake if steps are not taken to ease tensions and include civil society in an enduring fashion. Cross-border security is not the only issue at stake: the number of terrorist incidents within Pakistan alone has increased over three-fold since 2008.

Leaders at the highest levels have been calling for more people-to-people contact as an essential ingredient to moving peace talks forward. Women working as effective peace-builders can be a central driving force in this process.

SAVE global travelled to India in April 2010 to carry out storytelling and swimming workshops with the families of the policemen who were on duty during the Mumbai terrorist attacks. To read more about that project, click here. This week, the team will once again be working with these women in an income-generating workshop.

On Saturday November 20, SAVE talked to over 40 school children about their own potential as agents of change. By tackling prejudices and engaging with people of other faiths and backgrounds, children can help build a better future for their communities. SAVE brought this message to children from various schools and organizations at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing arts.

At the presentation, held in cooperation with the World Kids Foundation, children watched the film Harun-Arun about a Hindu woman who learns to love and take care of a Muslim child, and a trailer of the SAVE film “Journeys Through Darkness”. Click here to read press coverage of the event.

Early next week, SAVE will also carry out a day-long bridge-building dialogue between Indian and Pakistani representatives. Women’s close proximity to the issues at hand positions them as ideal architects for change at the local levels. Mothers, especially, can reach out to disenfranchised youth and provide support and alternatives to the allure of extremist activities. Youth must recognize their potential to act as changemakers at both the grassroots and at the highest levels, and strive to build bridges between divergent religious, cultural, political, and socio-economic groups. These bridges will create the necessary emotional breakthrough to start a meaningful dialogue for action.

This initiative comes from a different perspective, aiming to explore ways in which women can come together in a united front against violent extremism. A cross-cultural dialogue based on shared values, mutual respect and empathy aims to bring women of different backgrounds and perspectives together to better understand one another and work together for a stable, secure future.

SAVE India focuses on bringing women’s voices into the vital dialogue for peace between India and Pakistan. Women’s position at the heart of their families and communities allows them to exercise an enormous moral and educational influence that often goes unappreciated. Their unique perspectives are often left out of the security debate, denying the peace talks between Pakistan and India the input of society’s most powerful peace makers.

SAVE India works with women who are able to influence their local communities in their roles as mothers, teachers, students and activists, and helps them to make their voices heard at the highest political levels. By creating a supportive network, women can more easily and confidently spread peaceful values and tolerance, influencing the next generation to build a brighter future.

The goal of this month’s meetings is to offer participants the opportunity, accompanied by experts, to practice conflict resolution and dialogue within a small circle. Within the framework of this project, getting to know the “other side” across cultural and religious boundaries will be facilitated, while an exchange on the personal level will be accelerated. Each participant will become a catalyst for positive change and the spread of peaceful messages within their communities. The meetings will lay the foundations for further interactions between Indian and Pakistani women, in order to reduce tensions and deconstruct prejudices.

Updates about our activities in India will be available very soon.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

UN Women and Saudi Arabia - a demystification of the roles of the Executive Board

Controversial bids by countries with poor women's rights records to join the Executive Board of UN Women has caused an uproar. It has also exposed a confusion about the role of the newly-created body. Here we offer a short demystification of the issues involved. 

UN Women’s recent announcement that Saudi Arabia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) will be on its Executive Board has stirred much controversy and some confusion as to the responsibilities of countries on the Executive Board. The two countries have miserable reputations for the protection of women’s rights. Rape as a weapon of war is widespread in the DRC, and Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam severely restricts women’s economic and social rights. Iran, a country that preserves practices such as death by stoning as punishment for adultery, also bid to join the Executive Board, but was unsuccessful.
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi called Iran and Saudi Arabia’s bids “a joke”, claiming that the board “will not get anywhere” with these two countries as members. Blogger Saudiwoman rejected this claim, saying that by including Saudi Arabia, UN Women may have more influence over the country’s human rights policies, and “engage Saudis and educate women here on their rights”.
There seems to be some confusion in this debate as to what UN Women will actually do and what responsibilities fall to its executive board. UN Women has been created to streamline the several previously-existing women’s rights agencies into one body – these agencies were UNIFEM, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Division for the Advancement of Women and the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. It will become operational in January 2011.
UN Women is mainly a monitoring and technical support body. It aims to “support Member States to advance gender equality, in line with national priorities and international norms and policies.”  This means that not just those states that are on the Executive Board will be held accountable for the standard of their women’s rights protection. All UN Member States are to keep in line with gender equality resolutions made by the General Assembly, which are politically binding, and Security Council, which are legally binding. UN Women is there to monitor their progress in implementing UN commitments. Saudi Arabia will be no more thoroughly monitored due to its position on the Board than any other country would be. What’s more, the Member States get to decide when and what kind of help UN Women provide within their states. So UN Women will only be helping out in Saudi Arabia and DRC if they are invited to do so. Such is the nature of sovereignty.
So what is the purpose of the Executive Board? There are 41 members on this Board, drawing from 5 major regions of the world: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Six of the states are taken from major contributing countries, a category which includes the USA, UK and Saudi Arabia. One function of the Board is to establish which countries have the greatest need for support. UNIFEM works in 80 countries of the world, according to requests for help and the organization’s judgment of which countries need their technical support most urgently. This pattern will be continued by UN Women in its decisions on how to allocate its financial and technical resources.

As far as innovation goes, the board will be able to influence policy making by recommending new initiatives to the Council and Assembly and approve country programs and projects within its own field.

All this means that the countries on the board must agree to what policies the agency will advocate for. The diversity of State practices in women’s rights represented on the board could make progress slow and halt forward-thinking policies. However, each region of the world must be represented – without fair representation there is the danger of Western states being accused of cultural imperialism.

UN Women can be a useful body for the creation of new international frameworks for women’s rights. However, cooperation with these standards still largely falls down to the individual State’s willingness to change their laws and practices. If Saudi Arabia does not invite UN Women to intervene in its country, there is little UN Women can do apart from exert political and diplomatic pressure. Saudi Arabia’s presence on the board may lead to the expression of some less progressive views on women’s rights, but it may also encourage a change of mindset for some Saudi policy-makers. Next year, UN Women will begin to operate, and we must hope that the Executive Board members undertake their offices in good faith, and with a good understanding that their position requires them to make furthering the freedom of women their main goal.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mina Ahadi condemns Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's "confession" and personal attack on Ahadi aired on Iranian state TV

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has appeared a third time on Iranian State TV to give a confession that is believed to be forced from her through torture. Newspaper articles published today give an account of Ashtiani, who is sentenced to death for murder and has been convicted of adultery, attacking Mina Ahadi for bringing her plight to world attention. Detained German journalists also attack Ahadi, who is the director of the International Committee Against Stoning, in the film. In the below statement, Ahadi refutes the claims made on the TV program and reaffirms her commitment to ensuring Ashtiani's release.

The Islamic Republic’s TV Show against Sakineh and the Arrestees of This Case

In tonight’s airing of news program “Eight-thirty,” the Islamic Republic’s “Seda va Sima” aired a clip of the Information Ministry obtaining “confessions” from its prisoners. In this program, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, Sajjad [Ghaderzadeh], Houtan [Kian] and the two German journalists associated with Bild Am Sonntag magazine were forced to testify against themselves.

The two German journalists, Houtan, and Sajjad were arrested on October 10 while they were interviewing in Houtan’s office. Sajjad and Houtan were immediately tortured and to this day have been deprived from visitation and having solicitors. The two German journalists too remain imprisoned on charges of interviewing!

The Islamic Republic’s goal in airing this program is to agitate public opinion against Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and Mina Ahadi, yet despite all the effort to create this program, the program by itself gives a powerful picture of the international campaign to save Sakineh and a tenacious picture of Mina Ahadi, her humanitarian efforts and exposing the Islamic Republic!

To clarify for the public, it is necessary to say that the two German journalists did not travel to Iran on the request of the International Committee against Execution or Mina Ahadi. These two journalists had travelled to Iran to report and to do interviews.  They contacted Mina Ahadi and asked for her assistance in contacting Sajjad, and once there, asked Mina Ahadi’s help with interpretation.

Taking confessions of the arrestees under pressure and torture is the Islamic Republic’s exposed politic.

In the past five months, under one of the most powerful international campaigns which was initiated by Mina Ahadi and the Committees against Stoning and Execution, the Islamic Republic’s officials have issued a lot of contradictory announcements, and the harder they have tried, the more they have exposed themselves. They prepared the execution of Sakineh on several occasions, but the pressure of this global campaign has forced them to retreat. This recent attempt too will lead to even more indignation.

We strongly condemn the Islamic Republic for forcing prisoners to confess against themselves, and call upon the world’s citizens, organizations and international institutions to condemn the Islamic Republic and demand the immediate release of Sakineh, Sajjad, Houtan and the two German journalists, as well as all those sentenced to stoning, and expand their activities for their rescue.

International Committee against Stoning
International Committee against Execution
Nov 15, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Hijab and women in Afghanistan

The Burqa ban has inspired much debate around Europe and the world. In this article first published in Foreign Policy blogs, Tahera Nassrat explains women's motivations for wearing the Hijab, considers the family's role in preventing women from achieving independence, and suggests how families can better follow the Quran through equal treatment of girls and boys.

Hijab is the Arabic word for “Curtain, or Cover”. It is taken from Hajb meaning to cover, to veil, to shelter. Muslim women wear the Hijab for different reasons. Some wear the Hijab to delight their God- in reference to holy Quran. Some to please their families and some to obey the Islamic law.

Afghanistan is one of the Islamic countries where women wear Hijab by law, not by choice. The law which powerful Islamic groups created misuses the concept of Hijab in the Quran and forces women to cover and remain home. The holy Quran asks Muslim women to wear an outer garment when going out to differentiate them from non-Muslims and identify them as “believing” women in the society. The holy Quran does not say that women should be veiled and kept at home away from mixed society. Conversely, it insisted on full participation of women in society and religious practices.

Women in Muslim countries like Afghanistan are compelled to behave in a certain way from the very beginning. When a girl is born, different treatment is afforded to the girl. They are told to avoid men’s room, talking among elders, walking without a veil and joking with boys. Girls are always shown to be weak human beings while boys are seen as strong. It is common among families, that when a boy cries, the parent says, “Are you a girl to cry?” or “A boy never cries”. Boys get the sense of being a strong human being. Girls get the sense of being weak, dependent and followers of men.

This internal discrimination germinates a feeling inside Muslim men that they no longer wish their wives and sisters to be independent and uncovered. They meet and make relations with non-Muslim women who are not veiled and treat them respectfully, but do not provide the same respectful treatment to Muslim women.
Motivation, support and equality are not delivered to the girls in the families. Rather, discrimination spreads out into the society, where women find it hard to stand up and speak for their rights. So, why such a discrimination from parents to their children? Why should women should dress and behave against their wishes when men do not?

I think reconciliation of these incorrect concepts is necessary. Families should educate themselves and deliver equal treatments to their children. They need to understand that personality, Islam and religion is not an appearance. It is in you and the way you behave and treat others. People should increase their level of awareness and avoid practices like forced marriages and limiting women from society. They should instead sponsor a poor family or provide shelter, food, clothes and medication for those who are suffering.

Follow this link to watch an interesting short video from "60 Minutes" about the Burqa and Hijab bans in Australia and Europe.

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE on CBS