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.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Misperceptions work both ways: Muslim and secular women need to work for inclusive dialogue

Greater understanding is needed between Muslim and secular women. Instead of criticizing one another's way of life, women should conduct an inclusive dialogue that recognizes the common ground that all women have. Arzu Merali of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, describes common misperceptions from both sides and why we should work to respect everyone's point of view.

They hate women, don't they?

"It must be terrible having to wear all that," a friend of mine was told last December as she attended a meeting to discuss the future of Afghanistan, particularly its women - "all that" being some baggy clothing and a headscarf. "Not particularly," she retorted, putting an abrupt end both to the conversation and to the prospect of building bridges between Muslim and secular feminists.

My friend is the founder of an NGO dedicated to penal reform. A convert to Islam, she is as British and as white as the participant who so earnestly assumed she was a victim of the Taliban and in need of liberation. No doubt the woman meant well, but no amount of good intentions justifies the way that she, like many others, berates Islam for embodying all things anti-women. This misconception predates the Rushdie era - indeed, so oppressed were we deemed to be in the 80s that even an illicit affair with Ricky Butcher in EastEnders provided an avenue of liberation.

The Islamic Human Rights Commission receives case after case of employers and educators using this image of the downtrodden Muslim woman to excuse discrimination. Muslim women are denied many opportunities on the assumption that they will - if not on a whim then by force - get married, or have many children. Or they face the horrendous dilemma of having to choose between employment and their Islamic garb.

Muslim women have become an absolute symbol of oppression, and distorted images of them permeate news coverage. While Daisy Cutters began to thunder down on Afghans last year, journalists from across the political spectrum - from Boris Johnson in the [conservative] Daily Telegraph to Polly Toynbee in the [left-wing] Guardian - maintained that it was Islam that oppressed Afghan women. Beware Muslims, they screamed in their unlikely unanimity. They hate women, don't they?

As soon as they turn their attentions to Islam, commentators become missionaries. Muslim women must be saved from a religion that reviles, objectifies and veils them. Everything is proof of this. Afghan women had to wear the head-to-toe burka (although it turns out they did not); were not allowed to work (although they did); and could not vote (nor could men under Mullah Omar's regime).

Even an Iranian (yes, Iranian) movie has become part of the iconography of the campaign to rescue the Afghan and, by extension, Islamic woman. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar has been held up as a critique of Islam and its treatment of women. The fact that it may actually be an appraisal of the Taliban's prejudices is a subtlety grasped only by a few. It is almost impossible to find a mainstream critique of the horror of the Taliban that is not itself an Islamophobic diatribe. Muslims, who could provide such a critique, are left out of the debate. Their reactions might as well not exist.

The cartoonish realisation of long-held prejudices in the Taliban's Afghanistan has given succour to an anti-Islamic clamour that the experiences of "western" and "Muslim" women are utterly distinct. While western women are assumed to have, or at least be approaching, equality with men, Muslim women are simply the victims of terror and oppression. So unfettered are western women in this scenario that they are what, according to Johnson, "Islamic terrorists" are really afraid of.

But this language of liberation disguises an exclusionary discourse. Conversions in the west are increasing and more women than men opt for the faith. Perhaps, the argument goes, they are not able to see how oppressive their choice is. Donning the headscarf as a means of negotiating modernity invites contempt for Muslim women's non-conformity to a single vision of female emancipation. "No letters please from British women who have taken the veil and claim it's liberating," Polly Toynbee wrote not so long ago. "It is their right in a tolerant society to wear anything, including rubber fetishes." Either insane or masochistic, the motives and beliefs of Muslim women are voiced by everybody except themselves.

The polarisation and misrepresentation works both ways, however. Marginalised Muslims have accused liberal society of objectifying, reviling and unveiling women. Western society, they charge, is pornographic, voyeuristic and exploitative. The gender pay gap is shocking. None of this would happen in a truly Islamic society. Women's financial independence and property rights are absolute in Islam. No woman is considered a commodity and pornographers would face punishments.

While the gap between Muslims and the west is widening the most striking feature of each other's critiques of their treatment of women is the lack of dissimilarity. Violence, workplace discrimination, educational opportunity and a desire for basic respect from men are universal issues.

Whether we are western, Muslim, both or neither, we must wake up to the possibility that what we see as problematic for women is much the same whoever and wherever we are. Plastered over billboards, or banished from view, women are subjugated by patriarchy. Demeaning Islam excludes the voices of Islamic women and that liberates no one.

· Arzu Merali is director of research for the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

The Guardian (London) Friday June 21, 2002

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Saudi female cashiers fatwa increases women's economic vulnerability

 Female Saudi cashiers are forbidden by recent fatwa. Amer Hilabi / AFP via

It is now prohibited for women to work as cashiers in Saudi Arabia’s shops, according to a fatwa issued by the Senior Board of Ulema at the end of October.

Many Saudis have been expressing their frustration with the ruling, which is intended to prevent the mixing of sexes by preventing women from seeking jobs where they could encounter men.

A conservative preacher called for a boycott of supermarkets employing female cashiers back in August, violating a government restriction on fatwas issued by clerics outside of the Senior Board of Ulema. The board itself has now taken up the idea, stating that  “It is not permitted for a Muslim woman to work in a mixed environment with men who are not related to them, and women should look for jobs that do not lead to them interacting with men which might cause attraction from both sides.”

The Saudi Gazette pointed out the inconsistency of the fatwa with other recent rulings by Saudi clerics. A fatwa approved by Shaykh Bin Baz which stated that “a human being, man or woman, is required to work and practice business,” and that “it is acceptable for women to work for what men require and for men to work for what women require in a way that does not harm either of them.”

A piece in Okaz, translated by Arab News, pointed out the obvious gender discrimination present in the fatwa, asking: “why is it not considered gender mixing when a man sits on the cashier’s desk and sells cheese, beans and olives to women?

“Why is it not permissible when the opposite happens? Why is it considered gender mixing and against Islam when a woman sits at the cashier’s desk selling cheese, beans and olives to men?”

The greatest danger of this fatwa is that many women working in these jobs need the money urgently, as commentators have pointed out. This fatwa makes it even more difficult for them to support themselves economically. As many studies have shown, lack of economic and social opportunities is one of the main driving forces that encourage individuals to join extremist movements. Often these groups offer a sense of purpose and the opportunity to earn money to people who are otherwise unemployed or vulnerable. Several high-profile cases, such as that of Wafa'a AL-Shahri, have shown that Saudi Arabia’s women are far from impermeable to the allure of extremist movements such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Taking more job opportunities away from women can only be a step backwards in the struggle for gender equality and the fight against violent extremism.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Yemen and the "packages of death": Women's changing role in extremist organizations.

Although one woman's name has been cleared, we must be vigilant about the changing role of women in extremist organizations. Fahmia Al-Fotih gives us a unique insight into Yemeni reactions to the package bombs and analyzes why extremist organizations target women to play key roles in promoting their ideologies.

 Photo: AFP/GETTY via Female students protest the arrest of Hanan Al-Samawi

It has been a year since the founding of the SAVE Yemen chapter and I was hoping to celebrate the 1st anniversary of SAVE Yemen differently. 

But again, Yemen has been grabbing the international media headlines because of 'infamous' terrorist activities.
Last week’s package bombs mark the first incident of its kind in Yemen, as it involves a woman, a young 22-year old student. The computer science student, Hanan AL-Samawi, had never thought that she would be a suspect of terrorism. Neither did her family or her friends.

Despite the fact that the name of the student has been cleared, the incident has increased fears that AL Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) might have penetrated the university system. At the same time, Yemeni people and human rights activists expressed their fear that counterterrorism measures might be accompanied by violations of human rights.

The students at Sana'a University demonstrated in support of their colleague who, along with her sick mother, was detained by security (female soldiers of the Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit. For more on this Unit, follow this link  However, there are some who say that the girl was arrested and investigated by governmental and national bodies.

The 'packages of death' were a shock for everyone, but the shock was even bigger for Yemenis. The involvement of a woman in such an incident was highly provocative in a very conservative society where the names of women are not usually revealed in public, let alone mentioned in connection with such a heinous crime and across the international media.   

More importantly, the incident has raised questions about the possibility of recruiting women within AL Qaeda in Yemen, along a similar vein to Iraq's female suicide bombers or Chechnya’s Black Widows. Many have started to wonder if the time has come for us to start hearing about AL Qaeda’s women.

When Hanan's name was cleared, many speculated a man disguised in women’s clothes might have sent the bomb packages using the personal information of the university student. Others say it might have been a woman seeking revenge (perhaps whose husband was killed by local or foreign security). 

Analysts believe that recruiting women into AL Qaeda in Yemen is contradictory to the religious and ideological beliefs of the organization. AL Qaeda believes in women’s traditional role centered on the family and house, and forbids male-female interaction. However, the call by AL Qaeda’s leaders in Iraq for women to take part in suicide bombing operations marks a turning point in the organization's ideologies and beliefs. The calls for women to join the Jihad are continuing. Some people ironically commented that 'there are some vacancies now within the AL Qaeda organization'.

Terrorists are aware that they are targets and thus their mobility becomes restricted by the need to stay undercover. From this stems the need to use women in the implementation of terrorist operations. In conservative societies, women are less suspicious than men.

Women have played - and still play - an essential role within the organization through logistical support (shelter and food for instance), preaching and spreading AL Qaeda ideologies.

Nowadays, the role of women has surpassed the 'traditional' role and goes beyond the provision of food and shelter. Undeniably, women play a vital role in promoting extremist and terrorist ideologies among community members and mobilizing and allocating money and human resources.

More surprisingly, in recent years, we have started to hear about the key role of women in electronic media in this regard. Alarmingly, a study has revealed that 40% of websites that promote extremist ideologies or who sympathize with AL-Qaeda are run by young women who are between 18-25 years old. The most well-known of those women is Saudi-born Om Osama who, along with her tech-savvy female staff, was running a magazine until she was arrested.  Of course, there are blogs, chat rooms and forums through which recruitment for AL Qaeda is taking place.

Again, a woman to become a suspect in a terrorist act is a new phenomenon in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, however, has already seen three high-profile cases of women becoming involved in terrorist acts and having links with AL Qaeda. The Saudi authorities have captured two of these women (Heela AL-Qaseer and Om Osama). The third - Wafa'a AL-Shahri – escaped from Saudi Arabia to join her husband in AL Qaeda in Yemen.

Yet, the positive thing, I think, is that people have seriously started to question the role of women in fighting terrorism and challenging extremism, which in turn will strengthen the position of SAVE and its mission.
Seeing these events, it is difficult to be anything but pessimistic, but I have faith that there is a hope or miracle out there to save Yemen. That hope or miracle stems from Yemen’s peaceful people, particularly its women.

Sun, sea and grit: Israeli and West Bank women risk jail for day at the beach

First published in the Guardian, 16 September, 2010, and written by Rachel Shabi. This article gives an insight into the grassroots initiatives that women in Israel and Palestine are creating based on compassion and empathy, and the knowledge that to effectively resolve conflict, the willingness to achieve reconciliation must pervade society - it cannot be imposed from above.

Women sit on a Tel Aviv beach. Palestinians need a permit to enter Israel. Photograph: Esti Tsal
The day starts early, at a petrol station alongside a roaring Jerusalem road. The mood among the 15 Israeli women is a little tense, but it's hardly surprising – they're about to break the law and with it one of the country's taboos. They plan to drive into the occupied West Bank, pick up Palestinian women and children and take them on a day trip to Tel Aviv.
Today's is the second such trip – another group of women went public with a similar action last month. It is hoped that these will become regular outings, designed to create awareness of the laws that govern movement for Palestinians, and to challenge the fears that Israelis have about travelling into the West Bank.
Riki is a 63-year-old from Tel Aviv who, like the other women did not want to give her surname. She said it took her time to sign up to the trips. "I was resistant to breaking the law. But then I realised that civil action is the only way to go forward, that breaking an illegal law becomes legal."
The women take off in a convoy of cars, through an Israeli checkpoint used by settlers and into several villages around Hebron. There are dozens of Palestinian women waiting for them and each Israeli driver is allocated passengers.
As two young Palestinian women climb into the car, they remove hijabs, scarves and floor-length coats to reveal skinny jeans and long hair – a look that ensures they pass through the Israeli settler-only checkpoint without scrutiny. "I am afraid of the soldiers," said 21-year-old Sara, nervously. But she and 19-year-old Sahar, visibly relax as the car breezes past the checkpoint.
They pull CDs out of bags and are soon listening to loud Arabic dabke music as the car heads along a road that joins the main highway to Tel Aviv. "It's like we are using the tools of the occupation," said Irit, one of the drivers. "It just wouldn't occur to the soldiers at the checkpoints that Israeli women would want to do this."
As Tel Aviv nears, the Palestinian passengers silently survey the tall buildings and outdoor cafes and seem especially taken with the ubiquitous motorcycles and mopeds that speed around the city. "I would like to ride on one, like that," said Sara, pointing to a woman in shorts perched on the back of a bike. But all the Palestinian women have just one request: to go to the sea. For most, it's their first trip to the seaside, even though it is a short drive from home.
The passengers join another carload and head to the promenade in Jaffa, the mixed Arab-Israeli city stuck to the tail-end of Tel Aviv, where the Palestinian women race to greet the waves crashing against the bright rocks. "It is so much more beautiful than I thought," said Nawal, watching her gleeful seven-year-old daughter skipping backwards to avoid being sprayed by the waves. "It is more beautiful than on TV, the colour is amazing."
Fatima, 24, gazes out at the horizon. "I didn't know that the sound of the sea is so relaxing," she said. Sara asks for a sheet of paper, speedily folds it into a paper boat and writes her name on it, intending to set it out to sea. "So that it will remember me," she said.
The group convenes at a Jaffa restaurant – about 45 of them in total, including seven children. They are a cheerful party stretched across two long tables. From afar they seem just like any other restaurant party, as the women chat about children, weight gain and health.
But the excursion is far from ordinary. All Palestinians need permits to enter Israel and the penalties for not doing so can involve imprisonment. It is also against the law for Israelis to "smuggle" Palestinians without a permit across the Green Line.
A few months ago Ilana Hammerman, an Israeli journalist, wrote an account of her day trip to Tel Aviv with West Bank Palestinians in Haaretz newspaper. That prompted a criminal investigation against her, for violating Israel's law of entry. But it also inspired a group of women to take the same trip and then take an advertisement in the newspaper to publicise the fact. Since then, there have been hundreds of signatories to a petition of support and many women, on both sides, ready to defy the law.
That's one of the purposes of the action, said Esti, who has been on both trips. "We want more Israelis to realise that there is nothing to be scared of. We want more people to refuse to accept the ideology that keeps us apart – and to just refuse to be enemies."


Before 1991, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza could move freely and restrictions on travel into Israel were the exception.
Then Israel began a permit regime, whereby Palestinians cannot travel without a permit issued by Israel's civil administration, set up by military decree to operate in the West Bank.
The permit system wasn't seriously imposed until the mid-90s, as response to a wave of terrorist attacks inside Israel. Since then, Israel has introduced increasingly restrictive criteria for obtaining a permit and constructed physical barriers – such as the separation wall – that have made enforcement of the system more effective.
West Bank Palestinians granted permits include a quota of workers, who must be over 35 and married; medical patients; students, although under restrictive circumstances; and older persons for religious reasons, such as to pray or to visit family during religious holidays. Some traders and VIPs are also given permits to travel into Israel.
Gisha, the legal centre for freedom of movement, estimates that around 1% of Palestinians are given permits to enter Israel. Some 24,000 Palestinian workers are permitted to enter Israel from the West Bank.
From Gaza, entry for Palestinians to Israel is exceptional and mostly for medical or humanitarian cases.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Women SAVE Pakistan: Empowering Women to Sensitize and Mobilize Against Extremism, with Mossarat Qadeem

On Thursday, October 21, Mossarat Qadeem, Executive Director of the PAIMAN Trust and SAVE Pakistan Coordinator, spoke on SAVE Pakistan’s activities and the vital role women can play in combating violent extremism at the Austrian Embassy in London. Dr. Emil Brix, Austrian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, hosted the event.

Ms. Qadeem, who has over twenty years of experience in working with susceptible youth in stricken regions in the Northwest Frontier and FATA provinces, spoke about her experiences and the best-practice strategies she has developed for combating violent extremism. Here are some of the most striking quotes from her presentation. To read a full summary of the presentation, including Mossarat's experience negotiating with the Taliban and the achievements of the PAIMAN Trust, go to the Women without Borders/SAVE website.

The problem 
 “Extremism in Pakistan is an external problem, because it is being imported by different groups from countries in the region. We have border disputes with India, and Afghanistan feels that Pakistan is responsible for what has been happening in Afghanistan today.”

“We are the victims of psychological warfare. There are different groups within the same religion, who belong to different schools of thought, playing against each other. Then there are the ethnic quarrels, and the social economic clash point – the “haves” against the “have-nots”. We usually lack access to proper knowledge, resources, and economic opportunity, and above all, in Pakistan the lack of awareness in the poorest regions has always been exploited.”

“30,000 people have already been killed because of this war on terror that we have become a part of, and 50,000 people are missing. The threat still looms that there may be a recurrence in Fatah and even in Swat and we fear that we are exporting extremism."

The role of  women
It is very important to concentrate on the role of women in their families and in     
their communities. Women are extremely marginalized. They were not allowed 
to go to school, and their mobility was highly restricted.
                                                                                                                                 “Now this is the important part. It was not possible to think that by empowering              
women, we really can end this. But believe me, it is possible. No one actually 
recognizes the role of women. They are part of the problem so they can be part 
of the solution.

Because of the restrictions on mobility we don't have the indigenous support; 
people don't support women coming out of the house and playing a role in 
rehabilitation, peacemaking and peace-building, so we lack skills as peace 
nuilders and the knowledge to transform the conflict into something peaceful. 
We lack these sources and of course, we lack the culture and a true leadership 
that can support women to come out and help reintegration, rehabilitation, or 
prevention of more people becoming radicalized and extremists.

The Project
We tried to analyze the role of women. Then we tried to strengthen the role women             can play in combating extremism within the culture and society, where extremism has impacted everyone. We tried to convert weaknesses into strengths. We developed the need for peace from within. You cannot impose peace from outside, you have to build the need for peace from within that community, from within the individuals as instruments to end that violent extremism. We're also trying to provide a platform for women to act, to bring peace into their lives and into their communities. Under this program we have established a center for conflict resolution and peace building. We train male and female youths, not only from Universities but also women from the same community. So far, we have formed 70 youth groups, and we also have subsidised women. Women’s peace groups have formed - we have some 51 women’s peace groups in Fata. These peace practitioners work together at different levels in the same society. Through them we have been able to reach out to 35,000 male and female youth and over 2,000 women.

We have been directing these women on the impacts of extremism on their lives and on the lives of their male children. We explain to them that Islam has nothing to do with the extremists. Through one women’s group, we reached out to 75 boys. They were so disappointed with this whole situation, they thought they are being besieged by the extremists on 1 side and by their own mother on the other hand. But now they are with us; we're trying to give them working skills, skills that they asked for and we're also trying to give them direction.

The role of men 
“We need to educate the men in the family to accept women as peace builders. We may need to desensitize through disorientation sessions through the mullah in the mosque. We went to the mullah first and we put him to our side, then the elders in the community and neighbors. We tried to sensitize the children in the way that yes, we are going to talk about this, and we are going to be open about this.                                                                                                          
“A woman cannot go against the wishes of her husband, so we never worked that way. We work in a sensitive way, and we first make men understand that the role of a woman is very important, and they are still working for it.

What you can do
As far as resources, of course a lot of financial resource are needed, but otherwise you can support the women morally. Send them messages, because this is right now when they come to us. They are so disappointed, not only with themselves but with the whole society that they belong in. So, this acceptance is very, very important. So if you can just send these messages to these women so that they stay on guard, we will definitely forward that to them with translations.

Flash Points: Edit Schlaffer presents SAVE on CBS