Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Next Generation of Young Female Leaders: Confident, In Control, and Visionary

“Many change agents focus on pathology. Instead, one must focus on vision.”
                                                                                                                                -Gail Straub

 Gail Straub, co-founder of the Empowerment Institute, held an eye-opening and profound leadership workshop with nine global scholars from Korea, Egypt, India, Afghanistan, Indonesia, South Africa, the United States, and Austria from September 17-19, 2012. Organized in advance of the launch of the Omega Institute’s new Women’s Leadership Center during the 2012 Women &Power conference near Rhinebeck, NY, Gail’s workshop imparted the tools and skills necessary to allow these dedicated young women to explore their own leadership styles and to identify the next steps for growth and empowerment.

The commonalities between the issues these women from around the world say they face are striking: across the board, the global scholars indicated that they needed help with boosting their own self-confidence, “owning” their achievements, finding a “mirror” to be able to accurately assess their efficacy as a leader, finding a balance between masculine and feminine as well as head-driven and heart-driven leadership styles, and being able to trust others. Although the women work in extremely diverse fields, including with female inmates in the United States, with sex workers in India, in interfaith and women’s empowerment projects in Indonesia, and in building shelters for women in Afghanistan,  they faced similar challenges in being able to fully claim and flourish in their leadership potential.

Gail helped the group to identify their own personal “limiting beliefs,” such as “In order to trust someone else I have to give up control,” and to redefine these beliefs to create achievable visions. She pointed out that most change agents focus on pathology—that is to say, they focus their attention on identifying and defining problems, which tends to cause the problem to grow and to limit an individual’s ability to find solutions to the problem. Instead, Gail encourages young leaders to focus on their vision—and the solution to the problem will follow.

Azza, from Egypt, has the following vision: “I want to be in control of my life—I want to get in the boat of life and guide the boat, not let the boat be guided by the waves.” Hyung Kyun, from South Korea, wants to “harvest the abundance of life.”
On September 22, Gail interviewed Azza, Samu (from South Africa), Manizha (from Afghanistan), and Tejaswi (from India) on stage at the Women & Power conference. These courageous young leaders got a standing ovation from the crowd as they shared their life experiences and hopes for their own future as well as for the futures of women in their communities. It is female leaders like these with whom SAVE liaises around the world to find new and sustainable ways of combating violent extremism, through the targeted and responsible inclusion of women in the security sphere.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Yes, We Still Need a Women's Movement -- for the Sake of Everybody

By Carla Goldstein, originally published by Huffington Post
Carla Goldstein, chief external affairs officer at Omega and cofounder of the Omega Women's Leadership Center, discusses why the need for a women's movement is just as timely as ever.

In any discussion about the relevance of the women's movement, outrage has its place; like when an elected official talks about "legitimate rape," or a young pregnant woman dies of aggressive cancer because the state protects her fetus instead of her; or a woman is stoned to death for adultery; or a public official is censored for saying the word vagina in a policy debate.

The supply of the outrageous is vast enough to keep us in a state of perma-scream. But that's not sustainable.

To make the kinds of change we dream of, outrage has to be paired with everyday efforts to create a fundamental shift in human consciousness -- from our deeply fractured state of "us against them" to a more healed "we are all in this together."

Our fractured way of being arises from the known and the unknown; from biological survival needs to social identity; from warring over scarce resources to disagreeing about the very origins and meaning of life. This tangled web is so complex that it seems we might not ever loosen the knot. But across time, culture, religion, and ideology, there has been a persistent idea that we can live as a more unified, loving and connected human family.

That's why we still need a women's movement.

We need a women's movement because the fracture between women and men is cornerstone to so much of the world's pain and trauma. Girls and women still suffer disproportionately from gender based violence, discrimination, and lack of access to basic human rights. And boys and men still suffer immeasurably from sexism and cultural definitions of masculinity, which often shut them off from the feminine parts of themselves and force them to live within a narrow band of human experience.

And we still need a women's movement because the movement's vision of change goes well beyond the notion of creating gender equality. It is about figuring out how we can take care of everybody and of the earth that sustains all life. Making this kind of deep and lasting change is no small order. It requires massive systems change, including reengineering of our economies, politics, and religious institutions. And, it requires a steely commitment by individuals to "be the change," and reengineer our own personal habits, motivations, and way of living together on our precious planet.

This vision is often dismissed as naïve and not possible, because it is asserted that the current "us versus them" paradigm is pre-ordained by nature or God or both. Yet new science reveals that cooperation is a thriving natural survival mechanism and most religions and spiritual doctrines are based on a unity principle.

In every corner of the world, women are creating new pathways of human progress, building bridges across intractable political conflicts and healing some of the deepest fractures in the human spirit. Women like Edit Schlaffer, founder of Women without Borders, who is working with mothers impacted by extremist violence to create new pathways for human security and Chung Hyun Kyung, a theologian who is helping create Jo Gak Bo (Quilt), a peace movement between North and South Korean women.

We see these new paths of change in the work of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a senior researcher who coordinated victims' public testimonies on South Africa's TRC, who is deepening our understanding of healing in the aftermath of gross human-rights violations and mass trauma; and in Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who is building a comprehensive campaign to change how society treats care. And countless more.

One of the great strengths of the women's movement has been its central chord of optimism that the world can be different, that change can happen, and that women can and will take responsibility for bringing that change into being. Instead of debating whether there is still a need for a women's movement, we should be asking ourselves what role we can all play in healing the deep fractures that exist between us to help realize the enduring promise of an "all of us" world.

The exigency for such a movement seems as clear as ever.

Carla Goldstein, JD, is Chief External Affairs Officer at Omega Institute, and and co-founder of the new Omega Women's Leadership Center, which launches September 21st at "Women & Power 2012" in Rhinebeck, N.Y. An attorney with 25 years of experience in public interest advocacy, she has contributed to more than 100 city, state, and federal laws, and has worked extensively on issues related to women's rights, poverty, public health, and social justice.

Who creates harmony the world over? Women. Who signs peace deals? Men

 by Julian Borger, originally published by The Guardian

Around the world, women make peace in their homes and communities on a daily basis. But when it comes to negotiating and signing peace deals on a national or international level they are almost universally shut out, according to a report that calls for a more balanced approach to resolving conflict.
Peacemakers: Clockwise, from top left, Asha Amin, campaigner for women, Somalia; Monica McWilliams, Northern Ireland women’s coalition; Ana Guadalupe Martínez, former liberation leader, El Salvador; Luz Méndez, women’s campaigner, Guatemala; Starlin Abdi Arush, aid worker, Somalia; Martha Karua, rights activist, Kenya. (c) The Guardian 

A 2000 UN security council resolution that called for equal participation for women in "the maintenance and promotion of sustainable peace" has been almost totally ignored, not least by the UN itself, says the report. There have been no female chief mediators in UN-brokered peace talks and fewer than 10% of police officers and 2% of the soldiers sent on UN peacekeeping missions have been women.

Fewer than one in 40 of the signatories of major peace agreements since 1992 have been female, according to the UN development fund for women, Unifem. They played a bit part in settlements in El Salvador, Guatemala, Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea, but in 17 out of 24 major accords – including Croatia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Liberia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – there was zero female participation in signing agreements.

A report published by the Institute of Development Studies, funded by ActionAid and Womankind Worldwide, argues that this near total absence of women from official peacekeeping is not only a waste of a powerful resource for conflict resolution but also means formal peace deals are seriously flawed, taking a narrow definition of what constitutes enduring peace that mostly ignores the needs of women and girls.

The report, From the Ground Up, surveyed Afghanistan, Liberia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sierra Leone and found that in local settings women took a broader view of peace that included basic rights such as freedom from violence in the home, as well as education and healthcare.

"In contrast, men have a greater tendency to associate peace with the absence of formal conflict and the stability of formal structures such as governance and infrastructure," the report said.

The difference in perception means that in Sierra Leone, for example, which is generally classified as post-conflict, most women did not consider themselves to be living in peace. "This is attributed by respondents to the high rates of poverty and violence against women, including domestic violence, mental abuse and abandonment."

"We're not talking about a big war," said one woman from Afghanistan, "but peace for us also means no domestic violence."

The survey of the five countries found that women and girls had a tendency to form groups and coalitions to deal with problems and got on with resolving conflicts up to the point when the process became formal, when the men took over. The higher and more formal the level of peace-building, the smaller the degree of female participation, the study found.

Shalah Farid, a lecturer at Kabul University said Afghan women were largely excluded from official attempts to find a political settlement.

"In the high-level peace council there are only seven or nine women – they don't have real power and time to engage in a real peace process," she said. "They are just symbolic. People use security as a way of denying women the right to participate. People are saying women cannot keep secrets so we cannot involve them in confidential discussions."

The Afghan experience was by no means unique. "The skills of women as mediators and decision-makers within the home and their experiences building trust and dialogue in their families and communities are frequently dismissed as irrelevant or are not sufficiently valued by national governments, the international community or by women themselves," the study said.

"Yet this research demonstrates that at the local level, women continue to build peace within their homes and communities and to come together collectively to create change."

The study recommends a quota of 30% women's participation in "all local, national, and international peace negotiation processes", and urges donor governments to keep to a UN target of 15% of peacebuilding aid to address women's specific needs.

Womankind's chief executive, Jackie Ballard, called for more money from Britain's "conflict pool", earmarked for peacebuilding, to be spent on women.

"Women work together in some of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to try to build lasting peace for themselves and their families," she said. "A tough job is made tougher by a lack of support. The money is there in the conflict pool, but is not being dedicated to those grassroots women's groups who are rebuilding communities without basic supplies and support."

Responding to the report, Lynne Featherstone, Britain's international development minister said: "The UK is determined to support women taking an active part in their communities, which is why we are committed to helping 10 million women access justice by 2015.

"It is shocking that for millions of the world's poorest people their gender is the biggest barrier to a healthy and secure life. This is why the government puts girls and women at the heart of all our development efforts. Discrimination and violence destroys the potential of girls and women in developing countries and prevents them from pulling themselves out of poverty."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Touring Terror in Jerusalem

Jaffa Road, by Miriam Alster, European Pressphoto Agency
Eetta Prince-Gibson is a freelance journalist in Jerusalem and former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Violence is not the Answer to the Childish Attempt Against the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

By Arshi Saleem Hashmi, SAVE’s Chapter Leader in Pakistan

Arshi Saleem Hashmi
The childish attempt by a film maker to humiliate the sanctity of an Abrahamic religion should be condemned. Like many attempts in the past where some people in their own capacity tried to ridicule Islam and particularly the last prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was reflection of their own narrow thinking. This film does not amount to what majority of the people belonging to different faiths in the west think; this particular film is a brain child of an ignorant who tried to capitalize the anti-Muslim feelings.  It is important to understand that just like the obscurantists who do not respect other religions are not the representative of the Muslim all over the world, these people, who have been trying to ridicule the foundation of Muslim faith, are not the representative of the tolerant tradition of the western societies. One of the basic tenets of our religion Islam is to respect all the religions especially Abrahamic religions. It is not widely known in the west that a Muslim is supposed to respect and believe in all the prophets and the books that were sent from the God.  Majority of the Muslim believe in tolerance and understanding. Having said that, any insult to the prophet Muhammad would not be accepted by any Muslim, the extremists might have reacted violently which is wrong, but it did hurt even those who do not considered themselves as strictly practicing Muslims. It is more about faith being targeted then about extremist narrative of present day Islamists. 

Protesters in Tahrir Square carry a poster of Osama Bin Laden, (c) Reuters
In Pakistan, religio-political parties protested against the film, Jamat-e-Islami, Jamaatu Dawa and other groups protested in different cities in Pakistan. The government of Pakistan denounced this and issued a statement against the film. The local provincial assemblies also discussed and issued statements condemning the film. Compared to Libya and other Arab countries, protests here were nonviolent mostly though they did try to reach to US Embassy in Islamabad but due to tight security they were controlled.  The instant reaction in the Arab world was due to the obvious reasons that when it comes to Islamist jihadists, action against them is justified but when attempts to humiliate the most sacred personality of Islam; it is categorized as freedom of expression. 

In Pakistan, the film has generated interesting debates and TV channels are showing many programs where the discourse is whether the hate speech in Muslim countries target or ridicule the sacred personalities of other faiths or they focus more on the policies and politics of the western countries who happened to be belonging to Christian faith.  So the dichotomy here is Muslim antagonism is due to the policies of the West particularly the US while the views that have expressed in film is focused on the most sacred Personality in Islam. A positive sign in Pakistan mainstream media is to initiate debate on this issue and majority of the people though emotionally hurt, are listening to these discussions. Any violent expression would still be a minority act just like the making of the film is a minority expression in the US.  The gist of the debate is that western freedom of expression is not universal and should not be considered as a universal definition. The point is also being raised that despite all the hate speech and violent expressions against western policies, no attempts has ever been done to make a film on ridiculing Jesus Christ (PBUH) or Moses (PBUH, the West should also consider the way freedom of expression is defined in Muslim traditions.

Majority of Pakistanis believe in respect for all the Prophets in Abrahamic religions and they do not support violence but just like anti-Islam  minority views in the US and the West, minority views in the Muslim world will continue to react violently as they would interpret it as an attempt approved by the US in order to provoke extremism. The life of our holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the great example where in his lifetime he ignored harshest critics who tried to humiliate him, ridiculed his message and tried to hurt him physically. We should learn from our beloved prophet, we can raise voice against this act, we can protest with the US officially. Violence is not what Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught us. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Female Combatants: The Dark Side of Women’s Power

By Jane Mosbacher Morris

This article was originally published by the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University

Does the image of a female terrorist leave you glued to the TV?  Don’t let it—that’s what they want.
Terrorist organizations often use the shock value of a female violent extremist to capture the attention of the international media, tactfully playing upon the public’s bias that those with two-X chromosomes are unwilling or unable to commit an act of terrorism.
Yet, women have a long history of taking hostages, hijacking aircrafts, planting bombs, conducting assassinations, driving explosive-laden vehicles, and committing suicide attacks, not to mention performing the endless back-office tasks required to maintain an extremist organization.
In an evolving security environment, where responding to the latest threat can lead to short-term memory loss, many have forgotten the female-perpetrated, high-profile attacks that have stolen the lives of senior government officials and countless civilians.  To provide a statistical snapshot, women perpetrated an estimated 15% of total suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003 and, in certain organizations, like the PKK and Chechen Separatists, were responsible for the majority.  Given the numbers, why do we continue to be surprised each time a Jihad Jane ends up on the evening news?
Two assumptions likely contribute to our reluctance to acknowledge the dark side of women’s power.

One explanation is the belief that those who would advocate for restrictive roles for women in society would forbid them from carrying out terrorist activities that require both operational and intellectual facility.  These very organizations exploit our assumption, however, and look at women as a tactical advantage.  To the delight of violent extremists, security officers often perceive females as less suspicious and allow them to evade male-dominated checkpoints, particularly in conservative environments. When wearing an abaya, women are able to hide bulky explosives from the eyes of the public, presenting a unique security threat to even the most observant.  Terrorist organizations also strategically leverage women to recruit other men, arguing that if a woman is willing to sacrifice her life or time for the cause, so, too, should a man.

Special efforts are often made to recruit female participants.  Al-Qaida has produced a glossy magazine, Al-Shamikha, specifically designed for women, while others, like Al-Shabaab, purportedly use abduction to bolster enlistment.  Despite this, the vast majority of these women are knowingly volunteering their services.

This dynamic contradicts a second pervasive notion—that women are inherently more peaceful and therefore less likely to choose violence to achieve political ends.  The relative peacefulness of women versus men is not an unfounded argument, but tends to evolve into the mistaken belief that no women are violent.  An honest assessment suggests a more complex reality, in which some women actively lobby against violence; some remain silent on the issue; and others actively propagate its use.

The wife of Al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, for example, famously called on women to “to raise [their] children in the cult of jihad and martyrdom and to instill in them a love for religion and death”. Open source intelligence also reflects instances of mothers pressuring their husbands and sons to take up arms for the honor of their family, nation, or religion, or to enact revenge on warring tribes.
Given the not uncommon practice of women selling their daughters into prostitution, promoting child marriage, or even running brothels staffed by trafficked girls (a topic for a future blog post), we would be naive to presume that women lack the agency to use their brains and brawn for the advancement of malevolent causes. 

Perhaps we are so busy advocating for the involvement of women in productive security processes that we have discounted when they are destructive.  While the vast majority of women (like men) are constructive citizens, ignoring the bad actors, regardless of their gender, creates very real and dangerous security consequences.  Downplaying the dark side of women’s power has perceptional consequences, as well, as it distracts from the facts that women do impact peace and security, both for good and for bad.  Until we can accept both sides of the coin, our stereotypical responses will continue to endanger the lives of our military, government, and civilian populations. 

Jane Mosbacher Morris is the Director of Humanitarian Action for the newly-formed McCain Institute for International Leadership, where she is developing the Institute’s efforts to fight trafficking in persons, among other issues. Prior to joining the McCain Institute, she spent over five years at the United States Department of State working in the Bureau of Counterterrorism and the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.  While there, she drafted the Department’s first Women and Counterterrorism Strategy. She graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and holds a MBA from Columbia Business School.

Source: Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of SuicideTerrorism, Random House, 2005. P. 208-209.

Beyond Right and Wrong: Stories of Justice and Forgiveness

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

US marks 9/11 anniversary, SAVE to launch Women of One Fabric global workshop series in New York

Thousands will gather today in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania to mark the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in a number of low key ceremonies.

The main ceremony will be the ritual reading at New York’s Ground Zero of the names of the 2,983 people who died both on 9/11 and during the 1993 car bombing of the World Trade Center.

The New York skyline has been lit up with twin lights, filling the hole left after the collapse of the twin towers.

President Obama and his wife Michelle will observe the anniversary with a moment of silence outside the White House.

It has been more than two years since Osama Bin Laden was killed at his Abbottabad compound in Pakistan. Even though the Al Qaeda movement was largely weakened by their leader’s death, terrorist attacks are still occurring every day in Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and many other countries in the name of Al Qaeda and its affiliate organizations. Recent hate crimes, shootings and terrorist attacks in Europe and the US have also shed light on rising sentiments of intolerance towards different cultures and religions in the West.

Sisters Against Violent extremism believes that now more than ever, women around the world must take the lead in the fight against violent extremism in their communities. It is true that in times of war and insecurity women often pay the highest price, nonetheless, SAVE strongly believes that women are also driven to protect their families and best-placed to be a creative force for stability in their households, neighborhoods and cities. Women hold key strategic positions as wives, mothers, educators, social workers and community leaders and are therefore better positioned to prevent the spread of violence by advocating for peace, tolerance and non-violence.

SAVE is launching a brand new film entitled Your Mother that addresses the issue of violent extremism and its impact on mothers around the world. Find out more on our website.

On the occasion of the 11th anniversary of 9/11, SAVE will run the very first Women of One Fabric workshop in Irvington, NY, in partnership with Tuesday’s Children. The workshop will be the primary stage of a global solidarity campaign for women dedicated to creating a united front against violent extremism.

Women of One Fabric uses dialogue to highlight the commonalities of loss and tragedy that result from acts of violent extremism, and will help to create understanding for the role that women must play in order to counteract the rhetoric of revenge and terror. The international workshops form the basis of a global campaign that will attract attention to the universal threat of violent extremism and the painful human aftermath of such acts.

The participants of the Women of One Fabric workshop, New York 2012

Hosted by the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute at the Company Headquarters in Irvington, a group of women impacted by 9/11 will include pieces of a personal belonging of their loved one in the creation of beautiful sheets of hand-made paper. After the paper has dried, participants will embellish the paper under the guidance of a local artist to depict their emotions of loss, and hope for a future without violent extremism. During the workshop there will be opportunity to foster conversation, mentorship, and outreach opportunities, and subsequently the exhibit will be displayed in Atlanta, Georgia, Washington D.C., New York, and around the world.

With similar workshops in the US, Indonesia, Nigeria, Somalia, India, Pakistan and Northern Ireland, culminating in an international art exhibition, Women of One Fabric will work to create a new narrative of unity and agency instead of division and victimhood.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Saudi Arabia to appoint 30 women to Shoura Council


Sunday 2 September 2012

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia is expected to appoint 30 women on the Shoura Council before the consultative body begins its next annual session. “The expectations are that up to 30 women will be appointed to the Shoura,” sources close to the council told Al-Sharq Arabic daily.

In 2015, Saudi women will have the opportunity to run for civil office.

The newspaper said that talks have already begun with several institutions to propose the names of qualified women in order to be appointed on the Shoura. A high-level panel, headed by the king, will look into the nominees and select the final list, it added.

The move comes after Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah announced the government’s decision to appoint women members on the Shoura in September.

“We made this decision because we refuse to marginalize women in Saudi society in their roles that comply with the Islamic Shariah and following consultations with many of our scholars who supported it,” King Abdullah said. “Muslim women in our history have had stances that cannot be sidelined since the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him),” the king said. Female members must be holders of Saudi citizenship, be a minimum of 30 years of age with an impeccable personal record, a high level of competency and practical experience.

Sadia, a humanitarian activist, applauded the latest move. She said: “This is a solid step to involve women in the public sphere. We welcome King Abdullah’s decision that will enable women to serve as full members of the Shoura Council and will have the right to participate in the elections. These reforms recognize the significant contributions Saudi women have been making in society and will offer them new ways to participate in taking decisions for the welfare of the community.”

The Shoura Council’s bylaws do not oppose the membership of women and do not specify the gender of the appointed members, the daily reported yesterday. However, since it was founded in 1993, the Council has only had male members.

The Shoura Council in Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah in the same speech, while addressing the Shoura, also announced that women would have the right to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections. Reacting to the development, dentist Sonia Ali said: “This is excellent start for Saudi women to come out of their shell and take part in governmental activities. This decision of King Abdullah will strengthen the confidence of Saudi women in their abilities.”

Hanouf Al-Jouiad, a postgraduate student, said: “We are thankful to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque King Abdullah and his government for showing his trust in Saudi women and giving them a chance to be a member of the Shoura Council. Women’s voices will finally be heard and they will be allowed to take part in the decision-making process on serious matters. We look forward to Saudis voting for suitable persons who will be bold enough to take right decisions rather than just looking to work for their interests.”

Fatema Al-Refai, a teacher, said: “We appreciate King Abdullah ‘s efforts to introduce progressive political reforms by opening an opportunity for Saudi women to be a part of the Shoura Council. We hope that the decision taken by the king will benefit women who have been looking forward to making effective contributions to the country’s onward progress. The Shoura Council will give Saudi women an open platform for showcasing their talent and their love for the country. We expect appropriate candidates will be elected to the Shoura Council.”

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Libya: The Fight For Women’s Rights Goes On

TRIPOLI (IDN | GCC) - Following the Libyan revolution, in which women played a crucial part, and the participation of large numbers of female citizens in the July 2012 elections, Libyan women are now looking forward to a partnership and full equality with their male counterparts.

Libyan women demonstrating in front of their country's embassy
in London in February 2012 (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
By Mel Frykberg*
IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

"Libyan women were instrumental in the country choosing a liberal and progressive government in the recent elections as many of them voted for the winning National Forces Alliance (NFA) of Mahmoud Jibril," said Nadine Nasrat, from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

"They also played a crucial role during the revolution but much of this was overlooked by the media. During the war women smuggled weapons and ammunition in their clothing. They provided logistical, medical and intelligence support to men," added Nasrat who is also the chairperson of the Tripoli branch of the Committee to Support Women’s Participation in Decision Making.

Beyond Baby Steps

However, despite these baby steps towards political emancipation and societal acknowledgement, many recognize that the road ahead will be filled with obstacles due to historical, cultural and religious constraints in Libya’s conservative and patriarchal society.

The elections proved to be a double-edged sword. Over 500 female candidates, comprising almost half of the total candidates, contested in the July elections. While this was a historic milestone for Libyans in general and the country’s women in particular, the backlash was instantaneous.

Ibtisan Staita, a member of the winning National Forces Alliance (NFA) from Dernah – a port city in eastern Libya – won a seat on the National Council. However, in a case of mistaken identity, her cousin who resembles Ibtisan Staita was assassinated by suspected Islamists who vehemently oppose the participation of women in politics.

Najad Al Khaikha, a candidate from Benghazi, who bagged more votes than any other male candidate in the country’s second largest city, will not lead the local council due to male opposition. In a further sign of male resistance to female participation during the election campaign, posters of female candidates were torn off walls and flyers with female candidates were ripped up.

These are just some of the issues Nasrat’s committee is up against. Her committee has several hundred members throughout Libya who have been working with international NGOs to promote the rights of women.

Furthermore, the committee, whose membership comprises a number of female politicians from several political parties, intends to use its newly-found political leverage to increase the participation of women in Libya’s new government who in turn will lobby for legislation implementing change.

One of the first steps is to ensure that women comprise 30 percent of the Constitutional Committee, which will be responsible for drafting new legislation for the new government.
Libyan women during a protest in Benghazi in 2011

Calling for Change

"There are many things we want to change," said Nasrat. "One of the things we want to change is Libya’s divorce laws. Because when a woman gets divorced and has no children, she is forced to leave the house. Why should women become homeless after a divorce?"

"Another important issue is women having to fight on a monthly basis for spousal support for their children after divorce. In addition to the amount being very low – another problem which has to be addressed – the women are forced to go to the courts every month and fight red tape and bureaucracy before a pittance is handed through a hole in a window,” said Nasrat.

"This is a very humiliating experience. According to one court ruling, the money should be paid into a woman’s bank account automatically. Following a divorce, should a woman remarry, she loses her children which then go to the grandmother. This is something else we want to fight," said Nasrat.

Abortion is illegal in Libya and sexual violence legislation still provides for a reduction in punishment for a man who is violent to a female relative following an alleged sexual transgression by her.

Rape victims are victimised twice. "As the law now stands, women who are raped are forced into marrying their rapists. The man is only sent to prison for a few years if he refuses to marry his victim. This is an incredibly traumatic experience for any woman to be forced into a partnership with her abuser. Rape is not seen as a major crime in Libya,” explained Nasrat.

"Many women were raped during the war but most will not come forward to report it because they are ashamed and some people believe the women brought it on themselves. These women should be encouraged to come forward as what they suffered is not morally worse than men who lost limbs during the fighting. The government has to address this," stated Nasrat.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Social Institutions and Gender Index, Libya is also a destination and transit country for women and men trafficked from Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia for purposes of forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.

"We also want laws against domestic violence introduced. At present a man can only be penalised if he beats his wife to the extent that her injuries require hospitalisation for days, the same as any other case of assault," averred Nasrat.

Several witnesses outside the family are also required if a man is to be penalised – something which is not easy for women to provide due to the stigma and shame of getting outsiders involved in affairs which are considered private.

Despite Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime, women’s rights in Libya were reasonably progressive – at least on paper – in comparison with those of women in the Gulf and other Arab countries. Subsequently, women have the legal right to own, manage and administer land and property in Libya. In practice, however, social convention dictates that men retain control and ownership of land, according to the OECD.

Women also have the legal right of access to bank loans without their husbands’ consent and to enter into various forms of financial contracts. In most cases, however, husbands or fathers take responsibility for any financial undertakings and commitments, and may also expect women to hand over income.

In 2010 Libyan women inherited the right to pass on their citizenship to their children which was hitherto only the right of fathers as is the case in many Arab countries. Whether this will be implemented into Libya’s new constitution is questionable.

Even under Gaddafi’s autocratic rule a lack of democratic institutions and freedom of assembly and expression in Libya limited women’s ability to lobby for change.

Comparing with Tunisia

In neighbouring Tunisia women have historically fared far better than their sisters in Libya. Tunisia, which is where the Arab uprising began spontaneously in December 2010 and saw the ousting of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, passed the country’s 1956 Personal Status Code enshrining women’s rights.

The code proclaimed "the principle of equality between men and women" as citizens and prohibited polygamy. It also legalised divorce and abortion – 19 years before abortion was legalised in France. The country’s female literacy rate, at 71 percent according to UN figures, is the highest in North Africa.

Following Ben Ali’s deposition after 23 years in power, feminists demanded that secularism and gender equality be explicitly outlined in the new Constitution. But the results of the October 2011 elections for the Tunisian Constituent Assembly have raised concerns for some Libyan women.

The October 2011 poll gave the Islamist Ennahda party the majority of the seats in the Assembly and led to the inauguration of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who heads a government that some have called an "Islamist dictatorship-lite".

In the run up to the elections Ennahda sought to allay the fears of progressives by promising to guarantee women’s rights and freedoms. But the party’s symbol of moderation rapidly transformed into a force of moral censure, defending "morality" and calling Tunisia’s single mothers’ status "ill-repute".

Furthermore, references to Sharia law, statements on polygamy, Islamic marriages and female circumcision have added to concerns despite the fact that women’s rights have so far not been affected.

In addition to fears about growing Islamisation limiting the rights of Tunisian women, there remain areas where women continue to be second-class citizens to men. A case in point is that Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men unless they convert; the same does not apply to Muslim men.

Inequalities remain evident in inheritance rights, which are governed by Sharia law. Under Sharia law, Muslim women may inherit from their father, mother, husband or children and, under certain conditions, from other family members. However, their share is generally smaller than that to which men are entitled. Daughters, for example, inherit only half as much as sons.

Although domestic violence is prohibited in Tunisia, the issue is generally viewed as a private matter and the police typically refuse to intervene, often because they lack the training or resources to carry out investigations or protect victims effectively.

Furthermore, the OECD Gender Index cites a survey, according to which, 38.5 percent of men questioned said they believed that a husband had the right to beat his wife in certain circumstances.

It remains to be seen if the freedoms obtained in the Arab Spring will also benefit the female citizens of those countries who fought so hard for their liberation.

Source: In Depth News, 13/08/2012

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