Hmmm - here is some stuff I saved that may be of interest - links and articles:
Islamic Womens' links:
(kurdish women against honour killings)
Women leaders online
middle east centre for womens' studies
Women’s status in the Arab World during the last two decades
As we are on the doorstep of a new Millennium, we –the Middle East Center For Women’s Studies- believe that a comprehensive survey and analysis of the women’s living conditions in the Arab World are needed. This should include political, economical and social factors that formulated women’s life in the last two decades in this century.
Despite different social conditions in the countries of this area, there are similarities in the women’s demands and aims. This paper centers on two pivots;
There are two factors that formulated women’s life and rights during the last two decades. And they are:
1- Transform the majority of regimes from command to free market economy and the conceivable impacts of these changes on women’s positions
2- The rise of Islamic movements, which either taken power or stayed in opposition.
I would like to explain these factors, their impacts on women’s life and the conclusions that I draw from it.
First: the economic transformations, which occurred in the systems of the Arab World, and its impacts on the women’s status:
Obviously, the emerging ‘local’ bourgeois classes in the Arab countries, which seized power after their liberation from the colonial domination, needed huge labour forces to make the most of economic resources and opportunities, and women was part of this labour force.
Therefore, they rose many slogans such as “equality for women” “women form half of the society” “progress of any society is measured by women’s progress”. Iraq, Yemen and Algeria are prime examples.
Consequently, they encouraged women to contribute to the development by joining employment, and provided them with limited facilities and requirements. For example guarantee employment especially for female graduates.
Facilitated employment by giving pregnancy and maternity leave with full pay, provided nurseries, prevented women from night shifts and heavy work, free health services, free education and so on.
These changes, which improved situations for women, reflected in bringing about new legislations or improve the existing ones, such as personal status law, which banned polygamy, gave women the right to marriage without her family’s consent and also the right to divorce.
But, after the economic crises that followed the boom years of 70s and early 80s alongside the collapse of the eastern model, resulted in the failure of the development policies and plans, especially in the countries that followed similar systems. They started to attack women, and the state started the process of withdrawing the facilities and equipments in employment, health, education and laws.
These shifts from the intervening state to free market, affected women’s lives and rights. Which I can summerise them as:
1- Employment: the first impact of the economic crises was on women and thousands of them were made redundant because of lack of work opportunities, as they were considered to be “out of need”. Many firms replaced women with men instead. There would be no guarantee to get a job for the graduate women, which enforced women to compete for employment.
2- Education: reduced state support for education, forced many women and girls to give up their education, if there are education opportunities, the priorities will be given to boys and men rather than women.
3- Health, as a result of poverty and high surgery and drug expenses, men’s health provisions are preferred on women, hence, women suffer from health problems coupled with limited awareness doubles women’s health problems.
4- Services, due to privatization, governments reduced or abolished many services such as nursery, free health treatment, etc.
5- Social Security; non-existence of social services have put extra burden on women which lead and drive women to throw themselves in terrible conditions for surviving, such as convenient marriage, prostitution, and so on.
6- this decline has reflected in legislations also, such as Personal Status law, Penal code, and so on.
The polygamy has revived once again; “zawaj al-mutaa” and “ alzwaj al- urffe” emerged again strongly.
In Iraq or Jordan, for example, legalized death penalty for adultery, sexual relations outside marriage, which is called “Al-Zena”.
7-Preventing women from enjoying their basic rights such as traveling, the law imposes conditions on women to travel,
She has to obtain her Family’s consent (male members), and, in Iraq for instance, the law insists that women should be accompanied by a male relative (Mohram).
Notably: most governments prevent independent women’s organizations from working and acting, and they made it works just in their behalf’s.
3- The rise of Islamic movements, which either taken power or stayed in opposition.
The Arab World have been witnessing resurgence of extreme Islamic groups whose aims to implement Islamic rules on today’s women lives. This revival happened with deepened economic and political crises, the bankruptcy of the nationalist slogans that was raised, failure of the developments polices, they began to make amendments in different fields of the live and first of all was in the personal status law and the penal code. Due to their frailer, they turned to Islam, specially under the pressure of Islamic groups who have been calling to carry out the Islamic rules, which depended on keeping women at home, as we have seen in Algeria and Sudan, they introduce their solutions to solve unemployment for men, by pushing women back to the house, as Quran said “ wa qerna fi byotekona” “it in your house”.
Here, I will speak about two models, one about the Islamic Groups in the power, another still in opposition.
Algeria: the post colonial government in Algeria, first resolved the women’s organizations, which had worked for several years under the colonial system, and replaced them with state controlled women’s organizations which carried out their polices. During the 80s, the Islamic groupings tried to reformulate family law that incorporated denying women’s rights. After their failure to seize power in 1992, they began to attack women even more. In Algeria these groups for the following reasons have killed women:
· Women who refused to wear veil (hojab).
· Who refused to get married with Islamic group leaders (Al-Amir)?
· Who has personal relations with policemen?
· Who goes to public bathes (Hamam Turky)
· Who wears short clothes?
· Who drinks al cohool?
· Who red foreign newspapers.
· Imposed segregation of women from the man on public transport.
· Prevent them from joining schools (because the schools belong to atheist governments)
· Prevent women to go to beach and cultural centers
They said we want to end the unemployment by enforcing women to stay homes, there is 148 thousands child who was born as a result of rape, many students killed and they throw their bodies on the highways.
Al-Sudan: This country implemented Islamic rules. Women face discrimination, in the fourth constitution, The article (5) of the paragraph (1) which deals with Islamic dressing code, orders women to wear the described Islamic dress, those who disobey will be punished by lashing. This legislation came into effect from the beginning of this year.
The lash is a general punishment for any behavior seen unacceptable by the law. Segregate women from men in the public transport, and every other avenue, they insist that women’s place is at her home.
Changes in women status in the new century:
1- Activate civil society institutions, such as women, human rights and child protection organisations, health organizations and nurseries, in order to put pressure and make changes in the government polices towards women. European and American women’s organizations have extensive experience in this aspect and lessons can be learned from them.
2- Separate religion from the state and laws from Al-share (Islamic Law).
3- Develop women movement, introduces clear and precise demands, unite their efforts, and strengthen their work to achieve their aims. The way I think it will improve women situations and conditions, to achieve progress in their lives and obtain more rights.
From the women organization in Europe and America, and strengthening by support from this organization, by exposed, and put their presser, on the governments, to stop the attacking women rights, which concerned the U.N Declaration.
Al-Nesa August 2000
What is the answer? 1
Witness of her time
Samira Almane 2
Interview with Sawsan
Salim, an activist from
Islam and women’s
Azam Kamguian 5
Conference and report 9
Editor-in-chief: Nadia Mahmood
P.O Box: Al-Nesa
Tel: 0044 7 944906506
fax: 0044 207 732 2059.
Sort Code: 20-80-57
Al-Nesa first issued on:
What is the answer?
We have had a huge response to the first issue of Al-Nesa. Some of the reactions expressed by our readers were startling, the observations and comments made have raised different issues concerning Middle Eastern families, children, women, teenagers, etc. A number of them suggested the creation of a new column to deal with our readers’ daily problems and invite experts to give advice.
Others suggested that women ‘misuse their rights’ when they arrive at a European country. Supposedly some women ‘seek divorce and use this right as a mean to abandon her duties within a marriage’. Despite the fact that the right to divorce is one of the basic rights of any human being, it seems that it is tough for women in the Middle East to enjoy this largely fundamental right everywhere on this planet.
Others are worried about children and their nurture with different values and principles; different to that of their parents who fled their countries to secure better future for their families, however, they cannot instill their beloved values and principles into their children.
Some are anxious about the issues related to teenagers; they believe that this is a very difficult issue, “what if one day your daughter came home and told you ‘mum I am pregnant!’ Oh God! This is real nightmare”. A woman said to me that I keep telling my five years old daughter that we are different, we don’t accept to have ‘boy friend’.
Talks about domestic violence are best kept undisclosed because this ‘will encourage women to oppose their husbands’!
If we agree that humans have similar needs and aspirations, hence, why difference in the rights and the level of enjoyment?
Is it wrong to make it the society’s duty to protect children? Is it wrong for women to enjoy the right to divorce wherever they are from? What is the solution to prevent teenage pregnancies? Is it by going back to old customs and traditions or to have sex education? What is wrong with talking about these issues in the open? How long do we have to keep these issues under the carpet?
Others talked about the bravery and honesty and the ‘sensitive’ issues that the Journal is trying to tackle. Especially issues related to women in the Middle East and the holy triple alliance of religious, politics and sex; areas that are forbidden for women to be involved in.
Some others expressed opinions about the emergence of a movement that calls for equality between man and woman, to liberate women from all chains that enslave them, not degrade them to second class citizen and free them from ancient customs and old traditions.
We are really happy about the vast response we had after the publication of the first issue. Thank you and keep your comments up.
Witness of her
My presence with you now, is to proof that no body has taken seriously the advise of, supposedly, learned man in Baghdad, Abu Al Thana Al Alusee, writing on women in one of his manuscripts entitled : "The wisdom of keeping women illiterate" in 1898 "... what about teaching women how to read and write?! God forbid! I cannot see any thing worse than that in damaging them. Since women's nature inclines them to betrayal, acquiring such skills, would cause the greatest evil and corruption. The Moment woman knows how to read and write she will write a letter to Zied and a note to Omer (in English: to every Tom, Dick and Harry), a verse to this one and something else to another. To give women access to literacy is like presenting a sword to a murderer, or a bottle of wine to a drunker. The wise man is the one who keeps his wife in a state of ignorance and blindness. It is more appropriate to her, and more beneficial".
It is clear that a great deal of suspicion is involved here. This should not surprise us, since Al-Alusee lived in the land of the criminal Shahrayar hearing the imaginary stories of the "Thousand and one night".
It is striking too that both some Eastern and Western men, who seldom agree on other things, are of one mind on the question of women's education. A hundred years before Al-Alusee, Monk Lewis, a contemporary of Jane Austin, wrote: "I have an aversion, a pity and contempt for all female scribbler. The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle, and the only one they ever use dexterously". Of the two, it is Jane Austin who has achieved immortality while Monk Lewis has sunk into oblivion.
Fortunately, women have not always encountered such hostility. One could argue that such men were the product of the unjust and discriminatory societies in which men too were occasionally victims. Al-Alusee`s warning against the dangers of educating women came at a time of darkness across the Middle East under the harsh rule of the Ottoman Empire. Monk Lewis lived before and during the Victorian era when Britain, through her Empire on which the sun never set, dominated and plundered much of the world and while, at home, millions lived in poverty and misery about which Charles Dickens wrote so starkly.
Saying all that, it is of great significance that in 1899, a remarkable Egyptian author. Kasim Amin, courageously, spoke out against that accepted wisdom in his book Emancipation of Women, he championed women's right to education and to a fuller integration into their husband`s live. At that time it was a shocking idea and an attack on traditional attitudes, and Amin accordingly suffered persecution, which befalls anyone who speaks for the powerless. His was actually a call for the liberation of both sexes and it marked the dawning of a new day in the Arab world - the so-called Arab awakening - with Egypt, as so often, in the vanguard of change.
From Egypt the awakening spread rapidly throughout the Arab world and reached Iraq, the country which I came from. Its progress was accelerated by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It was as if a door which had been closed for centuries began to open little by little and let in a wind of change which blew away everything in its path and penetrated to the places where women had so long remained hidden and silent.
There are still a few very old women left who could remember those days. They handed down to us their stories of deprivation and rejection. Like that women whose brother blocked her divorce to preserve the family's good name. Another whose husband took as many wives as he liked. The following lyrics of a traditional popular song express it well: “My husband took a young girl as a wife though my hand still coloured with henna”.
Henna on a bride’s hand, as some of you may know, symbolises happiness, and at that time it was part and parcel of a marriage ceremony in most of the Eastern countries.
In such society who wants a woman with the ability to read and write!? Surely she will upset some of the men’s schemes and plans, in defending her rights and demanding their duties. It is no good. Better by far, from the men view point, if she could only "sign" with her thumb print.
However, it is amazing how those women illiterate themselves but aware of the dawn that was breaking, encouraged their daughters to enroll in the new schools so that they should not suffer the same fate. One woman recalled sadly how she was forced to miss her opportunity. She was nine when the first girl’s school opened in her hometown Basra during the First World War. Her father would not allow her to join her younger sister there because, in his view, she was old enough to start preparing herself for marriage - the ultimate destiny for women. For many years, She kept complaining and questioning his motives, still surprised, asking why her father defended the Ottoman empire while they never built any girls school in one of the regions major cities at that time, being the only port in Iraq? Those unknown women were eager for their daughters to learn, and soon girls schools sprang up in all the major towns. It became normal for girls to attend them and they soon forgot the injustices of the past.
It is to the credit of some men of that period that education for girls, was accepted with a good grace. The atmosphere of bullying evaporated. After the First World War one could sense a new expectancy in the air. The hope of a liberated independent Iraq in which men would be freed from oppression was at hand, more or less. Openness and respect grew up amongst them, which in turn, overflowed towards women.
Girls used to rush home from school in great excitement and tell their mothers what they had learned. They seemed to want to teach their mothers, show them their books and read aloud to them, as if they understood the boredom and emptiness of a life spent in just peering out at the world through "shanasheil" windows. Mothers, for their part, took not only pride but also pleasure in their girl’s achievements and humbly exchanged willingly roles with them, sharing their experiences. When in the thirties, the word Parliament entered the Iraqi Political dictionary for the first time, and an election was called. Women began to think of casting aside their black clocks called "aba`a" and the word "Sufoor" began to be heard: it means "taking off the veil". In Iraq it took place peacefully and in an orderly fashion, mostly with the support of men.
Some fifty years later, women had cherished their freedom from the harem and their path to what is called, now, in politics "a third way". But suddenly, without warning, we are beginning to hear of a move back towards the past. Why should this ever take place? The pioneer generation of women had died off, leaving their successors bewildered and uncertain. Some of these are becoming frivolous while others are going back into their shells, alas.
On 16 August last year the first Iraqi woman to qualify as a doctor died in an old people home in London, Her memory completely gone, suffering from the Alzeimer’s disease. Why, in London? We may ask. Why she had been living here for the last 25 years?! Big questions indeed. Was her disease a blessing in disguise? Had it freed her from the longing to go back to her homeland where, in the last few years, new decrees have restricted young women's right to travel alone and allowed men to kill any female relative who might be thought of to stain the family's reputation. In a country, for example, well - known for its tyranny, Muslim girls are, now, prevented from attending schools after the age of eight.
What a future beckons, for men and women alike! We are hurrying back to square one, to the dark ages, where women were blamed for every conceivable evil. What's needed, for the picture to be completed, is to burn witches.
Let us hope we do not have to wait for another five centuries before women could, without fear or intimidation, once again make their voices heard. We have to learn the lesson of the past, to say the least.
Recent publication for the writer
The Middle East Centre for Women Studies organises its Annual Conference during December 2000 in London under the title of “women’s rights are human rights”. Please contact the Centre in London should you wish to take part. The conference will tackle the following areas:
- Women rights in international conventions.
- Women and domestic violence.
- Women and rights in work.
- Women and Personal Statues Law.
- Women and the right to asylum.
- Women and civil rights.
If you wish to present a research please send us a draft proposals, not more than 250 words, on one of the above areas to:
55 Nigel Road
London SE15 4NP.
Tel & Fax:
0044 (0)20 7732 2059.
E-mail: [email protected]
Interview with Sawsan Salim, the UK’s representative of the Independent Women’s Organisation in Kurdistan.
Al-Nesa: recently we obtained the ‘Equality Law’, which outlines an alternative proposed by the IWO regarding the Personal Status Law; we also received some good news that there have been amendments to the said law. But, a few days ago we heard that your offices and the Centre for Protecting Women in Sulaimaniya were forcefully closed down; could you tell us what has happened to the residents of the Centre and the current situation of women and their organisations in Iraqi Kurdistan?
I would like, before answering your question, to say that ever since the IWO’s formation and due to our oppositions to ancient customs, regressive traditions and male chauvinism, we have been in relentless struggle against the authorities and the Islamic movement in Kurdistan. Our movement advocates a comprehensive equality between man and woman, human and civil rights for women. Since then we have had a positive impact upon the society in general and on women in particular; for instance our campaigns to stop women being murdered on the pretext of honour, on domestic violence and to change and ‘not amend’ the Personal Status Law. This law, which is based on the Islamic Shariaa, male control and degrading women as a second class citizen, has no legitimacy in Kurdistan because the Iraqi authorities lost control over Kurdistan since the end of the 2nd Gulf War, hence, we must not follow laws laid down by the central government; If I could also mention the Iraqi Penal Law, Resolution 111 issued in 1990 by the Iraqi regime, which gives a man the right to kill his woman relatives if she starts a sexual relationship outside marriage. Due to the ignorance shown by the authorities and not prosecute the perpetrators of such crimes, this law has become a dominant attitude in Kurdistan.
The regional authorities and the Islamic movement have always attempted to put obstacles in front of our activities, for instance several attempts have been made to stop our newspaper ‘Yaksani’ and block seminars and gatherings for different reasons. Since 1998, our offices have been under intensified attacks and we are prevented from perusing normal activities. From June 2000 our offices and that of the Centre ‘the shelter’ were ordered to close down. First they started to cut off the services - water, electricity, etc – to our offices, then on 14 July the security forces surrounded the IWO’s building and demanded to abandon the offices in order to close it down for ever, consequently they opened fire and three of our security personnel were murdered; a week later they forced us to abandon our offices and detained the residents, 12 women and five children, of the shelter at one of their prisons. I am concerned and worried about their fates.
Al-Nesa: very well, with regard to this situation, what is the society’s reaction on which ‘you have had a positive impact’ and other responses from inside and/or outside Kurdistan?
Women’s suffering is a universal issue; following this point of view and our acknowledgment and recognition of the importance of solidarity of women form other countries, especially in the Middle East, we started an international campaign to defend women’s case in Kurdistan. During 1993, we formed an ‘International Campaign in defence of Women in Kurdistan’. We have been aiming to explain, to the outside world, women’s living conditions and predicaments in Kurdistan and
taking part in other campaigns and movements that we believe will benefit our movement and also others could benefit from our experiences.
Most recently, when our offices came under attack, we started to organise a campaign to defend the IWO and the Centre, to expose the perpetrators and reveal their true intentions in the Kurdish, Arabic and world media and press, we contacted several well-known global organisations such as Amnesty International, European Parliament, UN, Red Cross, International Socialist and many more. We also contacted several members of British Parliament, for instance Mr. Jeremy Corbun and others.
Al-Nesa: would you like to say anything else?
Before I have my final say, I would like to mention that we believe since 1991 nearly 5000 women have been murdered; during 1999 alone, 296 cases of suicide were recorded at one of the major hospitals in Sulaimaniya; Ms. Subhia Nadir, who is a naturalised British citizen, was murdered in Sulaimaniya and many more examples of the women’s living conditions in Kurdistan.
What I want to say and emphasise upon is, closing down the IWO offices and the Centre means that the Islamists along with old tribal values will have the upper hand to continue killing women and violate women’s rights in Kurdistan. We shall carry on our fight and campaigns to attract more support to our cause. I call upon every human right supporter to support us in our fight and help us in any way he/she thinks appropriate.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Few days after the interview, we heard some upsetting news from Kurdistan. Her brothers killed Nesrin Aziz Rashid, one of the residents of the Center, on 30/31 July 2000.
Cultural Relativism, Islam and Women’s Liberation*
Looking at Iranian women’s situation as an observer, we see an amazing and even contradictory picture. On the one hand we see a complete system of gender apartheid including the utmost anti – women laws in marriage, divorce, legalized polygamy, women’s lack of rights in child custody, the Islamic penal code regarding women, compulsory veil, stoning to death for adultery, segregation in education, sport, employment, transport, restaurants, and even in the health care imposed on women by the Islamic Republic, and on the other hand we see women actively participating in many aspects of social, economic, cultural and political life.
How should we interpret this picture? How could this oppression and religious suppression be explained while women are present everywhere? Can we, as many academics and western mainstream media do, say that this progress is due to the Islamic and indigenous cultural values, which not only has not restricted women’s rights and freedom, but also has promoted and protected these rights?
In explaining this contradiction, some would say: whatever has been told about religious oppression, seclusion and discrimination against women merely originates from colonial and racist attitudes and interests of Western countries and the Euro -centrism. They say that veil (hijab) is a tool, which empowers women and liberates them. They also would say that women are actively engaged in political and social life because Islam and the indigenous culture is compatible to women’s needs and expectations, contrary to pre –revolutionary period and the existence of relatively modern values. They tell us that women’s rights and freedom in Iran should not be defined according to western concepts and Iranian society under the Islamic rule has presented an opposite case, which could be a successful model for other Middle Eastern countries. Others tell that the so – called Islamic feminists who try for different interpretation of Quranic verses are the initiators and agents of this development and have the duty of leading Iranian women’s struggle for liberation. All of these interpretations are based on the notion that women’s rights are not universal rights and secularism and a secular government are not the pre – conditions for women’s liberation.
This portrayal of Iranian women under Islamic rule got more publicity and speed three years ago when Khatami became president. His smiling face, his ability to speak English and some modifications in his religious dressing was interpreted as signs of the dawn of freedom and women’s rights in Iran. It seems that even if Khatami did not exist, Western power and their media would invited one. In West Khatami was presented as a hero reforming and improving women’s situation. West was anxious to open its political and trade relations with Iran and by its media and intellectual means justified this need.
Theories such as Cultural relativism were also used to justify backward, misogynist culture and religious dictatorship in the name of respecting non –western cultures and avoiding Euro- centrism.
But, what is the reality? How do I as an Iranian woman activist look at women’s lives and their struggle for liberation? How is their situation two decades after the revolution? What do I mean by a complete system of gender apartheid? How do women actively try to make their lives better despite the religious repression? What is the trend called Islamic feminism in Iranian women’s movement? How is its impact and possible future in my view? What are the pre- conditions and obstacles in the way of women’s liberation in Iran?
At the threshold of 1979 revolution in Iran, women’s massive participation in the public sphere was an undeniable reality. By transition of Iran into a capitalist society, and the modernization reforms initiated by Mohammad Reza Shah in the 60s to facilitate this transformation, women’s participation in education and the labor force was accelerated. Two decades later women were massively engaged in many aspects of economic and social life and were visible as workers, teachers, actresses, writers, musicians, nurses, clerks, doctors, university lecturers and so on. Under the new socio – economic relation, women’s oppression remained as a distinguishing feature of Iranian society. Women had many hopes and expectation from the 1979 revolution. They massively participated in overthrowing Shah’s oppressive regime. They, along men fought for freedom, equality and justice. The demand for women’s equality was one of the slogans of the 1979 revolution. Unfortunately they didn’t have a clear view in defining equality in terms of specific demands. Iranian revolution was defeated and repressed by the Islamic movement, which was backed by western powers. Nationalist forces also had a strong share in this defeat. Most women confusingly accepted the veil as a sign of solidarity on the mass demonstrations against Shah.
The last 20 years have been some of darkest in people’s lives, especially women’s lives. The Islamic Regime brought nothing but repression, death, torture, lack of rights and dark reaction. For 21 years Islamic laws have been and still are in full force against women in Iran. Women were amongst the very first targets attacked by the Islamic Republic. With Khomeini’s pronouncements on the veil, immense outbursts of anger expressed by women on the streets on the International Women’s Day. This anger was not simply because of their rejection of the veil. No matter how confused their political consciousness may have been, they saw in the attempts to impose the veil a much greater implied threat. They felt that this was just the beginning of a whole series of measures, which would lead to the seclusion of women from social and economic activity. In demonstrations and rallies which took weeks and months women shouted slogans such as: “women’s rights are neither Eastern nor western, but universal” and: “we did not take part in revolution to go back to the old and backward values.
Oppression is one side of women’s situation in Iran. In fact the post – revolutionary period in Iran has seen an extra ordinary gender- awareness amongst Iranian women. During the last twenty years women’s resistance against Islamic laws has been a daily fact of life. Tens of thousands of women have offended the rules and been attacked by Islamic moral squads with fists and kicks, knives, cutters and other blades yearly. The penalty for breaking the rules of segregation and hijab has been insult, cash fines, expulsion, deprivation from education, arrest, imprisonment, beating and flogging. 80 percent of women resisted against these rules have been young women who were born after the revolution. No day has gone without resistance, hope and movement during the last two decades. Women in Iran have succeeded in pushing back the offensive of the Islamic regime inch by inch, re –appropriating spheres of public life that were lost immediately after the revolution. Their success in forcing the government to remove, at least on paper, the ban on certain fields of higher education is a case in point. Women have succeeded in placing their plight at the center of politics in Iran and as a major issue of conflict in political discourse and ideological mobilization. In the streets of Iran’s major cities, growing clashes between the morality police and bystanders over the arrest of violators of the Islamic dress code demonstrate that women’s resistance, together with the overall political and economic crisis of the Islamic regime have caused a disenchantment of ordinary Iranians with the Islamics who continue their policy of purifying the female soul and body from secular ideas and practices. Women and the politics of gender continue to be the Achilles’ heel of the Islamic Republic. During the post revolutionary period women have struggled to open spaces and make opportunities in education and employment. They campaign against Islamic child abuse and have organized association for the defense of children’s rights. They are actively involved in semi – legal and clandestine political struggle. Culturally they resist and campaign against Islamic and traditional images of women dictated and portrayed by the Islamic cultural authorities in films, theatres, newspapers and magazines.
Despite strict Islamic moral code and preserving taboos, more than ever before sexual relationship before and outside marriage is common especially amongst young women and many taboos have been broken. All of these make the women’s movement a strong political reality in the center of Iran’s political scene.
Here I would like to talk about the so – called Islamic feminism briefly. This is a tendency, which tries to improve women’s situation by reforming some of Islamic principles and Quranic verses. They were amongst women who eagerly advocated Islamic Republic and actively participated in Islamic government’s campaigns against women. In the 90s, they started to distance themselves and mildly criticized some aspects of Islamic Republic’s policies and some of its leaders. This trend is not of any importance inside Iran, but again it has got publicity due to the efforts of some feminists and academic and also western media that try to portray a distorted image of women’s movement in Iran and reduce its demands to those of Islamic feminists’. In fact women are fighting in Jordan against honor – killing, in Egypt against Islamic family law, in Palestine against divorce law and in Kuwait for the right to vote and other citizenship rights. All of these campaigns are against the Shariah Law (Islamic Law), which is the basis for family laws in almost all of the Middle Eastern countries.
Women have fought for freedom and equality during the revolution and the post – revolutionary period. What is disturbing in reflecting women’s demands and struggle in the study of and by women in the Third World and the Middle East is the attempt to refute women’s rights concepts and theories altogether as western ideas and incompatible to women’s situation and orientalist in nature. The suggestion is that the ideas of women’s rights and equality essentially functioned to provide moral justification for the attack on native societies or their indigenous culture and traditions.
The pressure on Iranian women to denounce concepts of women’s rights as western, as ethnic specific and irrelevant to non – western contexts comes also from feminists in West. Sometimes even the previously accepted minimal elements of women’s rights in a non – western context are called into question. For example Patricia Higgins suggested that the plight of women in Iran concerns only middle – and upper – class women, implying that the horrendous consequences of Islam in power were not significant for most Iranian women. Others have questioned maturity of Muslim countries, and their women to enjoy such rights as sexual equality. Juliette Minces has argued that they are not ready “to undergo an emancipation which throws into question a secular equilibrium which has the full backing of religion”
With the anti – secularist backlash and the rise of political Islam in the 80s and 90s, the attacks on women’s rights accelerated. Theories such as cultural relativism, which was advocated both inside and outside of these countries, worsened women’s situation even more. The tendency is now to view women’s quest for legal, political and economic equality as culturally specific. It permits indifference to or the justification of the practices that oppress and dehumanize women in non – western cultures, when similar practices would be condemned as outrageous, unacceptable and barbaric in western culture. One dramatic example is the silence of feminists in the West in face of systematic suppression of women’s basic human rights in Iran by Islamic movement and the Islamic regime. Presumably since we are women from the “Third World” what is happening to us is more than enough for us. Why should geographic and cultural borders make what is conceived as oppressive in one culture an acceptable cultural norm in another? In fact none of women’s rights would have been existed in the West if the concept of women’s equality were defined and limited according to Christian values and backward Victorian values in Europe. Cultural relativism suggests that it is not acceptable to criticize the misogynist, sexist and derogatory religious and nationalistic culture and traditions that have been preserved, celebrated and reproduced as part of an untouchable national or cultural heritage generation after generation.
Under the guise of avoiding orientalism, cultural relativism has been haunting studies of the Middle East and particularly study of women’s experiences in various Middle East and Islamic countries.
In fact cultural relativism and orientalism are two sides of the same coin. The advocates of preserving “their own indigenous culture, religion and traditions” are not merely amongst western academia, its mainstream media or western feminists. Relying on nationalistic culture and religious values and using the veil as a means to resist modern values such as human rights, freedom and equality for women, separation of religion from the state which were originated from west started right from 19 century. This backward and anti – women movement hid its hostility towards these values under the guise of resistance against colonialism and imperialism. Religious and nationalist leaders campaigned against the west as a whole including both colonizers and the progressive thinkers and advocates of free thought, atheism, women’s rights and many other progressive trends and said: “Go away and leave us with our own culture and religion”
This idea also carries the message that women of the Third World who demand rights and stand against male domination and backward traditions are disloyal to their own culture, religion and traditions. This idea is even supposed to have a progressive guise: as part of the populist struggle against imperialism. Opposition to imperialist culture in Iran finds expression as Easternism. In Iran as well as in many countries of the so – called Third World especially since 70s, opposition to ‘imperialist culture’ has been seen as an element of the fight against imperialism. Women have been the victims of the struggle against ‘imperialist culture’ and “Westernism”. This is because women’s liberation and women’s rights are seen as imperialist and western concepts. A legacy of imperialist culture, which should be resisted. Traditional, backward, religious and reactionary forces oppose women’s liberation in the name of fighting imperialism and the West.
The problem exists in the conceptual frameworks which prevent many western intellectuals including feminists from seeing and appreciating the diversified women’s movements in the Middle East. The hegemonic influence of the western image of Middle Eastern women as veiled, obedient, subservient and backward, overshadows the mounting evidence of their intellectual, cultural and political changes in the region. This distorted understanding of women’s life experiences, concerns and expectations is reproduced and repeated in a new stereotype. The stated idea is that, because socio - economic problems are more pronounced in the region and because traditionalist gender roles and male dominance are more rigidly maintained and reproduced, issues of concern to western women such as sexuality, freedom from sexual oppression and women’s complete equality with men are irrelevant to Middle Eastern women.
The idea of women’s liberation and equal rights for women is a universal one. We should not put any cultural restriction on it. Any attempt to restrict these rights in the name of culture or defining freedom and equality according to different cultures which as I mentioned before is presented as “cultural relativism”, put a major obstacle in the way of women’s liberation. Especially when attempts are made to give to this idea a progressive, anti – racist and anti – imperialist and non – Euro - centrist appearance, it creates serious barrier for forces fighting for women’s liberation. If Islamic beliefs and the indigenous national cultures in the Middle Eastern countries are not oppressive and therefore important barriers against development in women’s rights and liberation, why are women’s individual rights and social position worse in Muslim countries than anywhere else?
Iranian history is a good testimony to the fact that women’s liberation can only be achieved under an egalitarian, progressive and secular form of government. This is the basic prerequisite of women’s liberation in Iran.
* This is parts of Azam Kamguian’s speeches at the International Women’s Forum in Cambridge – UK and Denmark.
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Conference on Sex in the Middle East*.
Forty sexologists from the Arab world have met at Oxford University for what organisers say is the first pan-Arab conference on sex in the Middle East. The three-day conference heard that sexuality in the Middle East has less to do with the fantasies of a "Thousand and One Nights" and more to do with sex crimes. Funded by the US think-tank, the Ford Foundation, the conference was jointly hosted by St Anthony's College, Oxford and the American University in Beirut.
Researchers portrayed Arab societies as muzzled by religious traditionalists who condone male domination, child marriages, polygamy and honour killings - the practice where men kill female relatives for suspected sexual activity outside marriage.
According to the UN agency for children, UNICEF, Jordan faces an average of 23 "honour killings" a year. In 1999, says UNICEF, more than two-thirds of all murders in Gaza Strip and West bank were "honour killings". In Yemen as many as 400 "honour killings" took place in 1997. And in Egypt there were 52 reported "honour crimes" in 1997. But while participants were unanimous in treating sexuality as a problem, they also revealed a world where sexual practice falls far short of the religious ideal. Researchers claimed 50% of Lebanese women lost their virginity before marriage. In Morocco, Professor Abdessamd Dialimi said his surveys showed the figure was more than 70%. And homosexuality, it seemed, was largely a taboo only in name -especially in the sex-segregated Gulf. "In prison, same-sex sex is the norm," said one researcher from the Gulf. "Saudi Arabia is just a large prison." Repeatedly, speakers contrasted the religious-based laws of the Arab world with their citizens' sex lives.
Eroticism Despite widespread promiscuity, sex before marriage in Morocco is illegal. Women who give birth out of wedlock can be condemned in court as prostitutes, fined and sentenced to six months in prison. Similarly, abortion in Lebanon is prohibited by law, but common in practice. So too is surgery to restore the hymen.
According to participants, the cleavage between the licit ideal and the illicit norm lies at the core of Arab eroticism.
In Lebanon, the law explicitly provides for extenuating circumstances for men who kill female relatives for losing their virginity before marriage. And yet according to a survey of Lebanese women carried out by Marie Therese Khair Badawi of Saint Joseph University in Beirut, single women have better sex lives than their married counterparts. Few events have done more to expose the gap between the official and the unofficial attitudes to sex in the Middle East than Lebanon's Friday-night chat show, "Al Shater Yahki". For three years it topped the ratings with its live debates on anything from masturbation to incest. Homosexuals - albeit behind whiteface-masks - talked on air about their love lives. And wives rang in live to complain about the diminutive size of their husbands' penises. Thriving gay scene In fact, participants portrayed Middle Eastern society as far removed from the monochrome picture of religious orthodoxy. In Lebanon homosexuality is illegal. But Lebanon also plays host to a thriving gay scene - replete with clubs and an association to "out" alleged homosexuals in parliament. And in North Africa, the numbers of single women living by themselves is fast on the rise. Speakers at the Oxford conference cited exposure to the sexual mores of the West as the cause. They said it penetrated the Arab world in myriad forms: Lebanese war-exiles returning with European lifestyles; Palestinians partying in Israeli clubs, and Western-funded Aids programmes, where condoms are distributed free of charge. Researchers said free-to-air satellite TV channels - such as Venus – broadcasting hard-core porn 24-hours-a-day had become a prime vehicle of sex education for women and men alike. The result is a startling change in sex lives across the Middle East. In the mid-60s, women in Tunisia spent an average of 18 years child-bearing. Today they spend six years.
And, as in the West, the spread of contraception is also giving women increasing control of their sex lives. Critics argue that Arab sexologists have a highly politicised agenda. They say that by constantly citing the problems, the sexologists seek to apply Western concepts of sexuality, and liberate sex from religious authority. But some traditionalists are not yet ready to succumb. Citing the Islamic world's own traditions of erotica, Shi'a leaders in Lebanon are sanctioning the re-emergence of the traditional "muta", or pleasure marriage - as a form of legalised promiscuity. The battle of the sexualities as well as the sexes looks likely to run and run.
* From: www.awsa.net.
Arab Women Solidarity Association.
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