CDWRME Bulletin #15

"Women in the Middle East" 

Number 15, August, 2003

Bulletin of "Committee to Defend Women's Rights in the Middle East"

Editor: Azam Kamguian
Assistant Editor: Mona Basaruddin

In this issue:

Iran: Women at the Forefront of the Movement against Political Islam

The slogan of 'Down with the Islamic Republic of Iran.' has become the dominant decree in any political move in Iran. The June 10 and 11 protests have once more shown that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the obstacle to freedom and happiness and the source of poverty and despair in Iran. Protests against any issue, namely the privatisation of universities, lack of water and electricity, price rises, poverty, unpaid wages, and for improvements people's lot and attempts to just live, are directly vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran and result in the slogan 'Down with the Islamic Republic'.

Everyone now agrees that the reform of the Islamic Republic - whoever's agenda it might be is not that of the people of Iran. The people do not want the Islamic Republic of Iran. 'Down with the Islamic Republic' is People's verdict. It is the verdict of the freedom loving people who have been pushed into misery and despair by the Islamic regime. 'Down with the Islamic Republic of Iran' is the spark of hope in the eyes of women and teenage girls who have not yet lost the hope of liberation from Islamic slavery. 'Down with the Islamic Republic of Iran' is the cry for freedom, joy and liberation. This movement must be consolidated and advanced. The overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran is near. This is also the verdict that recent protests prove.

One of the significant characteristics of the recent protests is the role of women in it. Women are taking active part in the demonstrations and protests. They are militant and brave. Throwing off the veil and burning it in a country in which non-observance of the codes of veiling is punished by floggings, imprisonment and torture is an act of tremendous bravery and militancy. The burning of the veil is not only an act of defiance; it is tantamount to burning the flag of the Islamic Republic; it is the symbol of throwing all that is Islamic or representative of the Islamic Republic and political Islam away. Women in Iran are at the forefront of the anti-regime protests and a formidable force against political Islam. The Islamic Republic established its grip on power over twenty years ago by forcibly veiling women, by terrorizing women to submission, and now women are taking to the streets, shouting 'Down with the Islamic Republic', and throwing their veils away and burning this symbol of oppression and humiliation.

The people's movement against the Islamic Republic has entered a new phase, has been transformed and has more directly voiced the desire to overthrow this brutal regime. A great movement to overthrow one of the bloodiest and most brutal regimes of the 20th century shapes the current political environment in Iran. The overthrowing the Islamic Republic will bring about the demise of political Islam in the region.

Afghanistan: Taliban-style oppression of Women is Back

In December 2002, President Karzai decreed that women had the right to choose whether to wear a burqa, the head-to-toe veil that came to symbolize women's oppression under the Taliban. Despite this announcement, women inside and outside Kabul continue to wear the concealing garment. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan girls have been permitted to go to school and women have been allowed to rejoin the work force. But recent events may indicate that Islamic restrictions on women are taking hold in Afghanistan once again.

Later in the year, the Afghan government established the Department of Islamic Teaching under the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Akin to the Taliban-era Department of Vice and Virtue, the new department trains and deploys women to stop public displays of "un-Islamic" behaviour among Afghan women. In January, Afghanistan's Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari banned cable television broadcasts, declaring that the images violate Islamic morals.

Even more disheartening is the situation of women in Afghan's warlord-ruled provinces. According to a U.N. report on women in Afghanistan, there have been arson attacks on girls' schools in several provinces. The report also indicates that forced marriages, domestic violence, kidnapping of young girls, harassment and intimidation of women continue unabated.

Iraq: Founding Statement of Organization of Women's Freedom

Women's freedom is the measure of freedom and humanity in society. Not only in Iraq, where women endure the most severe types of discrimination and injustice, but also in the more developed countries in the world today, the realization of full equality among women and men still requires continuous struggle and serious and rapid steps. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq considers itself basically an indivisible part of the great, historic, and universal struggle for women's liberation. Women's rights are universal. They do not submit to any divisions based upon country borders, cultures, ethnicities and religions. Furthermore, women's liberation from male chauvinistic shackles in Iraq will have a profound ripple effect on women's status and people's lives in the Middle East.

The suffering of women in Iraq during the past eras due to deprivation, lack of rights, and oppression, is one of the most malicious phenomena and bitter fact in the Iraqi society. Women were officially and legally deprived even from the trivial and limited rights and freedoms that the men enjoyed. In addition to starvation and destitution resulting from the economic sanctions and the absence of opportunities for women, women were the first victims of oppressive regimes, especially the fascist Ba'th regime, and the regressive political changes whether originating from the United States and their destructive wars or the nationalist and Islamist movements in Iraq.

Nowadays, the simplest personal freedoms of women are subject to pressure and restriction that may threaten women's right to life. Women are considered second rate citizens and officially dependant on men. In Iraq, we confront male chauvinism and religious backwardness and tribalism that threaten women's humanity and strongly question her presence in all fields.

The freedom of women and their full equality with men will always be a hope and aim for the protesting masses and freedom lovers in Iraq. The marginalization, violence against women, discriminatory laws and misogynist policies were encountered by continuous masses denunciation of contemporary Iraqi society. There is a huge emancipatory and secular force in this society that aims at achieving freedom and a better life for women. Women's situation needs to be changed as the women in Iraq deserve another kind of life; one that is full of freedom, equality and prosperity. Therefore, the need arises to found the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq for the immediate realization of this human cause.

Our objective is the unconditional freedom of women and full equality among women and men in Iraq. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq thereby struggles to realize the following demands:

1. Establishing a humanistic law based upon equality and assurance of broadest liberties for women in addition to the abolition of all discriminatory laws of all kinds.
2. Separation of religion from state and education.
3. Stopping of all kinds of violence against women and of honour killings and stressing on punishment of the murderers of women.
4. Abolition of compulsory veiling, children's veiling and protecting freedom of dress.
5. Equal participation among women and men in all social, economical, administrative and political realms and at all levels.
6. Abolition of sexual segregation in schools at all stages.

The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq strives to attract women's masses outside the dark corners of their houses and to organize their ranks along a struggle that develops the status of women and assures their participation in economic, political and social life. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq calls upon all women, men and groups protesting against the abnormal situation of women to join its ranks and struggle to strengthen and support the emancipatory and egalitarian movement for a better life for women.
Nasik Ahmad, Yanar Mohammed, Nadia Mahmood, Independent Women's Organization June 2003

Jordan: Counselling Website for Victims of violence

Reaching out through cyber-space to abused women in the Arab world, a Jordanian nongovernmental organisation is an on-line counselling service offering all forms of guidance. The service is being provided by AmanJordan website, run by the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI) and its Amman Resource Centre on Violence Against Women. In its launching, 16 Arab legal, social, religious and psychological experts expressed readiness to offer electronic counselling services to needy women in the Arab world.
Anyone seeking any type of help could log onto the website - www.amanjordan.org - fill out a form with their problems or questions, and be provided an expert's answer.

Iraq: The climate of Fear & Sexual Violence against Women

The insecurity plaguing Baghdad and other Iraqi cities has a distinct and debilitating impact on the daily lives of women and girls, preventing them from participating in public life at a crucial time in their country's history. The failure of Iraqi and U.S.-led occupation authorities to provide public security in Iraq's capital lies at the root of a widespread fear of rape and abduction among women and their families.

Women and girls today in Baghdad are scared, and many are not going to schools or jobs or looking for work. According to Records and interviews of rap and abduction victims and witnesses by Human Rights Watch, Iraqi police and health professionals, and U.S. military police and civil affairs officers, twenty-five credible allegations of rape or abduction is recorded. The Human Rights Watch reports have found that police officers gave low priority to allegations of sexual violence and abduction and, that victims of sexual violence confronted indifference and sexism from Iraqi law enforcement personnel.

Human Rights Watch said this inadequate attention to the needs of women and girls has led to an inability and in some cases unwillingness, by police to conduct serious investigations. In some cases, reports of sexual violence and abduction to police were lost.

Cases documented in the report include:

  • Saba A. (not her real name), a nine-year-old girl, was brutally raped by a man who grabbed her from the stairs of the residence hotel where she lives, in the middle of the afternoon on May 22. A hospital refused to treat her, and the forensic institute refused to give her an exam because she did not have an official referral.
  • Muna B.(not her real name), a fifteen-year-old-girl, escaped from a house outside Baghdad on June 8, where she had been held for a month with her two sisters and seven other children. She wasn't raped, but her sister was, and she thought that her captors intended to sell her and the other children to traffickers. Her case was reported to U.S. military police, but Iraqi police didn't even take a statement from her.
  • Dalal S. (not her real name), a 23-year-old-woman, was snatched while walking down the street with her mother and other family members on May 15; she was taken to a house outside Baghdad, held overnight and raped. Her father reported her abduction to the police, but they never pursued the allegations.
    On June 17, two young women reported to the U.S. military and Iraqi police that their friend had just been kidnapped. U.S. military police went to the scene of the abduction, but the perpetrators had long-since fled. Iraqi police failed to take a statement from the witnesses and thus no investigation was opened into the abduction of that young woman.

Human Rights Watch, The 17-page report, "Climate of Fear: Sexual Violence and Abduction of Women and Girls in Baghdad www.humanrightswatch.org 

Iraq: Founding Statement of Iraqi Women's Rights Coalition

We are a group of Iraqi women who are extremely concerned about women's rights and freedom in Iraq. We have decided to set up this coalition due to the regime change in Iraq. We are working together to make sure that the new constitution will exclude all the existent codes and laws which are based on Sharia law and which discriminate against women.

Iraqi women have suffered from many forms of discrimination which has led to the infliction of violence - rape, torture, domestic violence and 'honour killings' - under the Ba'athist regime for more than two decades.
Women have also suffered institutionalised oppression in the form of the prohibition of choice of marital and sexual partners; the lack of rights concerning divorce; denial of freedom of expression in political life; denial of access to independent travel and enforced veiling in certain regions of Iraq.

Now that the war is over there is a chance for us, as Iraqi women, to impose our fair demands on the new Government and to put an end to the active discrimination that has been practiced in Iraq against women.

We advocate the separation of religion from the state and the replacement of Sharia law with a secular law. This is the only way that a gender-inclusive society can be established. We advocate the abolition of the principles of Iraqi 'Personal Status Law', which governs the codes of practice and legal rights (or what we term 'non-rights') of women, based on Sharia law principles. Personal Status Law should be re-established to include unconditional equal rights between men and women in the political, economic and social spheres. We advocate for the abolishment of torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading punishments against women.

The following rights of women to be enshrined in law:

-Equal rights between women and men in all spheres of social, family life, inheritance, marriage, and divorce.

-The total abolition of killings based on 'honour'. Honour killings must be recognised as a crime, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice and sentenced to a prison term according to the law.

-The criminalisation of all forms of rape, sexual harassment, physical and psychological torture, domestic violence and beheading women under any excuses.

The right to have abortion for up to 12 weeks of pregnancy for women, and there should be no restriction by the state or her family.

-The abolition of marriages for girls under the age of sixteen, and the abolition of polygamous marriages and the practice of temporary marriage (SIGHA), and also the right to total freedom of choice regarding sexual partners and spouses.

-The right to enjoy equal rights in employment and education.

-The right to have individual freedom to live alone, and to travel freely without being accompanied.

-The right to refuse Islamic veiling by the family or the state or any other person, without any penalty.

-The right to join political parties and the right to establish women's rights organisations, advocacy centres, and refugees. Recognition of women's rights in participating in every governmental post without any discrimination or obstacles by the state. The members of this coalition are as follows, and this list is open for any individuals and groups who believes in unconditional equal rights between men and women to join:

This is a network of various women's rights activists and organisations aiming to influence the policy-making of the new Government in Iraq. It aims to ensure that women's equal rights are secured and a secular constitution is established. We wish to make it clear that we believe in the rights of each and every individual to practice their freedoms in all spheres as they choose. We are proposing the complete separation of Government and religion in Iraq, to establish the only possible chance of secular rule, which is inclusive of all Iraqis, regardless of gender, religion, ethnicity, and political opinion.

Houzan Mahmoud
E-mail: iraqwrc@hotmail.com 

U.K: New Law to Punish Mutilating Girls Abroad

Parents who take their daughters abroad to have their genitals mutilated could face up to 14 years in prison if a new law gets passed. Home Secretary David Blunkett has given his backing to a private members bill to make it illegal for girls to be "taken on holiday" in order to have their genitals cut. Penalties would be increased from 5 years to 14 years.

FGM is practised in Britain among Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrian, Yemeni, Malaysian and Indonesian communities. It is more common among Muslims, although not exclusively an Islamic practice. It is believed some 74,000 first generation African immigrant women in Britain have undergone FGM, and that up to 7,000 girls under 16 are at risk of being subjected to it in this country.

FGM is usually performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 13, but newborn babies and young women before marriage or pregnancy can also be targeted. Reasons given for carrying it out include: religious demands, custom and tradition, family honour, hygiene and "prevention of promiscuity".

A report from Soroptimists, a worldwide group of professionals that advocates for the rights of women in the world, says that 120 million women have been mutilated in this way. It says this figure rises by 1 million each year.

Scotland: Islamic School Damned by Inspectors

School inspectors have published a damning report on one of Scotland's two independent Islamic schools. They said the education provided for secondary pupils and boarders at Iqra Academy, in Glasgow, is unsatisfactory and that the welfare of the school's students was not being safeguarded.

The report reveals that the girls in the school are receiving a significantly inferior education, are being bullied and don't like the time they spend in the school. Half teaching time is spent on "Islamic studies" and the rest on a very narrow curriculum restricted to maths, English and science - although none of them were satisfactorily taught. The Scottish Executive has served notice, giving the academy six months to implement the report's recommendations, or face possible closure.

Among other problems, the inspectors said the school "was not promoting a healthy lifestyle", with poor exercise provision and a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables for boarders. In a statement, school officials said: "We are seriously concerned about the issues raised and we will immediately implement points of actions outlined in the report." Newsline, The National Secular Society www.secularism.org.uk 

Iraq: Prostitutes Back on the Streets After Saddam

Um Jenan used to wear gold jewellery, tight jeans and see-through blouses to attract VIP clients to her apartment in Baghdad -- until the masked men in black packed her into a minibus and drove her away. When they laid out her body in front of her home the next day, she was dressed in loose-fitting sweat pants and a T-shirt. A banner on the wall above said "God is greatest!" Beside her lay her severed head.

"I couldn't stop looking at her," said Ali Waad, who was 11 when Um Jenan was murdered by a death squad loyal to Saddam Hussein in 1999. "Other boys burst out crying, but I just stood there staring at the head."

Such was the brutal justice meted out to prostitutes under the rule of Saddam, driving the world's oldest profession deep underground in recent years. But since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam three weeks ago, Baghdad's sex workers have slowly crept back to the capital's bombed-out streets.

Prostitutes face new dangers in a city ravaged by looting and lawlessness, but most are keen to take advantage of the power vacuum until a new government is established and religious leaders clamp down on their trade. In a country where many women dress all in black and most wear headdresses, high-buttoned loose blouses and long skirts, heavily made-up streetwalkers stand out on the curb.

They open their shawls to reveal tight trousers and bright-coloured tops for drivers passing slowly by. "They are all over the place now -- I see them everywhere," said Ahmed Sabri, a taxi driver. "I could always spot them before, but now it's so obvious. They are not afraid and do it far more openly."

ARBITRARY JUSTICE: Prostitution flourished in Iraq in the 1990s as U.N. sanctions, imposed after Saddam's troops invaded Kuwait in 1990, brought economic hardship, forcing many women to offer their bodies for cash -- a trade abhorred by devout Muslims. Officials in BMWs and Mercedes, with pistols strapped to their waists, used to come to see Um Jenan and about 30 other prostitutes in the drab "Saddam Complex" of sand-coloured apartment blocks here they lived.

Shop owner Wisam Mohammed remembers seeing Um Jenan, who was in her 40s, dressed in revealing outfits, buying cigarettes, make-up and perfume in his general supplies store. Then one day in 1999, the group of men dressed in black with their faces covered took Jenan away and decapitated her.

After that, the slick cars stopped coming to the "Saddam Complex" and the prostitutes quietly moved away. Baghdad residents say such gruesome punishments were meted out on prostitutes across the capital that year in a sudden crackdown on an illegal trade that had been tacitly tolerated by Saddam's secular government. Media restrictions meant Iraqis heard about the executions only by word of mouth, and estimates vary on how many people were killed -- from dozens to hundreds.

Still, most agree on the cause of the crackdown -- foreign pornographic videos of Iraqi prostitutes wrapped in the black, white and red national flag, and, according to many versions, dancing on a portrait of Saddam.

The insult sparked the attacks by Saddam's Fedayeen loyalist militia on prostitutes, pimps and particularly anyone suspected of selling girls abroad.

"DANGEROUS WORK": Baghdad's prostitutes no longer fear attacks from the Fedayeen. But the city is fraught with new dangers. One woman, who was repeatedly approached by drivers as she stood by a major Baghdad thoroughfare -- ostensibly selling soft drinks said a friend, was killed by a client the night before. With chipped black nail polish, faded pink lipstick and missing teeth, the woman, who gave her name as Mawah and her age as 20, said prostitutes were terrified just before the war because of rumours there would be a fresh beheading spree.

"It's great that Saddam has gone because we no longer live in fear," she said. "But it's dangerous work. There's no control and everybody has got guns -- even the boys."

Across the street there is more evidence. Sexual repression left the city with Saddam's fall -- business is brisk at the Atlas cinema that no longer shows censored films with even the kissing edited out.

The dingy cinema has two posters touting soft-porn movies. One pre-war film, "Miranda," has the low-cut blouse of the star blacked out but alongside it this week's release advertises a blonde in black suspenders and bra writhing on a bed.

Amar Adnan, the cinema manager, shows off the "Blue Chill" poster with a wide grin. "This is freedom. It's so wonderful they kicked Saddam out," he said. Soldiers who man checkpoints and guard government buildings sitting on tanks say men approach them to offer cigarettes, Pepsi Cola, gum -- and frequently prostitutes.

"We have orders not to buy anything from the Iraqis. And hookers -- that's a big no-no," U.S. Private Hassan Seyhun said. Shopkeeper Mohammed is also not buying. He worries the sudden resurgence of prostitution will spread through the city and stain the reputation of his quiet neighbourhood again. "When I saw Um Jenan's body lying on the pavement, I felt no pity at all," he said. "That's what should be done with them." Reuters April 2003.

UK: Lancashire Riot Town to Have State-funded Islamic School

The 700-place girls' school for 11 to 16-year-olds will be created by one of the town's seven private Islamic schools within the control of the local education authority. And all schools in the borough are to be 'twinned' in a bid to end what the council has described as segregation in Lackburn with Darwen's schools. Blackburn would be only the fifth education authority to have an Islamic girls' school. The Government will have the final say on the scheme but no objections are expected, according to sources.

Coun Bill Taylor, leader of the council, said: "We have read carefully several documents, including the Clarke report following the disturbances in Burnley. We plan to take various steps, including twinning schools together so they work closely, to ensure that youngsters understand and respect each other."

The report to be studied by the executive board reports that 'de facto segregation' currently exists. In Blackburn, Beardwood High School's roll is 93 per cent Asian, while St Wilfrid's is 98 per cent white. The report states that only three of the nine high schools can claim to have a mix that reflects the diversity of the borough. It adds that this segregation is worsening, with Asian parents opting more and more for Islamic Schools, which the Council interprets as strengthening the case for bringing one into the LEA so that integration with other schools can be promoted.

But Simon Jones, National Union of Teachers Blackburn with Darwen secretary, said: "This school is uniquely for girls which makes it even more divided."

But maybe the Canon is celebrating too soon. Other proposals to turn a community high school - which has no affiliation to any one faith - into a church school to meet the over-subscription for places, have been scrapped after failing to win support during a consultation which began in November 2001.

And another proposal to turn a primary school into a Muslim primary school has also been shelved after Muslim leaders said they were happy with the provision on offer. Source: Newsline, The National Secular Society www.secularism.org.uk 

Senegal: FGM, the Silent Tragedy

In parts of Senegal, where FGM has been practised for centuries, campaigns like the one now before African leaders in Ethiopia to end the "silent tragedy, are brushed off as misinformation.

African leaders and international organisations were taking part in a conference in the Ethiopian capital set to end with a call for zero- tolerance of the practice of female genital mutilation.

"My parents did it, and, there is no question in my mind, I am going to continue the tradition," Cherif Koundoul, a 22-year-old shopkeeper, said in the town of Kolda, in south-eastern Senegal where female genital mutilation is still practised, despite being banned in the West African country since 1999.

In Senegal, official figures published in 2001 put the number of women who undergo female genital mutilation at 20 percent of the female population.

But in the town of Kolda in the southern Zuguinchor province, that rises to 88 percent, and in some areas in the north of the country, 100 percent, according to Senegal's national action plan for stopping female genital mutilation.

That plan sets 2005 as a target date for eradicating female circumcision in Senegal. But organisations working on the ground say that while the goal of wiping out female genital mutilation is a noble one, it will probably not be met.

"None of the 'official declarations' stopping the practice have any effect. Excision is still widely practised in some villages that claim to have 'laid down the knife" said Abdourahmane Fall, head of regional social services in Kolda.

This article was originally published in The Mercury on 05 April 2003

Afghanistan: Women Fighting for the Right to Sing

Although the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan ended 18 months ago, women in the country are still faced with a huge number of restrictions in their everyday life. Included among them is a ban on singing in public, on the radio or on television.

"I don't understand why we can't record our songs and hear them on radio and on television." Although Ms Samin is allowed to sing in the Kabul music school, a gunman has to sit at the doorway just in case extremists decide to deliver judgment. I think what's happened is that the people who were responsible for the atrocities of the past are in control of this, and they're doing it all over again," she said. "But I tell myself the fight has to continue, even though there are people determined to stop us."

'Prisoners in own homes': Ms Samin's situation is indicative of the problems facing women in the new Afghanistan. Although TV screens around the world were filled with images of women taking off the burqa as the Taliban fell, women's rights agencies are still trying to realise the idea of emancipation in Afghanistan. They concede there had not been much change. "You can see that there's an obvious increase of women going to school, or having access to higher education, and there are some professional women who have been able to go back to being lawyers or teachers - but I think that is a very, very small step," said Rachel Wareham, who works for the German agency Medica Mondial.

"The majority of women are still more or less prisoners in their own homes. "The legal system is not functioning in any area or any way that protects them or advances them."
Trading in women: And further out of Kabul and beyond the reach of government, restrictions deteriorate into outright abuse of women's rights. The province of Shinwari, near the Pakistan boarder, is notorious for opium smuggling - and also for the sale of women. "I was sold 10 years ago - at the time I'd had three children from my first husband - but when he took a second wife, he sold me," one woman said. "He and I grew up together, but after I was sold he prevented me from seeing the children. "My son died. I think his heart broke after I was forced to leave. I'm not allowed to see my daughter. "When I left my breast used to leak milk. They tore my baby from me."

In Shinwari women are sold for around $3,000 each - either as punishment or purely to earn money for their families or first husbands. "We are innocent in this - we are just like chickens kept and tied," another told Everywoman. "Wherever you send us, we go."

Punishments: Activist Pawina Heila has tried to raise the issue with local authorities, but said they have done nothing. "There is no difference between now and when the Taliban were in control," she told Everywoman. One woman she knew of fled the home she had been sold to and returned to her brother's house. But there she was punished. She was first scalded with hot water, then tied behind a car with a cable, dragged into the desert, and shot. "These are the lessons women are taught so they go quietly when they're sold," she said. The women's ministry in Afghanistan is - like the rest of the government - short on authority. The minister Habibi Serabi is under pressure from both international donors and Afghan women themselves to deliver. "I'm often faced with this problem... people, particularly men, say that it's custom and culture." Ms Serabi acknowledged.

"But this is not impossible. We can change the culture and custom but of course it takes time." "We have to work very hard, and also not very quickly. We have to take care with each of our steps." She added that it was not only Afghanistan's women who needed to be made aware of women's rights, but also the country's men. "Not only women, but we have to educate the men too," she stressed. "The men should know about the rights of women, about human rights, about everything. After that, maybe they can give women the opportunity to take part in society." BBC News, July 4, 2003

Pakistan: Forced Marriage of Girls Abroad

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - When Neelum Aziz visited Kashmir for the first time last year, the young British girl couldn't wait to explore her family's home village. But her parents had something else in mind. Two weeks after arriving in Kotli - in the Pakistan-administered part of the disputed territory - Ms. Aziz was told she had to marry her cousin.

"[My father and uncle] took away my [British] passport, money, and other belongings and locked me up," she says. "I screamed and shouted and kept on crying. My tears dried up, but my family elders did not listen to me and married me to a cousin of mine without my consent," she says.

Aziz's story is only the most recent example of hundreds of young girls who become victims of their families' desire to preserve an age-old tradition. According to human rights activists, 250 girls like Aziz - daughters of British citizens from Pakistan - were forced into marriages with relatives in 2002 alone.

For many Pakistanis living abroad, sending their child to marry in the home country is a sure way to preserve culture and lineage. But for many of the girls themselves, who chafe at harsh parental control after relishing freedom in their adopted country, this clash of cultures is a breach of fundamental human rights. It's a cultural clash that diplomats and law- enforcement officials find difficult to resolve, because it takes place in two separate countries and legal systems.

"[These Pakistanis] opt to live in the West but want to keep alive the traditions of the East which victimize women," says Zia Awan, the head of Madadgaar, a nongovernmental organization that provides legal aid and is a crisis centre for women in Karachi, Pakistan. "Bringing the girls back to Pakistan makes coercion simpler and easier, as the young girls being brought up in the West are alienated from their known environment," he says.

Most of the reported cases are of British-born Pakistanis; about a million Pakistanis live in England. But activists say girls of Pakistani descent from Norway, the Netherlands, and Ireland have also been brought to Pakistan by their parents and forcibly married to relatives.

The practice is not new, but seemingly on the rise, according to Mr. Awan. "We are witnessing an extremist return to Islam, especially among Pakistanis living abroad. They perceive the changing policies of the West to combat terrorism as a direct hostility toward Muslims living in the West, and we believe that the rise in forced marriages is linked to the changing attitudes."

In Pakistan, forced marriages usually go uncontested. "Here girls are treated as animals. They are bought, sold and even bartered to settle the tribal feuds," says a well known, independent human rights activist in Karachi, Attiya Dawood. "The girl is a symbol of honour in our society and is targeted at every level." Her consent in a marriage has "no importance," she adds.

Some observers point out that forced marriages are a cultural, rather than religious, issue. Marriage in Islam is a civil contract, requiring that the woman vocally express her consent three times in front of witnesses.

"Islam is not a religion of extremism or coercion. It does not allow this practice," says Anis Ahmed, a professor of comparative religion at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad. "There is a difference in the social and cultural ethos in civilization of the East and the West. Here girls have to take their families and parents into consideration while marrying; it is not just one person's decision. So there is a difference between the perception about marriage in the West and East."

Attempts by women to protest arranged marriages often backfire. In one widely reported case, Samia Sarwar was murdered at a women's shelter in Lahore in April 1999. A resident of Peshawar, she fled to Lahore seeking legal assistance to file for divorce from her abusive husband and to marry a man of her own choice. But, according to Amnesty International, Ms. Sarwar's educated and influential parents considered her request for divorce dishonour and hired a hit man to shoot her during a meeting with her lawyers.

Five years ago, Rukhsana Naz, a British girl of Pakistani origin, was strangled to death by her brother in Britain. Her crime was that she had refused to stay in a marriage arranged when she was 16. A court in Britain sentenced Ms. Naz's brother and her mother - who assisted in the murder - to life in prison. The incident triggered a movement within the British community against this illegal practice of forced marriages, and a liaison was established by British and Pakistani authorities in Islamabad to help victims of forced marriages.

Aziz herself managed to escape her parents' decision, taking advantage of this liaison. When she refused to marry her cousin and threatened to return to Britain, Aziz says the family elders locked her in her room. "I was kept there and provided meals. My elders would ... try to convince me that it would be better for my family if I marry my cousin. It went on for almost 12 days, and then a cleric was called, and I was wedded to a person whom I did not want to spend the rest of my life with."

Eventually, Aziz sent a letter calling for help to the British High Commission in Islamabad. Within a few days, British officials learned that Aziz was already married and being detained against her will.

Aziz appeared in high court May 2 in Muzaffarabad, the capital city of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. With help from the British High Commission, the chief justice ordered her release. "If I am sent back to [Kashmir], I fear they will kill me," Ms Aziz told the court. "I am told not to speak the truth otherwise I will be shot,"

Last week, she returned to Britain. Her lawyer, Raja Shafqat Khan Abbasi, who handled 14 cases like hers within the past year, says she still fears for her life. But, he adds, "the best part is she is now in Britain, and she can live her life."
www.csmonitor.com

Morocco : The Persistent Discrimination against Women

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has begun its examination of Morocco's implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In its alternative country report entitled "Violence against Women in Morocco", which has been submitted to the Committee, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) expresses its grave concern at reports of widespread violence against women in the private and community spheres.

Discrimination against women persists in Morocco in both de jure and de facto forms. The government of Morocco has registered numerous reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, thus seriously hampering the potential effectiveness of the treaty. Further, Moroccan legislation discriminates against women with regard to the minimum marriageable age, ability to contract a marriage, polygamy, and divorce, among other areas. Women in Morocco also display lower literacy levels than men and low levels of participation in higher segments of the labour market.

OMCT's report expresses concern that although domestic violence is little documented and seldom reported, it appears to be a serious problem. There are several barriers that prevent women and girls from lodging complaints in relation to domestic violence. These include: traditional social beliefs concerning the inferiority of women; the social unacceptability of denouncing your husband; the lack of specific legislation on violence against women in the family; and the lack of sensitivity on the part of law enforcement officials. Furthermore, there is a lack of adequate structures to shelter and help battered women and women face difficulties in obtaining a judicial divorce on the grounds of harm and proving physical assault in the domestic sphere as this requires a medical certificate as well as the testimony of a witness. The report explains that these obstacles perpetuate the message that domestic violence is to a certain degree acceptable and allow the perpetrators of domestic violence to enjoy impunity. OMCT insists that the government develop a comprehensive policy and legislative response to the problem of domestic violence, which at the same time should dissolve the mentioned obstacles.

Rape also appears to be heavily underreported due to the social stigma attached to the loss of virginity and the difficulties women face in proving that they have been raped due to the lack of a witness to the crime. Another fact that may discourage women from filing a complaint is the risk of being charged with having had unlawful sex in cases when she is pregnant and cannot prove that she was raped. OMCT recommends that the Government of Morocco repeal the evidentiary rules regarding rape, which place a large part of the burden of proof on the rape victim.

Another topic of concern in the report is the increase in trafficking in women and girls for prostitution and the exploitive situation of child maids. OMCT notes that prostitutes may be doubly victimised; first forced into prostitution and then detained since prostitution is illegal. As there is currently no specific legislation to combat trafficking in persons, OMCT recommends the adoption of new legislation to criminalise trafficking in persons and to ensure that women and girls who are the victims of sexual exploitation are not held criminally culpable.

Overall, OMCT's report concludes that while Morocco has a duty under international law to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish all forms of violence against women, irrespective of whether this violence is committed by public or private individuals, this obligation has not been adequately implemented at the national level.

For further information on or copies of the alternative report on violence against women in Morocco, contact: cbb@omct.org


Committee to Defend Women's Rights in the Middle East Coordinator & Spokesperson: Azam Kamguian

Email: azam_kamguian@yahoo.com
Cdwrme@yahoo.com 
Tel: + 44(0) 788 4040 835
Fax: + 44 (0) 870 831 0204
Web site: www.middleastwomen.org