Violence in Bangladesh over new equality law

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Photo EPA: Protests in Bangladesh

Riots have broken out today in Bangladesh over a new law  which would give women equal property rights as men. The country, although it has a secular legal system most the time, bows to Sharia law in issues relating to inheritance, and therefore a woman only inherits half as much as her brother.

Under the National Women Development Policy, she would inherit equally.

More than 100 protestors have been taken into custody today according to police, but there is worryingly a high level of support for challenging a law like this. The Islamic Law Implementation Committee for example (not surprisingly, I suppose) saying that the protests had the support of the “people” and that they go against the Koran. In a country where 90% of the population are Muslim, a claim like that carries great power.

Women in Bangladesh are an important part of the workforce, with many working as they do in export trades such as making garments. But, women are still part of an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, being judged by their family life, and their opportunities in the country tend to be markedly fewer. For example, there is a higher dropout rate from school for girls than boys, and younger children face a higher mortality rate if they are girls. Trafficking is a huge problem in Bangladesh, including kidnapping into Burma, as is domestic violence which can often pass under the averted eyes of the community.

The return of prime minister Sheik Hasina Wazed to the government in 2008 has been another positive role model for women in the country, and as a member of the Council of World Women leaders she has put rights for women high on the priority list. Nonetheless she has been locked in conflict with extremists in the country throughout her political career, and has withstood assassination attempts on her own life and the murder of many of her colleagues.

It goes without saying that this blog supports these new laws and wishes safety to those pushing them through. Until women can secure economic independence they will always be viewed as second class citizens in a country. This is another step towards independence for women in Bangladesh. I hope the government holds fast in its commitment to give women greater rights in education, employment and inheritance.

Soueif: “The revolution was not fought along gender lines”

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

Picture by Hossam el-Hamalawy: Ahdaf Soueif in Tahrir Square

Just a few lines on a really interesting talk last night from Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian writer who was in Cairo at the time of the recent protests, writing for the Guardian and participating in the revolution there.

Interesting for itself, as she is a truly inspirational woman and fascinating to hear talk generally, the event was also an insight into the role of women in Egyptian protests. Asked about the role of women, she was keen to stress that the protest was not seen in gender terms, and that the country’s women were there, participating, taking an active role in the political action.

“Every single type of woman was there in Tahrir Square. People need to know that the protestors in Egypt were not seeing this on gender terms,” Soueif insisted. And this article supports that ideology – women were being pragmatic, Egyptian, citizens all facing the same oppression.

There are, she admitted, gender challenges ahead. Women in Egypt feel largely patronised by plans to assign a certain number of seats in the new parliament to women, and there are issues around the number of women in the work force that need to be addressed as the new state forms – and some concerns about any extremist party that might rise to power in the current uncertainty. Unquiet has also begun to rumble around the fact that there are no women at all in the Constitutional Drafting Committee   – and rightly so. This is a very comprehensive post that works through the constitution and the new amendments, and what they mean for women, and is well worth a read to get to grips with the changes.

So it was a rare opportunity to hear a powerful voice speak out so passionately about her country, and conclude that yes, there are challenge ahead for the country – but that women will be a part of them, want to be a key part of them, and won’t forget their part in the revolution.

“Things are good in Egypt,” she said. “Things are great and can only get better as far as women are concerned.”

And her conclusion was particularly interesting. She finished by saying that the country was facing the question: “How do the people change policy?” And this is indeed the challenge now facing Egypt – to make all the people united and represented by the new state, without discrimination on terms of race, education or gender.

Libyan reforms need to accelerate women’s rights to succeed

February 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Protests in Libya

As political unrest and media focus shifts to Libya, I hope the current protests and calls for political reform also form a basis to improve women’s freedoms in the country. Following the detention of an outspoken government critic, violent protests have left many dead and injured – a very rare show of aggression in a normally quiet country. A newspaper connected to one of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi’s sons showed the police station in al-Bayda on fire. The newspaper’s website has since been closed down. In a media environment like that, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. There are reports of killings, there are reports of government forces opening fire on protestors.

As the longest-serving leader in the Arab world, Colonel Gadaffi has his influence in every aspect of Libyan life and government. And, since he came to power, some of the changes in the country have been positive – he even appointed female bodyguards as a sign of the changing world. The women’s lib movement came fairly late to Libya, with the movement really taking off a few years ago – this is a great story about the first female pilot in the country, for example.  And female teachers are not allowed to teach with their faces entirely covered.

But still, only 22% of the workforce are women, and the male relatives of women still have a massive influence over women’s choices in life.  Sexual harrasment can be a problem frequently experienced by women in the country – see this post on one woman’s experience.

Libya has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but has ominously filed formal reservations to exempt itself from having to comply with several provisions – which rather defeats the point of signing up at all.

Women’s organisations need to be involved in the decisons made about governing the country in the future, whether that involves a new leader or not. There are some good laws in place – the country’s leaders need to see them through into practice to give Libyan women the equality they have been edging towards.

The women of Afghanistan – wives of the warriors

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

An interesting video from wisemanproductions here, with some fairly rare footage of women in Afghanistan talking about the situation in their lives, the history of women’s rights, and attacks against women in the country. Although it’s only recently uploaded, I think it might be older than that, but still well worth a watch to help tell these stories. Be warned though, some of the pictures in it are shocking.

Also helping to highlight life for women in Afghanistan is a new exhibition opening in the House of Commons in London this week with some beautiful photos and inspiring stories – you can take an online tour here.

Does banning the burqa protect or punish Muslim women?

February 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Women in Burqa

The German state of Hesse has become the first in Germany to ban burqa being worn in public places.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of a burqa that it’s worn in public places? This law is a strange one that smacks more of religious intolerance more than anything else. I understand the concern that women might be pressured or forced to wear burqa or niqab by more extreme members of their family, but let’s assume that for the sake of argument that this is the exception and not the rule – I certainly know several inspirational, headstrong, independent Muslim women who have taken to wearing a headscarf in their mid-twenties through no pressure and solely down to their own beliefs. If women are genuinely choosing to wear the religious veil for their own reasons, then there is no justification for the state having the right to force them not to. Are we not all mature enough to allow women to choose how to dress? Do we really need the government to dress us? I am a woman who does not wear a veil. I do not presume to speak for all women who do not, nor to assume that all women who choose to wear one are doing so for the same united reason.

It is a gross violation of human rights and an insulting and patronising move for the women involved. And it is part of a wave across Europe, with Spain and Belgium considering similar moves (and presumably other states in Germany will follow).

And the recent ban in France is a similar example of controversy  in a country that should know better.  It was hailed as a “victory for democracy” – don’t ask me how. I genuinely understand the concern that the veil can segregate Islamic women, can make them seem unapproachable, can represent the oppression of women. But to assume that these stereotypes are true, all this law does is target a very vulnerable part of society.

Put another way, lets pander to the far-right critics that a woman wearing the veil is forced to do so by an overbearing husband. In France, she will now be punished outside the home by her husband if she doesn’t wear it, and punished by the state if she does – possibly fined up to €150 each time. So she can’t win, and she becomes more marginalised. And after all, nobody in this whole law making process seems to have asked her what she thinks anyway.

It would be better to work on integrating society. Many of the women who wear the niqab in France are from North African descent – many immigrants came across to France after the Second World War and settled there precisely because it was a place that could offer similarities in terms of language and culture. Almost 10% of the country are Muslim, and Islam is the most widely practised religion in France. Work to promote understanding and intergration between different communities would be a much better use of Sarkozy’s resources, rather than pushing them out to the edges of society.

Faces of women in the Egyptian protests

January 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

These brilliant pictures are being compiled together on Facebook by Leil-Zahra Mortada in Spain. Have a look as women stand up equally with their male countrymen, and make their feelings clear through protests, slogans, and chants.

Any revolution can only be built on a solid basis if it involves all corners of the country, considering all of the people in it. While most of the crowd shots on our televisions  seem to be made up largely of men, it’s inspiring to see women central in the protests, and these people make me feel humble and proud. Take the time to have a look at these brave women.

Click here to see all the photos – they are constantly being updated and added to

Why the murder of a Pakstani minster is bad for women everywhere

January 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Salman Taseer

Today Pakistan is on high alert. The murder of liberal politician Salman Taseer yesterday has shocked the world – shot by one of this own bodyguards for being against the country’s blasphemy laws. Terrifyingly, 500 scholars later praised the killer and told their followers not to grieve or they would suffer the same fate. They warned that there “should be no expression of grief or sympathy for ….those who support blasphemy”.

The liberal elite in the country is small and the radical mullahs draw a large support base – not least based on fear and intimidation, using violence as a tool to silence equal values. Taseer argued that Islam did not attack minority groups, but protected human rights. Interpreting Muslim values can be a risky thing to do in a country where conservative religious values hold heavy sway. The thousands who gathered to mourn him at his funeral today have made a bold, brave stand for justice at the risk of their own lives.

His death is bad news for liberalism in Pakistan – and it is very, very bad news for women. Religious extremism and the annihilation of women’s right go hand in hand.

 Taseer had championed the cause of Asia Biba, the Christian woman sentenced to death and visited her in prison with his own wife and daughter to show support. He had made a stand over improving the status of women in Pakistan, where there is much work to be done. He had argued for allowing them equal status in a country where many still consider rape to be a woman’s fault.  The Women’s Protection Bill of 2006, for example, was undermined by fierce criticism for offering women the tiniest amount of protection against rape and forced marriage. The law was brought in originally to try and amend the Hudood Ordinances laws, which meant among other measures that a woman who had been raped was liable to prosecution for adultery if she could not produce four male witnesses to the assault. That gives some idea of the uphill struggle facing liberals in Pakistan.

Tributes from some Pakistani women were made today as they feared his death would equal steps backwards for women’s empowerment. Shehla Akram, president of Punjab’s Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “He was one of the most progressive leaders of Pakistan and one who was wholly committed to improving conditions for women in the country.”

 Today we mourn the death of Salman Taseer as a tragic loss in the fight to promote equality and fair treatment for women worldwide.

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