Marriage at 13, forced veiling and a ban on cycling – welcome to Iran for women

It’s no secret that abuse of human rights – or lack of human rights rather – is a major problem in Iran. Living in a theocratic State, religion (and in particular the government’s interpretation of it I should add!) rules every aspect of public life. A twisted extreme ideology is used to permit/prolong – and in some cases enforce – child marriage, domestic violence and forced veiling amongst a wide range of other abuses. Whilst freedom of speech is a right that citizens are not blessed with – young and old, male and female – for women and girls, life is incredibly tough.

Wanting to find out what really goes in Iran, I spoke to the group Iran Human Rights Monitor to find out what life is like for women in Iran, day in day out on the ground. Here’s what they had to say…

Thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview! As a human rights organisation fighting for change in Iran, it would be very insightful to find out what it’s really like for women and girls living in Iran on a daily basis.

President Hassan Rouhani was quoted during a post-election speech giving supposed support for women’s rights:

“There must be equal opportunities for women. There is no difference between man and woman in their creation, in their humanity, in their pursuit of knowledge, in their understanding, in their intelligence, in their religious piety, in serving God and in serving people.” (Fars News, retrieved 25/20/2013)

How does this fair to the reality to the daily life of girls and women in Iran today? Could you outline some of the obstacles which women and girls in Iran face on a daily basis?

Women are deprived of their most basic rights in Iran. No matter what they say, whether for national or international consumption, women are systematically discriminated against both in law and practice.

Women are not allowed to study in at least 70 fields at university. The unemployment rate among educated women and female university graduates is 85.9%. According to official statements, women’s participation in the job market is only 13%, while the majority of women are hired in unregistered jobs with salaries lower than the minimum wage and no insurance or benefits.

So, women have a really hard time earning a living. Every year, an average of 100,000 women are fired from their jobs. The situation is particularly difficult for women who head households and have to feed and provide for their families. The latest figures indicate that there are at least 3.5 million single women acting as head of the household in Iran. Only 18% of these women receive some small form of assistance from the government – the rest do not have any sort of backing.

Women are also not allowed in sports stadiums. They are not allowed to ride bicycles in public, and they are not allowed to perform at musical concerts or sing in public and are also not allowed to work in cafés. There have been frequent instances of women flouting government rulings which ban women from cycling, swimming, etc.

Of course, it is common knowledge that women do not enjoy freedom in choice of clothing and are forced to wear the compulsory veil, something that they are becoming more and more defiant about. Today, the regime is trying to control women who drop their veils behind the wheel.

The religious police enforce compulsory observation of hijab (Islamic covering). At what age does this apply? What are the penalties for not fully observing hijab?

According to the mullahs’ [religious figures] interpretation of Sharia, girls are considered to be adults when they reach the age of nine lunar years. That is less than nine years old and is the age when they are obliged to wear the veil and cover their hair. At this age, they can also be subjected to any punishment applicable to adults. The legal age of marriage is 13 years old, but fathers and grandfathers are permitted to wed their daughters at even younger ages (even nine or 10 years old), by simply getting permission from a court.

The penalty for not fully observing the hijab is usually a warning on the street, then women are taken into detention. Usually these women have to sign written pledges to conform with the official dress code. They have to pay bail and are then released. However, sometimes, the young women and girls are taken under the pretext of improper veiling to unknown locations and are sexually attacked. There have been incidents where women who get out of such detentions commit suicide because of what they have gone through.

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Being ordered to correct her hijab – Image credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (CC)

There are some severe lack of protections within Iranian law. There is no law against domestic violence and marital rape is not criminalised. If a woman has an abusive husband, where can she go for help? How does society respond to this?

There is absolutely no support for women who are subjected to domestic violence at home. The courts and police stations tend to encourage woman to return to their abusive husbands. There was a famous case in Mashhad where the woman had complained to the police station about the abuses of her husband but they sent her home, only to be tortured and burned by her husband for 21 days along with her two daughters. They were found accidentally by neighbours who heard their cries and moaning. As long as the laws discriminate against women, there is not much that can be done by the general public.

Women in Iran gained the right to vote in 1963 and can be judges/legal counsellors but cannot give final verdicts. Could you describe women’s role in the political and legal systems In Iran? How does this fair in Iran?

The Iranian regime ranks 137th on the international level among 145 countries in terms of gender equality and political participation, and 141st in terms of economic participation. Women are not allowed to run for president or become leader. As you already mentioned, women cannot issue rulings or be a de facto judge in Iran.

In the current Iranian parliament, there are only 17 women among 290 members of parliament, making up a mere 5.8% participation for women. In the administration of Iranian cities and provinces, women hold only 13 out of 2,653 positions as provincial governors, governors, district governors, and mayors. In a total of 500 big and small cities, only 64 women were elected as members of City Councils compared to 3,724 male members. That amounts to a meager 1.7% participation for women in City Councils. In reality, women have no role in political decision making and leadership in Iran.

Similar to Saudi Arabia, strict laws exist in Iran regarding nationality and marriage. Iranian nationality can be passed only through the father by law. For the child of an Iranian mother and father of another nationality, Iranian nationality can usually only be gained after residing in Iran for over one year after the age of 18. Why do you believe that such law exists? What is the impact legally, socially and culturally of such laws?

To understand the source of this kind of laws, you should first understand and study the nature of the Iranian regime which is a misogynistic regime. That means all the laws are based on the repression of women. To understand better please read this article.

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Female sports are restricted in Iran – Image credit: Anoo Bhuyan (CC)

For women (and men!) who speak out against the political system, what are the consequences?

They receive long prison sentences. There are many human rights and civil rights activists imprisoned in Iran. Prison conditions are very bad in Iran, and those who are imprisoned become very ill because of the inhuman conditions in prison and lack of basic medical services.

Could you talk a little about your organisation and what your goals and successes have been?

Iran Human Rights Monitor is a web portal working in collaboration with the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Our main goal is to condemn the violation of human rights in Iran at international level – mostly the ongoing wave of executions.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Right now, we need the UN Special Rapporteur of human rights in Iran, Asma Jahanguir, to get more involved in the issue of executions in Iran. July was a bloody month with 101 executions but unfortunately we have witnessed a lack of reaction, condemnation and severity in dealing with this from international organisations and the UN.

We we also have started a new project regarding the 1988 Massacre in Iran [an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were killed on order of Ayotallah Khomeini]. After this massacre, no one was brought to justice. The perpetrators are still playing important role with the government of the Iranian regime and we want them to face trial. This is a call for a movement of justice.

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Image credit: gato-gato-gato (Flickr, CC)

What achievements are you particularly proud of within the movement for human rights in Iran?

Since last year, our movement calling people to action has been expanded. Many people have been informed about this massacre, whilst the Iranian regime has tried to remove any trace of it happening. However, our main goal hasn’t been achieved yet.

Where can we learn more about the issues discussed and how can we help?

You can learn more by visiting our new website calling for justice after the 1988 massacre and also by signing and sharing out petition.

Thank you for your time and participation and all the very best in your work for the future!

For all the latest information, follow Iran Human Rights Monitor on Twitter and Facebook and please sign the petition!

Salam!

Credits

Featured image: Chris Marchant (CC)

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Man or Misogynist? Put him to the test!

He’s just a little lazy that’s all…
It’s because he’s used to his mom doing everything…
He’s not used to it so he needn’t bother…
He’s thinking about the future – he knows what men are like….
He’s my husband, the head of the household, so I should do whatever he wants….
I gave him the wrong idea – it’s my fault…
He does it because he loves me…
He’s just trying to protect me…
I needed to learn a lesson…

All common excuses fed to vulnerable women and used to perpetuate sexist, misogynist, utterly unacceptable behaviour. Mention the word misogyny you may think of the worst examples possible: sexual slavery, sexual harassment and rape but what about the sliding scale; the subtle comments, gestures, socio-cultural norms and often lack of action which goes forgotten? There are many degrees of misogyny yet there’s no scale to whether you believe a woman is deserving of respect, love and trust…

It’s very often the subtle habits and “norms” which affect women on a day-to-day basis. Any degree of misogyny is harmful and needs to be tackled – from within the home to out on the streets. Ignorance is no excuse – men and women need to take responsibility. Tradition can’t go unchallenged, socio-cultural norms can’t go unbroken, misogyny cannot be allowed to live on.

Take the short quiz: “Man or Misogynist?” and see how the men in your life fair. You may be surprised…

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10 Trends which reveal the reality behind gender inequality

You’ve no doubt heard about gender inequality but you may not be aware of the reality that women across the world face. What does “gender inequality” actually mean in real terms? Perhaps you may feel that in your part of the world it’s not an issue. Well, I beg to differ. Statistically speaking, women are more likely to be affected by a range of discrimination and abuse than their male peers due to their gender and the relationship between poverty and prevailing socio-cultural norms. Now, everything has a context and therefore social, cultural and economic factors must be taken into account but by being female – across the so-called “developed” and non-developing world, there are a range of trends that stick and which are unacceptable in the 21st century.

Here’s 10 trends which highlight and exemplify the shocking reality of gender inequality today.

1. Women are the hardest hit by poverty

Women are overall disproportionately affected by poverty. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), out of the 1.3 billion people worldwide living in extreme poverty, women account for a disproportionately large amount of this figure. But what about in the “developed world”? What about mainstream society? Well, the UN’s research “The World’s Women” in 2015 concluded that in Europe women and girls were greater affected by poverty than men (53%).

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2. More girls leave school early and become illiterate than their male peers

Without an education, you’re more likely to remain trapped in the cycle of poverty and without a doubt, women and girls are the worst affected. Due to a combination of social, cultural and economic factors such as poverty and child marriage, many girls leave school much earlier than is required leaving them unable to gain a solid education and build their future.

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3. Females are more likely to experience sexual violence

We need to break the myth that sexual violence only affects women and girls. It DOES affect men but to a far lesser degree. Many women (as well as men) will also not report or speak out about sexual violence for fear of retribution of social stigma, but the figures we do have are shocking.

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4. Women are excluded from habitually male-led decision making

We’ve all heard of the glass ceiling and it’s real. The lack of females in politics and high management positions is shocking as this ultimately means that women are excluded from decision making, meaning that half of the population remain under-represented in politics, finance etc. – you name it!

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5. Women earn less than their male colleagues for the same job

Not only are women more likely than men to work in undervalued, low-paid or vulnerable jobs but women are also on average paid less than men (ILO, 2012; UN Women, 2017). According to the World Bank, in most countries across the globe, women on average earn only 60-75% of what men do. This is a staggering phenomena in the “Western world” which many find hard to believe.

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6. Being female means you’re more likely to be sold into slavery

Human trafficking is a serious problem across the globe. Most victims of human trafficking are female and the numbers of girls being trafficked is increasing. Human trafficking of women and girls often involves sexual exploitation and is unimaginably detrimental to the psychological, emotional, physical, sexual, social, cultural and economical wellbeing of those affected.

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7. Women are more likely to die from natural hazards

When natural disaster strikes, women are once again at greater risk of harm. Women living in poverty (as usual!) are more likely to be affected than their male counterparts and remain incredibly vulnerable.

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8. Girls are more likely to be affected by HIV and AIDS than their male peers

51% of adults living with HIV are female (UNAIDS, 2015). What’s more, if we break down the figures by age, we find that young girls and women (aged 15 to 24 years old) are particularly vulnerable to infection (UNAIDS 2015; UN Women 2017). New infections amongst young women are higher than that of their male peers and with 45% of teenage girls in certain cases declaring that their first sexual experience was non-consensual, this may not come as a surprise for many people out there (UNAIDS, 2014).

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9. Women spend more time on unpaid housework and less on leisure than men

We may think this is a stereotype but it’s true. Across the world, in pretty much every country, each day men spend more time on leisure activities while women spend more time doing unpaid housework (OECD, 2017). Women take on the major burden of domestic and care work – even when they have a job of their own.

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10. Being born female means you’re more likely to be married as a child

Child marriage predominantly affects girls. Whilst boys can be affected, the numbers show that this is a far less common occurrence. Child marriage results in high numbers of young girls missing out on an education, financial independence and being subject to sexual, emotional and physical abuse. For girls of such a young age, childbirth can even mean death, as their young bodies cannot bear the physical burden.

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So there we are folks. The figures speak for themselves. Please, please – next time you hear someone harping on about “feminism” this and that as though it’s a man-hating phenomena, remind them of these facts. We must keep raising awareness and challenging socio-cultural norms which discriminate against women and perpetuate the marginalisation, exclusion and abuse of so many women – both closer to home and further afield.

Sources, credits and further information

A full list of sources can be downloaded here (PDF)

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Misogyny in North Africa: My experiences as a British Muslimah

In a previous post I talked about sexism in the British workplace and in keeping with the theme of sexism, I’d like to talk about my experiences as a British Muslimah in relation to North African culture. I’m married to a North African man and I’ve travelled to, worked and lived in a variety of North African countries both pre- and post-conversion and before and after getting married. In this post, I’d like to look at the issues I’ve really noticed since converting to Islam and travelling to the region including first, second and third hand experiences of blatant discrimination, sexism, hypocrisy and misogyny that women in the area face. Now, I’m not saying these things happen across the board and I’ve certainly not included examples from very traditional circles but I’d like to talk about some experiences which I’ve found difficult, confusing, frustrating, upsetting and in some cases have made me feel utterly trapped and powerless – all of which are against (moderate) Islamic teachings. For more on the issue of sexism and Islam, see my previous post on gender jihad which has already touched on what is and isn’t Islamic when it comes to women and the unfortunate way some are treated.

Primarily, the overriding problem and any example of misogyny I can think of (mostly) seems to be related to the following overarching concept:

“A woman’s place is in the home”

First of all, not all women in the region are at home every second of the day. However this concept really underpins the problems I’ve encountered. It affects every aspect of women’s lives. There are many many women with jobs – most of the doctors I’ve met are in fact women and many women do hold roles outside the home. What’s more, women and girls can also enjoy being at home relaxing in their free time but the reality is that I’ve faced gossiping, backbiting and criticism for “leaving the house too much” (women sadly do this too folks!). Whilst on holiday, being busy organising and getting married and taking my father out so we could enjoy a holiday, I’ve been subjected to wagging tongues trying to control  my life. The manipulation of Islam to the extent that women are told they need to stay at home in safe places to extreme lengths (for obscene periods of time) is wrong and unhealthy yet it is used to perpetuate a deeply ingrained misogyny.

Inside the home: no need for a man’s input

On a practical level, this means that the home is the woman’s domain and most men don’t lift even a finger at home. The kitchen is out of bounds to male guests who may want to cook as the kitchen is for females – of all ages – and females only. No men allowed! Men generally will not learn to cook but will boil an egg, fry chips or make an omelette if hungry and their wife/sister/mum is not around. In restaurants however, all the waiters and chefs are male. It is generally seen as shameful for women to serve men in public but to serve men in the home is viewed as normal. If a man does cook, this will be kept quiet to save face.

If a husband works full time and his wife is at home with the kids, you’d expect that she would take care of domestic matters but that shouldn’t exclude men from helping out and taking responsibility. For women who work full-time – let’s not forget that we all need a decent standard of living and many many many girls go to university and want a job – she can generally not expect the housework to be divided. I’ve been told that women are apparently “happy” to have a full-time job and do all of the housework (and essentially have two jobs). Of course, if you live with in-laws/parents, there is help but domestic duties – cooking, cleaning etc. – are carried out by women/females only. ONE thing however: men will often do the shopping. Some markets are also off limits to women due to apparently “dodgy behaviour” in such areas fully saturated with men, which are deemed inappropriate for women. To be fair, by the sounds of it I’d not want to go but there’s something ironic there about only men being able to buy food that they’re never going to cook themselves…

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In the home, cooking is seen as a woman’s job – even if she works full time (Photo: Elizabeth Arif-Fear – CC)


Outside the home: ignoring women’s needs 

What does all of this mean outside of the home? As I’ve already explained, it means being judged based on your movements and being subject to gossip for being “outside the house too much”, even if you’re simply shopping, meeting friends, eating out etc. This concept of a women’s place being the home really does have much wider ramifications. It essentially dictates to society that the public sphere is male – in other words: “leave it to the males” as “things are best run by men”. This translates to needing men’s permission to do anything and women’s issues requiring male validation. Here comes the unfortunate dichotomy of public (male) and private (female) spheres. We’ve heard it all before but it’s true!

On a social level, I found this meant I was often excluded within my own personal circles – even when I was with men. Imagine you’re in a busy tourist agency and as the only female you’re ignored in a three person conversation. Out of respect due to culture/religion? Well…the man in question booking your trip is told you speak French in an attempt to include you in the conversation. You have to butt in and take charge in order to be included in your own activities, obviously feeling very very frustrated. Or, in another scenario: a male stops talking to his wife without a word of warning to hold a conversation with an incoming male. She’s the second class invisible third party…

This also means that facilities prioritise men and that there is a severe lack of public facilities for women. For example, the local coffee shop is the men’s “palace”. Yes, everyone needs a place to chill out with their friends or to get some time on your own but why are there no coffee places for girls? The Gulf for example has plenty of women-only facilities. The response is “girls belong at home” and “girls want to stay at home”. One question comes to mind though: all the time…? In terms of dividing public money, I’ve seen male sports facilities but nothing for girls. If money is an issue, why not scale down the buildings? It would appear that women don’t need and/or deserve a gym and that men come first. This is no trivial matter folks. If the public sphere is dominated with men, then half the population are both under- and misrepresented. If there’s a problem, the women tend to suffer and I have indeed found that it seems to put the women at a disadvantage. Imagine this: “illegal sexual activity” is going on in public toilets. What action is taken? The women’s toilets are closed. So, we have functioning male toilets but nothing for the ladies. Whilst the men have toilet facilities, ladies are left with nothing. Not exactly ideal during that time of the month…

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Local cafés: a men’s world… (Photo: Xuoan Duquesne – CC)

This leads to another point. The lack of female representation also means that the women are not only under-represented in terms of opinions and facilities but that women’s specific needs are not met. Who understands women better than women themselves? For example, going back to the topic of toilets – do not expect there to be a sanitary bin in a public toilet. If you need to dispose of used personal sanitary items you need to take a mini plastic bag and your own pads (no vending machines). This may sound like a small issue to some guys out there but it really shows a complete lack of thought and understanding of women and women’s needs. As a foreigner, when you’re faced with all the frustrating other “norms” and you’re missing simple basic sanitation facilities, it just gets too much!

Whilst there is plenty of room for women in the public sphere to shop and buy shoes, scarves, handbags etc. (no problem with that – I love shopping!), what about recognising their needs and giving them real outlets to have a voice? Even when buying underwear, you should also never expect to a female sales assistant. Lingerie is often sold amongst other generic items of clothing in clothing and accessory shops. I don’t know about you but I’d not want to buy intimate items from male sales personnel with no women around for sizing advice. Women need the care and assistance of other ladies when buying their undergarments. In short, women need to be more visible and taken into greater consideration.

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Don’t expect to find sanitary towel bins in the ladies’ toilets… (Photo: Wrote – CC)


Public and private spheres: Male attitudes dominate

On a more serious note, the above really points to a deeply ingrained patriarchy that goes beyond an inability to go out for a coffee or find a female shop assistant when you want one (they do exist though btw!). No, what it means is that women have to accept the social standards set by men – which are hypocritical and clearly point to a double standard in favour of men. For example, divorced women are “a thing”. The stigma is decreasing from what I’ve heard and whilst divorce should never be taken lightly, neither should a woman be defined/pointed out as “divorced” in a conversation… A woman is actually “left on the shelf” when she’s “past her younger years” but for men this is not a problem. When a slightly older lady does marry, she is seen as a very lucky exception!

Such sexist double standards also translate to the way in which men feel they have the right to regulate women’s clothing, as well as overall general behaviour. Extreme interpretations of Islam have led me to be told I should not even talk on a mini-bus. Yes, women should remain modest but they do not need to (and must not) be silenced. Women in earlier Islamic years were scholars, teachers and architects – and still are! The men often shout and bellow down the phone but a woman cannot sit and talk on a bus. It also makes me so sad and angry to have to say this but some women and girls are forced to cover their hair and bodies. This is totally un-Islamic but happens. Parents and spouses have been known to force their daughters/wives to wear a headscarf (khimar/hijab) and other longer outer garments (jilbab). This is an insult to God, our right to free will and the women who freely choose to cover themselves in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, risking Islamophobic hate crime and discrimination in the workplace, street and even within their families. Yes, sadly it works both ways. Some girls in the Muslim community also face difficulty in wearing a scarf or face veil. Why can’t women just be left to make their own choices? What is in the heart is personal.

If we look at men’s behaviour though, there are clear double standards and hypocrisies. Smoking is haram (forbidden in Islam) but many many men smoke. I’m not here to judge though. My point is this: fathers, husbands and brothers would have a fit if their daughters, sisters and wives started smoking yet they carry on and puff away…

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The home: “a women’s place” (Photo: Groundhopping Murseburg – CC)


Social brainwashing: male and female perpetrators

So, I’ve given you a few of my experiences and insights. When I’ve expressed some of my frustration and disbelief at these issues, my concerns have been acknowledged. Women themselves have agreed that this is down to culture, not religion. However, women – as well as men – also perpetuate these habits and enjoin in gossiping about women who “go against the grain” in perfectly moral, decent ways. The fact that some women acknowledge that restrictive norms are cultural (not Islamic) but also enjoin in or do not stand up to this this is what makes the reality of such misogyny really truly tragic. Many women have been brainwashed to follow these sexist norms which deem women and girls who are outside of the home more than deemed acceptable etc. as “behaving inappropriately” and the top end could seem them branded as “wh****”. By gossiping and backbiting away about the social activities of other women and girls, such females are “accepting” and keeping alive such outdated misogynistic values which can mean that any girl who does fight back or ignore these rules, risks her reputation and that of their family and ultimately her (and even her family’s) ability to marry and live a happy socially integrated life.

If you don’t believe in the poisonous power of social brainwashing in leading women to accept sexism and misogyny watch this video, showing one Algerian woman’s attitude to domestic violence. As you can see, women – as well as men – in believing in and accepting, rather than standing up and speaking out against these issues, are perpetuating sexist outdated and dangerous gender norms, stereotypes and even violence. From gossiping about women, to the very top end of the scale where some are even “happily accepting” domestic violence, it’s the same problem. On the one hand the report was made by an Algerian TV channel shows that awareness has been raised from the inside but if you watch the video, you’ll see that there is some severe social brainwashing and normalising of immoral sexist practices. Looking at the statistics in the video, domestic violence is a huge issue in itself, accepted by a large section of women.

These women are victims but will live on to victimise future generations of women and girls if things don’t change. Such men and women will be teaching their sons and daughters to carry and accept these practices. Misogyny in North Africa exists on micro and macro levels but remember this: no matter how small the incidents or examples are, do not underestimate the negative impact they can have on the lives of women and girls – it all comes from the same source…

Photo credits:

Babak Fakhamzadeh (feature image) (CC)

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Hey Mr President: Here’s 10 shameful human rights issues you need to get work on…

Dear President Trump,

I’m not an American citizen nor am I of American heritage (I do have Italian-American family mind!) BUT in any case,  I think it’s safe to say that your presidency affects every one of us worldwide. As global citizens, in an increasingly connected and globalised,  world we should be looking out for our brothers and sisters, advocating for human rights and denouncing both threats towards and violations against human freedoms and human rights worldwide.

Long since the start of your presidential campaign, you’ve gathered a lot of media attention. I myself, never expected you to take over office but well – this is theoretically your democratic right. The American people spoke! Out of ignorance, fear and hatred I may add BUT that time has passed. Now you’re ready to settle into the White House and are starting to take on your presidential duties. In light of this, I’d like to remind you of some core human rights abuses which the US needs to address. You state you are the “land of the free” after all… a land which is on show to the entire world…

  1. Abuse of the right to a fair trial: At the end of 2015, Amnesty International recorded a total number of 107 detainees at Guantánamo – most being held without charges having being pressed. These men lie in wait, without hope, facing torture and humiliation. If you believe these men (or anyone else) have committed criminal acts, then take them to trial whilst respecting their right to legal representation and a FAIR trial.
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  2. Abuse of the right to freedom of expression and permissibility of hate speech: Freedom of expression is an important right but that doesn’t mean that citizens should be able to spout inflammatory obscene, hate speech and harass other members of the public. Permissible exceptions to the First Amendment include: “incitement, defamation, fraud, child pornography, obscenity, fighting words and threats”. Well, take a look at some of these gentlemen in the videi below harassing Muslims on the streets and ask yourself, is this acceptable? Freedom of expression is one thing, hate speech and hate crimes are another….

3. Threats to religious freedomYou claimed in December 2015 that you will uphold the right to freedom of religion, when you stated:

“Religious liberty is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is our first liberty and provides the most important protection in that it protects our right of conscience.”

I would however like to compare that to the comments you made regarding Muslims entering the US and American mosques and draw your attention to the fact that since you became elected, there has been a sharp rise in the number of Islamophobic incidents. American Muslims, Jews – every rational person – is counting on you to respect their right to freedom of belief…

4. Denial of the right to adequate health careThere are a series of critical abuses and  health care issues which need addressing:

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An insurance based health care system often leaves citizens unable to receive medical assistance

Lack of a national health care system: Former  President Barack Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on 23rd March (2010). As a result, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that roughly 32 million extra people will have health insurance by 2019 after the law is fully implemented. 32 million people will however remain uninsured. This is simply not good enough – every human has the right to emotional and physical wellbeing and to access adequate health care.

Abuse of mentally ill prisoners: Mentally ill prisoners have been beaten, pepper sprayed, shocked, burnt and have sometimes even died in custody. Staff training, resources, greater knowledge and awareness is crucially needed to address such inhuman treatment and provide the necessary level of care required. Further information can be found in the Human Rights Watch report – I urge you to watch this video (although I found it very distressing – simply because the reality is just that shocking): https://youtu.be/OCaKethFbEg.

Inadequate medical care for transgender women in custody: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) introduced a new policy in June 2015 to provide transgender women in immigration detention with certain protections. However, despite this new policy, transgender women in ICE custody still receive inadequate medical care, as well as reporting sexual and verbal harassment whilst in detention.

Inadequate maternal health care: In a report published by the WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank (1990-2008), the USA is ranked 50th in the world for maternal mortality. In fact, the issue of maternal health has long been a concern for Amnesty International. In 2013, the maternal mortality rate was 17.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, with “significant racial disparities” among different racial groups – very concerning indeed. Native American and Alaska Native women who are raped for example, are faced with continuous lack of access to medical care including examinations and emergency contraception. African-American women are also almost four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white American sisters. I found a range of shocking information via “U.S. Public Health Emergencies: Maternal Mortality and Gun Violence” and Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 report.

5. Abuse of the right to privacy: The US government continues to spy on its citizens by urging major US mobile phone and internet companies to loosen the security measures of their systems so the government can spy more easily on its citizens during criminal investigations. In May 2015, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression called on all countries (including the US) to respect citizens’ right to privacy and “refrain from weakening encryption and other online security measures” due to the fact that human rights defenders and activists across the world rely on the security of such tools and weakening encryption and other online security measures poses a danger to citizens own security. According to Human Rights Watch, although Congress passed the USA Freedom Act in June 2015 which limits the government’s ability to collect phone records and detailed new measures for greater transparency and oversight of NSA surveillance, the law does not restrict surveillance by the government justified to undertake “mass violations of people outside US borders”. Human Rights Watch also highlight how the law does not look at several modern surveillance means from malware to the interception of of all mobile phone calls in any given country. Very worrying indeed…

6. Use of torture, inhuman and degrading punishment and treatment:

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Protesters dressed as Guantánamo detainees

Back in January 2016, former President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons. OK – one change, but there is still a long way to go. Having already documented the abuse of mentally ill inmates, the torture of prisoners in Guantánamo is also no secret; including sexual assault, sleep deprivation, mock executions, being forced to watch other inmates being tortured – and the list goes on… Mr President, I’d also like to draw your attention to this comment you made regarding the waterboarding of prisoners/detainees:

“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works… and if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us“.

Torture is inhuman, inhumane and in any case Mr President – it doesn’t work! “Evidence” and “confessions” extracted under torture are not reliable. We are living in the 21st century, where are you…?!

7. Use of police violence and arbitrary arrest: Following on from point number six, another tragic issue that has been featured a lot in the media recently is the abuse of black Americans by the police – even resulting in their death. We’re not talking about one-off incidents here, we’re talking about recurring patterns of violence, inequality and a culture of racism and abuse. Please don’t deny this. Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 US review records 43 deaths at the hands of police Tasers (across 25 states), reaching a total of at least 670 Taser-related deaths since 2001 (as of 2016). Just in case you think these people were a threat, most were unarmed and appeared to post no threat of death or serious injury when the Taser was used. It is estimated that the number of people who have been killed by law enforcement officials ranges from around 458 to 1,000+ people each year. This is however an estimate as the authorities did not track the exact number of people killed… How convenient… As we all know (and as backed up in the Amnesty report), black males are disproportionately affected by police killings…

8. Discrimination/inequality based on gender, “race”, colour, culture and sexual orientation:

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Black American men are six times more likely to be imprisoned than their white brothers

This is such a big point – where do I start? I’ve already touched on several inequalities including treatment in maternal health care and the use of excessive police force towards black males, so let’s also talk about the fact that African-American males are more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned than their white male counterparts for drug offenses committed at “comparable rates”  – according to Human Rights Watch who state that: “African Americans are only 13 percent of the US population, but make up 29 percent of all drug arrests. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men.”

There is so much discrimination it’s difficult to even squish it into one post…but here’s one more documented by Human Rights Watch: “At time of writing, 28 states do not have laws banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, while three states prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation but not on gender identity.” Everyone has the right to work free from discrimination. This just isn’t good enough!

And whilst we’re at it, women don’t just face inequality in the workplace but sexual violence crossing socio-cultural ethnic groups at disproportionate levels. Native American and Alaska Native women not only face inadequate levels of health care but are also dis proportionally affected by sexual violence. They are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped then other women in America. Such issues need to be addressed Mr President.

9. Detention of migrant and asylum-seeking childrenI’m quite frankly shocked and worried by your attitude towards migrants, asylum seekers and refugees… We’re all human and we all deserve the right to a peaceful, stable life free from torture, persecution and war and a decent standard of living. What’s worse is that the US detains asylum seeking women and – wait for it – CHILDREN. The USA has the largest detention immigration system in the world, including a huge amount of asylum-seeking mothers and children from Central America. Such treatment has a devastating psychological impact on these mothers and children. In June 2016, the government announced it would be limiting the practice of detaining mothers and children long-term for those who pass the first stage of the asylum-seeking process. According to Human Rights Watch, in July 2015, a federal judge ruled that the State’s family detention policy “violated a 1997 settlement on the detention of migrant children“. Policy has improved as those appearing to make a “legitimate” asylum claim are released within weeks but family detention still continues. Mr President – such children should never be detained and migrants, refugees and asylum seekers must never be detained for simply seeking protection and US residency.

10. Use of corporal punishment in schools – including against disabled children19 US states still use corporal punishment in schools. Even more shocking is the fact that disabled children are disproportionately affected by such behaviour. Corporal punishment is – as I believe – wrong. Add to this the fact that such punishment will greater affect disabled children’s physical and psychological conditions, this is just completely unacceptable. Across the globe, 124 countries have criminalised such physical punishment in State schools. So why is the USA  – the so-called land of “freedom, equality” etc. – so far behind Mr Trump…?

So, there we have it. There are so many social, cultural, political, economic and human rights issues in the USA which need addressing Mr President, but here’s 10 to get you started. Why not show toady’s protesters something positive? Why not prove us wrong? It’s up to you…

Key information sources:

Amnesty International: United States of America 2015/2016

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2016: United States, Events of 2015

Image credits:

Donkey Hotey, Waywuwei, Justin Norman, Ben

The 10 Biggest Misconceptions about Muslim Women

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Image source: luckyphotostream

Whenever you hear about Muslim women in the media, we’re always portrayed as oppressed, meek, silent victims. Doing a quick Google search using the words “Muslim women” just now, the suggested searches at the bottom of the page include:

do muslim women shavemuslim women rulessingle muslim womenmuslim women dress codemuslim women swimwearwhat do muslim women wear

Muslim women aren’t “victims” or “subjects”. We’re more than headscarves, burkinis, dress codes and potential wives for those looking for a spouse. We’ve got spiritual, intellectual, economic, social and sexual rights. There is a terrible wave of Islamophobic hate crime at present and there are cultural/social problems within some Muslim communities (see my prior post on gender jihad) but this isn’t what we’re about. Violations of women’s rights is unfortunately a global issue and Islamophobia is an increasing problem but these are problems – they don’t define us. They are problems just like all  other forms of racism, violence, discrimination and xenophobia. That’s not us.

Muslim women are proud, strong and free. We were given rights such as the right to inheritance centuries before women in Europe. I’ll leave all that for another post to go into greater detail. What I’d like to cover in this post is the 10 biggest misconceptions about Muslim women.

1. Muslim women dress in hijab and cover because their husbands demand so or because the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) told women to cover

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Image credit: Peter Dahlgren

Sigh. I and many other women (I’m sure!) have experienced this through misconceptions, (innocent) ignorance or by jumping to conclusions. It’s really patronising to presume that Muslim women cover their entire bodies for their husband when hijab is a choice, a decision and one act of following (one of ) God’s commands. Unfortunately there are cases of women being forced by men to cover by their fathers, husbands etc., there are oppressive laws in certain countries and in some societies there are judgmental attitudes and social pressure (all of which are wrong) but there’s also those sisters who wear it against their families’ wishes and despite the abuse and discrimination they may face within society. Following hijab in covering your body – not just your hair by the way (!) – is what Muslims believe to be a commandment from God and God alone (who is not male or female!). It’s a spiritual act, an act of modesty and an act of devotion. As Muslims, we believe that commandants are from God, compiled in the Qur’an and not from the Prophet Mohammed – who is the messenger not the Creator. It is and should always be the woman’s choice – a choice not defined by man. Please don’t assume otherwise.

2. Female converts had to convert to Islam in order to marry their Muslim spouses or they converted to Islam for their husband’s sake

Another huge stereotype! There are many many converts to Islam and most are young women. Whatever their timing, the decision to convert is (and must be) their choice. Those who convert simply to marry are not making a valid spiritual decision and those who force people to convert are breaking God’s commandment. God has given us free will and belief is personal – it has to be or it’s not real! You convert when you’re ready. Some sisters convert after witnessing the practice of their husband and learning more about the faith and some before they marry. This is their own personal spiritual choice. Out of those that convert before they marry, many of those aren’t even thinking about marriage. They’re not engaged, they’re not in love – they’re simply on their journey. Faith is personal and it’s once again really patronising to infer that women have no spiritual intelligence, needs, desires or free will. Faith is one thing. Marriage is another. Muslims believe that Allah’s plan is the greatest and therefore his timing is too!

3. Muslim men can touch unrelated women (shake hands etc.) whilst Muslim women can’t (the same goes for pre-martial sex!)

In Islam there is no sexual double standard. Pre- and extra-marital sex are forbidden as is kissing, touching etc. and everything in between. The limits between the opposite sex are the same. Whether this is always upheld is a different story but there should be no distinction between the level of contact between say a non-Muslim woman and a Muslim man and a Muslim man and a non-Muslim woman.

4. Muslim women can’t be scholars

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The general lack of female scholarship (in comparison to male figures) is a result of culture, patriarchy and socio-economic factors – not Islam. There are however numerous female Muslim scholars, translators, jurists and important advocates. Aisha (ra), the wife of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) was an early jurist and hadith transmitter. Another earlier example is Aishah bint Muhammad from Syria who was a 14th century hadith scholar. In today’s period, Laleh Bakhtiar (1938 – present) from the US, was the first American woman to translate the Qur’an into English. Her translation has been used in many mosques and universities. It has also been adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan. Laleh has translated more than 30 books on Islam and the Islamic movement and is both a lecturer and published author of over 15 books in relation to Islam. For more inspirational Muslim women and their achievements see: 10 Muslim Women You Have to Knowthe Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) index and here for a list of female Muslim scholars. .

5. Muslim husbands are permitted to hit their wives

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Image credit: Hibr

Muslim men – despite what extremists say – are not permitted to hit their wives. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) did not hit his wives and taught men to respect, love and cherish their wives. Verse 4:34 of the Qu’ran is misused and mistranslated and thus used by some to justify violence against one’s wife :

The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.

Translation: Talal Itani

Laleh Bakhtiar in her translation: “The Sublime Quran” (2007) translated the Arabic word daraba as “go away” instead of “beat” or “hit” – meaning the final commandment when in conflict with your spouse is to not actually have contact! Given the fact that the verse takes increasingly separatist stages: to first advise, then not share the marital bed until this last stage, this makes far more sense! As pointed out earlier, her translation of the Qur’an is used in various mosques and universities and was adopted by Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad of Jordan.

6. Muslim women are not (really) allowed in the mosque or community sphere 

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Image credit: Georgie Pauwels

This is simply a cultural issue. Women are not obliged to go to the mosque for Friday prayers – unlike men – as they may be busy looking after their children, looking after the house, perhaps not praying (time of the month!) etc. Women should never be stopped from going to a mosque. The authentic hadith (Al-Buhkhari) states the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) as following: “Do not stop women servants of God from the mosques of God.” See the WISE list of female Muslim spiritual and religious leaders for more on information on Muslim women in this area.

7. Muslim women are all a bit “meek and mild”

I think my message is becoming clear! Modesty is an important virtue in Islam but that doesn’t mean we have to hide away. There are many, many inspirational Muslim women figures – lawyers, writers, lecturers, translators, scholars, artists, political leaders, athletes and many more. Once again, check out the WISE index for a list of 100 extraordinary Muslim women!

8. Muslim women have no sexual rights

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Image credit: Nur Alia Mazalan

Both men and women in Islam have a right to sexual satisfaction. Islamic teachings – especially early on – talked openly about such issues including the need for foreplay with your wife. As previously explained, modesty and shyness are virtues but cultural habits have once again “got in the way” in relation to sexual education and attitudes. See for example this hadith in which the Prophet advised Abdullah bin Amr bin Al-As (who fasted all day and spent all night praying) to fast some days and to not fast on others and to likewise sometimes pray at night and other nights sleep – as to not act in excess: “Your body has a right over you, your eyes have a right over you and your wife has a right over you.” (Bukhari, Vol.7, No. 127). Muslims of course cannot be intimate with their spouse when fasting and any sexual act requires you to shower afterwards – especially in order to later perform prayers. Therefore a husband who is fasting every day (until sunset) and praying after sunset all night is not only being harsh on himself but is not allowing for sexual intimacy to take place, when his wife has the right to sexual pleasure.

9. Muslim women must/should be financially dependent on their husbands

Muslim women have the right to work if they want to as long as the children and other duties etc. are not neglected as the man is the (main) breadwinner (remember men can’t have children!). Obviously in today’s economy many women also work out of necessity. Muslim women are endowed with financial autonomy in relation to their earnings. The husband has no (automatic) right to her earnings – they can only be given with permission (which counts as charity). The husband, regardless of her earnings or lack of, must always provide for his wife and family – even if she is a multi millionaire!

10. Choosing one’s spouse is down to the men – the groom, the bride’s father, brother, uncles etc.

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Image credit: Azlan DuPree

Regardless of cultural or family behaviour, beliefs or tradition, in Islam marriage is between two consenting adults – be it a “love marriage” or arranged marriage (not forced for those who equate the two as being the same!). Firstly, women cannot and should not be forced to marry anyone – any such “marriage” would be invalid. Secondly, some couples chose their spouse, others ask their family and community to find a spouse for them. Each to their own! A Muslim woman has every right to ask her family, local imam etc. to help her find a spouse. If she falls in love, her potential husband may go to her father and ask for her hand. In the same way, if an unfamiliar brother wishes to marry a sister, he may approach her family who can ask their daughter what they make of him! Perhaps her father or brother know a nice brother they think is suitable and so they approach her to ask her thoughts but in no way is it a requirement that her family pick a husband for her. This works for some, for others things happen differently. Again – each to their own! The crucial point is that the marriage must be consensual. The woman’s family cannot give her hand against her will. Forced marriage is illegal, immoral and invalid. It is essentially a non-marriage involving forbidden sexual activity, immoral conduct and sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse. The Prophet Mohammad’s first wife Khadijah proposed the idea of marriage and they had a long happy marriage. Now me personally I’m a bit “traditional” and think it’s nicer for the men to ask/get the ball rolling but that’s not a rule! Modesty, respect and upright honest behaviour is the key.

So, I hope that’s cleared up some misconceptions around the so often mystified Muslim women! We’re human, we’re here, we have a voice, we have freedom, we have spiritual needs and we have opinions. We’re very normal! 🙂

Salam!

Credits:

Feature image: dzoro

Why do we never hear so much about International Men’s Day…? Here’s why!

woman-704221.jpgIt’s International Women’s Day on March 8th. “Why do we never really hear about International Men’s Day?!” you and many others may ask. “If women and men are equal and human rights are universal then why do we have two separate days?!” others may profess…Well, you see the reality is this: human rights aren’t just a woman’s issue – they aren’t about men vs. women and are instead about universal rights as a global human issue. However, the truth of the matter is that such days raise awareness about different issues affecting the different sexes and as a whole women remain more vulnerable, more abused and at greater risk of exploitation than menInternational Men’s Day focuses on men’s health whilst International Women’s Day focuses on women’s achievements and calls us to keep on fighting the ongoing battle for equality.

That is the reality – women are not treated equally. The introduction of the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) wasn’t to “prioritise women” – it wasn’t against the universal nature of human rights – it was to address needs specific to women and to fight against further abuses directly affecting women and girls. No one would deny that men are at risk (and in some cases at an increasing risk) of forced labour, sexual exploitation, poverty, abuse etc. but as it stands – women’s rights are a big issue that we still need to keep high on the agenda – and here’s a few reasons why…

Gender based human rights abuses

  • Reproductive rights/maternal healthcare – women need adequate access to contraception, pre- and post-natal care and facilities. According to the UN Population Fund: “[…] 830 women still die every day from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. This is about one woman every two minutes”. Along with the right to life and health, States have to additionally ensure women’s/girl’s access to education and privacy (see here for more information).
  • Literacy rates – a lack of education and poverty go hand in hand and women remain severely disadvantaged due to economic, social and cultural barriers:

774 million adults (15 years and older) still cannot read or write – two-thirds of them (493 million) are women. Among youth, 123 million are illiterate of which 76 million are female. Even though the size of the global illiterate population is shrinking, the female proportion has remained virtually steady at 63% to 64%. (UNESCO)

  • Worker rights – women worldwide face battles with maternity pay, lower wages and access to employment (beyond simply being underrepresented in politics and business) due to discrimination and in some cases may face sexual harassment. The reality is this: “women make up 40% of the global workforce, yet make less than their male counterparts in every country on Earth” (ILRF).

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  • Poverty – many of the inequalities and lack of care women face regarding reproductive health, education and work rights perpetuate further injustice. This isn’t simply having inadequate access to  bras and sanitary protection:

While both men and women suffer in poverty, gender discrimination means that women have far fewer resources to cope. They are likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access healthcare, and routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks. They have more limited options to work or build businesses. Adequate education may lie out of reach. Some end up forced into sexual exploitation as part of a basic struggle to survive. (UN Women)

  • Sex trafficking – women are most affected by human slavery. This may involve forced labour but is most often forced prostitution. This is increasingly affecting men but women are still the main victims of sex trafficking (see here for more information). Women trapped in poverty may be offered “a way out” through the promise of a job in another country and find themselves trapped and “in debt” –  abroad, raped, beaten,  alone and scared.
  • Forced marriage – women and young girls  (children!)  are forced/sold into marriage.  1 out of every 9 girls under the age of 15 in the developing world is married.
  • Domestic violence – whilst men are also victims of domestic violence and other forms of domestic abuse (emotional, spiritual and financial abuse for example), it’s important to educate others about this. Women are still more likely to be victims of domestic violence.

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  • Rape – rape occurs within marriage (forced or non forced marriage), it can also be date-rape, forced prostitution or violent crime by strangers but it is also a weapon of war used to humiliate, control and physically, psychologically and emotionally abuse women and girls:

In Liberia, which is slowly recovering after a 13-year civil war, a government survey in 10 counties in 2005-2006 showed that 92% of the 1,600 women interviewed had experienced sexual violence, including rape. (UN Office of The High Commissioner (OHCHR))

  • Acid attacks – Acid attacks are a means to control and humiliate women. Perhaps she rejected your proposal, perhaps you don’t think she’s modest enough, perhaps you were jealous… Whatever the reason, wherever the place – they constitute a severe physical and physiological trauma and the worst part is that they aren’t rare . In the UK the number of hospital admissions for cases of acid attacks has almost doubled in the last 10 years.
  • Honour killings – Women aren’t only being abused by their partners sexually, physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially but are also being killed by their own families. Every year, 5,000 honour killings are reported worldwide (UN). Brothers, fathers, uncles, even mothers commit murder to maintain the “honour” of the family and thus the female relative’s blood is on their hands and her life is lost (see here for more information).
  • Female genital mutilation – across the women and young girls are having parts of their genitals cut and removed in order to control their sexuality, preserve their honour and thus increase their eligibility for marriage. This practice causes immense psychological and physical trauma and can even result in death. See my article on female genital mutilation for more information.

So, there it is – a brief summary of some of the discrimination and abuse that women face worldwide. In reality, whilst every human is endowed with civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights; women face a greater variety of barriers due to discrimination and differing needs – for example regarding reproductive rights and health care. Many factors go hand in hand. If a girl is married too young due to cultural customs and does not receive adequate health care, if a family is poor and struggling, she will no longer go to school and will stay at home caring for the family. As such she may not only be limited regarding work opportunities but in fact living in a cycle of poverty where she remains vulnerable to sexual exploitation and further physical and psychological harm.

While human rights are universal, putting this into practice in relation to women’s needs and the discrimination they face, requires fighting for women’s equality as a specific issue. Feminism and women’s rights movements are not about advancing women to a status above men but simply to the same position as men – which in itself is a still a position in a world of injustice. International Women’s Day is a day for the world to recognise women’s achievements and to remind us to fight for women’s equality against injustice.  We’re not one single sex but we are one humanity. It’s fundamental that men become more involved in the fight for women’s rights. Men, women, girls and boys must fight against injustice for each and every one of them. Equality is the end goal. Men and women are different. Reproductive rights is just one evidence of this but we are equal; equal in dignity and equal in humanity.

Salam!

Image credits:

Megara Tegal (Flickr) (CC) (feature image), Alexandra Loves (Pixabay) (CC), Carlos Lorenzo (Flickr) (CC), Gregory Kowalski (Flickr) (CC)

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Gender Jihad – misogyny vs. Islam

middle-east-travel-4-1513825What is “Gender jihad“? It’s not about ISIS and their sexual deviancy. “Gender jihad” is a term I’ve taken from Islamic feminist Amina Wadud’s book entitled: Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam (2006, OneWorld Publications). There is a lot of debate surrounding Amina Wadud and her “approach” to Islam. I do not advocate all of her beliefs/practices (that is another issue in itself which is not the focus of this article) but none the less I believe she does raise some valid points and quite rightly coined the term gender jihad.

Jihad means “struggle”. One’s personal jihad – our own moral battles – could be to stop smoking, to suppress one’s anger, to look after our health better – in essence: to do anything that brings us closer to God and which fits His commandments. Collective jihad is to fight suppression. So, therefore what exactly is “gender jihad”? Quite simply, it´s the struggle and movement to advance women´s rights within Muslim communities in regards to the behaviours and the realities which Muslim women face and to look at current Islamic interpretations of scripture and resulting practices to re-interpret these/re-educate Muslims to move from a current socio-cultural patriarchal perspective to one that is more egalitarian and in line with true Islam.

Islam vs. misogyny

As a Muslim convert who has been brought up in a stereotypically “non-Muslim” culture but has Muslim friends of a variety of nationalities, has also married into a North-African Muslim family and also lived, worked and travelled in various Muslim and non-Muslim countries – I’ve come to various conclusions. Whilst people often warn you when you first convert about the difference between Islam and Muslims, and whilst no-one is perfect except Allah Himself, at times you can become rather frustrated and disappointed by other people´s cultures and behaviour encroaching on your religion and your religious rights/freedoms – especially as a woman. “The non-Muslim West” is often seen as the “land of the non-believers” as opposed to Muslim countries where Muslim culture is the norm. In fact, this is often the opposite; marred with contradictions, stereotypes, frustrations, cultural clashes and shocks when seeing the reality in certain Muslim countries or Muslim communities at home or abroad. Before I even converted to Islam, one sister told me that the UK was a better example of the spirit and rights of Islam (but that is another story and no – I’m not a nationalist at all). The reality is that most converts are women from similar backgrounds as myself – “Western”, under the age of 30 and from a stereotypically “non-Muslim” culture (although there is a wide diversity among converts). Such young women are drawn to Islam not only for its spiritual monotheism but also for the rights it ordains on women,  discovering that feminism and Islam are at one with each other.

Feminist discourse is often defined in “Western” secular terms. Muslim women who classify themselves as feminists have often been seen to have “liberated” themselves from not only their society but from Islam and its symbolism – how many wear headscarves (yet that is another debate as I cannot completely guess their reasoning)? How many have come from theocratic regimes and appear to have turned their back on Islam? Feminist discourse has however shifted from simply “Western feminism” and secular “Muslim” feminists to the rise of Islamic feminists who do not see the issue of women’s rights and Islam to be in direct contrast to one another – in fact, quite the opposite. It’s about liberating women within Islamto be respected and receive all of their rights as Allah ordained upon them according to the Qur’an and Sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh)). The often notable difference between what Islam is and what Muslims do can be due to deviancya lack of Islamic education, cultural practices/behaviour and/or extremism and intolerance entwined with each other. Mindsets and national cultures affect people´s views, as does a lack of understanding of Islam itself which becomes equated with their socio-cultural reality and therefore their interpretation and practice of Islam and  how they treat others – including women. Islam is a faith – not a culture – which crosses linguistic, ethnic, cultural and national boundaries. Muslims belong to a vast rich multicultural family. In Islam, Muslims are one ummah (community) made of a rich mix of believers of diverse cultures and  nationalities. Cultural diversity and traditions are what make the world rich, vibrant and so excitingly varied and within Islam itself, racism is forbidden. Yet a Muslim is supposed to believe in and prioritise God and Islam first and foremost. 

Bearing this in mind and as a follow-up to a previous post I wrote on  women’s equality in Islam looking at textual sources, in this post I’d like to look at the juxtaposition between Islam, culture and misogyny. In other words: how Islam often becomes misrepresented not just by certain minorities but also on a wider scale within many cultures/Muslim countries. Firstly, I am not “anti-culture”. Respect for and interest in other cultures and religions is what has led me to where I am today. I am not attempting to stereotype, judge or generalise against Muslims, nor cultures – but there are issues. In fact, culture, intolerance and extremism does not encroach just on women´s rights in Muslim communities/societies – but that is a wider issue. This is about spreading the real message of Islam – re-establishing Islam principles and behaviour, shunning Islam of cultural baggage, misogyny and issues which are not only falsely associated with Islam by non-Muslims but also by Muslims themselves. Some of the issues addressed are openly recognised and denounced as cultural/minority issues not Islamic issues themselves, whilst others are not adequately dissociated with Islam and in fact unfairly affect or “dictate” how Islam is practiced: how Muslims live, treat others and practice their faith in a way that is contrary to the morals and rights Islam ordains. Islam itself doesn’t need to change. As Muslims we believe that God is perfect and has perfected faith. No, this is about culture, misogyny and extremism – how Muslim girls and women are being failed, denied their rights, mistreated and abused – vs. the essence of Islam – its morals, its spirituality, its meaning and the rights and respect it offers women.

Not in the name of Allah

  • Double standards regarding sexual morality – zina (pre-marital and extra-marital sex) is forbidden in Islam for both men and women. As such this is usually illegal in Muslim countries. Yet there appears to be certain double standards in some societies/circles, where men expect a virgin wife but some do not remain virgins themselves and families turn a blind eye to their sons’ behaviour.
  • Honour killings/violence – this is simply individuals’ barbaric delinquency and does not represent Islam. Such activities constitute “major crimes” (The Islamic Supreme Council of Canada).
  • Forced marriage – this is haram (forbidden). A marriage is not permissible without the women’s consent. Furthermore, men and women are encouraged to think carefully about their future spouse and their compatibility. It must also be remembered that arranged marriage is not forced marriage. Marriage in Islam can be a love match or arranged but in all cases the women’s consent is required.

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  • Female genital mutilation – FGM is a cultural practice that pre-dates Islam and has been denounced as un-Islamic by many scholars/groups including The Muslim Council of Britain but is still ongoing through a lack of education, cultural traditions and misconceptions about Islam. Women have sexual rights and bodily rights. Muslims have a duty to preserve their health and prevent bodily harm and both men and women have the right to sexual pleasure within marriage. FGM is contrary to Islamic principles and unacceptable. See here for more information about FGM.
  • Sexual harassment, rape and the stigmatisation of rape victims – rape and sexual harassment are both forbidden in Islam and are grossly immoral (marital rape is of course forbidden). Furthermore, victims of rape can end up becoming grossly stigmatised or accused of committing zina. Once a woman is seen as “tainted” it is very hard for her to find a husband. One Moroccan woman named Amina Filali committed suicide in March 2012 after being forced to marry her rapist. Fortunately Amnesty International later won the battle in 2014 to ban such law in Morocco which allowed male rapists to escape punishment if they married their victim. Women in Egypt (where there is an incredibly high rate of sexual harassment in the street) have also started fighting back under the Pink Revolution“. This quote pretty much sums it up: “Teaching your sons to lower their gaze is just as important as teaching your daughter to cover up”. Victim blaming in the name of misogyny is immoral and un-Islamic.
  • Ideas of male “superiority” when having children – the pressure to have a baby boy or selective abortion is immoral and un-Islamic. In the UK a group of 25+ religious bodies (Muslim, Sikh and Hindu) including The Muslim Women´s Network came together to discuss the issue and called for sex selective abortion to be banned in the UK – having “witnessed at ‘first hand’ the pressure that women come under to abort daughters”. In the time of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) people used to kill their newly born daughters – Islam specifically outlawed this. The Prophet was an affectionate father who taught great respect for one’s daughters. He said: “Lucky is the woman whose first child is a daughter”. Of his daughter Fatima he stated: “Fatima is part of me, whoever harms her, harms me.”

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  • A lack of women’s religious facilities – I´ve been to mosques in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries where I´ve found frustrating saddening realities. One one occasion I was in another town and needed to pray and found the women´s prayer area to be locked because “women in this area don’t go to the mosque to pray”. I have also found myself unable to pray due to the upset caused by other men stemming from a lack of (open) facilities and an unfamiliarity with the concept of women coming mid day to the mosque to pray. It is my right to be able to pray in the mosque in peace whenever I like, as long as I pray in the correct clothing, have performed ablution and behave respectfully. The authentic hadith (Al-Buhkhari) states the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) as following: “Do not stop women servants of God from the mosques of God.” It is the mosque’s right to provide an adequate women’s only area to pray in with the appropriate entrance and without grief/harassment from other (male) members of the community.
  • A lack of women’s education – education gives power, wealth and independence yet there are high rates of female illiteracy and low levels of education in some Muslim countries due to social, economic and cultural factors and extremist (mis-)interpretations of Islam – in complete contrast to Islamic teachings. In some societies it is thankfully the opposite. In Algeria for example, there are a higher number of female graduates than males (see here and  additionally here for literacy rates). In Islam, we are encouraged to read, study and learn. It was in actual fact a Muslim lady named Fatima al-Fihri who founded the oldest university in the world – The University of Qarawiyyin (Morocco). Those who are being denied an education are not being done so because of (true) religious doctrine. Women are often caregivers, mothers and wives but they are no means denied the right to an education or a career if they wish and if the needs of the family are met. In the words of Malala Yousefzai: “Extremists have shown what frightens them the most: A girl with a book.”
  • Domestic violence – time and time again this issue comes up. Domestic violence (or any form of abuse) is not permissible. Looking at my previous post on the equality of women in Islam, a man who mistreats woman cannot be a “good Muslim” – in fact, the very opposite. Islam encourages love, equality, trust and gentleness towards others and ones spouse. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) never hit any woman in his lifetime. He said: “How can you beat your wife like a slave and then sleep with her in the night?” (Mishkat al-Masabih, No. 3242). Shurayḥ an-Nakha’i Rahimahullah also said: “May my hand be paralysed if I ever hit my wife.” (Al-Ahkam 1/462). See the fatwa on honour killings, misogyny and domestic violence: “Honour Killings, Domestic Violence and Misogyny Are Un-Islamic and Major Crimes” (Islamic Supreme Council of Canada).

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  • Forced covering/uncovering – In some families/societies some women are pressured/forced to cover, whilst in other circumstances women are not free to cover or are subject to criticism or ridicule. This could includes both headscarves and face veils. The misconception that women are forced to cover in Islam is wrong. I freely choose to cover and will not cover or even uncover for anyone. The same goes for other women including those who wear face-veils. In Islam, actions are to be done out of one’s free will and as worship directed to Allah for His sake alone. Allah commands women to cover (however one interprets that) and thus to cover should be for Him and Him only. A man cannot force his wife to cover and to force her to un-cover is to stop her obeying Allah and thus in such case she is obliged to ignore such wishes. As previously highlighted, just as women are obliged to cover and be modest, men are also obliged to lower their gaze towards women and be modest.
  • Abusing the right to polygamy – polygamy is sunnah (a practice of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) and is not an obligation: “Islam neither orders nor prohibits polygamy. It only permits it when it is necessary” (Questions on Islam, see here for more information). Islam lowered limited the number of women a man could marry and has set forth marital rules and rights for both men and women. These include strict conditions which you must be able to fulfill in order to have more than one wife. A man must treat each of his wives equally and grant them of all their rights: spiritual, sexual, emotional, financial etc.- providing for each one for them. Therefore polygamy is not an option for everyone.
  • Domestic slavery/servitude – wives in Islam are not maids, cleaners and domestic servants but partners and equals. The Prophet  Mohammed (pbuh) sewed, cooked and cleaned (see fatwa). It is a husband’s duty to provide financially for his wife but that does not mean not lifting a finger in the house. Sadly, this has been forgotten by many: “Be kind and considerate to your woman. She is a tender flower, and not your household slave.” (Ali Ibn Abu Talib (R.A)) (see here for more information).
  • Limited leaving the house – Muslim women are not supposed to imprison themselves in their homes. Visiting family, outdoor activities, work, education  etc. are all permissible – simply women must ensure that the home is not neglected and that they  observe proper conduct outside the home (hijab etc.).
  • Lack of support for divorcees, widows, single mothers, unmarried women – it can often be difficult for women who are not “young fresh virgins” to find a husband and those who are unmarried can find it hard within the community. Being a single mother or losing a spouse is not easy. In the Prophet Mohammed’s era a woman did not have to be a twenty something unmarried virgin to find a husband: “A divorced woman or widow never had any issues getting married in the time of the companions. In fact, she would have a hard time choosing which proposal to accept since there were so many great men asking for her. She was never made to feel like she was a burden on her family/society, nor was she told that she’d have to marry anyone that’d be willing to propose to her.” (Shaykh Omar Suleiman).

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  • Views on working women – as already highlighted, a woman has the choice to work or not. The husband (as the one who does not have children!) has to be the provider regardless of whether his wife works or not. A Muslim woman has choices. She by no means has to be some “meek” figure to find a husband: “Many Muslim men will pass over talented, educated women who are willing to put their careers and education on hold, if need be, to commit to a family. As a result a significant number of our sisters, despite their beauty, talent, maturity, and dynamism are passed over for marriage in favor of an idealized, demure “real” Muslim woman. […] Our Prophet was surrounded by strong, assertive and independent women” (Imam Zaid Shakir). The Prophet Mohammed’s first wife Khadeeja was an entrepreneur whom he loved dearly and had a very happy marriage with. Such examples should be inspirations for Muslims: “Its strange that Some Muslim men believe that one should not marry a working woman because they think she will not respect her husband if she is working. But Khadeeja (May Allah be please with her) was working woman and yet she was very respectful wife and an awesome companion of our Prophet” (Imam Asif Hirani).
  • Lack of female scholarship in Islam – it’s a sad reality that when a woman needs to seek advice regarding prayer and “female issues” that she has to talk to a man who does not understand. It would be very hard for him to understand as he is not a woman himself! That is by no means designed to be disrespectful but the result for women is conflicting, confusing advice – not to mention the fact that perhaps some women may not want to address such personal issues with an (unrelated, unknown) male. The Prophet’s wife Aisha was a scholar and there are and have been female lecturers, authors, writers, activists, and religious and spiritual leaders but on the whole this area is sadly lacking in comparison to males.
  • Views of women’s sexuality – Muslim wives have the right to sexual pleasure just as husbands do. However, literature and talk of sex and women’s sexual rights is often lacking. If you ask any scholar they will tell you that a Muslim wife has sexual rights and it is her husband’s duty to fulfill these rights within a loving consensual sexual partnership. Such rights/teachings include foreplay, affection and mutual orgasm. Read more about the issue here as part of the #TakeBackIslam campaign.

So having looked at the issues – Islam is often misunderstood and misrepresented as “misogynistic” and “sexist” through people’s misinformation/lack of information, the unfortunate behaviour of some individuals, the attitudes of certain societies, the media and Islamophobes. This is in direct contrast to Islam itself, which is an egalitarian faith. 

The oneness of God, the oneness of humanity

Allah created all human beings equal. In Islam you are only differentiated by your faith. Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) said: “Women are the twin halves of men” (Al-Tirmidhi). Islam – as a spiritual connection and devotion to God – does not teach or promote in its spiritual essence misogyny, sexism or inequality. As Muslims, we do not need traditional “Westernised” feminist orientalist discourse and secular “Muslim feminists” preaching about “veiling”, polygamy, etc. dominating and dictating to Muslims what is and what isn’t acceptable. We need a voice from within – from within the Muslim community itself to tackle these issues of cultural baggage, delinquency, intolerance, extremism, misinformation and misogyny. Islam is not for men; it’s for all of mankind – regardless of one’s gender, nationality, ethnicity, economic status, level of education etc. It’s for those who believe that God is just, God is merciful, God is The One – the sole complete Creator of the Universe. 

So, make a stance and fight the gender jihad:

  • woman-46899If you’re non-Muslim, I hope you’ve found this article interesting. Feel free to comment and ask questions
  • If you’re Muslim – brothers and sisters: make sure that are proper prayer facilities, educational facilities and social activities in your community for women and girls. There should also be access to social services for women in desperate financial situations and for those who find themselves in abusive relationships. Make sure the mosque is a safe haven for them and a place to learn. Brothers – they are your sisters in Islam

Salam!

Photo credits:

Cover image – Steve Bidmead (pixabay.com)

FreeImages.com/Yi Nam Jahe

FreeImages.com/Jonathan Kendrick

Bayu Aditya (Flick) (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Christine Olson (Flickr) (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Pixabay.com (bernal 1)

Pixabay.com 

Cutting away their childhood – the facts about #FGM

gender-symbols-1161576.jpgFebruary 6th is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM includes: “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons” (WHO, 2016). This usually involves cutting and removing parts of a girl’s/woman’s genitalia with razor blades, scissors, nails and glass without anaesthetic. There are no health benefits whatsoever to these “procedures”- in fact the reality is very much the opposite. It’s a sad reality for the millions of girls and women worldwide who face confusion, pain, suffering and violation through the practice of FGM as parents, family members and the wider community attempt to suppress girls’ sexuality, preserve their “honour”, adhere to social pressure and increase their  daughters’ “eligibility” as brides by adhering to male demands, outdated traditional cultural practises and a false/differing interpretation of religion. More than 125 million girls and women have been cut in the name of FGM across 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East with 3 million at risk each year (UNICEF, 2013; WHO, 2016). Educating communities and spreading the word are key to putting an end to this barbaric practice. So, let’s bust the myths and get the key facts about what exactly FGM is, how, why and where it happens and look at how you can campaign against this gross violation of human rights.

Busting the myths

1. FGM is the female equivalent of or can be compared to male circumcision 

FALSE: Female genital mutilation is sometimes also referred to as FGC (Female Genital Cutting) and also incorrectly labelled as “female circumcision” by certain people but this is totally inaccurate. Whatever your stance on male circumcision – FGM is entirely different. It is child abuse, violence and torture aimed at controlling a female’s sexual behaviour, denying her sexual pleasure within marriage itself and preserving her “honour” for the sake of others according to certain social-cultural beliefs and norms regarding marriage and female sexuality.

2. FGM is an Islamic practice

FALSE: Whilst unfortunately there have been certain so-called “scholars” who support FGM, FGM is un-Islamic. Not only does it pre-date Islam as a cultural practice, it is neither “required” according to Islamic standards and goes against Islamic principles such as health, not inflicting bodily harm, free will and a  woman’s right to sexual pleasure within marriage. The Muslim Council of Britain for example has specifically denounced the practice as un-Islamic. FGM is a cultural issue not a religious requirement. It is misunderstood in religious terms, misplaced, misused and therefore practiced by some Muslims, Jews and Christians and also some animists.

3. FGM is only an African/Middle Eastern issue

FALSE: FGM is instead a global issue. It is prevalent and most common in Africa (27 countries in the African subcontinent to be precise), including Egypt in North Africa and many sub-Saharan countries such as Somalia, and also in Middle East (e.g. Kurdistan, Oman, Yemen and Jordan). However, FGM also occurs in both Malaysia and Indonesia and within migrant communities in Europe, the USA and Australia. UNICEF has now reported that FGM is practised in Indonesia although in a less “severe” form of scratching rather than in the form of slicing off flesh. FGM firstly does not represent (any one) culture or people as a whole – even though it does form part of certain socio-cultural traditions amongst some people. Secondly, due to migration, FGM affects girls and young women whose older family members are migrants  but they themselves are not e.g. young American and British born girls whose parents previously migrated abroad. In an increasingly globalised world and in a world where we should all be fighting injustice, this is a global issue.

4. FGM is always carried out by non-medically trained relatives/community members 

FALSE: In most cases this is the case. Paid/unpaid “cutters” do the job with rusty nails, scissors, pieces of glass and razor blades. However, FGM is also performed by professional health care providers in certain countries (believe it or not…). This is often due to the belief that it is “safer” (UNICEF, 2013). In Indonesia, FGM is carried out in hospitals – although it is claimed that the female genital cutting which is carried out is not “mutilation” in the way we commonly give reference to (but in any case it is classified as FGM according to WHO guidelines).

5. Criminalising FGM in countries such as the UK and USA has outlawed and stemmed the practice entirely

FALSE: Living in a country where FGM is illegal does not mean you are “safe”. Not only does FGM occur illegally behind closed doors, parents also take their daughters abroad to get them cut instead – known as “holiday cutting“. A young girl may be “going to holiday” when in reality, she will leave the UK uncut and come back as an unfortunate silent victim of FGM at the hands of her family and community members in her parents’ home country.

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FGM – the facts

1. There are four types of FGM

Type 1: Clitoridectomy: the partial or total removal of the clitoris […] and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce […].

Type 2: Excision: […] the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora […], with or without excision of the labia majora […].

Type 3: Infibulation: […] the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy).

Type 4: […] all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

Source: WHO (2016)

Once a girl has been cut, for obvious reasons the procedure is irreversible – although she can be “unstitched”. “Unstitching” (deinfibulation) may occur to benefit the victim’s health, allow her to have sex or to help with childbirth (WHO, 2016). Girls are usually cut between the ages of infancy and 15 years old but FGM can also include adult women (ibid.).

2. Sex, urinating and childbirth can be incredibly painful and complicated for women who have been cut

There is also the risk of infection, cysts, death from blood loss, infertility and a higher risk of infant mortality concerning the death of newborn babies born from mothers who have been cut (WHO, 2016). For women who have undergone forms of FGM categorised as type three, periods and urinating are obviously particularly unpleasant and painful. Women also suffer from emotional and psychological issues such as depression and PTSD.

3. FGM is not a “medical procedure” but simply a means to control women biologically, emotionally, physically, socially and sexually

In communities where FGM is “the norm” or “prized”, “uncut” women are seen as “dirty” and potentially “promiscuous“. Cut women cannot expect sexual gratification from their husbands but are indeed expected to “perform their wifely duties” despite the pain involved in sexual intercourse and later in childbirth. Her body become solely his. There can be no soulful, spiritual, loving, emotional “oneness” between such two spouses – simply enslavement. However, within communities opinions on FGM differ and make no mistake – not all young (single) men are in favour of it.

4. FGM is a clear, gross violation of human rights

FGM violates 
women and girls’ right to life and physical integrity including freedom from violence (including torture) and the right to health, in direct contradiction to human rights legislation including:The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), The International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

5. The fight against FGM is working as the number of cases is decreasing but we need to keep on fighting!

Criminal legislation has already been introduced in a number of countries and further to this, new legislation in the UK for example aims at controlling parents and specifically stopping them from taking their children abroad if there is significant concern that the purpose is for “holiday cutting“. Doing so is a criminal offence – not just performing FGM itself within the UK for example. Whilst the UK for a long time has been slow on the issue of FGM within the UK and regarding criminal convictions, France for example has already made several convictions. States are taking action and the focus has shifted onto not merely where FGM is being practiced but where its victims are being brought from and how and where cutters are being aided.

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Campaigning – Join the fight against FGM

FGM has to stop and the fight must go on. So how can we get involved in eliminating this practice and helping its tragic victims?

There are already (as expected!) lots of bodies, people and organisations involved in this area. The Guardian has been running their End FGM Guardian Global Media Campaign for several years now. They were successful in their work supporting Fahma Mohamed – a young British Muslim who created a petition directed to UK Education Secretary Michael Gove asking him to raise awareness of FGM in schools. She successfully highlighted the issue on a global level. Her campaign was met with approval by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and her work sparked change. This all started with her collaboration with the UK NGO Integrate Bristol. Small steps lead to big things. Raising awareness and petitioning does work!

Here’s a few places to start:

  • If you are a teacher or you work closely with children – learn about FGM and speak to relevant staff and authorities if you are concerned about a child being at risk of FGM. Read and pass on the following info for UK based teachers
  • There is a free UK 24-hour NSPCC FGM helpline for those that need advice or to make referrals if you’re worried about a child being at risk. You can call 0800 028 3550 or email fgmhelp@nspcc.org.uk. Contact the police or crime stopping services/agencies in your area if you in trouble or if you have to report abuse
  • If you’ve been a victim of FGM or worry you may be at risk – seek help and support from specialised organisations in your local area. Those in the UK can contact The Dahlia Project on 020 7281 8920 or 020 7281 7694 which helps victims of FGM. Services are free
  • A list of specialist FGM clinics in the UK is available here

FGM must stop. Such torture cannot carry on. Attitudes, beliefs and practices must change. Raise your voice and speak out in the fight to #EndFGM!

Sources and credits:

A list of sources and further information is available to download here

Image credits:

Amnesty International (feature image – edited), Dominik Gwarek, Jaime Cooper, Jeffrey Clairmont

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