We cannot remain silent

A recent World health Organisation study showed that globally, 38% of all women murdered are killed by their intimate partners. The report included some key findings on the health impact of domestic violence:

  • Death and injury– The study found that globally, 38% of all women who were murdered were murdered by their intimate partners, and 42% of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner had experienced injuries as a result.
  • Depression– Partner violence is a major contributor to women’s mental health problems, with women who have experienced partner violence being almost twice as likely to experience depression compared to women who have not experienced any violence.
  • Alcohol use problems – Women experiencing intimate partner violence are almost twice as likely as other women to have alcohol-use problems.
  • Sexually transmitted infections – Women who experience physical and/or sexual partner violence are 1.5 times more likely to acquire syphilis infection, chlamydia, or gonorrhoea. In some regions (including sub-Saharan Africa), they are 1.5 times more likely to acquire HIV.
  • Unwanted pregnancy and abortion– Both partner violence and non-partner sexual violence are associated with unwanted pregnancy; the report found that women experiencing physical and/or sexual partner violence are twice as likely to have an abortion than women who do not experience this violence.
  • Low birth-weight babies– Women who experience partner violence have a 16% greater chance of having a low birth-weight baby.

(http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2013/violence_against_women_20130620/en/)

View the associated infographic here: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/violence/VAW_infographic.pdf

Fear and shame keep victims of violence silent and isolated. But there are small glimmers of hope. It has been found that communities form and activism is sparked when victims are supported to speak up.

Pakistan has shown the way in this over many years. Women’s activism took on the government, legal system, constitution and laws after the draconian Hudood Ordinances punished victims for the violence perpetrated against them. Wave after wave of activism has confronted violence against women, pressing the government for change and calling society to action. Laws have been changed. The rate of change is slow, but with relentless pressure from activists changes have been made.

The rape of a young women on a bus in India, led to outrage and calls for action that gave other victims support and courage to speak up. Following the reporting of this one incident several others were immediately reported, raising questions about what was happening to women in the country.

The media must be encouraged to speak with clarity, not for the sake of a story but for justice, to prevent victims being hidden by the community because of shame, to challenge laws, policies, social conscience and the status quo that accepts such violence as the norm.

But more is needed. Perhaps the case of Pakistan shows that hand in hand with activism support structures are needed for victims. The structures need to empower women to make choices, enabling them to find their identity and not become stuck as victims. Activists must enable the voice of victims to be heard, even as they take up the cause.

Challenging violence that marginalises women needs the voices of all.

Facing Culture and Religion – the case of Samia Sarwar

The broad-daylight, cold-blooded murder, in April 1999, of Samia Sarwar by her family in the office and presence of her lawyer Hina Jilani, a leading human right’s lawyer and activist and UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, shocked and stunned many in Pakistan. That her family would so boldly shoot her dead was seen as indicative of their belief that they would not face prosecution or even condemnation for the deed. There was a storm of protest with human rights activists storming the Civil Secretariat the following day demanding justice.

But the country was divided. In a Special Bulletin, ‘The Dark Side of Honour’, by Shirkat Gah (part of the international network ‘Women Living Under Muslim Law’) Rabia Ali writes that members of the Senate refused to pass a resolution condemning the murder, arguing that honour killings were part of their ‘cultural traditions’ (Ali, 2001). The NWFP Chamber of Commerce and religious organizations added their voice, declaring her killing ‘in keeping with tribal laws’ (Ali, 2001). The Ulema went so far as to declare Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyers and a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), and Hina Jilani infidels deserving to be killed because they were misleading Pakistan’s women and contributing to the country’s bad image abroad. Public support for the honour killing was said to be overwhelming in the NWFP because it was deemed to be in accordance with tradition and therefore not a crime.

Government inaction on honour killings was publicly exposed by this event. Honour killings were placed firmly on the public agenda and women’s organizations and activists were able to publicly engage on the issue. It was a local flashpoint with international ramifications. The Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at SOAS and the International Centre for Legal Protection of Human Rights convened a conference in November 1999 to look at the question of honour killings. In the summary report produced from this ‘Roundtable on strategies to address ‘crimes of honour’’ they state explicitly that “the project was initiated in response to the murders of Samia Sarwar in Pakistan and Rukhsana Naz in the UK in early 1999 and the explicit articulation of an ‘honour’-based defence by the alleged perpetrators in each case.” (Welchman, 2000)

WAF, Shirkat Gah and other human rights bodies issued press releases condemning the murder and calling for action. Asma Jehangir filed an FIR (First Incident Report) and demanded a Government enquiry into 300 cases of honour killings for the previous year. There was no response. Women were confronted with the realities of cultural norms given religious weight in condoning crimes against them. In October 2004 the government rejected legislation introduced into parliament by Sherry Rehman, an opposition MNA, seeking to articulate clearly the criminal nature of honour killings. Kashmala Tariq, an MNA belonging the then ruling party, put up a private members bill in March 2005 seeking to prevent those accused of honour killings from winning impunity through the provision of diyat, or blood money, but this too was dismissed by the National Assembly. Culture and tradition are not willing to give up their right to sanctioned violence against women.

The process of negotiation is fraught with difficulties but the Samia Sarwar incident showed how culture and religion, when they become intertwined, are a toxic mix for women.

Challenging the law: the case of Safia Bibi

The Hudood Ordinances were the first laws introduced in Pakistan by General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 as part of his programme of Islamization. They are a collection of 5 criminal laws dealing with theft and armed robbery; Zina or rape, abduction, adultery, and fornication; Qazf or false accusation in respect of Zina; prohibition of alcohol and narcotics and public whipping. Most of these were already offences in Pakistan when the Hudood Ordinances were promulgated, but these new Ordinances introduced forms of punishment recognized by Muslim jurists. Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, in their book ‘The Hudood Ordinances: A Divine Sanction?’ described the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances as ‘transparent political opportunism’. (Jahangir and Jilani, 2003) Their framing and implementation has been described as ‘slipshod’ at best and lending no credibility to the notion of Islamisation. However, once a religious label has been attached to a law it becomes an extremely sensitive issue and any criticism is perceived as heresy.

While there was widespread consternation at the promulgation of the laws they were brought sharply into focus in 1983 with the case of Safia Bibi. Raped by her landlord and his son Safia Bibi became pregnant. Her father filed a complaint of rape when her pregnancy was revealed and the case went to court. Because she was blind and therefore unable to visually identify her alleged attackers they were set free. Her resultant pregnancy though was seen as admission of zina, adultery, and she was convicted and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, public flogging and a fine. These laws caught Safia Bibi in their web. Under them she, the victim, had become the accused.

Women’s activists and supporters of human rights were outraged and for the first time the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), formed in 1980, went out onto the streets to protest this punishment and demand changes to the laws. Pressure was mounted as journalists wrote articles to highlight the issue and women lawyers agitated in their Bar Association. While many had opposed the promulgation of the laws this incident gave a focus to concerted agitation and attempts to negotiate for their change. It was a defining moment in the life of emerging women’s organisations, and that original protest is still celebrated each year by women’s groups around the country. It continues to provide opportunity for raising issues that concern gender violence. When the Federal Shari’a court acquitted Safia Bibi on a technical ground it made clear in its ruling that national and international pressure had played no small part in this decision.

While there was success in seeing the particular decision overturned, much of those Hudood Ordinances remain in force today. The question must be asked; was this an individual revolution or have women’s organisations and activists been able to use this as an opportunity to engage and negotiate?

Burnt Alive!

News report from Pakistan say that 25 year old Shabana Bibi was doused in gasoline and set alight by her husband and his father, after she left the home without her husband’s permission. She was not running away. She did not defame him. She simply went out for a visit without taking permission. Shabana Bibi died after suffering burns to 80% of her body.

Some are calling the murder of Shabana Bibi an honour crime, but that is too simplistic. By calling it an honour crime are we simply affirming the notion that a woman carries in her body the honour of all her family? Are we agreeing that at the root of this crime are issues to do with honour? Have we sold the reality of this crime out to notions of honour and shame? Are we doing women a disservice by allowing murder committed against them when they act independently of male approval, to be referred to as honour crimes?

Family members often act in this way because of perceptions that something done by the woman has brought shame to them. But what do they mean by that? What shame did Shabana Bibi’s action bring on her husband and his father? Certainly they did not have the tight control of her that they may have wanted the community to believe they had. Shabana Bibi did not submit to their controls unquestioningly. Their power over her life was not absolute.

That’s where shame and honour are a strange paradigm to describe what necessitates such violence. Honour crimes are predicated on women being made commodities, when they are simply objects to be delivered from one man’s home (their father’s) to another man’s home (their husband’s). Their only value is calculated in terms of their power of reproduction and as an object of sexual satisfaction. The value of this ‘commodity’ then must be protected. This means men restrict women’s space in the family, their mobility, their behaviour and their activities.

Where gender is an organisational principle of a society, and patriarchal values are enmeshed with tradition and culture to predetermine the social value of gender, women are burdened with the rules of honour and shame. And so it is that honour crimes are the publicly articulated justification of that social order and its concomitant rules. This is a social order that requires the preservation of ‘honour’, an honour that is vested in male control over women, and specifically women’s sexual conduct – whether that is actual, suspected or potential.

Maybe we have to begin to tackle these so called ‘honour’ crimes by addressing gender as an organisational principle of society. The value of a woman is not her reproductive ability or sexual purity. And we can stop calling the murder of a woman because she has rejected this social ordering an ‘honour crime’.

Child Marriage

A prized rite that every girl must undergo at a young age, the result of poverty, destiny, life’s role … too many young girls are forced to marry too young.

The International Centre for Research on Women gives the following statistics:

  • One third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15.
  • In 2010, 67 million women 20-24 around the world had been married before the age of 18.
  • If present trends continue, 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of 14.2 million girls each year.
  • While countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage are concentrated in Western and Sub-Saharan Africa, due to population size, the largest number of child brides reside in South Asia.[1]

Research indicates that economics plays a significant role in the early marriage with girls from poorer households more than twice as likely to marry young than girls from higher income families. Girls with higher education are also less likely to marry at a younger age. The impact of women’s marginalisation economically and in education has consequences for generations.

For girls who are married young the consequences can be devastating. Girls younger than fifteen are five times more likely to die in childbirth, with pregnancy being the leading cause of their early death. Violence seems to stalk girls who are married young, with those who marry before eighteen more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. Girls who have been married young show symptoms of sexual abuse and stress that is associated with marital life.

It is not just a question of alleviating poverty, though that is an essential step, nor of increasing educational opportunities for girls, though girls should be given access to education; underlying these issues are questions about attitudes to women. Whereas Ban Ki Moon has urged recognition of child marriages as a key indicator in female empowerment, tackling the roots of female marginalisation is necessary alongside measures to protect young girls who are most vulnerable.

[1] http://www.icrw.org/child-marriage-facts-and-figures

Watch this Video on Child Marriage

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

No! Not when ‘saving’ them is the justification for military and political interventions that disempower women and reduce them to a project, statistic or show piece for a cause. Laura Bush so famously, or is that infamously, said: ‘The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women’.

No! Not when, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the Indian literary theorist and philosopher, wrote it is about ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’[1]. History is replete with examples of interventions being used to justify rules that oppress, marginalise, and bring other forms of abuse. We can look at colonial history in India and other parts of South Asia, at the interventions of Lord Cromer in Egypt, just for a start. And what about today? Sadly the ‘liberation’ of those whose lives are challenged by conservative, fundamental and even extreme interpretations of Islam have seen one form of tyranny supplanted by a different one.

There are challenges. There are issues of marginalisation through violence, laws, political structures, social structures, culture, traditions and religion that disempower women. There are fundamental health, education, and economic issues that leave women vulnerable to premature death, exploitation and poverty that they must be supported to challenge. They must be empowered so that in their daily negotiation of these challenges they are able to express their identity as women with dignity and life.

They are empowered when we acknowledge and affirm their dignity and identity as they work it out in the every day negotiations of their daily lives, when they are allowed to make their choices for change in the context of their reality.

Do Muslim women need saving? I wonder what they would say?

The title comes from the book: Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2013

[1] Spivak, G. C., ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), pp. 90-105

The Limits of Human Rights

Violence in the home was for many years seen as a private family matter, and there are still contexts where that is at least the cultural and social norm. Both legal and religious systems, across cultural contexts, sanctioned male domination and control of their women. It was during the second feminist movement in the United States that a paradigm shift began. Domestic violence began to be viewed as a political and social issue.

This led to a language of intervention, one that has shifted the focus to the need for a societal response. Framing domestic violence as a human rights issue came from the work of activists to heighten understanding that domestic violence was a serious problem.

The language of human rights has a weakness however. Elizabeth Gerhardt has argued in her book, ‘The Cross and Gendercide[1], that viewing violence against women as a human rights issue presents it in a more wholistic perspective because it takes into account a wide range of related issues. She argues that the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides whole life frame of reference from which to respond.

As a description of the problem, this may be correct, to a point. However, the all-encompassing nature of the categories of the declaration, fails to wrestle with the nuances of women’s lives, the multiple layers that cannot be consumed under singular categories. Lila Abu-Lughod asserts in her book, ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?[2]’, that the layers of women’s lives are ignored in discourses that homogenise their issues. She argues that women are constantly negotiating the terrain of their lives in ways that belie the categorisation of their issues under the common categories used by those who want to enact change for women.

Human rights has given focus to the challenges that women face, and provided a language that the world understands. What it fails to do is provide links into women’s every day lived experience, to their realities. There is a dissonance for women whose lives must be lived by negotiating daily their experiences and the contingencies with which they live.

[1] Gerhardt, Elizabeth, The cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls, Downers Grove, Intervarsity Academic, 2014

[2] Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, Cambridge, Havard University Press, 2013