THE WOMEN'S WATCH
Volume 11 No. 2
FGM IN COURT AND IN CULTURE: AN ADVOCACY LESSON FROM EGYPTIAN WOMEN
For centuries girls have undergone genital mutilation as the price of being female in a particular culture or in Islam. On December 19, 1997, the claim of Islamic religious justification was definitively rejected by the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court. The Court upheld a ban on female genital mutilation, stating that it is not an individual right under Sharia and that nothing in the Q'uran authorizes it. While the circumstances of the decision are local-it upholds the authority of the Minister of Health to issue the ban against FGM-the result should reverberate throughout the Islamic world.
The decision underscores the position that mutilating young girls cannot be called a religious duty. The Court's statement as to Sharia will support activists everywhere who are faced with the allegation that FGM is ordained by Islamic law. Most importantly, the ruling will support women working locally against FGM in their own countries, such as in the Gambia, where the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices succeeded recently in persuading the Government to lift a ban on public discussion of the issue.
In Egypt, much of the public discussion is attributable to the efforts of the FGM Task Force, established in 1994. According to its position paper issued in October 1997, the Task Force organized on the basis of "a strong belief of a woman's right to maintain the integrity and wholeness of her body and the freedom of her mind; to choose her life and to base her choices on her own evaluation of what should and what should not be done." While the Task Force is concerned that a legal ban may result in backlash, including deliberate flouting of the law, the Court's decision reinforces the Task Force's position that religion should not be used to justify "the interference of a human hand to amputate parts of the human body."
The Task Force position paper is helpful particularly on the question of support from outside the country. While the Gambia Committee enlisted outside support, as have other Southern NGOs with respect to other issues, activism by NGOs outside the country is not always productive and should be undertaken carefully. In light of the debate and sensationalization of the FGM issue that has taken place in the Western press, the Task Force position is highly instructive-not only as to FGM, but to other issues that concern women in both South and North.
We relate to FGM as a development issue. Organizations who wish to support our efforts in combating FGM should have a consistent approach to the multiple issues of development . . . It is important that the different allies formulate their support in a way that serves our side of the front-line, and does not impose new burdens or concerns upon us.
As a human rights issue, it is inconsistent to be troubled by the practice of FGM and close an eye to health policies which deprive poor women-the majority of women-[of] their basic rights of access to the minimal requirements of primary health care. . . . The threat to cut aid to Egypt as a punishment of the Egyptian government because of FGM or to pressurize it to take measures, actually means the starvation of the people, and not the government, of this country . . . Such forms of international 'support' for the battle against FGM actually serve to reinforce the practice and indeed, control over women in general, as people engage into an illusory struggle over identity.
Furthermore, it is unacceptable for Western supporters of the battle against FGM to appeal to Egyptian state bodies to intervene to overturn a judicial ruling, even when that ruling is in favor of FGM. The Egyptian people have struggled for many decades for the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial authorities; they have fought numerous [battles] to defend the independence of the judiciary. To appeal to the president of the republic to intervene to overturn a court ruling is in violation of the principles of democracy that generations in this country have been fighting for . . .
Our consistency and accountability to our agenda, approach and the forms of support we accept are strategic elements in our existence and struggle. Solidarity organizations in the north should be able to read into the lessons of the FGM backlash in our country and similar reactions to similar situations in other Third World countries . . .
The struggle against FGM is a struggle for the liberation of women and men from the value system that governs them both. Working towards change of this value system is in fact working towards changing society as a whole. It is already a struggle over several fronts. It does not need additional ones.
To contact the FGM Task Force: Tel. (20 2) 350 0757; fax (20 2) 378 2643. P.B. 1239 El-Maadi, Cairo.
HUMAN RIGHTS AND DISCRIMINATION - Convention Articles 2, 3 and 5
The new government of Poland embodies a backlash against women. According to the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, the new government has dropped women's issues from the national agenda, renaming the Plenipotentiary for Family and Women's Affairs as the Plenipotentiary for Family Affairs. Under its new enabling act, the mandate of the Plenipotentiary does not include women's issues and gender equality. Moreover, the new head is the former head of the Association of Catholic Families, well-known for its conservative stand on women's issues. Polish women are deeply concerned about their future equality and the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. Concerned NGOs have urged the government to reconsider its decision and make women's equality a priority issue on the national agenda.
An Expert Group on Promoting Women's Economic and Social Rights, held in Finland in November 1997, has recommended that the CEDAW Committee, the Human Rights Committee, and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issue a joint general comment on the indivisibility of civil and political and economic, social and cultural rights and the centrality of gender awareness to the enjoyment of those rights. The Expert Group made a number of other specific and useful recommendations concerning working methods and goals of the human rights treaty bodies as well as for increased gender awareness in the activities of other UN entities and international institutions. Further information: WILPF, 1, rue de Varembé, C.P. 28, 1211 Geneva 20. Tel. 41 22 733 6175; Fax 41 22 740 1063.
Female students in New Delhi are protesting their college's ban of jeans and tight tops. The ban was issued under the name of preventing "cultural pollution" and provoked protests from teachers as well. The principal of the college could not understand the protest since she had not asked the girls to cover their heads. Since the ban, students who turned up in jeans had been forced by the college to wear salwar khamiz, the loose-fitting traditional South Asian women's costume. Hindu nationalist leader Shanti Desai supported the ban while the Delhi University Teachers Association insisted that the college has no authority to dictate what students should wear. Students have threatened more street protests. The ban only had a handful proponents and one parent criticized it as "cultural fascism".
Discrimination in inheritance remains one of the most important concerns for women throughout Africa. The death of a staff member of the Southern University Democratic Governance Project in Zambia, a program that has provided staff support for civic education including workshops on inheritance, made the staff realize that they did not understand the law themselves. The 1989 Act, passed after successful lobbying by women's groups including Women and Law in Southern Africa, provides protection against property grabbing by the husband's family. It was enacted to prevent the destitution of women whose in-laws descend on the property and insist on their customary right to it but fail to support the widow and children as required by custom.
The Zambian act is intended to prevent the result seen in a recent South African case, where a widow of a customary marriage who lived in an urban area was thrown out of her house by her father-in-law claiming customary inheritance of the leasehold. In this case, Mthembu v. Letsela (1997), the court held that even in an urban area, in which the judge could not be sure that families were properly supported by the husband's families as required by custom, the customary inheritance by the husband's family would hold. The Gender Research Project (University of Witwatersrand) notes that decisions such as this indicate the need for well-researched arguments on the realities of preserving culture at the expense of equality, in light of the South African constitutional guarantees of nondiscrimination. Information: WLSA, P.O. Box UA 171, Harare, Zimbabwe; Gender Research Project, CALS, Univ of Witwatersrand, PB 3, Witwatersrand 2050 SA. Tel: 27-011 403 6918; fax: 27-011-403-2341; e-mail <email@example.com>.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN - Convention Articles 3, 5, 6, 12, 15 and 16
An Iranian woman faces a second stoning for offense of Islamic mores. On August 11, 1997, Zoleykhah Kadkhoda was charged with engaging in extramarital sex and was sentenced to death by the religious magistrate. The same day, the local Pasdaran, Baijijs and other supporters of Islam buried her from waist down in a ditch and began stoning her. The stoning was stopped by local villagers. Kadkhoda was sent to hospital with serious injuries on the head and face. If she survives, Kadkhoda might be sentenced to a second stoning. The authority that sentenced Kadkhoda was part of an ad hoc quasi-judicial system that emerged shortly after the Islamic revolution to mete out punishment to the offenders of Islamic mores. Judges appointed to this system usually had little education but strong religious opinions. An Iranian law adopted in 1992 gives to these irregular quasi-judicial entities full power to arrest and detain suspects without any redress against their abuse of power. Several groups of Iranians living in Canada are planning a protest assembly at the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa on January 21. Addresse: President Mohammad Khatami Khamanei, Palestine Ave. Azerbaijian Intersection, Tehran, Iran. Phone: Iran 01198216161.
According to a government report, domestic violence makes home a very dangerous place for Bolivian women. The Bolivian ministerial report regarding gender issues found that eight out of ten women are victims of domestic violence. On average, 60% of married women and 30% of single women are subject to physical or verbal abuse at home. Most of the victims are between the ages of 18 and 40. The most dangerous people for Bolivian women to live with are those working in the military or the police. Doctors and lawyers also are known for their aggressive behaviors at home. The ministerial report was released on the international day against violence against women. The Bolivian government also has been considering a bill against sexual harassment that has caused much controversy in the country.
After a 20-year struggle, women in Mauritius have won the passage of a law protecting them from domestic violence. Two women were known to die of domestic violence while the Bill was debated in Parliament. One was beaten to death, and the other was set on fire. With the new law, women may get "eviction orders", "tenancy orders" and "occupation orders" against abusive husbands. The law Organizations such as Muvman Liberasyon Fam and SOS Femmes.
Women in Malicounda Bambara, a village in Senegal, have renounced the practice of genital mutilation that has been practiced for generations in their community. The women of the village took this decision after participating in a series of workshops on literacy, health, and human rights provided by Tostan, an NGO working in collaboration with UNICEF. The local imam and customary chief supported the decision, the imam noting that the Q'uran does not require any form of female mutilation. Government officials have hailed the decision and express hope that women in other villages will take similar action.
Women are increasingly the targets of anti-government violence in Algeria. According to accounts in the New York Times, the Islamist terrorist campaign has escalated its level of atrocities directed specifically against women. Attacks on villages near Algiers regularly include kidnapping, gang-raping, and killing young girls. A decree attributed to the Armed Islamic Group gives specific instructions on handling girls and women who are abducted for purposes of rape. The International Women's Law Clinic (CUNY), the Center for Constitutional Rights, and two private US law firms have filed a Federal lawsuit against the Islamic Salvation Front and Anwar Haddam, the "representative in exile" of the Front, on behalf of several Algerian activists who have been victims of terror. While the Islamic Salvation Front is seen by some as a moderating force in the anti-government campaign, attorneys for the plaintiffs point out that the Islamic Salvation Front is deeply involved with groups that are openly dedicated to terrorism and to subjugation of women.
POLITICAL AND PUBLIC LIFE - Convention Articles 7 and 8
Women's peace petition is fast gaining momentum. Over 150 organizations are co-sponsoring a petition that demands all governments of the world transfer a minimum of five percent of their military budget over the next five years to health, education, and employment programs. One hundred thousand signatures have already been collected and presented to the President of the UN General Assembly, Hennadiy Udovenko, following a press conference sponsored by UNIFEM on October 24-United Nations Day. Mr. Udovenko pledged his support and agreed to circulate a Ukraine version of the petition among women's NGOs in his country. The petition will continue through the year 2000 as an expression of a hope that the new millennium can be blessed by a culture of peace. Copies of the Peace Petition from Women of the World can be obtained from: Peace Action International, Tel: (212) 750-5795, Fax: (212) 867-7462. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has set new gender equality targets for member countries. The Committee of the Whole recommended that Heads of Government endorse the recommendations made by the Ministers Responsible for Women's Affairs at their 1996 meeting. One of the recommendation is that member countries should be encouraged to achieve a target of no less than 30 per cent of women in decision-making positions in the political, public and private sectors by the year 2005. Another recommendation asks governments to increase women's participation in all peace initiatives. Information: Eleni Stamiris, Director, Gender and Youth Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough Hose Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5HX, UK. Fax: (44) 0171 930 0827.
Sex inequality persists in the Council of Europe countries. In the 40 countries that make up the Council of Europe, women hold few high-ranking posts in government. On average, women fill less than 20 percent of parliamentary seats, according to the Council report titled "Women in Politics in Member States of the Council of the Europe". Sweden and Norway have the best record for women in government, with cabinets consisting of 50 percent and 42 percent women respectively. France has 33 percent women cabinet members, but only 11 percent women representatives and 5.6 percent senators in Parliament. Cyprus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovenia have no women in their cabinet. In terms of women's participation in parliament, Turkey ranks last with only 13 women out of 550 parliament members. In general, only 14 of the 40 countries have more than three women in cabinet.
Certain members of Britain's House of Commons seem to have difficulty meeting the challenge of sharing the floor with a newly elected critical mass of women-120 of them. Giggling at references to women's bodies during debates on health care and making crude gestures when women speak on the floor, old-boy MPs, according to several female Members, frequently behave "like juvenile schoolboys on a day out." The Commons tradition of allowing members to "behave like escapees from an all-male boarding school, which most of them were," according to the New York Times (December 22, 1997), will have to be reshaped by the new female members-and, as MP Jane Griffiths says, "it is the wrong battle to have to fight."
Certain men in Afghanistan, in contrast, are now working with women who have formed a women's battalion to fight the Taliban. Hazaras are Turkic Shiites and are the only ethnic group in Afghanistan that gives women a major political, social and military role. Based in Hazarat, 160 miles northwest of Kabul, they are the strongest element of the anti-Taliban alliance. The women started training after they participated in fighting off a Taliban attack, taking up the guns after men were killed. Female Hazara professors who fled Kabul also have established a university, making classrooms of mud and straw and working without books-and as of November 1997 had 300 students and 16 teachers.
HEALTH AND REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS - Convention Articles 10, 12, 14 and 16
The Christian right has challenged South Africa's Termination of Pregnancy Act on constitutional right-to-life grounds. The Act, the first of its kind in Africa, provides for termination of pregnancy upon request in the first twelve weeks and a limited right of termination thereafter. The Reproductive Rights Alliance of South Africa has joined as a party, to support the Government's defense of the law and to make certain that arguments grounded in feminist theory of substantive rights are included in the case, which will be a major constitutional test on reproductive rights. Information: Gender Research Project, CALS, Univ of Witwatersrand, PB 3, Witwatersrand 2050 SA. Tel: 27-011 403 6918; fax: 27-011-403-2341; e-mail <email@example.com>.
Four US Bishops have affirmed that Catholicism provides for many points of view on social issues. In an advertisement defending the television show, "Nothing Sacred," the four Bishops stated that there are many voices in Catholicism in America and that "Nothing Sacred" is wonderful. The show is about a priest and grapples with issues of change in the Catholic church, including contraception, abortion, sexuality, divorce, and women's ordination. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has charged the show with being anti-Catholic and orchestrated an advertiser boycott of it. According to the Bishops, the charges were "unfair" and "malign" and do not represent the view of most American Catholics. "We believe 'Nothing Sacred' has wit, intelligence, and compassion and can serve as a positive vehicle for discourse," said the Bishops. More than 50 priests and nuns will also sign the advertisement of the Bishops. Meanwhile, ABC, the television network that broadcasts the show is considering rescheduling the show so that more people could see it.
EMPLOYMENT - Convention Article 11
The European Court of Justice has ruled in favor of job preferences for women. The case was brought by a male teacher in Germany after a woman was appointed to a post for which he was equally qualified. The promotion decision was based on a law of the North Rhine-Westphalia state in that gave women priority in promotion in public sector jobs if such jobs were in categories that hired fewer women than men. When asked to make a decision to clarify whether or not the law in question violated EU laws, the court decided that the German state law was not unfair to men because the priority the law provides for women does not amount to unconditional, automatic preferences. The court distinguished this decision from its 1995 ruling against a quota system introduced by the German state of Bremen, saying that the present case was different because it did not preclude men from the outset. The European Commission commended the Court for its recognition that women face "deep-rooted prejudices" and need help to compete for jobs. The North Rhine-Westphalia state said the ruling vindicated its effort to help women move up the career ladder. Women believe the decision has provided a firm legal basis for government to take measures that promote equality for women.
Takako Doi, head of Japan's Social Democratic Party, believes that increasing women's seats in the Diet is necessary to change the traditional stereotype that women should stay home and men should work. Considered to be the most powerful women in Japan, Doi was the first woman to serve as the speaker of the lower house of the Diet. Doi acknowledged a regression in women's status under Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Women occupy only 7.7 percent of the total seats in the Diet and have little say in policy. She criticizes the Japanese political system as one of the most backward in terms of women's participation in government.
IWRAW's World Wide Web site has been updated and will be adding items during the first half of 1998: http://www.igc.apc.org/iwraw/.
ISIS-WICCE is planning to hold a training program on the theme "Documenting Women's Experiences in Armed Conflicts as a Tool for Advocacy and Redress" July 20 - September 21 1998. Candidates should have work experience with a women's NGO or its equivalent on women's human rights issues in a developing country. Contact: Exchange Program Coordinator, Isis-WICCE, P.O. Box 4934, Kampala. Tel: 256-41-266007/8; Fax: 256-41-268676. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new international office of World University Service (WUS) has been established in Amsterdam. WUS is an international NGO that focuses on education, development and human rights. Its activities include publishing the journal Academic Freedom and the WUS Human Rights Bulletin, and organizing the Summer University on Human Rights and the Right to Education in Geneva. The Summer University is a postgraduate program composed of theoretical courses as well as practical training. Contact: Leo van der Vlist, International Programme Officer, World University Service, Da Vinci Bedrijvenhuis, Nieuwpoortkade 2A, 1055 RX Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Tel: 31-20-606-0729; Fax: 31-20-688-5899.
The International Information Center and Archives for Women's Movement (IIAV) will host the Know How Conference on the World of Women's Information in Amsterdam, August 22-26, 1998. Contact: IIAV, Obiplein 4, 1094 RB Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Tel: +31-20-66-50-820; Fax: +31-20-66-55-812. Email: email@example.com. URL: http://www.iiva.nl.
ABANTU for Development is a non-governmental development organization, founded in 1991 by women from African countries. Its main focus is on promoting sustainable development in Africa through training and providing information. Contact: ABANTU for Development, First Floor, Winchester House, 11 Cranmer Road, London SW9 6EJ, UK.
The Directory of Agencies for Development Assistance is a 350-page guide to resources supporting community-based projects in developing countries. It is available in Spanish, English, and French. Contact: Mission Service Project, Fax: (315) 782-0473; Email: MisProjSer@aol.com.
The European Women's Lobby is setting up "The Women's Talent Bank," a database of female experts who specialize in the 24 areas that correspond to the 24 Directorates General of the European Commission. Contact: European Women's Lobby, Rue du meridien 22, B-1210 Brussels. Tel: (32-2) 217-90-20; Fax: (32-2) 219-84-51.
Women of the World: Laws and Policies Affecting their Reproductive Lives is a 173 page report on Anglophone African countries. Contact: Women's Health Project, P.O. Box 1038, Johannesburg, 2000. Tel: (011) 489-9917; Fax: (011) 489-9922.
"My House is My Husband": A Kenyan Study of Women's Access to Land and Housing uses gender contract theory to explore women's access to property in Kenya. Contact: Shivona Tavares, Information Officer, UNCHS (Habitat), P.O. Box 30030, Nairobi, Kenya. Fax: (254-2) 624-333. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Introduction to Advocacy: Training Guide is based on and tested in several African settings and provides useful tools to people for engaging in the advocacy process. Contact: SARA Project Coordinator, AED, 1255 23rd Street NW, Washington DC 20037. Fax: 202-884-8701.
The Women's Human Rights Resources Web site is an excellent source of research on women's international human rights. The site is part of the DIANA international human rights database and is sponsored by the Bora Laskin Law Library at the University of Toronto. Address: http://www.law-lib.utoronto.ca/diana.
The Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby college will host each year a fellow who will teach and conduct research as a scholar-in-residence at the college. The program is made possible through a major grant from the Oak Foundation. Contact: Parker Beverage, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Lunder House, Colby College, Waterville, Maine 04901, USA. Tel: (207) 872-3168; Fax: (207) 872-3474. Web site: www.colby.edu.
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WOMEN'S WATCH is published by the IWRAW project, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, USA. Editor: Marsha Freeman. This issue was written with the help of Liu Dongxiao, IWRAW Cram-Dalton Fellow. IWRAW is a global network of individuals and organizations that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international treaty ratified by 161 countries.
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. The Humphrey Institute is hospitable to a diversity of opinions and aspirations. The Institute does not itself take positions on public policy issues. The contents of this report are the responsibility of the editors. IWRAW is grateful to the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Shaler Adams Foundation, SIDA and numerous other individuals and foundations for financial support. Contributions to the project are welcome and are tax deductible for US taxpayers.
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