Feb 26, 2005

Look at the Women: It's Truly Revealing

Long time ago, as a student of comparative politics, I came upon a method for examining a country's social, economic, and political progress: one could know a great deal about a country's condition by looking at the status of the women! As a rule, the higher the status of women, the more democratic, tolerant, and stronger economically the country was! It still holds true today. Worse, there are places that women are considered property in this 21st century!

Iraq just counted the beans of an "election" and is getting ready to form a government and draft a constitution. Reading the tea leaves, the situation doesn't look promising. Democracy is good, but if it's not directly connected to freedom and minority rights then it's just a hollow word.
Some people may argue that if this is what the Iraqis want, they should have it! I've also heard something about "cultural relativism," and that most Iraqi women prefer the "traditional ways." This is not an easy issue to grapple with, but allow me the opportunity to try. I hold a dissenting point of view to these arguments. I have the right to dissent, no? Even if I were the only one holding an unpopular view, I should be entitled to it and have the opportunity to convince others to change their minds. That's basically what democracy is all about. Election is an expression of democracy, not its definition. Democratic tenets should be the way to do politics and should be largely accepted by the citizens. The rule of the mob is not democratic!

The clerics, mullahs and other religious Iraqis want Islamic law, the strict Sharia, to be the law of the land. Which brings us to the question of the status of
women under Sharia. If it comes to be, it will mean that women won't have equal rights; they won't have the rights enjoyed by men, period! From the moment you define rights based on gender and/or race, you are a bigot, and, basically, not a very good person in my book. Under Sharia law, a man can beat his wife, though "not too badly," something we can understand, along Gonzales's line: it's not torture if there is no organ failure or death!

"[The husband] can beat his wife but not in a forceful way, leaving no mark. If he should leave a mark, he will pay," she says of a system she supports. "He can beat her when she is not obeying him in his rights. We want her to be educated enough that she will not force him to beat her, and if he beats her with no right, we want her to be strong enough to go to the police." This from a woman newly-elected to Iraq's parliament!

Of course, there is the other side of this coin. No one else can better describe the current situation in Iraq than an Iraqi woman, an independently thinking person living in Baghdad today. You can follow her daily experiences on her blog, Baghdad Burning
. Here's an excerpt,
" 'And is Iran so bad?' He finally asked. Well no, Abu Ammar, I wanted to answer, it's not bad for *you* - you're a man, if anything your right to several temporary marriages, a few permanent ones and the right to subdue females will increase. Why should it be so bad? Instead I was silent. It's not a good thing to criticize Iran these days. I numbly reached for the bags he handed me, trying to rise out of that sinking feeling that overwhelmed me when the results were first made public..."

"You feel it all around you. It begins slowly and almost insidiously. You stop wearing slacks or jeans or skirts that show any leg because you don't want to be stopped in the street and lectured by someone who doesn't approve. You stop wearing short sleeves and start preferring wider shirts with a collar that will cover up some of you neck. You stop letting your hair flow because you don't want to attract attention to it. On the days when you forget to pull it back into a ponytail, you want to kick yourself and you rummage around in your handbag trying to find a hair band, hell, a rubber band to pull back your hair and make sure you attract less attention from *them*..."

I'm not trying to turn this into a discussion about religion, but religious beliefs, right or wrong, do guide the actions of many in Iraq today. As long as any religion is used against freedom, democracy and human rights, I fervently oppose it. In addition, I reject the notion of cultural relativism, when it infringes upon fundamental human rights. Should we accept human sacrifices because it's part of a culture? How about religious child prostitution?

The Bill of Rights makes our Constitution a great living document and clearly defines those rights that cannot be taken away by the government. Those rights are under attack in our country. Yet, those values are universal, and indeed they are liberal values: live your life they way you see appropriate for yourself, but let me do the same. The pursuit of happiness means different things to different people, and it's OK! As long as I'm not harming anyone else, let me be. The problem with the American Taliban and all other religious fundamentalists is that they don't want you to do what they don't approve of.

To be fair to the Iraqi sexist bigots, our American Taliban has a neaderthalian quality in its views regarding women. But, what do you expect from people who argue that women's lib is such a bad thing that it helped God make a decision to allow the attacks of 911. Did you know that "feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians?" That's right, we've got them here as well, and our Taliban are much worse because they should know better than those who haven't had any experience with democracy, human rights & individual liberties!

Iraq as a member of the UN and, thus, is under the obligation to uphold human rights; it has also signed the Treaty for the Rights of Women. Of course many countries have singed the same documents only to blatantly disregard them. But, we should keep the spotlight on them. The US and the world community have leverage on Iraq. After Bush changed the purpose of the mission from WMD to democracy, he should now press for Iraq to respect the UN charter and its treaties. It's the least he can do. And, while at it, he should tell his Republican Senator Lugar to let the Treaty come to a vote. As of the Fall of 2004, a total 179 countries (but not the US) have ratified this treaty for the rights of women!

To quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.."

Similarly with your friends, show me your women and I'll tell you who you are!


Andros said...


It would be a serious omission if I didn't mention the contributions of a great Kenyan woman, Dr. Wangari Maathai.

The first African woman to win the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was praised by the awarding committee as "a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace".

Her Green Belt Movement improved not only the environment, but helped bring political change in Kenya and empowerment to the poorest women in Kenya.

Many African countries have a terrible record on women's treatment, and in some countries, including Sudan, women are kept as slaves even today!


Stephanie said...

What can I say you know I love this post simply because I'm a woman and your very right in all that you state. I'm glad I live in America because I'm strong spirited but I don't know if it'd be enough to go through what those women go through everyday.

Anonymous said...

I knew that women are not treated equally in most countries, but come to think of it you're absolutely right... if the women are treated badly and their socio-economic status is low, then the country has serious problems!

As a woman and as a concerned American, I'd like to thank you for such a wonderful article, and all the great links to sources. I had to stop a couple times while reading your post because I got too emotional and my eyes watered...
I also saw hope after reading Dr. Maathai's experience in Africa.
It's amazing to me that there are so many little things, rather inexpensive, that we can do to make a huge difference in the lives of so many people.
Keep posts like this coming. Thank you.

Anne, NY

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Christopher Hitchen's idea that the true "axis of evil" is Christianity-Judaism-Islam.

Oh, I know, stop protesting... Of course, not all religious people are bad or responsible for the evils done in the name of religion....

And, you may argue that if it weren't for religion, bad people would find other excuses...

But, religion has taught billions of people how to behave and how to treat eachother. For those of you who take the Bible as the word of God... what would you say if I told you that slavery and women as man's property are tolerated (even instructed as normal) by God?!!!!

This also is a response to those "pius" religious fundamentalists [GREAT TERM: THE AMERICAN TALIBAN] who want to impose biblical moral values on us....

Oh, you want a refreshing course on the biblical definition of marriage? [with all the recent talk about same-sex marriage]....
It looks good for me, for I'm a man.... Which means a union between a man and his wives!

By the way, when do you suppose we start executing the biblical directive that the non-virgin brides should be stoned? (stoning related to ..stones, not smoking ganza).

Geeshus, USA

Anonymous said...

What does the US, Iran, Sudan and Somalia have in common?...

They're countries that have not ratified the Treaty for the Rights of Women!

Yeah, but Bush wants to promote freedom. Wait, maybe he meant for men only!

Anonymous said...

Very powerful and moving post. And, thank you for alerting us to Baghdad Burning blog... I read her description of the daily life in Iraq... how harsh it has been, and I can only imagine what women like that blogger must be going though... and thinking that after all this suffering of late, they're facing a future as second-class citizens....

It seems that the "new Iraq" won't be much different than the old. Habits and people are hard to change...
Jen, CA

Anonymous said...

You should have mentioned the situation of women in Afganistan!
Although, we liberated the country from the Taliban, the new constitution still doesn't address the equality of the sexes.
In much of the country the religious police still operate, enforcing the wearing of the burka, among other things.
OK, that's the culture, and some women might even like it, but we should keep the spot light, as you said, on all injustice.
Also, in order to change long-held beliefs that discriminate against women, the US, all of us, should promote education. Because it's through education that the horizon widens and people may reach an understanding that women have as many rights as men.


Andros said...

Thanks for the suggestion. Actually, I thought of Afganistan, but I decided to soon devote an entire post to the plight of women in a country liberated from the Taliban, but whose customs and laws still keep the women subservient to men.

Anonymous said...

Obviously oil is more important than women's rights... the most oppressing regimes get a "by" from the US..
Talk about the non-rights in the oil-rich countries in the Middle East.... My goodness, women are considered property of men. Forget about not allowed to dress the way they want, but they can't drive, the don't have a right to education (so they're brainwashed from infancy and little means to escape this patriarchy), inheritance, business rights, etc. etc....

Anonymous said...

When we rushed to liberate Kuwait, we could have demanded that that the emirs give political freedom and other rights to women. Instead well after a decade later, they're still talking about that and how to best implement it.... Don't hold your breath....

At least, last month, Saudia Arabia had limited elections, for men only of course... somebody suggested the women couldn't vote because the country didn't have enough pens for the women to mark the ballots... hmmm