Category Archives: Women and Election

Young women fight the ‘Talibanisation’ of rural Pakistan

Much attention has been focused on the process of radicalisation of young men in the areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. Peshawar, the town near the border between the two countries, is infamous for being the centre of a vibrant industry and trade in homemade guns. For more than two decades, violence has become the dominant currency of almost every aspect of life in this area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, once known as the North West Frontier Province.

So it takes remarkable courage for a 16-year-old girl to decide to challenge how this culture of violence was reinforcing and strengthening the oppression of women. Eight years on, Gulalai Ismail, now a poised 24-year-old, is running two programmes of work – one on gender empowerment and the other on peacebuilding – from her home in Peshawar, where she grew up. Brought to London by Peace Direct, Ismail was talking to youngsters about her work.

“I set up Aware Girls when I was 16 because all around me I saw girls being treated differently to boys. My girl cousin was 15 when her marriage was arranged to someone twice her age; she couldn’t finish her education while my boy cousins were [doing so]. This was considered normal. Girls have internalised all this discrimination – a woman who suffers violence but doesn’t say anything is much admired in the village as a role model. A good woman submits to her husband or father.

“Aware Girls raised awareness of equal status. We did training that women have human rights, and taught leadership skills and how to negotiate within their families and with their parents to get education and to have control over their own lives.”

Ismail is well aware of how the position of women has deteriorated over the course of her life. “Peshawar used to be very progressive, but after “Talibanisation” it became much more conservative and life is more difficult for my younger sister than it was for me. Just going out to the market is difficult because of the sexual harassment.”

That kind of harassment makes organising training for young women particularly difficult. Ismail and her staff have to strive very hard with communities in the villages where they work to build trust that if daughters attend the training they will be safe. Parents worry that their daughters will be “westernised” and forget their “cultural values”. For a recent training course on political leadership to help boost the participation of women in politics, Aware Girls had to organise 20 local community meetings to identify the 30 girls who eventually went on the course. Working in remote rural areas requires considerable patience and time, but Ismail is not interested in the easier option of working only in urban areas.

It was the gender work that came first, but Ismail soon realised the close relationship between gender and peace. “In training, a woman told the story of how her 12-year-old son was taken away to Afghanistan by the militants, and 10 months later he was dead. That made me think that we must stop these young people joining the militants.”

The result was the Seeds of Peace network, which Ismail set up last year and which has trained 25 young people. They, in turn, will train another 20, to slowly expand a network across 10 districts of the province. She believes each person can reach 500 young people to promote tolerance and challenge extremism.

“They identify young people in the community who might be vulnerable to militants and they organise study circles to discuss the causes and consequences of conflict and the history of Talibanisation. We talk about tolerance for people of other faiths,” says Ismail.

Almost every aspect of children’s upbringing is affected by extremism. Even the school textbooks urge children to be ready for jihad, says Ismail, and all around are songs and films that glorify war, martyrdom and violence.

“Seeds of Peace aims to give another perspective by getting people to think about human rights. Peace is not just the absence of war, it is about respect and tolerance – and women have an important role in educating their children.”

Ismail is well aware that her work challenges the Taliban’s power, and that brings dangers. She is also aware that there are huge political issues involved in the radicalisation of the region where she lives, but believes that a grassroots community challenge to a culture of extremist intolerance is also a crucial part of the search for peace. Both high-level political negotiation and community participation are required in conflict resolution.

Peace Direct’s Ruairi Nolan backs up Ismail’s analysis of a peace process, using the analogy of political negotiation as the bricks and community engagement as the cement that hold the bricks together. Pointing to Northern Ireland’s experience, he suggests that several decades of community peacebuilding was a crucial precondition to the success of the political process that culminated in the Northern Ireland agreement.

At international conferences, Ismail has met counterparts from Uganda, Sri Lanka and many other parts of the world. Despite the very different forms of conflict, she can see plenty of similarities in the work they are doing – and she says that gives her hope.

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Women power triumphs in state polls. What next?

The people’s verdict in the state elections of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu has put Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalithaa in the chief minister’s chair. With Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, India will now have four women chief ministers — no mean feat for a country that usually associates politics with the male gender.

Still, the poll triumphs can’t hide that the road to women’s empowerment in India has plenty of bottlenecks. For one, critics of the Women’s Reservation Bill (which if passed will reserve one-third of parliament and assembly seats for women) have ensured the bill has remained on the table in the lower house of parliament.

And despite the examples of Indian President Pratibha Patil and Congress party head Sonia Gandhi, few can deny that the number of women in Indian politics is not commensurate with the corporate world where several Indian women hold sway over multinational companies.

Women’s liberation groups say that discrimination in politics is derived from the deep-seated hypocrisy of Indian culture, one where female deities are worshipped but women still have little say over their lives.

And that even in cases where suitable female candidates are available for national and state elections, the choice has gone in favour of a male candidate.

While the Congress party headed by Gandhi has only one woman chief minister in Dikshit, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party doesn’t have any, despite its vocal support for the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Have things changed since the state polls? Are the election wins for Banerjee and Jayalalithaa a milestone for women’s empowerment in India? Share your views.

http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2011/05/16/women-power-triumphs-in-state-polls-what-next/

Only 7 women make it to Kerala state Assembly

Women got a raw deal once again in Kerala politics with just seven female aspirants getting elected to the state Assembly, the same as the last time.

The outcome has strengthened a general belief that Kerala is not yet free from “male-hegemony”, despite the state being projected as a role model for women empowerment.

The first Kerala Assembly in 1957 had six women members, when politics was dominated by men in most parts of India.

Out of the seven elected women this time around, the ruling UDF has just one representative, Congress’ P Jayalakshmi, who was part of the list drawn up by AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi. Jayalakshmi, elected from Manathawadi (ST) segment in Wayanad district, is among the ministerial probables as the only woman member on the ruling side.

According to T N Seema, Rajya Sabha member and leader of CPI-M’s women wing AIDWA, it can’t be glossed over that generally there is an “anti-women” attitude in all spheres in Kerala.

“As in other fields, male-hegemony is deep-rooted in politics also. No party is free from this,” Seema told PTI.

Women empowerment has gained some momentum at the local bodies level where 50 per cent of the seats are reserved for women.

But women who excel in politics and governance are not allowed to go beyond a certain level by the male-dominated leadership of major parties, she said.

The six women MLAs of the LDF are K K Lathika, P Ayisha Potty and K S Saleekha, all from the CPI-M; E S Bijimol, Geetha Gopi from the CPI; Jameela Prakasam of the JD(S).

Geetha Gopi, Jameela Prakasam and Jayalakshmi are first-time MLAs while the other four are into their second stint as legislators.

A total of 78 women candidates including Independents tried their luck at the hustings.

While the LDF fielded 14 women candidates, including 10 from CPI-M, three CPI and one JD (S), the UDF offered seats to 8 and the BJP fielded 14 women.

However, UDF partners like the IUML and the Kerala Congress (M) did not field any woman candidate.

Prominent women who fell by the wayside include 92-year old Gowri Amma of JSS, a component of the UDF, in Cherthala in Alappuzha district.

The grand old lady of Kerala politics and once firebrand Communist, Gowri Amma has been part of most of the Communist ministries from 1957 to 2006. She left the CPI-M in the 1990s and floated JSS.

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics/nation/only-7-women-make-it-to-kerala-state-assembly/articleshow/8367555.cms

Mexico’s Women Make Gains in Politics

TORREÓN, Mexico — In addition to completely reordering Mexico’s political landscape, the mid-term legislative elections on July 5 marked a step forward for gender equality in the country. The opposition Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI), previously the third-largest party, scored a huge victory. The PRI took a near-majority in the lower house of Congress, which had been dominated by the National Action Party (PAN), won five of six gubernatorial races, and a number of state and local contests around the nation.

The two leading vote-getters — the ideologically amorphous PRI and the center-right PAN — are both expected to tab women as the leaders of their respective caucuses in the Chamber of Deputies. With the benefit of such a platform, both the PAN’s Josefina Vázquez and the PRI’s Beatriz Paredes will not only be able to put oft-ignored women’s issues closer to the forefront of the national agenda. They are now plausible presidential contenders for 2012.

More broadly, despite not winning the right to vote until 1953, Mexican women have made significant gains, and now vote in higher proportions than their male counterparts. In 2002, parties were required to field women for at least 30 percent of their congressional candidates, with the quota upped to 40 percent ahead of this election cycle. However, the law is widely flouted by parties willing to pay the requisite fines after the election, meaning that in many regions, barely a quarter of the candidates are women.

Beyond Congress, women have also played a gradually more significant role in the executive branch of the federal government. The trend culminated in the cabinet of President Felipe Calderón, who has placed women at the head of key secretariats like education (Vázquez), energy (Georgina Kessel), and foreign relations (Patricia Espinosa).

This is part of a broader trend toward gender equality that makes the old stereotype of macho Mexico seem increasingly dated. As Sara Sefchovich wrote in a recent profile of First Lady Margarita Zavala, “We have come a long way since the era in which a president shut his wife up in public when she wanted to express an opinion on some issue, telling her: ‘Don’t butt in, you know nothing about this.'”

Today, the acceptance of women as equal players has become so ingrained that even the conservative wife of a conservative president is considered a prominent feminist. As Sefchovich points out in the same article, “Margarita has fought for the rights of women, not only for the opening of political spaces but also for . . . ending the violence, for salary equality, against discrimination, [for] education, and [for] health.”

Nonetheless, gender-based discrepancies remain striking in other political realms. Most obviously, no woman has ever run as a major-party candidate for president. Beyond that, only six women have ever served as governor. In the six states that elected governors on July 5, only two of 18 major-party candidates were women, and neither came close to winning. Rounding out the unbalanced executive picture, female mayors run only 4 percent of Mexico’s municipalities.

Worse still, there has been little political cost in cases where male politicians demonstrate gross disrespect for women. While campaigning for mayor of Tijuana in 2004, for instance, Jorge Hank Rhon declared that women were his favorite animal. But the remark didn’t end his career. He ended up winning that race, and came within a whisker of the governorship of Baja California Norte in 2007.

More mundane examples of gender inequality persist in daily life as well. For starters, women are routinely paid less for the same work as men. Dr. María del Carmen Contreras, a physician in the northern city of Torreón, recently told World Politics Review about being offered a job for half the salary of the doctor she was to replace a few years ago, despite having a comparable resume. For “dignity’s sake,” she turned the job down.

Months later, in an odd twist of fate, Contreras learned that the doctor who was eventually hired to fill the job she’d been offered — a man — was paid the same, higher salary of the outgoing doctor. “I asked to speak with the man who made me the offer,” Contreras told WPR, “and he told me . . . that because I am a woman, I didn’t have the economic responsibility of a household.” The different salaries supposedly reflected the different financial needs of a man and a woman.

Contreras’ example is not isolated, nor is discrimination in the workplace limited to salary inequality. Because Mexico mandates a paid maternity leave of several months, many businesses have unwritten rules prohibiting the hiring of young, married women. Women are also regularly screened for “good presentation” in job interviews, a euphemism meaning that candidates’ attractiveness will likely be a factor in any hiring decision.

Despite the obvious injustices, as well as the obvious benefits of addressing them, women’s issues other than abortion rarely receive much attention at the national level. Contreras said that she remembers hearing about gender inequality in the workplace a great deal during the Vicente Fox administration, but very little under Calderón, and not at all during the present campaign.

A Chamber of Deputies with Paredes and Vázquez at its head should help reverse that state of affairs. But Mexico remains behind its South American neighbors with regard to political equality between the sexes. The regular election of female executives would be another big step in the right direction.

Source: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/article.aspx?id=4030

Neda’s Death Highlights Women’s Role in Iran Protests

A young woman who was shot through the heart and died on the streets of Tehran has become the face of the opposition movement in Iran.

Neda Agha Soltan was killed by a Basij militiaman during a protest march on June 20, according to people who said they were eyewitnesses and posted videos of her death on the Internet. The videos on Facebook and YouTube show her collapsing, losing consciousness and dying.

Her death has resounded worldwide and become a symbol of the crackdown by Iranian authorities against demonstrations over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed June 12 re-election. Police used tear gas and batons to disperse about 1,000 people who had gathered in Haft-e Tir Square in central Tehran yesterday to mourn the university student.

“The violence of the regime has intensified. They are trying to create a regime of terror,” said Mohammad-Reza Djalili, an Iran expert at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva in a telephone interview. “The future will be marked by this horrible chain of events,” he said of Soltan’s killing.

Soltan was among countless women, of all ages and backgrounds, who have taken to the streets to demand a recount of the presidential vote they and others say was won by Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister. Mousavi made his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a feature of his campaign and promised to give women more rights.

34 Million

Iran’s 34 million women are demanding female cabinet ministers, the right to able to run for president and the revision of civil and family law, Rahnavard said earlier this month. The country’s population is 66.4 million.

President Barack Obama today said of Iran that Americans were “appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the last few days.” Speaking at a press conference, he said, “Above all, we have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets.”

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said in response to a question about whether he had seen the video. “Anybody who sees it knows there is something fundamentally unjust about that.”

At least four Facebook pages are dedicated to Soltan, and more than 50 members of the social networking site have changed their user names to Neda Agha Soltan. One page called “Neda” has more than 15,000 members and the group’s 55 officers come from countries as diverse as Canada, Kuwait, Haiti, Italy, the U.S. and Zambia.

Black Banner

Mourners were prevented from holding a remembrance ceremony in a mosque yesterday, and Soltan’s family was told to take down a black banner they had hung outside their home, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Neda had said that even if she lost her life and got a bullet in her heart, she would carry on,” Caspian Makan, Soltan’s fiancé, told the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Persian Television by phone from Tehran. “She gave a big lesson to everyone even though she was very young.”

Seventeen people have been killed in the protests, Iranian state television reported.

Soltan was a 27-year-old philosophy student, according to the text posted with the video on YouTube. Heat and frustration led her and her music teacher to abandon their car when it was blockaded by the demonstration. Minutes later, she was shot. She died in just two minutes, according to the YouTube text.

Iranian bloggers paid tribute to the young woman, one writing about the melancholy of the “alley of loneliness” where she was shot. Photos of the flowers left in memory of Soltan are posted on the blog.

Fierce Impact

“He had a clear shot and could not miss her,” wrote a man who said he was a doctor and posted one of the videos showing Soltan’s death, referring to the gunman. “The impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim’s chest.”

The author Paul Coelho said on his blog that he was best friends with the doctor, and that his friend had tried to resuscitate Soltan. In the video, as blood pours from Soltan’s eyes, nose and mouth, screams are heard and a small crowd gathers around her limp body.

“Neda, don’t be afraid; Neda stay with me,” says a man standing nearby, who holds her in his arms and has been identified as her music teacher.

The killing took away any “vestige of respect” people had for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has called for an end to the protests and allied himself with Ahmadinejad, because “a spiritual leader should not be leading carnage,” said Haleh Afshar, a professor of politics and women’s studies at University of York.

Seeing the video of Soltan’s death has left Zahra Khedri, a 24-year-old Iranian postgraduate student at the U.K.’s University of Essex, feeling numb and shocked, she said.

“It could be me, simple as that,” said Khedri. The video “will help us with the support we need. Ahmadinejad must not be recognized.”

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=aX.UJaDJj_Fg

The video of Neda’s death: click here (Warning, graphic images!)

Who was really cheated in Iran’s vote? Women.

iranian-women-protest~s600x600What is striking about the Iranians protesting fraud in the June 10 “election” is the number of women on the front lines. Among all those cheated at the polls, they may feel the most denied.

For the first time in one of the Islamic Republic’s controlled presidential campaigns, the women’s movement was able to raise its demands clearly and independently – even though the unelected, 12-member, all-male Guardian Council did not allow any female candidates to run.

The movement’s courage to confront the patriarchal theocracy (in which “morality police” still roam the streets looking for women with make-up) may have been a big reason why the regime rigged the vote count – and why supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was forced to make a show of ordering a probe of the fraud.

Iranian women do enjoy privileges that women in many Arab countries do not. But Iran’s powerful clerics know that democracy’s advance and the liberation of women go hand in hand. They’ve seen women recently elected in Kuwait and in Iraq’s new democracy, while their proxy group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, lost an election. So they are trying to stop both the women’s movement and open democracy in Iran in order to maintain their Shiite “revolution” and their own rule.

Yet the ballot fraud was done with such audacity and clumsiness that the “landslide winner,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will likely find it difficult to rule. And the West should hesitate before cozying up to a regime with fading legitimacy and which so openly suppresses half its population and sees women as a security threat. What country would have faith in signing a deal with a regime that cheats its own people, especially women, at the ballot box?

During the campaign, Iran’s feminists found a voice in the popular opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister. He promised to disband the morality police, reform the many laws that treat women unequally, and appoint women to high posts. He campaigned with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a prominent academic and author of 15 books. The two appear to be a loving couple, displaying a modern equality to Iranian women. But he “lost” the vote – even in his hometown, which was yet another sign that the fix was in.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has a strong record against women. He changed the name of the government’s “Center for Women’s Participation” to the “Center for Women and Family Affairs.” He limited women’s access to higher education and proposed laws that would allow men to divorce their wives without informing them and not to pay alimony.

Most of all, the regime has jailed dozens of women involved in the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grass-roots movement that began in 2006 to reform the legal system and to end gender discrimination. The group has been harassed in their homes and branded as illegal.

It is of little surprise, then, to see images of women, only slightly veiled, confronting the regime in postelection protests. While Ahmadinejad’s false victory may have toughened the clerics’ foreign posture with the West, they’ve only exposed their weakness at home.

Eventually, Iran’s women will not be denied.

http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0615/p08s01-comv.html

Iranian Presidential Contenders Court Women Voters

For the first time in Iran’s 30-year history of presidential elections, candidates are going all out to win over female voters, making a flurry of last-minute appeals before Friday’s balloting.

Today’s campaigns are a departure from the past, when candidates spoke of women voters in general terms, mostly centered on their respect for a mother’s role in society or through economic assistance to widows.

In this election, the three candidates challenging President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure has included a crackdown on women’s-rights activists, have tried to set themselves apart from the incumbent by focusing on female voters.

“Iranian women can be a major force and now candidates are realizing our support can deliver them victory and credibility,” says Elahe Koulaee, a professor of political science at Tehran University and a former parliament member.

The top reform contender, Mir Hossein Mousavi, broke the taboo of mixing personal life with politics by campaigning with his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, an artist and scholar who has been dubbed Iran’s Michelle Obama by local media.

Presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric, has said he is against forcing women to wear the Islamic veil. He recently debated with his team the number of cabinet posts women should fill. Mr. Karroubi’s top advisers lobbied for the foreign ministry, speculating that when relations with the U.S. normalize, the new foreign minister could shake hands with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaie, who formerly headed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has an advisory team of accomplished women and said he plans to reform the law so it ensures more equality for women. Mr. Rezaie has said he will place Iranian women in top posts in politics, education and management both in and outside the country.

Female voters have responded to the candidates’ appeals, with many attending rallies and street demonstrations.

Mr. Mousavi’s following among professionals and educated women is thanks in part to his wife — a well-known artist and Iran’s first female professor. Ms. Rahnavard also was chancellor of a prominent women’s university, Al Zahra, a job she lost when Mr. Ahmadinejad took office.

“She is very liberal and intellectual, we feel like we can trust her to fight for our rights,” said Shirin Shadi, a 23-year-old university student who studies physical education and wants to see restrictions eased on the Islamic garb female athletes wear.

During a recent candidates’ debate on live television, President Ahmadinejad mentioned Ms. Rahnavard, engaging in a rare public attack on a prominent woman. Mr. Ahmadinejad held up a folder with a picture of Ms. Rahnavard and questioned the validity of her doctorate in political science.

Many women rallied behind Ms. Rahnavard, saying the president had insulted all educated, professional women. Ms. Rahnavard has said she will file a defamation suit against Mr. Ahmadinejad if he doesn’t publicly apologize to her. The president says he stands by his statement.

At a rally in Tehran on Wednesday, Ms. Rahnavard told a crowd of women and youth, “He wants to force all women to sit at home and be housewives. I am a symbol of Iranian women. By insulting me, he has insulted all of you.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad hasn’t spoken at length publicly about his position on women and his wife rarely appears in public. Half-way through the election season, his sister, Parvin, began to campaign for him among conservative women.

The president also held a rally specifically for women. To boost turnout, his campaign brought supporters by bus from his political base south of the capital and from nearby towns and villages.

Last year, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government introduced two bills that would impose a tax on a woman’s dowry and make it easier for a man to practice polygamy. The bills were dropped after an uproar and pressure from women’s-rights activists who marched to the parliament by the tens of thousands, demanding to meet with lawmakers.

Iranian women are among the most highly educated and socially active in the Middle East. Women have a 77% literacy rate and account for 60% of university students, according to local census. Half of the eligible voters in Iran, which has a population of 72 million, are females.

In April, a spectrum of secular and conservative women’s-rights activists formed a coalition and made a list of demands from Iran’s next president.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124467815307304269.html