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Preventing Violence Against Women In Muslim Societies

Sun, Jan 31, 1999

Press

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs / By Delinda C. Hanley

The Middle East Institute held a Nov. 18 panel discussion of strategies Muslim women use to prevent, resist and cope with violence. Panelists discussed Sisterhood is Global efforts in the Global South to design and implement programs to eliminate violence against females.

Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Sisterhood is Global Institute and executive director of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, began the discussion by saying, “Violence against women in Muslim society was always dealt with by the family in private.” In recent years, however, violence against women throughout the world has become a human rights issue, not merely a family issue.

Afkhami said that when males with power control females who are powerless, violence often results. For too long, state laws have condoned and educational imbalances have fostered the physical, verbal, economic or spiritual abuse of women. If women can’t take part in the interpretation of religion and they are not empowered to change their lives by legislation, they cannot change their lives, she said. By empowering individual women and giving them self-assertiveness training, institutions can enable women to protect themselves from violence, Afkhami concluded.

Haleh Vaziri, a scholar of comparative and international politics who has served as the acting coordinator of production and research for Sisterhood is Global’s Human Rights Education Program, discussed the manual Sisterhood is Global is using. She called it a “work in progress” as ideas and methodology are tested and altered. Vaziri said the manual addresses verbal abuse in the home or in public, spousal abuse, battery or rape, honor killing, and state-enforced gender segregation.

Describing such situations, Vaziri said that in some cases if a rapist offers to marry his victim, all charges are automatically dropped. In fact the victim’s family may force her to marry her rapist to preserve their honor. Sometimes a rapist has been told to “marry her for an hour.” Vaziri said violence occurs anywhere, but Sisterhood is Global manuals are tailored for Muslim participation.

Marlyn Tadros, deputy director of the Legal Research and Resource Center for Human Rights in Cairo and a visiting fellow at Harvard, supplied the context in which her center’s programs are held by describing the culture shock caused by her own move to the United States with her son. After his first exposure to U.S. TV programs and advertisements, her son, who she said doesn’t even know the word for “sex” in Arabic, asked, “Is sex a requirement here?”

There is no sex education in Muslim schools, she continued, because it’s a family matter. Tadros described different forms of violence against women including legal violence (laws that require women to stay in the home despite violence), media violence (women watch violence done to women on TV and think what goes on at home must be normal), and educational violence (illiteracy traps women and keeps them from learning about their options). Sisterhood is Global targets small groups, moving women slowly toward empowerment. Women discuss their problems with the use of the manual and come up with their own solutions.

For information on Sisterhood is Global or its publications call (301) 657-4355, e-mail sigi@igc.apc.org or write them at 4343 Montgomery Ave., Suite 201, Bethesda, MD 20814 .

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Muslim Women

"The most taxing contradiction [Muslim women] face casts the demands of living in the contemporary world against the requirements of tradition as determined and advanced by the modern Islamist world view. At the center of this conflict is the dilemna of Muslim women’s human rights – whether Muslim women have rights because they are human beings, or whether they have rights because they are Muslim" - Faith and Freedom: Introduction

"To the extent that Islam, defined and interpreted by traditionalist "Muslim" men, is allowed to determine the context and contour of the debate on women's rights, women will be on the losing side of the debate because the conclusion is already contained in the premise and reflected in the process. This is the heart of the moral tragedy of Muslim societies in our time." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

“Islam is not the problem. Rather it is the misuse of Islam by interpreting it to fit the needs of the partriarchal order - the powers that be - and the privileges that one gender has held over the other.” - How are women working to eliminate violence against women in Muslim-majority societies?