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Fighting the Good Fight for Women’s Lives

Sat, Sep 9, 2006

Audio, Press

NPR “All Things Considered” / By Jacki Lyden

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Usha Venkatachallam - Participants in the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace. The U.S. Capitol is in the background.

Usha Venkatachallam - Participants in the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace. The U.S. Capitol is in the background.

Participants in the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace, a coalition of non-governmental organizations headed by and for women, met recently in Washington, D.C. Delegates from developing countries — many from Islamic nations — compared notes on the struggle to advance women’s rights.

Founder and CEO Mahnaz Afkhami, a native of Iran, now lives in the United States. She sees women as being in the forefront of the fight for human rights and democracy, particularly in the Muslim world.

Usha Venkatachallam - Participants in the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace. The U.S. Capitol is in the background.

Usha Venkatachallam - Participants in the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace. The U.S. Capitol is in the background.

“Any sort of progress toward modernism, toward what we consider egalitarian societies, involves the basic structure of the family,” she says. “All the arguments for backwardness and fundamentalism really focuses on women.”

The activists face sometimes violent resistance from Islamic fundamentalists. One organization’s office in Morocco was firebombed in August.

Yet the delegates say women activists increasingly find themselves in a dilemma. As they promote the ideals of democracy, they have to distance themselves from the very word, since “democracy” is now associated with unpopular U.S. foreign policy and war in the Middle East.

Asma Khader of Jordan says it’s possible to work for issues associated with democracy, such as equal rights and full participation in the political process.

“But using the word ‘democracy’ when it’s so close to the war and the military action is not helping the word to be accepted by the majority of the people,” she says.

“Be nice to America,” read a banner carried by one delegate… “Or it will bring democracy to you.”

But the women’s groups persevere. A main focus of the Washington conference was a new campaign across seven Arab countries to give equal citizenship rights to women.

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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 – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom