International: WLUML networker blogs about culture and women’s rights

UC Berkeley News

Each year the UC Berkeley-based Human Rights Center awards summer fellowships to students from University of California campuses, to enable them to work with human-rights organizations in the U.S. and abroad. Several current Human Rights Fellows, including political-science student Rochelle Terman, have agreed to share their experiences this summer, with regular updates from the field to be published on the NewsCenter:

MONTREAL — In 1999, Hajieh Esmailvand, an Azeri woman living in the Azerbaijani area of Iran, was raped; six months later, she was arrested by Iranian authorities for participating in "illicit sexual relations." The trial against her was conducted in Persian, which she could neither speak nor understand. Coerced into confessing that she had committed adultery, Hajieh was sentenced to death by stoning. When word leaked to the international human-rights community, Iranian officials responded that such punishments not only were not in violation of international human-rights standards, but were justified by the "authentic" Islamic heritage of the Iranian people.

This is not an isolated incident. In April 2007, Du'a Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old Yezidi girl, was stoned to death by members of her community in Iraqi Kurdistan, who believed she had run off to marry a Sunni Muslim man.

In Italy, "crimes of honor" — to punish, even with death, women accused of being unfaithful or of engaging in "unacceptable" sexual behaviour — were legal until 1981. Meanwhile, men who killed their wives, sisters, or daughters in "honor killings" or "crimes of passion" were subject to a seven-year sentence at most.

Among certain Jewish sects in Israel, self-proclaimed "morality police" incite physical violence against women for what they deem as transgressions of "moral behaviour" — transgressions such as opting for divorce, failing to cover their heads, or wearing clothes that the sect deems immodest.

In 2006, Nicaragua, due to the strong influence of the Catholic Church, outlawed abortion even in cases of medical emergency. Women who try to exercise their reproductive rights have become targets of backlash, intimidation, and harm by the state and members of their communities.

Just a few weeks ago, a woman was arrested for adultery in New York state.

Today, women and girls around the world (including those living in "the West") are subject to appalling violence justified in the name of religion, culture, and tradition. They are told that such practices — imprisonment, maiming, torture, even death — are culturally authentic, required by religion, or sanctioned by time-honored tradition. When a woman objects, calling these practices unacceptable violence against women, she is often labeled a heretic, a traitor to her heritage, a Western pawn, a cultural imperialist, or worse.

Solidarity efforts

The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women (SKSW), which I helped to found, works to confront and expose all forms of culturally justified violence against women (CVAW) around the world. We do this by building linkages between local women's initiatives in various countries, engaging with the U.N. human-rights system, and forging partnerships with progressive individuals and forces who share our vision of fundamental gender equality, bodily autonomy, and non-discrimination.

The SKSW Campaign is currently hosted by Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), an international solidarity network for women whose lives are shaped by laws and customs said to derive from Islam. As a former intern and WLUML networker, I have seen firsthand the remarkable work it does to support women's human rights in Muslim contexts* while also opposing racism and imperialism. As I described in my last post, the political atmosphere surrounding global women's rights is, at present, oppressively polarized. But WLUML, over three decades, has opened up a space in which women — across religious, ethnic, and national lines — link their struggles to defend women's rights while respecting religious, cultural, and national identities.

Let me make clear that neither WLUML nor the SKSW Campaign is against any culture, religion, or faith. In fact, we strongly support a woman's right to define and articulate her own cultural or religious identity. What we do oppose is the legitimacy of legal, religious, or political authorities that, in the name of "culture," either promote or downplay discrimination and violence against women and girls.

WLUML and the SKSW Campaign recognize that most accounts of this issue are rife with images of passive, oppressed Muslim women and barbaric, violent Muslim men — while similar women's struggles in Christian, Jewish, or Hindu contexts are portrayed as fundamentally distinct from those in Muslim countries. With this reality in mind, this summer I will work to document "success stories" of women combating CVAW in their own contexts — so that other women, and the world, can learn from the agency and audacity of these women.

A two-way street

Hajieh Esmailvand's story did not end with her condemnation to death. After spending many years in prison awaiting her execution, a committed lawyer, Shadi Sadr, helped to overturn Hajieh's sentence. Hajieh, though illiterate, went on to spread the word about her own case, about the misuse and manipulation of Islam to justify violence, and about individuals (like herself and Shadi Sadr) who defend women's human rights around the world.

Too often, international solidarity is a one-way street: women in the "Third World" are expected to learn from women's struggles in the West, but not the other way around. Stories like that of Hajieh have something to teach us — all of us — who fight for justice.

"A large majority of Muslim women — who are religious, who have culture, who reject imperialism — are caught between their own religious beliefs and the official or dominant interpretation, of the religious sources that say women are inferior," Ziba Mir Hosseini, a respected Iranian women's studies scholar, told me. So these women believe that they "either have to accept this interpretation or they have to renounce their heritage or their religion," she said. "[This kind of thinking] is not promoting their causes and their voices are not heard."

What if their voices were heard? What could we learn from them? I'm excited to get to explore these questions and this terrain.

* I use the term "Muslim contexts" to refer to countries or states where Islam is the official religion, to secular states with Muslim majorities, and to Muslim minority communities around the world. So a self-identified Muslim women living in France would fit into this category, as would a woman in Iran who identifies with no particular religious belief.

By Rochelle Terman 
27 June 2010