A worthwhile women's day

Fed up with most of the events put on for International Women's Day, Angela Brant found herself at an illuminating talk on women living under religious and oppressive laws

Angela Brant, 29 March 2007

Amid all the celebrations of 'girly' activities that commemorated International Women's Day in London, some of the proceeding were, frankly, idiotic. Tower Hamlets council banned all men from the 'idea store' public library in Bow for the afternoon so that this centre for learning could be used for "dance and song activities" in "a positive celebration" of women (in the words of a spokeswoman for the council).

But it seems important to highlight the worthwhile events organised by others in the real spirit of what such a day should be about.

There is much to celebrate in women's progress towards equality in the Western world (although, rather obviously I would have thought, 18th century-style female 'accomplishments' do not fall under that banner, however widely it is draped).

Still, any dedicated day should examine the plight of oppressed women throughout the world and what might be done to help them. In this vein, a seminar was held at the University of London Union on Malet Street on women's rights, the veil and Islamic and religious laws, which I am pleased to have attended.

Jointly sponsored by the International Campaign in Defence of Women's rights in Iran-UK, the National Secular Society and the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, five speakers talked movingly and animatedly about their own experiences, the problems as they currently stand and their views and hopes about how the problems might be solved.

Taslima Nasreen, a physician, a writer, a radical feminist, human rights activist and a secular humanist, whose writings criticising the treatment of women in Islam have infuriated fundamentalists so much that there is a fatwa on her head and she is exiled from her native Bangladesh, spoke about her experience growing up in a Muslim family, how differently she was treated from her brothers and how her middle class upbringing allowed her to train as a doctor, but only because educated men like educated wives.

Ann Harrison, a researcher on Iran, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates for Amnesty International has worked on human rights issues in Iran for around four years and spoke of the recent arrest of more than 30 women for protesting the trial in Tehran of four Iranian women's rights protesters arrested during a peaceful demonstration on the 4th (keeping up? when you have protests over arrests for protests over arrests something's definitely amiss).

As we all know the facts are more than a little depressing and drew angry and incredulous comments from more than a few that were present. Harrison's talk stuck to the bare facts with no polemic or anti-Islamic sentiment, concentrating on individuals, in keeping with Amnesty's mission statement.

I am familiar with the shocking facts of, for example, the legal marriage of girls at nine years of age and stoning for adultery which often equates with stoning for the sin of being raped. But I was still surprised to learn 65% of university students are female, but women make up only 14% of the workforce.

The first statistic would suggest a progressive country, but the crushing reality of that 14% shows this to be a sham, no more than an example of Taslima's experience of being educated for the benefit of a husband demonstrated at a countrywide level.

Next to speak was Maryam Namazie, a very busy woman by all accounts with many activities and affiliations including broadcaster, women's rights activist, honorary associate of the National Secular Society and secretary of the International Relations Commitee of the Communist Workers Party of Iran.

Maryam provided a dramatic and rather convincing polemic for the worldwide banning of the veil. Maryam is clearly more used to speaking a rallies- the talk was in this way repetitive and designed to be rousing, the reasons given were good ones and my previous conviction that such a ban would stand in the way of personal freedoms was more than a little challenged.

The analogy of the veil to a sexual apartheid led into the argument that if this segregation were banned then the ideas supporting it would eventually become unacceptable, as was the case in South Africa.

It is clear that there are many reasons for a woman to choose to wear the veil, all of which would fail if this practice were no longer seen of the ideal for women in Islam.

Affiliation to a group, attracting a husband, belief in it pleasing God, gaining the admiration of their parents, all these things may prompt a woman to wear the veil even in the absence of outright duress but are not tied up with an individual assertion that it is the right course of action.

Particularly key in Maryam's agenda is the banning of the veil for children. This does appear to be especially important and brought to mind the several cases here of young girls going as far as the courts in their pursuit of the right to wear the veil to school.

They are always in this strongly supported by their parents, attract media attention and are hailed as the upholders of personal rights and freedoms by sympathetic groups. This can only increase the probability of girls going through this process themselves in future.

The final speaker and the jewel of the evening was Mina Ahadi, an Iranian activist of many years against compulsory veiling, founder of the International Committees against Execution and Stoning.

She has been exiled in Europe since 1990 and lives under police protection for her activities. Her talk was humorous (despite the translator) in its highlighting of the labelling of people from Muslim countries as sharing the opinions of fundamentalists and not considering the fact that they may actually be non-Muslims. She also told the story behind her creation of the Central Council for Ex-Muslims.

In the question and answer session it was asked why so many men were at the event, both working on the cameras and door and in the audience. The response from the compère was that it made a change to have five female speakers and men in the fairly menial roles, but I would offer a different explanation for why male presence at such events is so important.

If only females were present, it would be very much preaching to the converted.

Although inspiring women to action is extremely important, the support of men is key in forcing the issues. It should also be remembered when considering problems, such as those highlighted here, not to get complacent about the situation in the West. It is easy to give the impression that we have come far enough and are now in a position to direct our feminist activism to pulling other countries up to the level we are at now.

This would be to mask the fact that equality has by no means been achieved here in the UK and in other Western countries. Of course these women's positions are of primary concern but complacency at home due to this worthy endeavor would be to do all women a disservice in the long term.

About the author

Angela Brant

Angela Brant is a final year student of psychology at UCL. She likes colouring in revision plans and watching daytime television.

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