Women fighting back in the wake of the Arab Spring

Hopes were high that the uprisings that began in 2011 across the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) would bring not just democratization, but greater gender equality. Rather than safeguarding women’s equal rights, these revolutions have so far reinforced patriarchy in many states rocked by the uprisings. But Arab women are fighting back.

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Iran’s women in the 2013 election: the portrait of a housewife

Since the last Iranian election, women’s rights activists in exile have largely monopolized depictions of the women’s movement in Iran. The 2013 presidential electoral debates have brought forth new domestic women’s activists who have been previously excluded. In a debate planned at the Alzahra University in Tehran, these women were representing the different presidential candidates in a discussion of the key question: “What is the main women’s issue in today’s Iran?” However, the presidential candidates’ debates on TV portrayed women as housewives and mothers. This positioning towards women’s rights has created debates among Iranian women’s rights activists. Many discuss the representation of women as mothers in relation to the candidates’ political background. Here I will draw the attention towards the need to understand women’s representation in the 2013 debates in relation to national and international “threats” that have been claimed by the presidential candidates in the debates.

As Peyghabarzadeh (2013), an Iranian women’s rights activist, states candidates’ viewpoints on women’s roles in Iranian society are a nationalistic view which seeks to represent women as the symbol of national identity for the interests of the nation. “These viewpoints are not looking after women’s interests, but rather following what many nationalists would call national interest … women’s duty as being the symbol of national identity or producing the next generation …” (my translation).[1]

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Election campaign in Pakistan amidst Taliban intimidation

On May 11, general elections will be held in Pakistan to elect the country’s 14th parliament.   The coming election marks Pakistan’s first successful democratic transition between two elected governments. And for the first time, many women are participating in the elections.

The election campaign has so far been stained with violence and blood shedding. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, TTP, has  warned of and carried out several attacks on the country’s secular parties, effectively intimidating the secular parties from holding big gatherings for electioneering as the security threats are too big.  Several   election candidates  have been killed, and terror attacks have killed and  injured both political activists and other civillians.  Moreover, serious concerns have been expressed for the security of polling staff and voters, in particular the female voters. Continue reading

Figureheads of political integration

At the Norwegian local elections in 2003, only 206 out of a total of 11 138 political representatives elected had ethnic minority background. 92 of them were non-Westerners. This equals 1 % of the representatives. Eight years later, in 2011, the number was 1,67 %. In comparison, 13 % of the country’s population has an ethnic minority background. About half of them have non-Western background. Why is the rate increasing so slowly, despite the fact that Norwegian political parties all stress the importance of integration of immigrants?

For the past few years, I have been working on questions concerning the political representation of ethnic minorities in Norwegian politics. I have interviewed political representatives with ethnic minority background, leaders and representatives from political parties. They all express the importance of having representatives with ethnic minority background. So why are they so few? And (this may come as a surprise to some of you) why are women overrepresented in leading positions?

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The 2013 presidential election in Iran: Big issues lurking in the shadow

On 14 June, the next presidential election will take place in Iran. Last time in 2009 the election lead to huge demonstrations, and since then the country has gradually moved further into a crisis of legitimacy over the future of the Islamic Republic. So what are the big issues at stake this time around?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently caught in conflict-ridden times. The country is facing international sanctions and war threats due to its nuclear programme, not to forget the high inflation and economic crisis that create hardship for the people. Moreover, Iran is also dealing with an internal power struggle over who holds the best solution for the future of the Republic. The conflict is not only played out between the state and the opposition, but also within the state. On the one hand, the current president Ahmadinejad has served his second and final term of presidency, but is still very eager to name his follower. The Supreme Leader Khamenei, on the other hand, is fed up with having an uncontainable president and is likely to cement his solitary authority once and for all. In October last year, he even introduced the idea of implementing a radical constitutional amendment to eliminate the position of the president altogether, saying: “If deemed appropriate, Iran could do without a president”.

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The Islamic Republic of Iran is caught in conflict-ridden times. The 2013 election can set a new course for the country. (Photo: Marianne Bøe)

The big political topics concerning international relations and internal power struggles are likely to overshadow the presidential campaign. Concurrently, the political opposition is severely weakened. The opposition suffers a lack of leadership as Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the leaders of the Green Movement (Jonbesh-e sabz), have been kept in house arrest since 2011. Moreover, a range of activists has been put under surveillance, arrested, and forced into exile over the last couple of years. As a result, the election is likely to stand between different conservative candidates with affiliation to either Khamenei or Ahmadinejad. Still, which candidates will pass the vetting of the Guardian Council remains unknown for the time being.

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A voice of hope for Afghanistan’s women

In February, I went to Afghanistan. I met many of the country’s women, living in cities and remote villages. In spite of the despair haunting Afghanistan, they gave me hope for the women of Afghanistan. The women I talked to were engaged, energetic, eager to learn and inventive – and they had a strong desire to make a difference to others.

Åsne Havnelid, Secretary General of the Norwegian Red Cross, visits one of the Red Cross's seven orthopaedic centres in Afghanistan. Photo: Olav A. Saltbones.

Åsne Havnelid, Secretary General of the Norwegian Red Cross, recently visited Afghanistan. She met several women who have volunteered to work for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan Red Crescent Society. Photo: Olav A. Saltbones.

I am convinced that the future of Afghanistan lies in creating resilient local communities, by Afghans, for Afghans. We must assist civilians in covering their basic needs and dealing with disasters. If we are to succeed, we have to take their situation and context into account. We also need to reach the women in the most isolated parts of the country. If we have access to the women, we have access to the entire population.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and our sister organization The Afghan Red Crescent Society have recruited volunteer women to be trained in first aid and preventive health care, taking their unique situation into account. For instance, there are big differences between regions, villages and even families when it comes to living standards as well as women’s position in society. In Mazar-i-sharif in the north, women were allowed to go out by themselves, in Kabul women actively took part in working life, but in Kandahar in the South, I did not spot any women in the streets.

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Political Participation: Aspects on International Women’s Day

Last Friday marked the International Women’s Day all over the world. This year, in Norway, we also mark the 100-year Anniversary of women’s right to vote. Oppositely, in Saudi Arabia, women are deprived of the right to vote – and even to drive a car. Across the world, gender-based and sexualized violence are obstacles to women’s participation in society. About 200 million women are stated missing; many of which are victims of modern-day slavery; trafficking.

Establishing equal rights for all is of key importance in any revolution or reform. Female political participation will lead to less poverty, less corruption and is a prerequisite for a modern democracy to thrive and develop.

Violence against women in conflict zones is of a particular concern. When conflict flares up, women and children are those who are affected the most, although they are the least responsible for these conflicts. Civil society plays a big role in changing attitudes, but tackling this issue also requires political understanding and determination by the authorities over time.

Hence, a greater effort must be directed toward getting governments to realize that universal rights are in fact universal; and they apply to everyone, regardless of gender or background. Our support to countries, both bilaterally and through UN agencies, must depend on these countries’ ability to respect these human rights. There will be no aid without factual proof of the right to education, health services, and human rights. Reforms don’t transform societies if the reformist themselves don’t believe in the basic ideals.

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100 years of struggle. Am I worried? Not really.

Every time I feel frustrated with the situation and complain, my mother who is part of the 60s and early 70s generation of activists keeps assuring me that there is a hope for things to get better. She says this because of what she has experienced in her life and I trust her as I add my own decades of life experience to the picture.

The struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan neither started with the arrival of international military troops in Afghanistan, nor will it stop at the point of their departure. Often Afghan women’s rights struggle is portrayed as if it all begun since the post-2001 era, meaning that once the troops leave the country- we will go back to our natural state again: The Taliban policy of women out of view, denied education, work and public life. But even a quick look at the last 100 years of history shows that the Taliban never had monopoly on gender politics in Afghanistan.

Visiting a school in Utrani, Afghanistan. (Photo: Orzala Ashraf Nemat)

Visiting a school in Utrani, Afghanistan. (Photo: Orzala Ashraf Nemat)

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More mountains will move

The newly elected government that assembled in front of the Norwegian royal palace on May 9, 1986, shattered the glass ceiling of the executive power and changed Norwegian politics forever. The government led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway’s first female prime minister, was truly unique. Eight out of 18 ministers were women. The “Women’s government” made it to the frontpages all over the world. “The day mountains moved” is the inscription on a monument at Sakai School for Girls in Osaka, Japan. Next to this inscription, the names of the Norwegian female ministers are inscribed.

Female political participation is the key to a more egalitarian society. There is a red thread from the suffragettes to the battle for abortion rights, from “the Women’s government” to recruiting more female representatives in company boards of directors. Today, Norwegian women have the fortune of having the world’s most equal rights to men. Still, we need more female leaders in the private sector, universities and court systems. We need more female politicians and mayors. The more women get involved in all sectors of society, the bigger the chance is that women can participate on equal terms, that our perspectives will count as much as those of men, and that we will win future battles for full gender equality.

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