Archive for June, 2009

All around the world, women are denied their right to free, legal and safe abortions. Even in Europe, women are deprived of the control over their own bodies and the number and spacing of children. It is the everyday reality facing women in Ireland, Poland and Malta.

When a state denies a woman the right to her own body, integrity and health, it is a violation of her human rights. A woman deprived of the choice of carrying out or terminating a pregnancy is being violated in that precise way.

Despite this, abortion is still considered a health issue in the European Union and sorts under the principle of subsidiarity; to be regulated by the individual member countries. But why should the principle of subsidiarity include a human right that, due to biological reasons, only concerns women, when the respect for human rights in all other matters is a criterion for the EU-membership?

Nowhere in the world should a woman be forced to use a hanger, eat washing powder or see a quack doctor to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, when safe abortion methods are available.

A cornerstone of the European Union is to work for gender equality and health.Therefore, women who lack the access to free, legal and safe abortions in the EU-countries such as Ireland, Malta and Poland, can no longer be ignored. The governments of these countries must be put under pressure.

It is time for the EU to secure the right to free, safe and legal abortions and render it a human right.

Do you want to put pressure on the European power holders? Join 2579 others in collecting one million signatures for the right to free abortion.

Sign the Make Noise for Free Choice at

Liberal Women’s report on the importance of a global free choice
* Free choice is a human right
* Free choice is a global concern
* Free choice is freedom from oppression
Read at

See: Liberals launch EU pro-choice abortion initiative

The National Organization for Women has elected a 56-year-old Maryland woman as its next president in a close win over a rival who had been endorsed by the group’s current president.

NOW said Terry O’Neill, who is white, defeated Latifa Lyles, a 33-year-old African-American woman from Washington, D.C., during the organization’s three-day national conference in Indianapolis. The group did not release totals from Saturday’s vote.

Lyles had been enthusiastically endorsed by current NOW President Kim Gandy, who retires from NOW on July 20 after eight years as the group’s president.

Gandy had said Lyles, who would have been NOW’s youngest president ever, would “take NOW to a different level” by recognizing the nation’s “generational shift.”

Lyles had said she could help give NOW, with a mostly white and over-40 membership, a new image of youth and diversity that would appeal to younger feminists.

O’Neill, who is one of the oldest at the start of a term, said in a prepared statement that she was “honored and eager” to lead NOW.

“My experience with domestic violence, as an abused wife left me humiliated and embarrassed. I only began to talk about this publicly five years ago as I realized that to keep quiet was to continue the abuse. I want to empower women and telling my story does just that,” she said.

NOW press secretary Mai Shiozakiis referred calls on Saturday’s vote tally to O’Neill, who declined Sunday to be interviewed. She referred calls about the vote totals to her spokeswoman.

“It’s been quite a whirlwind and I don’t have those,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill’s spokeswoman, Hannah Olanoff, said Sunday that the vote totals were not immediately available but she said it was a “close election,” as had been expected.

She said NOW would hold a news conference at the end of the week to discuss the election.

O’Neill, who has taught law at Tulane University, was NOW’s vice president for membership from 2001-05. Most recently, she has been chief of staff for a county council member in Maryland’s Montgomery County.

See: Future of feminism an issue in NOW leadership vote (USA)

Debate over this has heated up in Japan, after dozens of British lawmakers in February called on their government to halt sales of video games involving sexual violence, targeting by name the Japanese computer game “Rapelay.”

The software lets players try to rape and impregnate a virtual woman and her two daughters, who arguably look like schoolgirls.

The debate here has been roiled further with Diet members proposing legislation that would ban possession of certain kinds of child pornography. The bills, as they now stand, would only regulate pornographic content with photographic images of real humans, but some lawmakers argue that “manga,” “anime” and video games should be included.

Japan currently has no regulations on pornographic material if it is in the form of illustrations, anime or video game graphics — even if it depicts sexual abuse of children.

Elsewhere, according to the Foreign Ministry’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Division, non photographic images can be considered illegal in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and Germany if they include depictions of excessive sexual abuse.

“The concept of laws preventing child porn varies between countries,” division spokeswoman Yuki Okada said. “For example, France and Canada have the most strict laws and they regulate anime, manga and computer graphics almost in the same way as photographs and videotapes.”

One of the problems the British Parliament had with “Rapelay” was that it was being sold on without having been screened by the British Board of Film Classification.

To ward off similar criticism, the Ethics Organization of Computer Software, a Japanese industry group that screens software before going on sale, announced this month it is prohibiting group members from producing “sexually abusive” software.

Group spokesman Koichi Ashida declined to reveal its definition of “sexually abusive,” saying it is an internal regulation for group members only.

About 90 percent of Japan’s adult game makers belong to the organization, which has 233 member companies, according to Ashida.

Toru Okumura, a lawyer familiar with pornography cases, said the situation will not change fundamentally unless laws are introduced.

“Even if the group approves software that may be considered too vulgar by ordinary people’s standards, the software will not be illegal,” he said.

Okumura asserted that the group would probably approve, for example, a game with a fully clothed young female character being raped.

He pointed out that the Nihon Ethics of Video Association, a counterpart group for producers of live-action videos and DVDs, has a similar self-imposed restriction. The bottom line, however, is that anything is allowed unless the authorities consider it “indecent,” and live-action DVDs depicting rape line rental video store shelves.

“The only clear-cut line between decent and indecent in reality is the mosaic that blurs genitals,” he said.

Okumura’s concern is shared by Equality Now, an international female rights group. “Although we are glad that the EOCS has taken this step, they are still a voluntary body and we continue to encourage the Japanese government to take legal measures,” member Anber Raz said in an e-mail.

Japan is often criticized for being too lenient on pornography, and rights groups are frustrated with Japanese politicians for their inaction.

“Politicians listen to some Japanese who think anime does not victimize anybody because no one is videotaped or photographed in it. But those people overlook the right of children who are forced to see what they do not want to see or the right of parents who want to prevent their children from seeing such material on the Internet,” said UNICEF Japan official Hiromasa Nakai.

Currently in Japan, the child pornography law and Article 175 of the Criminal Code regulate pornography.

However, Justice Ministry officials say anime, manga and video games are not covered by the laws because they have no photographic or live-action video content.

The Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan submitted separate bills this Diet session that would make possession of child pornographic products a punishable crime. The current law states that possession of such material is a crime only if it is held with the intention of selling or giving it to others.

The LDP’s bill would oblige the government to conduct research on possible causal links between infringement of children’s rights and manga, animation and computer graphics. The intention would be that such links would lead to regulation of those products.

Eriko Yamatani of the LDP is among lawmakers trying to place regulations now on child pornography in anime, manga and video game products.

“The (LDP) bill is not strong enough. We must take more concrete measures quickly,” said Yamatani, who wants to change the bill so anime porn is treated the same as live-action porn. “I want parents and the media to raise their voices more to prompt more politicians to take action.”

The DPJ’s bill targets only products depicting live action.

An official at the DPJ policy research council said the purpose of the child pornography law is to protect children from sexual abuse, and thus it should not regulate manga, anime or video games. However, the DPJ has deep concerns about sexual violence in those products and is weighing how to regulate it, he added.

Okumura pointed out that even under current regulations, police can crack down on anime and manga porn if they ever change their view of what constitutes “indecency.” The Criminal Code’s Article 175 prohibits sale and display of “indecent” documents, drawings and other material.

But police would need a reason to think anime porn could induce more crimes than, for example, live-action DVDs with blurred genitalia, which are now treated as legally acceptable by the authorities.

“Those who oppose anime porn have to present study results showing games and anime increase crime. Otherwise, police and the judicial system won’t change their view,” he said. “Pornographic Web sites and DVDs are everywhere in many languages, and police cannot crack down on all of them.”

The female rights group Equality Now says on its Web site that it has received an unprecedented amount of “hate mail” since it protested “Rapelay” and other pornographic manga, anime and games. Much of the mail opposes any regulation of manga or anime.

“Many of these messages have referred to statistics of rape in Japan that are reportedly far lower than in the U.S.,” the group says.

In the age of the Internet and cyberspace, national borders mean little, UNICEF’s Nakai said, noting users in any country can buy games made in Japan and share them with strangers over the Internet.

Also, the World Congress III Against the Sexual Exploitation of Children, joined by 125 countries, recognized that virtual content can be pornographic and infringe on children’s rights, Nakai said.

“Politicians must realize the world is connected via the Internet,” he said. “The law must be altered accordingly.”

See: Japan Under Pressure to Clamp Down on Child Pornography

One in four men in South Africa have admitted to rape and many confess to attacking more than one victim, according to a study that exposes the country’s endemic culture of sexual violence.

Three out of four rapists first attacked while still in their teens, the study found. One in 20 men said they had raped a woman or girl in the last year.

South Africa is notorious for having one of the highest levels of rape in the world. Only a fraction are reported, and only a fraction of those lead to a conviction.

The study into rape and HIV, by the the Medical Research Council (MRC), asked men to tap their answers into a PDA device to guarantee anonymity. The method appears to have produced some unusually frank responses.

Professor Rachel Jewkes of the MRC, who carried out the research, said: “We have a very, very high prevalence of rape in South Africa. I think it is down to ideas about masculinity based on gender hierarchy and the sexual entitlement of men. It’s rooted in an African ideal of manhood.”

Jewkes and her colleagues interviewed a representative sample of 1 738 men in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Of those surveyed, 28% said they had raped a woman or girl, and 3% said they had raped a man or boy. Almost half who said they had carried out a rape admitted they had done so more than once, with 73% saying they had carried out their first assault before the age of 20.

The study, which had British funding, also found that men who are physically violent towards women are twice as likely to be HIV-positive. They are also more likely to pay for sex and to not use condoms.

Any woman raped by a man over the age of 25 has a one in four chance of her attacker being HIV-positive.

One in 10 men said they had been forced to have sex with another man. Many find it difficult to report such attacks to the police in subcultures where the concept of homosexuality is taboo.

The government has been repeatedly criticised for failing to address the crisis. Only 7% of reported rapes are estimated to lead to a conviction. Jewkes said: “There’s been a lot of concern about the way the criminal justice system works, because it’s still woeful.”

“The findings highlight the very high prevalence of rape in South Africa and the high prevalence of HIV in the adult population,” said the executive summary of the report.

“The prevalence of rape has similarities to that found in other studies in South Africa. The very high prevalence shows that generally rape is far too common, and its origins too deeply embedded in ideas about South African manhood, for the problem which can be predominantly addressed through strategies of apprehension and prosecution of perpetrators.”

Jewkes told the Mail & Guardian Online on Thursday that while the survey had only focussed on two provinces, there was no evidence to suggest the findings would be different if it had been run countrywide.

The report said a much broader approach to rape prevention was required.

“This must entail intervening on the key drivers of the problem which include ideas of masculinity, predicted on marked gender hierarchy and sexual entitlement of men. Efforts to change these require interventions on structural dimensions of men’s lives, notably education and opportunities for employment and advancement,” it said.

Before his election as president, Jacob Zuma stood trial for the rape of a family friend. His supporters demonstrated outside the court, verbally attacked his accuser and sang “burn the bitch, burn the bitch”. Zuma was eventually acquitted.

Jewkes added: “The social space for debating these gender issues is now smaller than it was a few years ago. We need our government to show political leadership in changing attitudes. We need South African men, from the top to the grassroots, to take responsibility.”

Anti-rape campaigners said the shocking figures demonstrated the need for reform. Dean Peacock, co-director of the Sonke Gender Justice project, said: “We need to make sure the criminal justice system is held to account. We have lots of discussion in this country, but not enough action is taken to ensure that perpetrators will face consequences.”

Peacock added: “We’re at a complicated moment in South African history with revived traditionalism and there’s a danger of gender transformation being lost.

“We hear men saying, ‘If Jacob Zuma can have many wives, I can have many girlfriends.’ The hyper-masculine rhetoric of the Zuma campaign is going to set back our work in challenging the old model of masculinity.”

Carrie Shelver, an activist with People Opposing Women Abuse, said: “Generally there’s a deficit of understanding and commitment to women’s rights by the leadership of this country. It’s simply not on people’s agenda.”

A report published by the trade union Solidarity earlier this month said that one child is raped in South Africa every three minutes, with 88% of rapes going unreported. It found that levels of child abuse in South Africa are increasing rapidly.

See also: South Africa rapes linked to macho culture says study author

Proposals to decriminalize sex work in South Africa have been moved back to the front burner after the newly installed premier of the country’s richest province, Gauteng, remarked that the issue should be addressed “objectively and with an open mind”. A review of the current legislation is underway.

The Sexual Offences Act of 1957 prohibits all sex work, and any activity associated with it – keeping or participating in the management of a brothel, procuring someone to become a sex worker, soliciting or selling sex, and living off the earnings of a sex worker – is a criminal offence. The Act was amended 50 years later to make buying sexual services a criminal offence.

Enforcement of the sweeping law is extremely difficult; the police generally use municipal by-laws that target street-based sex workers under the guise of being a “public nuisance”, leading to claims of police harassment, while the authorities ignore thousands of classified adverts for sexual services in daily newspapers and elsewhere.

The South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) sets out four scenarios in a report released in May 2009: maintaining the status quo, partial criminalization, non-criminalization, or the “regulation of adult prostitution and prostitution-related acts.” Public submissions and comments on the proposed changes can be made until 30 June 2009.

The country is divided on the issue. “Worldwide, you will find it [sex work]… We must begin to appreciate that commercial sex work is an industry, here in Gauteng,” said the province’s female premier, Nomvula Mokonyane.

“The best is to recognize commercial sex work, make sure it has different support systems … have a designated area, register people, let them be subjected to periodic health tests, and also let them be subjected to what me and you are subjected to — tax.”

Although Mokonyane did not explicitly call for sex work to be legalized, her view was at odds with South Africa’s chief prosecutor, Mokotedi Mpshe, who told local media that decriminalizing sex work would be bad for the country’s morals.

Proponents of decriminalization said a changing the law would not destigmatize the sex industry, but would improve the health and safety of sex workers.

Lauren Jankelowitz, of the Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit (RHRU) at the University of the Witwatersrand, which runs sex worker-friendly clinics and outreach programmes, said most sex workers were reluctant to access health services or report incidents of rape and assault to the police, fearing both stigma and arrest.

At a forum in Johannesburg on 28 May, Sex Workers and the World of Work, sponsored by the South African Business Coalition on HIV and AIDS (SABCOHA), Jankelowitz said a change in the law would be a step in the right direction, but given the prevailing conservative views of government, this was unlikely.

Regardless of the law, South Africans had to change their prejudiced views of sex workers, and the police, health workers and the public should be sensitized, she said.

Eric Harper, director of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT), told IRIN it would take more than sensitization training to change the treatment of sex workers.

“The emphasis has to be less on opinion change and more on actual practices to make sure people are treated in a humane and dignified way, and are given access to the services they deserve,” he said. “If I’m a health worker, I have to know that I have to act in a professional way, regardless of what I think about what people are doing.”

Research by the RHRU found 45 percent to 60 percent of its patients in the sex worker outreach programme were HIV-positive, yet Jankelowitz said many sex workers did not have access to reproductive health and HIV services.

Daytime clinic hours were often inconvenient for sex workers, who mainly work at night and sleep during the day; when sex workers did visit clinics, they often found unfriendly healthcare workers, and could be arrested on the way there.

“A sex worker could be going to the grocery store and if a policeman sees her and knows she is a sex worker, he might arrest her for loitering or being a public nuisance,” Jankelowitz told IRIN/PlusNews.

Lindi Nyembe*, a sex worker in the Johannesburg’s inner-city neighbourhood of Hillbrow and co-ordinator of the local branch of Sisonke, an organization advocating sex worker’s rights, said police often extorted sexual or monetary bribes from sex workers, and were reluctant to open cases for those who were raped or assaulted by clients, as their attitude was that they “deserved it”.

“I’ve known women who have said, ‘Better safe in the hands of the criminals than in the hands of the police,'” she said.

In a case brought by SWEAT in Cape Town, the High Court recently ruled that the police were guilty of harassing the sex workers, because they arrested them knowing that the sex workers would not be charged or prosecuted.

Harper said in countries such as New Zealand, which had decriminalised sex work, relations between police and sex workers were greatly improved. In South Africa, better relationships between sex workers and law enforcement could encourage sex workers to report cases of human trafficking and children’s involvement in the sex trade.

He warned that while decriminalization was a step toward addressing human rights violations and increasing access to health care, it did not necessarily guarantee real improvements in sex workers’ lives: “It’s a step in that direction, but it’s not a magic wand that is going to make stigmatization disappear.”

Growing numbers of children in Zimbabwe are turning to prostitution to survive, the charity Save the Children says.

The aid agency says increasing poverty is leading girls as young as 12 to sell their bodies for as little as a packet of biscuits.

It also claims that the coming football World Cup in neighbouring South Africa could soon make things worse.

Unemployment in Zimbabwe is thought to top 90% and many cannot afford to pay for food, medical care or school fees.

The deputy head teacher of a large school with 1,500 pupils east of Victoria Falls told the BBC that hundreds of her female students are now selling their bodies for whatever they can get.

“It could be books, it could be biscuits, chips, some even just to be given a hug.”

Many Zimbabwean children face terrible risks as part of their everyday lives

Throughout my conversation with the deputy head, two small teenage girls in threadbare school uniforms sat watching from a brick wall by the playground. Both are orphans.

The older one, who is 14, said she knows many girls here who have become prostitutes.

“I don’t want to do that but life is so difficult, so very difficult. Both my parents are dead and I rarely see my two sisters. Recently I stood by the river and I thought about throwing myself in but I didn’t. I don’t know why.”

There is also evidence that many girls are being targeted by child traffickers, Save the Children’s country director Rachel Pounds says.

They are thought to have plans to send young Zimbabwean girls to South Africa to work as prostitutes during next year’s football World Cup finals.

See also: Children exchange sex for money in Côte d’Ivoire

Countries that are at war such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq get only US$1.30 a person a year in aid to help prevent mothers dying from childbirth and children dying before they are five, a study has found.

In war-affected countries, 1,041 pregnant women die for every 100,000 live births due to complications such as bleeding, infections and obstructed labour compared to nine such deaths in advanced countries with modern healthcare facilities.

In an article in PLoS Medicine, researchers in Britain said they trawled through databases kept by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and United Nations and found that a total of US$20.8 billion was given each year between 2003 and 2006 to 18 countries that were affected by war.

These 18 were among the least developed countries in the world and which were considered as being affected by war or conflict between 2003 and 2006.

Out of this total, US$509.3 million, or 2.4 percent, was allocated to reproductive health. This amounts to just US$1.30 for each person per year.

Reproductive health concerns women dying at childbirth and children dying before the age of five from malaria, malnutrition, measles, diarrhea and acute respiratory diseases.

In comparison, developing nations which were not at war – such as Bangladesh, Malawi and Cambodia – were getting an average of US$2.50 a person a year.

“The amount is higher for nonconflict-affected least-developed countries despite the fact that conflict-affected least-developed countries appear to have generally worse reproductive health indicators,” wrote the researchers, led by Preeti Patel of King’s College London and Bayard Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In underdeveloped countries that were unaffected by war, 720 women die from childbirth for every 100,000 live births.

The article did not address why countries in conflict got less aid than those that were not at war.

Paul Speigel of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who was not involved with the study, said donor nations must address this disparity.

“If the world is to meet the Millennium Development Goals, especially those related to child mortality, maternal health, and HIV/AIDS, then reproductive health issues related to conflict and post-conflict settings must be better understood and addressed in a more equitable manner than is currently the case,” he said.

The paper is available at: doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000090

The United Nations Security Council is failing to make good on its promises to stop rape in war, Human Rights Watch said today. The council should immediately create a high-level coordinator for efforts to prevent and punish sexual violence in conflict, the organization said.

On June 19, 2008, the Security Council adopted the ground-breaking resolution 1820, spelling out concrete obligations of individual countries and United Nations entities to prevent and punish sexual violence when it is used as a weapon of war. But such violence in many places is unabated or worse, and the Security Council has not made use of its powers to stop it. The resolution included explicit commitments to prosecute sexual abuse committed by UN peacekeepers and to oblige peacekeepers to prioritize the protection of women and girls, but to little effect.

“The Security Council has been all talk and no action when it comes to protecting women in war zones,” said Marianne Mollmann, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Even after the council members’ May visit to Congo – which currently has the worst record on rape in war – it’s back to business as usual.”

The Security Council will discuss the protection of civilians on June 26, and sexual violence in conflict on July 17. Human Rights Watch and other groups have expressed hope that these debates will move the council closer to the creating a high-level post to address the human rights and needs of women in armed conflict.

The 2008 resolution on sexual violence followed a broader set of commitments on women in conflict made in 2000 in Security Council resolution 1325, including a call to include women in peace processes and negotiations. A recent study by UNIFEM, the UN fund for women, shows little if any movement on these issues as well. Many governments and representatives of private groups have said that the lack of a high-level spokesperson on women in armed conflict at the UN secretariat is a major reason for these failures.

“The UN needs a coordinator on the issue of women and armed conflict, at a level that signals accountability and commitment – a special representative or envoy to the secretary-general,” Mollmann said. “Momentum has been building for an appointment of this kind, but it needs to happen now.”

See also:
* Caritas Internationalis says there is a collective failure by governments to protect women and girls in conflict situations from rape and other forms of violence and exploitation.
* We fear any man in a soldier’s uniform, say Congo’s women
* Rape and prostitution on the rise in Somalia says UN

Two Burmese women’s organizations in the Indo-Burmese border town of Moreh were forced to cancel a planned protest rally to be held on Friday after authorities pressured the officer who had issued permission for the rally to cancel the authorization.

The Kuki Women’s Human Rights Organisation (KWHRO) and the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) sought permission from the Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) of Tengnoupal Subdivision of Moreh in India’s northeastern state of Manipur, bordering Burma, to hold a protest rally demanding the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on her 64th birthday on June 19.

Though the ADC gave permission, the women’s leaders said they were later persuaded by the ADC to cancel the plan.

“We already received permission on June 16. But this morning we were requested to cancel the plan,” Ngangai Haokip, a presidium board member of WLB told Mizzima.

She said the reasons for the request to cancel the plan were not officially declared, though the ADC had been pressured by his superiors to rescind the permission.

“The ADC was also pressured to ensure that we publish the cancellation of the program in the newspaper,” Ngangai added.

Earlier, the KWHRO, an ethnic Kuki women’s group working to promote the rights of women in Burma, and WLB, an umbrella Burmese women’s organization, planned to march through Moreh in protest against the continued detention of Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the current trial against her.

The program was planned as part of the global action for commemoration of the detained Burmese pro-democracy leader’s 64th birthday, on June 19. On Friday, Burmese activists and supporters across the world are set to hold prayer meetings, protest rallies, solidarity concerts and speeches in honor and solidarity with the Burmese democracy icon.

But Ngangai said the program in Moreh had been rescheduled to a simple and small cake-cutting ceremony to mark the occasion

Pressure from the ADC on the women’s groups to cancel their program came after the Imphal-based online Hueiyen News Service published a critical article on June 17 questioning the authority of the ADC to grant permission to protest to foreign organizations.

The article, entitled “How can an ADC permit foreigners to hold protest rally at Moreh?”, points out that allowing Burmese activists to protest in Moreh could provoke Burma’s military junta and eventually jeopardize diplomatic ties between India and Burma.

“With Moreh, being a town bordering Myanmar [Burma], any activity such as an open protest rally held there aimed at criticizing the ruling junta in Myanmar [Burma] is bound to certainly provoke the junta,” the article argued.

While it is still unknown who pressured the ADC to alter the original ruling, Ngangai speculated, “Now the ADC is worrying for his life and position after having originally given permission.”

Meanwhile, observers in Moreh conjectured pressure by Manipuri militants on the behest of the Burmese military could be behind the reversal of fortunes, as several Manipuri armed groups, including the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), reportedly benefit from close relationships with the Burmese military, even maintaining bases on Burmese soil.

See: Protests mark Suu Kyi’s birthday and What is 64 for Suu?
Also: Free Aung San Suu Kyi

Joint Statement By Malaysian Civil Society On PAS Resolution To Ban Sisters In Islam

We the undersigned are deeply disturbed by the call on the part of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to have Sisters in Islam (SIS) banned and its members rehabilitated should its activities be determined to be contrary to the Islamic shariah. It is apparent to us that in making the call in the manner that it has, PAS has already formed the view that SIS should be banned and its activities brought to an end.

While we respect the freedom of members of PAS to associate in a manner that they consider appropriate or warranted as well as their freedom to express a view in association on such matters as they see fit, the members of SIS, or any other organization for that matter, are equally guaranteed those freedoms. No one person or organization has a monopoly over the right to express views on matter of public importance. The call to silence SIS and send its members for rehabilitation is an act of violence against those freedoms and their constitutional underpinnings. It also lends itself to further closure of the already narrow space of public discourse and debate that a slew of anti-expression laws have allowed Malaysians.

For Malaysia to mature into the democracy that Malaysians aspire to, it is vital that diversity, even of views, be protected and nurtured. Respect for the freedoms guaranteed to all Malaysians by the Federal Constitution, be they members of PAS or any other organization or simply individuals, is crucial to this endeavor.

The demand for action against SIS culminating in a ban is not easily reconciled with PAS public rhetoric in favour of a more democratic and inclusive Malaysia. On the contrary, the demand is wholly anti-democratic. We reiterate that though members of PAS are entitled to their views, the call for the banning of SIS is wholly unacceptable. As a matter of principle, the question of banning any organization purely for their views should not arise at all. Differences of views must be respected and, if at all, be resolved through constructive engagement.

In view of this, we urge PAS to reconsider its position and take such steps as are necessary to retract the call for action against SIS.

Saudi Arabia made important commitments on women’s rights, on ending the juvenile death penalty and on other human rights issues during its review by the UN Human Rights Council on June 10, 2009 and should now work to carry out these reforms rapidly, Human Rights Watch said.

Saudi Arabia accepted a recommendation put forward by UN member states in February to take steps to end the system of male guardianship over women, to give full legal identity to Saudi women, and prohibit gender discrimination. The government also clarified that the Shari’a concept of male guardianship over women is not a legal requirement, and that “Islam guarantees a woman’s right to conduct her affairs and enjoy her legal capacity.”

“Saudi women have waited a long time for these changes,” said Nisha Varia, deputy director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. “Now they need concrete action so that these commitments do not remain words on paper in Geneva, but are felt by Saudi women in their daily lives.”

Human Rights Watch said that Saudi Arabia should establish an oversight mechanism to ensure that government agencies no longer request a guardian’s permission for a woman to work, travel, study, marry, or gain access health care or any public service.

The Universal Periodic Review of Saudi Arabia by the Human Rights Council, held in February and June, was the first such comprehensive international public scrutiny of the kingdom’s human rights record.

Saudi Arabia also accepted the recommendation to codify vague tenets of Shari’a criminal law currently open to widely disparate interpretations. Furthermore, the Saudi Human Rights Commission, representing the kingdom in Geneva, accepted the recommendation that only persons over 18 should be tried as adults and that there should be a moratorium on the death penalty for people who committed crimes under the age of 18.

Saudi Arabia is one of only five countries globally that continues to execute individuals convicted for crimes committed as children. Sultan bin Sulaiman bin Muslim al-Muwallad, a Saudi, and’ Isa bin Muhammad’ Umar Muhammad, a Chadian, each 17 years old at the time of their arrest in 2004, were executed in mid-May.

“Saudi Arabia should implement these changes immediately, including a review of any individuals currently awaiting the death penalty,” said Varia. “Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the inconsistent and unfair trials resulting from a lack of codified law.”

The Saudi government noted that it has drafted an ordinance on domestic workers to address their exclusion from labor laws. In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch showed how weak protections had left many domestic workers vulnerable to unpaid wages, exploitative working conditions, physical abuse, and forced labor.

“The draft ordinance has been discussed and debated for several years now with no concrete result,” said Varia. “The Saudi government needs to move past verbal commitments and ensure that these desperately needed measures are put into effect within the next few months.”

Other commitments included protections against discrimination in the employment of religious minorities, a commitment to issue the kingdom’s first law allowing the establishment of nongovernmental organizations, and an expression of openness to visits by international human rights experts from the United Nations and independent groups.

See: Universal Periodic Review of Saudi Arabia

Hong Kong will still not recognise gay marriages or relationships

The Domestic Violence Ordinance will have an amendment to include same sex couples, the Hong Kong Government have announced. However, the Government has been keen to stress that this will not mean the government will legally recognise same sex marriages or relationships in any other respect.

Following consultations, the new laws on domestic violence will remove all references to marriage or gender and refer to “cohabitation partnerships.”

But, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, the Minister for Labour and Welfare said that this “will not affect the Government’s policy stance of not recognising same sex marriage, civil partnership or any same sex relationship as a matter of legal status, nor will it involve or affect other existing legislation”.

He added: “Noting that the intimate relationship between same-sex cohabitants may entail similar special power interface, dynamics and risk factors as in the relationship between heterosexual cohabitants, and that violence incidents can quickly escalate into life-threatening situations or even fatality, we propose to extend the scope of the Domestic Violence Ordinance from covering only heterosexual cohabitants to include also same-sex cohabitants.”

The Government last August extended the scope of the law to include former spouses, former heterosexual cohabitants and other immediate and extended family members.

The Indian parliament has elected its first ever female speaker, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and a member of the Dalit caste, once known as an Untouchables.

MPs thumped their desks to cheer Meira Kumar, 64, as she was congratulated by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and LK Advani, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata party, after being elected unopposed.

Kumar is the daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a former deputy prime minister and a prominent leader of the Dalits, who sit on the lowest rung of India’s complex caste system. A lawyer, she has been elected to parliament five times and has also served as social justice minister. She gave up her job as a career diplomat to enter politics.

As speaker, Kumar presides over India’s powerful lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha. She replaces Somnath Chaterjee, a member of the Brahmin caste, India’s highest. He belonged to the Communist party of India (Marxist) until he was expelled after a dispute with party leadership last year.

Kumar’s election should boost the Congress party’s image as pro-female and supportive of the rights of the lower castes. The party chose Pratibha Patil as president – the country’s first female head of state – in 2007.

India has had other women in positions of power, most notably Indira Gandhi, who was elected prime minister in 1966, but women still face a great deal of every­day discrimination. Daughters are often considered a burden, mostly because tradition requires their families to pay large dowries. Their education is often neglected, and many do not get adequate medical treatment.

Ranjana Kumari, the director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, called Kumar’s election “indicative of greater acceptance for women’s leadership”.

The Egyptian parliament passed a law adding 64 seats reserved for women to the lower house of the legislature. The quota creates 32 new constituencies with two seats each for women candidates only. It will take effect during next year’s elections and raises the number of seats in the People’s Assembly from 454 to 518.

Egypt’s Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mufid Shehab stated that the law “ensures parity for women and promotes their role in society, as stipulated by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Egypt has signed,” reported Agence France Presse. Shehab also indicated the law will be effective for just two five-year parliamentary sessions in hopes that after that period, the number of women in parliament will increase without affirmative action.

While many Eqyptian women praise the law as a step forward, others believe it is only a superficial attempt at empowering women or are suspicious of governmental motives. Nagla Mohammed, a homemaker, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur,
“It is good that women should play a role in politics…But I can only judge the impact of their presence in parliament after I see their practical contribution. It is not a matter of having women in parliament – the question is what they will do.”

A new family law for Sunnis, which protects the rights of women in Shariah (Islamic) law courts, was approved by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, on May 27. Women’s activists have pledged to continue their fight for a just law for the Gulf Arab kingdom’s Shiites.

The law-making lower and upper houses had approved the personnel status (family) draft law for Sunnis on May 18. The law has been drafted as a guideline for Shariah courts.

Bahrain’s Shiites were excluded from the legislation in February after hardline scholars and lawmakers from the community threatened action, including nationwide protests and rallies similar to 2004.

That year, street protests led by followers of conservative Shiite scholar Isa Qassim had forced the government to call off a campaign in support of the new family law. Khalil Marzooq, spokesperson of the largest Shii’te bloc Al Wefaq, that was behind the shelving of the Shi’ite chapter, told IPS that the draft law clashed with Islamic Shariah principles.

Sunnis and Shiites have their own Shariah courts that deal with marital conflicts and other personal law issues. Women’s activists have been demanding one family law with separate chapters for Shiites and Sunnis.

But Shiite Islamic hardliners say they fear it may be the first step to Bahraini Muslims being judged by the country’s secular, civil law – a charge rejected by Leftist lawyer Sami Siyadi who told IPS: “The penal code contains a section on crimes against Islam and family, ratified in 1976. It has been updated many times since, and none of the amendments clashes with Islamic principles.”

For nearly three decades, Bahrain’s Sunni and Shiite women have been demanding a fair hearing for women in the Shariah courts.

Shariah law court judges are notoriously pejorative of women litigants in divorce, child custody, inheritance and marriage disputes. Women complain of being humiliated in open court by male judges.

Hanan, who wanted to be identified by only her first name, said she was told to “keep her mouth shut” when she tried to explain how her husband no longer spends money on her and their children. “I felt humiliated and angry at the judge who was rude and insulted me in court,” she told IPS. “I don’t deserve such treatment even if I spoke without permission.”

Hanan said the judge then turned down her petition without giving her a chance to argue her case. Shariah court verdicts here cannot be challenged under civil law.

The Bahrain Women’s Union which has been at the forefront of the campaign for a new family law has vowed to keep fighting. Union president, Marian Al Ruwai, told IPS in an interview that any law that divided Bahrainis should be rejected.

The Union, which has fought along with women’s groups for change over the past 28 years (the Union was established few years back), has consulted with religious scholars from both sides to draft a mutually agreeable proposal for a law based on Shariah principles.

“Scholars from both sects highlighted their views, especially the Shi’ite scholars who stressed the need for constitutional assurances that lawmakers wouldn’t have the power to amend the legislation and over-turn the Shariah law,” Al Ruwai explained.

Shariah courts in this tiny Arab Gulf state of roughly one million people, deal with an average of 20 cases related to women every month, according to the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs.

Women’s activists say that even divorce cases filed by abandoned women who have the right to seek Khula under the Shariah – ask for divorce without the need to state reasons –were invariably rejected on trivial grounds.

Shariah courts grant divorce only when women can prove they were physically abused by their husbands. Separation is not considered a ground for divorce.

Take the case of Ruqaya, a Shiite, who works in the Ministry of Health, and has supported her three daughters for five years. Her husband left her to marry another woman. When she filed for divorce, she was blacklisted in her village. Worse, the Shariah court rejected her divorce case.

The problem is that as a woman who is still legally married, Ruqaya cannot claim rights to housing and other social welfare measures available to Bahraini citizens. These rights can be claimed only by a husband.

Afaf Al Jamri, a Shiite activist, says she is worried that women in her community may suffer more repression from “husbands and judges”. “Many women are suffering in silence, especially those who were thrown out by their husbands just because they got old and were replaced by younger wives,” she told IPS in an interview.

According to lawyer Siyadi, Shariah judges have a tough time passing judgements. They have to search and search the religious books for the relevant guidance.

“The new family law would specify what conditions apply to marriage and divorce, alimony, child custody and inheritance. That would be better than depending on individual judges’ opinions,” he said. “Life is complicated, so leaving judgments in the hands of judges without the guidance of specific laws is difficult and unrealistic.”

One can be born in Lebanon and live here all one’s life, and still not be a Lebanese citizen. Lebanon is one of few remaining countries in the Middle East where a mother is unable to pass citizenship to her children.

Campaigners have succeeded in securing that right in countries such as Egypt, which amended the law in 2004 to allow women to pass citizenship to their children, and in Algeria, which granted women full citizenship rights in 2005. In Lebanon the struggle continues.

“Lebanon is the worst,” says Lina Abou-Habib, director of Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action (CRTD-A), a group leading the campaign for women’s right to citizenship. Abou-Habib argues that the position in Lebanon is at variance with the popular belief that women in Lebanon have more rights than in other Arab countries.

“Images of Botox women driving big yellow 4X4s does not mean that these women are enjoying their rights,” Abou-Habib told IPS. People outside Lebanon look at only a “small island of prosperity.”

CRTD-A began its citizenship campaign in 2002 as part of a larger effort to support women who face inequality in the male-dominated Lebanese society. In the last parliamentary election in 2005, only three women were among the 128 members elected. The campaigners are hoping for more after the next election Jun. 7.

“It’s crucial before the parliamentary elections because the only person in the government who finally got to understand the campaign is (Lebanese minister for the interior) Ziad Baroud,” says Abou-Habib. Campaigners fear that Baroud, a lawyer who was a part of the campaign before taking office, and has supported it since, could lose his position in a new government.

They now want to make sure that the issue of citizenship rights for women remains on the table, and can be picked up by the incoming government.

Under the current law, written in 1925 and modified slightly in 1994, Lebanese women cannot pass their citizenship to their spouse or children. In a country of only about four million, but with as many as 400,000 Palestinian refugees and tens of thousands of Syrians and other nationalities, this lack of rights for women is affecting many families.

Non-Lebanese citizens face difficulties receiving equal social services such as healthcare, education and welfare, and in many cases are prevented from working.

For Palestinians, the issue goes back 60 years when most came to Lebanon after being forced from their homes in 1948 when the state of Israel was created. They have never been given Lebanese citizenship or equal rights.

Special laws bar Palestinians from working in more than 70 professions in Lebanon. And without nationality, the children are affected as well.

Sharif Bibi, a 30-year-old graphic designer from Beirut, spoke to IPS about issues he faces as the son of a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother. “I had to quit my job last month because of the discrimination that I faced. I was underpaid, and social security tax was deducted from my pay check even though I don’t benefit from it.

“I was born in Lebanon, my grandfather is Lebanese, my uncles, cousins are all Lebanese, and I know Lebanon better than some of my Lebanese friends. I don’t understand why I’m not eligible to be treated like any other Lebanese person.”

Some lawmakers say these restrictions protect Palestinians’ right to return to Palestine guaranteed to them by UN General Assembly resolution 194 that was passed months after their exile in 1948.

Abou-Habib dismisses this argument. “If they’re so worried about the right of return, why don’t they say anything in situations where Palestinian women are married to Lebanese men?” Abou-Habib says this is an issue about women’s rights, and “not one that should be tied to the Palestinian question.”

The citizenship law means that many feel discriminated against in their own community. Abir, a saleswoman at an upscale clothing store in Beirut who chose not to give her last name, became visibly uncomfortable when asked about her nationality.

“The discrimination I’ve experienced for being who I am has made me depressed over the years when I was growing up,” she told IPS. “I sent many job applications, and it’s either I don’t get any call from the job; or, I have seen the employer throw my job application in the trash bin after finding out what I am.

“The truth is that my mother is from south Lebanon and my father is Syrian, and we live in Beirut,” she says. “It is really difficult sometimes when I meet people and they ask me where I’m from. Now I say I’m from Beirut, to avoid discrimination.”

Many lawmakers say that modifying citizenship laws would greatly alter the fragile demographics of the country. Abou-Habib says the sectarian make- up of Lebanon is one of the leading reasons behind the “racist and discriminatory policies…lawmakers do not understand their job. They don’t know that their job is to secure people’s rights.”

Bibi and his family live without those rights every day. “It’s sad because my mother always feels it’s her fault. She feels that after she married a Palestinian man they stopped treating her like a Lebanese citizen, and it made her feel like a second class citizen, or not even a citizen at all.”

Foreigners married to Malaysians should be treated equally as locals and be recognised as a part of our society, said Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun.

“It is ridiculous for pregnant foreign wives to pay double the medical fees when they are giving birth to Malaysian children,” she said after attending a forum and workshop on foreign spouses in Malaysia, organised by Wanita MCA and the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research here yesterday.

She said the party and the Women’s Aid Organisation had received requests from foreign spouses to help them obtain citizenship and permanent resident status.

MCA Public Services and Complaints Department head Datuk Michael Chong said he had dealt with cases of foreigners who were forced to return to their home country because their Malaysian husbands wanted to divorce them.

He would be presenting some solutions to Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein.

Some would say socialist feminism is an artifact of the 1970s. It flowered with the women’s liberation movement, as a theoretical response to what many in the movement saw as the inadequacies of Marxism, liberalism, and radical feminism, but since then it has been defunct, both theoretically and politically. I think this view is mistaken.

Socialist feminism should be seen as an ongoing project. It is alive and well today and it existed before the women’s liberation movement as well—though both now and then, not necessarily in that name. It has sometimes been called Marxism, sometimes socialist feminism, sometimes womanism, sometimes materialist feminism, or feminist materialism, and sometimes is implicit in work that bears no theoretical labels.

The broad characterization of socialist feminism I am using allows for a range of views regarding the relationship among the many facets of our identities. Some of us would make class fundamental from an explanatory point of view, while others would refuse to give a general primacy to any one factor over others. Despite these differences in our perspectives, in the broad sense of “socialist feminism” that I am using here, all socialist feminists see class as central to women’s lives, yet at the same time none would reduce sex or race oppression to economic exploitation. And all of us see these aspects of our lives as inseparably and systematically related; in other words, class is always gendered and raced. We should promote conversation, dialogue, and debate among these different perspectives, but it is important to see that the conversation takes place within a common project that underlies the differences. The project has a long history.

What we now call feminism came to public attention in the eighteenth century, most notably in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), where she argued for equal opportunity for women based on a rational capacity common to both sexes, expressing “the wild wish to see the sex distinction confounded in society.” Her feminist aspirations came together with socialistic aims in the thinking of a number of utopian socialists, whose visions of socialism included not only sexual equality in the family and society at large but the end of the sexual division of labor—Wollstonecraft’s “wild wish” which is radical even today. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shared these aspirations and deepened the critique of naturalistic justifications of all social hierarchies. But Marx and Engels were impatient with blueprints for a good society and focused instead on developing a theory of history, society, and social change which would be the basis for the realization of these ideals. It is worth pausing briefly to consider what Marx and Engels said, since Marxism has had a great influence on feminism, whether it has been appropriated, rejected, or transformed.

In the mid-1970s many women within the women’s liberation movement found themselves dissatisfied with the prevailing analyses of women’s oppression. Liberalism was not radical enough, and radical feminism ignored economic realities. But Marxism was tainted, as Adrienne Rich describes, “by the fear that class would erase gender once again, when gender was just beginning to be understood as a political category.”2 Seeking to combine the best of Marxism and radical feminism, these women developed a theory they called socialist feminism. When socialist feminism is intended in this way—as differentiated from Marxism—”Marxist feminism” is then understood as a perspective which gives primacy to class oppression as opposed to other forms of oppression—or going further, that reduces sex oppression to class oppression. (Radical feminism asserts the reverse relationship.)

In the 1990s the term “materialist feminism” gained currency, coined by feminists who wanted to give some grounding in social realities to postmodernist theory. However, materialist feminism is “a rather problematic and elusive concept,” in Martha Gimenez’s apt characterization, in that sometimes it is used more or less as a synonym for “Marxist” or “socialist feminist” combined with discourse analysis (as in the work of Rosemary Hennessy), while it is also used by cultural feminists who want nothing to do with Marxism. Yet another term that does not necessarily signal a distinct theoretical perspective regarding the relationship among class, sex, and race is “womanist,” a term preferred by some women of color who feel that “feminist” is too one-dimensional and who want to indicate solidarity with men of color as well as with women. Similarly, those who call themselves “multicultural” or “global” feminists would be socialist feminists in my broad sense. Feminists use a particular term to situate themselves within particular debates.

It is “socialist feminism” in the narrower sense that has declined. Developed by feminists who accepted Marxism’s critique of capitalism but rejected the view that women’s oppression was reducible to class oppression—which is how they understood the Marxist analysis—they argued that women’s position in today’s society was a function of both the economic system (capitalism) and the sex-gender system, which they called patriarchy. Some socialist feminists preferred to speak of one system they called capitalist patriarchy. But whether they preferred one system or two, the key claim was that the mode of production had no greater primacy than sex-gender relations in explaining women’s subordination. Many saw the Marxist emphasis on wage labor rather than on all kinds of labor, especially mothering, and on the relations of production rather than on the relations they called “the relations of reproduction,” (sexuality and parenting), as sexist. Convinced that “the personal is political” they wanted to give theoretical and political attention to issues of sex, sexuality, and relations in the family which some utopian socialists had addressed but which most Marxists ignored.

This distinctively anti-Marxist version of socialist feminism declined I believe, for both internal and external reasons. Socialist feminists of the 1970s had criticized liberal and Marxist writers for using categories that were “gender-blind”: “the individual” in liberalism, “the working class” in Marxism. Such categories ignore sex differences among individuals and workers, feminists argued, and hence neither liberalism nor Marxism could explain women’s oppression. But women of color could and did make the same criticism of feminism, including socialist feminism, for using race-blind categories: “working class women,” or simply “women.” To accommodate race oppression (and heterosexism and other forms of oppression), there seemed to be two choices. If we need to posit “a system of social relations” to explain sexism as they argued, then to explain racism (and other forms of oppression) we would have to posit systems beyond capitalism and patriarchy. This option raised a number of questions including: What exactly constitutes a “system”? How many is enough? How are they related? How does the resulting perspective differ from simple pluralism? The other option was to go back to a theory like Marxism which aims to be all-inclusive. Since socialist feminists had distinguished themselves from Marxists because they were unclear how to integrate different forms of oppression without reducing one to the other, this did not seem an attractive option, but neither did the multiplication of systems. Hence there was and remains a lack of clarity, and disagreement as to exactly how different forms of oppression are related.

Turning to political causes, the decline of women’s liberation and other social movements had a profound impact. The explosion of writing by feminists of all persuasions (indeed the creation of these “persuasions”) was a product of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Consider the fact that a number of very influential articles of this period began as position statements for activist groups (the Redstockings’ Manifesto, the Combahee River Collective’s Statement), or as collective papers (Heidi Hartmann’s and Gayle Rubin’s—two of the most influential of this period). New movements stimulated new theorizing; for example, the gay and lesbian movements gave rise to the academic field Queer Studies. With the move of many activists into social policy and service work for women, into academia, and into families and middle age this essential active stimulation was lost. It is not coincidental that the hottest feminist theorizing of the last decade was of a highly academic sort—postmodernism—while the dominant politics have been the most local and particularistic form of identity politics. Moreover, of course, we have to appreciate the context in which all this has taken place, namely, the general rightward political drift throughout the world during the 1980s and much of the 1990s.

Extracts from an essay adapted from the introduction to The Socialist Feminist Project: A Contemporary Reader in Theory and Politics, edited by Nancy Holmstrom (Monthly Review Press, 2002). You can read the full essay at

Part of a BBC series charting the history of America, written and presented by David Reynolds.

American women push back against sexism, demanding career opportunities and access to birth control.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 3:45pm Thursday 11th June 2009
Duration: 15 minutes
Available until: 4:02pm Thursday 18th June 2009

After years on the defensive during the Bush administration, the National Organization for Women is elated to have a president sharing many of its goals. Yet NOW heads into its own leadership contest — a sharp contrast of age and race — mindful of the need to energize its ranks.

Kim Gandy, a savvy former prosecutor, is stepping down as NOW president after eight years leading the battle against many Bush-era policies.

The election to succeed her, set for NOW’s three-day national conference starting Friday in Indianapolis, is both an unusual clash of generations and an opportunity for activists to confront some of the challenges facing the feminist movement.

Delegates will be choosing between Latifa Lyles, a 33-year-old African-American who has been one of Gandy’s three vice presidents, and Terry O’Neill, 56, a white activist who taught law at Tulane University, who was NOW’s vice president for membership from 2001-05, and who most recently has been chief of staff for a county council member in Maryland’s Montgomery County.

The two have waged a polite campaign but are aware of the contrasts. Lyles would be NOW’s youngest president ever; O’Neill one of the oldest at the start of a term.

Gandy speaks respectfully of O’Neill, but she has enthusiastically endorsed Lyles.

“It’s hard to ignore the fact there’s been a generational shift in the country, and an organization that doesn’t recognize that is living in the past,” Gandy said. “Latifa’s youth is not a detriment, but an advantage. … She’ll take NOW to a different level.”

Yet one of NOW’s three current vice presidents — Olga Vives — is backing O’Neill, as are former NOW president Patricia Ireland and many other NOW regional leaders.

Both contenders expect the election to be close, and both are promoting themselves as best able to bolster NOW’s membership.

“We are not the strongest grass-roots movement we can be — we both agree on that,” Lyles said. “The question is how we deal with that.”

Noting that she contrasts with NOW’s mostly white and over-40 membership, Lyles said she could help give NOW a new image of youth and diversity that would appeal to younger feminists and reinvigorate the broader movement.

“The profile of NOW is just as important as the work we do,” she said. “There are a lot of antiquated notions about what feminism is.”

O’Neill, in turn, says she has the edge over Lyles in regard to grass-roots organizing and membership recruitment.

“I keep hearing `Terry, I want to see more activism in my community,'” O’Neill said. “The press releases, the media exposure, invitations to the White House — these are excellent things, but they’re not enough. The grass roots are not personally engaged.”

Like many feminists, O’Neill said she is still celebrating Barack Obama’s election as president — and his appointments of numerous veterans of the women’s movement to key posts in his administration.

“But even with a friend in the White House and a lot of friends in the Congress, it’s going to take well-organized, grass-roots movement to advance our agenda,” O’Neill said.

That agenda — more or less common to both tickets — includes ensuring that women’s needs are taken into account in health care reform and economic recovery initiatives. Feminists also bristle at continuing opposition to steps that would make birth control and abortion more accessible.

Ireland, NOW’s president from 1991 to 2001, says she is backing O’Neill — and serving as campaign treasurer — based largely on an assessment of the candidates’ tactical skills.

“There is a role that requires us to take unpopular stands and push on our friends,” Ireland said. “That’s what I think Terry really gets. She’s the one I believe will be very willing to use a wide array of tactics — not just traditional letters and e-mails, but also engage in civil disobedience, organize fasts, be at some congressman’s district office.”

However, Jessica Valenti, a prominent younger feminist who has been following the NOW campaign, says her contemporaries would be far more excited if Lyles triumphs over O’Neill.

“I never paid attention to a NOW election in my life until I knew Latifa was running,” said Valenti, 30, founder and executive editor of the popular blog

“This could be the moment where NOW becomes super-relevant to the feminist movement again,” Valenti said. “NOW has done amazing work over the years. But younger feminists, online feminists — we haven’t had a lot of connections with them.”

“When you think of NOW, you think of white middle-class feminism — 70s feminism,” Valenti added. “A lot of younger women are tired of seeing the same kind of leadership over and over. … They’re getting excited about smaller, local feminist organizations, more youth-led, doing more cutting-edge work.”

Overall, NOW says it has more than 500,000 “contributing members” — who are either paying membership dues at present or did so recently enough to stay on the mailing list. Gandy said there’s been a recent dip in membership revenues, but it’s modest enough so far that NOW has been able to avoid the staff layoffs occurring at many other nonprofits.

Gandy, 55, chuckled during a telephone interview when it was noted that both candidates to succeed her are promising to improve NOW’s grass-roots outreach.

“Every candidate is going to say that,” she said, recalling similar promises of her own. “The reality is that people who vote are from the grass roots, and every candidate is going to say `You’re going to get more attention from us.'”

Gandy was an early and passionate supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primary campaign, but shifted firmly into the Obama camp when he won the nomination and remains a fan of his.

“There’s no question that most progressives are giving President Obama some space to do the things he promised to do,” Gandy said. “That doesn’t mean that NOW’s pressure on the Congress or state legislatures is unnecessary. … You have to keep raising the issues, keep them in front of people.”