Archive for March 18th, 2010

Prohibition of the burqa and the niqab would not liberate oppressed women, but might instead lead to their further alienation in European societies. A general ban on such attires would constitute an ill-advised invasion of individual privacy. Depending on its precise terms, a prohibition also raises serious questions about whether such legislation would be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Two rights in the Convention are particularly relevant. One is the right to respect for ones private life and personal identity (Article 8). The other is the freedom to manifest ones religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance (Article 9).

Both articles specify that these human rights can only be subject to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are notably necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Those who have argued for a general ban of the burqa and the niqab have not managed to show that these garments in any way undermine democracy, public safety, order or morals. The fact that a very small number of women wear such clothing has made proposals in such a direction even less convincing.

Nor has it been possible to prove that these women in general are victims of more gender repression than others. Those who have been interviewed in the media have presented a diversity of religious, political and personal arguments for their decision to dress themselves as they do. There may of course be cases where they are under undue pressure – but it is not shown that a ban would be welcomed by these women.

No doubt, the status of women is an acute problem within some religious communities. This needs to be discussed, but prohibiting symptoms like clothing is not the way to do it, especially as these may not always be the reflection of religious beliefs, but the expression of broader cultural aspects.

Rightly, we react strongly against any regime ruling that women must wear these garments. This is absolutely repressive and should not be accepted. However, this is not remedied by banning the same clothing in other countries.

A serious approach requires an assessment of the genuine consequences of decisions in this area. For instance, the suggestion to ban the presence of women dressed in the burqa/niqab in public institutions like hospitals or government offices may only result in these women avoiding such places entirely.

The fact that the public discussion in a number of European countries has almost exclusively focused on what is perceived as Muslim dress has been unfortunate and created the impression of targeting one particular religion. Some of the arguments have been clearly Islamophobic and that has certainly not built bridges or encouraged dialogue.

Indeed, one effect is that the wearing of a full cover dress has become a means of protesting against intolerance in our communities. The insensitive discussion about prohibitions has provoked a polarisation.

In general, the approach should be that the State must avoid legislating on how people dress themselves. It is, however, legitimate to regulate that those who represent the State, for instance police officers and judges, do not wear clothes or carry symbols which signal a partisan religious or party political interest. Likewise, civil servants in contact with the public should not have their face covered.

This is where the basic line should be drawn.

The European Court ruled recently in this spirit. This was in a case about the criminal conviction of individuals who had worn headgear and religious garments in a public place. The Court found that this conviction constituted a violation of their right to freedom of conscience and religion and that the interference was not “necessary in a democratic society”.1

Beyond this, there are particular situations where there are compelling community interests that make it necessary for individuals to show themselves for the sake of safety or in order to offer the possibility of necessary identification. This is not controversial and, in fact, there are no reports of serious problems in this regard in relation to the few women who normally wear a burqa or a niqab.

A related problem has come under discussion in Sweden. A jobless man of Islamic faith lost his subsidy from a State agency for employment support because he had refused to shake the hand of a female employer when turning up for a job interview. He had claimed religious reasons.

A court ruled later, after a submission from the Equality Ombudsman, that the agency decision was discriminatory and that the man should be compensated. Though this is in line with human rights standards, it was regarded as controversial in the public debate which followed.

It is likely that more issues of this kind will surface in the coming years and, on the whole, it is only healthy that they should be discussed – as long as Islamophobic tendencies are avoided. However, attempts should be made to broaden the discourse to cover essential matters, including how to promote understanding of different religions, cultures and customs. Pluralism and multiculturalism are essential European values and should so remain.

This in turn may require more discussion of the meaning of respect. In the debates about the Danish cartoons from 2005 it was repeatedly stated that there was a contradiction between demonstrating respect for believers and protecting freedom of expression as stipulated in Article 10 of the European Convention.

The Strasbourg Court analysed this dilemma in the famous case of Otto-Preminger-Institute v. Austria in which it stated that those who choose to exercise the freedom to manifest their religion cannot reasonably expect to be exempt from all criticism. They must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs and even the propagation by others of doctrines hostile to their faith.

In the same judgment the Court stated that consideration should also be given to the risk that the respect for religious feelings of believers may be violated by provocative portrayals of objects of religious significance and that such portrayals can be regarded as malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance, which must also be a feature of democratic society.

In other words, tolerance is a two-way street.

The political challenge is to promote diversity and respect for the beliefs of others and at the same time protect freedom of speech. If the wearing of a full-face veil is understood as an expression of a certain opinion, we are talking here about similar or identical rights though seen from two different angles.

A prohibition of the burqa and the niqab would in my opinion be as unfortunate as it would have been to criminalise the Danish cartoons. Such banning is alien to European values. Instead we should promote multicultural dialogue and respect for human rights.

Thomas Hammarberg

1. Ahmet Arslan and Others v Turkey, judgment of 23 February 2010.

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Many women at the Jean-Marie Vincent site for displaced people (IDPs) in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince wash themselves inside their makeshift tents because the only alternative is to do so out in the open. Given the overcrowding and meagre security, this exposes them to the risk of attack or rape.

Going to the site’s latrines is also risky, especially at night, for there is no lighting and some toilets are isolated.

“We have not yet reached a standard of organization that respects women’s rights,” Smith Maximé of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Haiti told IRIN.

“We have registered rape cases that occurred when women were in the latrines. When toilets are not secured – as in many of the camps – women are often attacked there,” he added.

The failure to meet established minimum disaster relief standards [,english/] is “creating serious security, privacy and dignity concerns”, according to the Gender in Humanitarian Response Working Group*.

“Increased lighting surrounding those latrines should be an immediate priority to ensure the safety of women and girls using sanitation facilities at night,” the Group said in a statement issued in late February.

“Increased attention must be paid to the provision of dedicated and private bathing facilities to reduce women’s current vulnerability to sexual violence. Though many women and girls bathed outdoors prior to the earthquake, the nature of many IDP sites (crowded living conditions, living near strangers) is creating new vulnerabilities to violence and exploitation, in particular at night, that did not necessarily exist before,” it said.

Overcrowding and lack of lighting in camps are part of the problem. In many camps there is no space between tents. Aid organizations and the government plan to move people from 21 of the most congested sites either back home, to host families or to land recently allotted by the authorities. In the meantime aid agencies are putting some security measures in place, such as installing lights.

“Protection is one of the major issues of concern when sites are over-congested,” Sara Ribeiro, protection coordinator with the International Organization for Migration, told IRIN. IOM is the lead agency for the group of agencies collectively tasked with organizing the management of camps for displaced people.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), [] a group of UN and non-UN organizations that since 1992 has worked to harmonize humanitarian best practice, stipulates [] that humanitarian actors must ensure that the route to water and sanitation facilities is safe and that latrines are well lit and lockable from the inside.

Ribeiro said another major problem was a lack of camp management agencies. As of 4 March just one-fifth of the 400 camps for displaced families had such agencies in place, she said.

Community watch groups are forming in many sites; OCHA states in a 4 March report that these groups will need training to increase the protection of women and girls.

UNFPA is working with the authorities and local NGOs to revive a system of reporting sexual violence cases. “But our immediate focus is to disseminate information on available medical and psycho-social support, and to [put first] the rights and choices of the survivor,” Lina Abirafeh, GBV coordinator for UNFPA in Haiti, told IRIN.

The agency is compiling a list of hospitals and NGOs that provide medical and counselling services for distribution in the camps.

UN aid workers say no comprehensive statistics of rape in the camps are available but rape and impunity have long been widespread in Haiti, as IASC notes. In 2008 Amnesty International reported “shocking levels” of sexual violence against girls. []

* The group comprises representatives of MINUSTAH-Human Rights, MINUSTAH-Gender Unit, UNIFEM, UNFPA, World Food Programme, IOM, UN Children’s Fund, and several NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee, American Refugee Committee, and International Medical Corps.

Edited version of report at

Egypt’s Constitutional Court backed the right of women judges to sit on the bench in the state’s administrative courts, despite opposition from conservatives, state media reported Monday.

The ruling follows a dispute within the State Council, the top administrative court, over whether women should be appointed.

The body’s general assembly voted overwhelmingly against female judges, reigniting a debate within the country over women holding senior government posts, particularly in the judiciary.

Women’s groups picketed the State Council following the decision.

The court’s supervisory body, however, is headed by a moderate and overruled the assembly, saying women should be considered for the job. The prime minister then referred the standoff to the Constitutional Court.

The top court’s ruling Sunday said all citizens are equal before the law, and backed the State Council’s supervisory body’s jurisdiction over the issue.

Nasser Amin, a legal expert, said however the ruling was not “decisive” and debates within the administrative courts could still continue along the conservative-liberal faultline.

“This is a conflict between liberals and conservatives within all instituations of the state,” he said. “The Constitutional Court could have put an end to it by saying discriminating against women in public office is unconstitutional and must stop.”

The president appointed the first female judge to the Constitutional Court in 2003 and four years later 31 other female judges were installed.

Despite seeing beginning of the women’s emanicipation movement in the Middle East and being the birthplace of several historic activists for women’s rights, Egypt has lagged behind other Arab countries like Tunisia in appointing women judges.

Iranian women’s groups and other organizations are fighting a much-discussed proposed law which they say would encourage polygamy by allowing a man to take a second wife without the permission of the first under certain circumstances. The proposal comes at a time when the country has been rocked by protests, in which women have played a major part, following the disputed re-election last June of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Although Islamic law permits a man to marry up to four wives (with strict restrictions), polygamy is not widely practiced in Iran. At present, an Iranian man needs his wife’s permission to take a second wife.

A so-called Family Protection Law, proposed by the government in 2008, stated that a man could marry a second wife on the condition that he could afford both wives financially. The Parliament dropped that clause following a wave of opposition from women. However, it is now reconsidering a different version of the same provision.

The spokesman for the Parliament’s Judicial and Legal Commission, Amir Hussein Rahimi, announced recently that the commission has now approved Article 23 of the proposed Family Protection Law that states, “A man can marry a second wife under 10 conditions.” The new version still requires the first wife to give her husband permission, though, much more controversially, this permission would not be required under certain conditions, such as if she is mentally ill, suffers from infertility, does not cooperate sexually or has a chronic medical condition or drug addiction.

Iranian women still oppose the legalization of polygamy, saying it weakens their role and status at home and in society.

The original plan was dropped after a group of intellectuals, religious, social and human rights activists created a movement to voice their opposition to the law. In September 2008, a group of 50 well-known women, including poet Simin Behbahani, politician Azam Taleghani and lawyer and Noble laureate Shirin Ebadi, met representatives from the Parliament to express their concerns about what they called “an anti-family protection law.”

Islamic organizations such as the Zeinab Association and the Women’s Organization of the Islamic Revolution also supported the movement. And the One Million Signatures campaign, which opposes discrimination against women, played a significant role in mobilizing public opinion.

The law was also controversial among government officials. Several reformists protested against it openly. Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, called it “persecution.” And a leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, stated, “If the first wife does not permit her husband to take another wife, the marriage will not be legitimate, even if a man can support both wives financially.”

Nevertheless, the Speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, has declared that the legislature will consider a slightly amended version of the controversial article. To which a young member of the Center for Iranian Women, Taraneh Bani Yaghoub, replied, “The women’s movement will not remain quiet.”

Iran’s first law recognizing polygamy was passed when Reza Shah, who ruled between 1925 and 1941, was in power. In 1970, female activists demanded that the secular regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi outlaw polygamy, but despite the government’s positive reaction to their demand, clerics prevented it. In 1975, an alternative law was adopted, stating that polygamy was permitted under certain conditions, such as obtaining the first wife’s permission.

Much has changed in Iran since 1976, when only 36 percent of women were literate. Now, according to the Statistical Center of Iran, 80 percent of women are educated, and almost 1.6 million are university graduates – compared to 46,000 in 1976. Despite government restrictions on women, the number of female professionals has increased to around 6 percent a year, or 2.5 million women in 2006, according to official statistics. A large group of educated women has shaped today’s Iranian society. For years, these women have demanded legal and social rights and equal treatment with men. They have resisted any law that weakens their rights or degrades their position in society.

Women are angry with the proposed law, and they have been disappointed by the reaction of key figures of the opposition movement. A recent statement signed by a group of women activists accused defeated presidential contenders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi of ignoring women’s rights and even their existence in their political manifestos. The women affirmed that “women’s issues are a major part of the current crisis and no solution will be achieved unless this issue is included.”

The full text can be found at

When Canada Border Services agents entered a downtown women’s shelter Feb. 27 in search of “Jane”, a non-status rape victim and single mother from Ghana, all they accomplished was her re-victimization and re-traumatization, allege a collective of anti-violence against women advocates last week.

With a banner declaring “deportation is violence against women” above their heads, seven representatives of organizations supporting the Shelter Sanctuary Status campaign spoke out against the “unprecedented attack” at an emergency press conference at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre.

“Why target these women? This smacks to me of lazy policing – it’s easy to go after the people who are very vulnerable; easy to go after the people who have few resources,” decried Anna Willats, a 10-year veteran professor with George Brown’s Assaulted Women’s and Children’s Counsellor/Advocate Program.

“The Canada Border Service Agency’s policy (of entering shelters to look for non-status women) is one that contributes to violence against women and it must be changed…deportation is a system that tears families apart, that takes women, uproots them from communities where they’ve established roots, and sends them back to horrific violence – to violence that could lead to their death.”

In the case of Jane, whose real name was withheld for the sake of her safety, that life of horrific violence began was she was just eight years old. Her parents, faced with the prospect of losing their daughter to grave illness, turned to a rural voodoo doctor in Ghana for help. The cost of curing her, however, was lifelong ownership of the girl.

Thus abandoned by her parents, young Jane spent the next decade of her life “held hostage” as a virtual sex slave, she said. She was raped on an almost daily basis. She escaped once, but was tracked down and brought back for more abuse.

It wasn’t until ten years of such abuse had passed that Jane was finally able to break free, she said. She fled to Canada in 1999 on a visitor’s visa. Here, she had an apartment, a car, a job, a life. She gave birth to her daughter here in Toronto. She was relatively happy and totally independent.

All that changed in 2006, when Jane’s refugee application was denied. An appeal saw the same result. A deportation order was filed, and Jane became desperate.

If deported back to Ghana, Jane fears those who took away her innocence as a young child will reassert their ownership rights over both her and her three-year-old daughter. She wants a much happier childhood for her daughter and a better life for them both. That’s why she went to Beatrice House, a downtown shelter, in the first place – as a refuge against the prospect of deportation back to a life of misery and violence, she admitted.

But the sense of safety and security she once felt in the arms of Toronto’s shelter system were shattered Feb. 27 when Jane received word that CBSA officers entered Beatrice House looking for her.

“I wasn’t staying there anymore, but one of the residents from the shelter called me. She told me that immigration officers came into the shelter looking for me,” she recalled, sitting huddled in a back room of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, away from prying camera lenses and shrouded by a scarf and dark sunglasses.

“I never thought Immigration would actually do something so low. I am not a criminal. I am a human being and shouldn’t be treated like this. I have the right to be in a shelter without being afraid that they will come to get me.”

The CBSA, however, begs to differ. In an email to The Guardian, the agency’s communications manager Anna Pape said that, while uncommon, CBSA does hold the authority to access shelters “in order to enforce outstanding immigration warrants.”

“The CBSA would only enter shelters in cases where a proactive investigation leads them there. In these rare cases, when entry to a shelter becomes necessary, the situation is always approached with sensitivity and discretion,” she said, noting that, to date, none of their visits have involved direct contact with residents, searches of living quarters, or physical altercations.

The problem with that policy, advocates contended Monday, is that the resultant threat of detention and deportation might force women and children to remain in an abusive situation.

Eileen Morrow, coordinator of the Ontario Association for Interval and Transition Houses, said the practice must stop.

“When enforcement officers violate the safety of a women’s shelter to execute their orders on any one woman, they send a message to other women that the shelter is not a safe or confidential space,” she said.

“Enforcement activities of the CBSA should not trump the women’s right to safety. With or without immigration status in this country, women have a human right to safety from violence, and with or without warrants the CBSA must stop looking for migrant and refugee women at shelters and other women’s services.”

Jane, meanwhile, has decided to remain in hiding; to shelter-hop until CBSA authorities give up trying to find her.

“I’m like a mouse, I’m still hiding. I want my status – to get my permanent residency to stay in Canada, but I’ve been denied for everything. That’s the struggle,” she said. “It’s been very difficult and I go through a lot of pain. I don’t sleep in my life. Even my baby, too, she is going through a lot of stress. She is Canadian but does not enjoy a Canadian’s life.”

The Shelter Sanctuary Status Coalition, a growing movement of more than 120 anti-violence against women organizations across Toronto, is demanding the CBSA immediately stop visiting or waiting outside shelters or organizations that provide services to women; that women fleeing domestic abuse and violence be given status immediately; and that a full and inclusive regularization program be implemented.

For more information, go to–women-s-advocates-want-an-end-to-shelter-searches

After a 14-year campaign, the male-dominated upper house votes overwhelmingly for more female MPs

Indian politicians took an important step on the path to making history when they overwhelmingly voted to reserve a third of all legislative seats across the country for women.

In what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as an “historic step forward toward emancipation of Indian womanhood”, the upper house of the country’s federal parliament voted 186-1 to set aside the seats in the national and state assemblies. Having overcome more than a decade of opposition, the politicians thumped on their desks to celebrate the passage of the bill.

Mr Singh, head of the Congress Party-led ruling coalition, added: “It is a momentous occasion in the long journey of empowering women that began at the dawn of freedom …. It is an historic occasion, which calls for celebration.”

Even though two of the most influential figures in the history of India since its independence from Britain in 1947 – Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law, the current Congress Party leader, Sonia Gandhi – have been women, the country does not do well when it comes to gender equality in politics. With only 21 women in the 233-member upper house, representing around 9 per cent, and 59 in the 545-member lower house, a percentage of under 11 per cent, India ranks 99th in the world in terms of female representation among MPs.

Pakistan and Bangladesh, both neighbours of India, perform markedly better, according to the study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Switzerland-based organisation that works to promote democracy. The UK stands 62nd in the list.

Mrs Gandhi, the widow of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, and reportedly one of the driving forces behind the measure, last night told an Indian television channel: “I am relieved … very happy.

“In politics, there are always some risks but the larger picture has to be kept in mind. The support of my party and especially of the women kept me going.” Outside the parliament building in Delhi, activists and female politicians celebrated and shouted: “We have made it!”

The passage of the bill, which was first proposed in 1996, has been difficult and faced opposition from many political leaders who believed their male-dominated parties would lose seats.

Other parties have opposed the move because they did not think the legislation went far enough and argued that seats should also be reserved for people from lower castes and ethnic minorities.

On Monday, International Women’s Day, a vote on the bill was blocked by unprecedented scenes in the upper house when opponents of the measure snatched copies of the proposed legislation and tore them up.

Yesterday, proceedings were again halted when seven lawmakers, who had been suspended for their behaviour the previous day, refused to leave the chamber. They were eventually removed by marshals.

Other opponents boycotted the vote, including the Trinamool Congress party, one of the government’s most influential allies and whose leader, Mamata Banerjee, is the railways minister. Her party said that the Congress had not properly consulted its allies before proceeding. However, the bill had powerful champions. Brinda Karat, the leader of the Communist Party, said it would change the country because women are “still caught in a culture prison”.

Activists hope that, if the bill is now passed in the lower house as expected, the legislation will inspire Indian women, who, as in many parts of South Asia, still suffer high levels of discrimination.

On Monday, a UN report said 96 million women across Asia have “disappeared” because of a gender gap that deprives them of access to healthcare and good nutrition, including about 43 million in India. A traditional preference for male children, especially in the north of the country, has lead to huge problems of female foeticide, so much so that there are markedly more men than women in some regions. This has led to a shortage of potential brides and trafficking of women from other areas. Girls are also less likely to have access to education and, as a result, the national literacy rate for women stands at less than 55 per cent, while for men it is 77 per cent.

Mr Singh acknowledged these problems yesterday. He told politicians: “We have also to recognise that our women have faced enormous difficulties.

“Our women faced discrimination at home, there is domestic violence, they face discrimination in equal access to education [and] healthcare. There are all these things. All these things have to end if India is to realise its full potential.”

Having been passed by the upper house, or the Rajya Sabha, the legislation will now head to the lower house, the Lok Sabha, where it is expected to pass comfortably because of support for the measure from both the government and the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It will also have to be agreed to by 15 of India’s 28 states before it can finally become law.

Every fourth woman in Bulgaria is a victim of domestic violence, Bulgarian National Television (BNT) said on March 6 2010, two days ahead of International Women’s Day.

Most cases are caused by men seeking to exercise power over their spouses, with other causal factors including lack of money, alcohol, and childhood psychological trauma, according to research cited in a news agency report quoted by BNT.

Stanimira Hadzhimitrova, co-founder of director of the Gender Project in Bulgaria said that violence existed in many forms and was widespread.

Statistics were imprecise because many victims were ashamed or feared retribution while others had the support of friends and relatives.

According to research done by the Gender Project in 2000, in 92 per cent of cases, the perpetrators of domestic violence physical assaults were men. Women were “masters” of psychological and mental abuse that was no less frightening, Hadzhimitrova was quoted as saying.

Forcing someone into prostitution should also be seen as a form of violence and there should be extensive discussion of this issue before there was any decision on regularising sex work, she said.

She called for civic education in schools on the topic of domestic violence.

BNT quoted research showing that it was untrue to claim that domestic violence was limited to less educated and poorer sections of Bulgarian society; it existed at all strata.

There were few convictions because current law failed to provide rapid and effective protection for victims, and prosecutors still tended to regard abuse in the home as a family problem and not as a criminal offence. Further, it was a taboo to discuss domestic violence.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has launched a special webpage dedicated to International Women’s Day 2010.

“Through the whole month of March this page will bring you coverage of EP events dealing with this year’s theme: ending violence against women. MEPs, national MPs, special guests, experts and the public will contribute to the debate in meetings, events and even via Facebook, with ideas on how to prevent violence and help victims. The theme of the campaign – all documents, interviews, photos and video – will always be the same: We can stop it!” the webpage says.

South Korean activists have staged a protest against a government crackdown on abortion, saying women should have the right to decide on the issue.

About 40 activists — mainly women — from 24 groups shouted “Stop a crackdown on abortion that violates women’s rights” in a Seoul park, after issuing a joint statement to mark International Women’s Day on March 8.

Abortion is officially illegal unless there is a risk to the mother’s health or in cases of rape or foetal malformation. But it has been widely tolerated in the crowded nation, partly to reduce the birth rate.

About one month ago a group of obstetricians supporting tough abortion rules began reporting colleagues who perform the operation.

Last week the health ministry announced its own crackdown, saying criminal penalties for illegal abortions would be enforced. It estimates that 350,000 abortions were carried out in 2005.

After decades spent trying to curb population growth, officials in recent years have been trying to boost the birth rate — one of the world’s lowest — to counter the ageing of society.

“Abortion for social and economic reasons must be tolerated,” the activists said in the statement.

They accused the government of using women’s bodies “as mere tools to control population” and said their interests should not be sacrificed to boost the birth figures.

“Decisions on pregnancy, abortion and childbirth must be left to women,” the statement said, describing the crackdown as violating women’s rights.

The campaign against abortion has prompted many obstetricians to refuse to conduct the procedure, sent the price of the operation soaring and caused more trouble to pregnant women, said Choi Mi-Jin, a leading activist.

“There are desperate calls from women asking for help because hospitals refuse abortion,” she said.