Last Thursday in Ottawa I attended a meeting of a women’s organisation, celebrating International Women’s Day. Even in Canada, supposedly voted the best country for women to live, women hold only 5.7 per cent of CEO positions at top companies. I was one of only three men in a group of 40 women.
It was not surprising that, apart from the frequent smiles of welcome, I would be asked why I was there. It was an Arab lady who asked the question. I proudly told her that I have always been an ardent defender of women’s human rights, job opportunities, political participation and sexual choices. I added “especially for Arab and Muslim women, who are particularly oppressed by us men,” thinking it would resonate with her.
To my surprise, the lady disagreed that Arab and Muslim women were any more oppressed than others! I felt that it was important to listen to women themselves about how they feel about this issue, and so I simply offered to have a discussion with her later. Which brings me to the question of how often men truly come to the defence of women. Although the trend is fortunately changing, I would say, “not enough”.
It makes a huge difference when the human rights of blacks are defended by whites, and those of Palestinians by Jews, and those of First Nations Canadians by mainstream white ones. And when that happens, it tends to be a small minority from the ranks of the “oppressors”, to denunciation by their own privileged group. We all read about some white Christians and Jews who were indeed killed when they tried to defend the human rights of black Americans in the Deep South.
That is why the participation of two men made the news when a researcher-curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and a student from the University of Winnipeg’s Global College became the first men to join the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace as delegates to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, last week. At the same time as empowering women, we also need to educate men, and have them on side. European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, and Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, have joined human rights campaigners to call for zero tolerance for female genital mutilation (FGM), an extremely harmful practice which violates the human rights of women and girls.
“The EU will fight to end female genital mutilation — not only on International Women’s Day, but on all 365 days of the year,” Reding said.
Fearless female leaders are speaking out. Sudanese women’s rights advocate Fahima Hashim said: “Fundamentalist misogyny shackled the social fabric. Women’s recognition as full, equal human beings faded. It used to be that women could walk around freely in school, streets, to restaurants, etc., wearing mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses without being harassed or questioned. I inherited the legacy and heritage of that life in the Sudan I used to know and enjoy.”
Alia Hogben, Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said: “It is true that there are two difficult realities for us — one is from within the Muslim communities and the other is how non-Muslims perceive and treat us. In many instances, the issues within the Muslim communities are far more difficult to deal with. There is a strong drive for conservatism; for a monolithic understanding of the religion; for rigidity and traditionalism.”
Dr Sima Samar, Chairperson for the Afghan Human Rights Commission said: “I believe that in Islam the actual style of the hijab is not mentioned anywhere, therefore the burqa that is used in Afghanistan is not mentioned either. I see these misreadings as a misuse of religion.”
Kate McInturff from Canada gave the example of a woman running for parliament in Nepal who was threatened with sexual assault by people outside of her own house. Some horrifying statistics from the UN Population Fund show that if current levels of child marriages hold, as exemplified by Yemen, 14.2 million girls annually (same as the population of Guatemala!) will marry too young, mostly under age 15. I started by referring to Arab and Muslim women.
Therefore I found it very gratifying to read The Arab Women’s Intifada, a statement published on March 7 by An Nahar Lebanese Arabic newspaper issued by a coalition of Arab women promising to no longer remain passive in the face of all the numerous forms of oppression they face, including: physical and sexual violence, honour killings, forced marriage to a woman’s rapist, child brides, inequality in laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody of children, citizenship, access to jobs, and the right to drive a car.
Now there is hope!
Dr Qais Ghanem is a retired neurologist, radio show host, poet and novelist. His two novels are Final Flight from Sana’a and Two Boys from Aden College. His non-fiction My Arab Spring, My Canada was published last October.