“Since Karzai has done nothing for women, he had nothing to say,” argues one critic.
By Mina Habib - Afghanistan
Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan have expressed anger at President Hamed Karzai’s apparently flippant remarks at a March 8 event. They say his administration has little right to claim the credit for the limited progress made on Afghan women’s rights since 2001.
In a speech made to mark International Women’s Day, President Hamed Karzai acknowledged the continuing problem of gender violence, and said more needed to be done to help women in the areas of education, the law, and economics.
In somewhat elliptical remarks, he said, “The men in Afghanistan should not test their power on women. If they have power, they should go and test it against America. Trying their power on women indicates men’s weakness.”
The main focus of Karzai’s speech was the forthcoming presidential election – in which he is not a candidate – and the importance of female voters.
“If women hadn’t been present in the 2009 elections, the Americans would have finished me,” he said, explaining that it was the female vote that helped him win.
Rights activists received Karzai’s words with little warmth, arguing that despite some improvements in women’s lives – better access to education, improved maternal mortality rates and increased employment – Kabul had failed to address many serious issues. (See for example Afghan Women Face Growing Threats.)
Fatana Gailani, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Women Association, said the expectation had been that Karzai would use the March 8 speech to lay out his government's plans and proposed bills for his final period in office.
“Since Karzai has done nothing for women, he had nothing to say,” she said. “He came out with a few slogans and funny remarks, some of his supporters applauded him, and he left. But women’s problems cannot be solved with such remarks.”
Gailani said Karzai’s comments ill-befitted the president of a country struggling with security, economic and political troubles.
“I see no achievements for women in the past 12 years,” she said. “If a few women are ministers, deputy ministers and [government department] directors, if women work in government institutions, and if girls go to school – these are things we’ve had for the last 50 years, with the exception of the Taleban era. Where are the achievements?”
Gailani said the international community needed to bear some of the responsibility for continuing to support the Kabul administration.
“Why does the international community provide huge amounts of money to a government mired in corruption, as well as to NGOs that do business in the name of women? Why hasn’t the international community monitored the expenditure of this money? In fact, they too have paved the way for corruption, and they have deceived women with slogans that they chant from far away.”
One of those who attended the Women’s Day event agreed that it was a massive disappointment.
“Women were hoping that since the end of Mr Karzai's term was near, he would speak about ensuring and protecting women’s rights in the future, as well as endorsing laws and practical plans,” said the participant, who asked not to be named. “But he continued to make jokes as he’s done in the past, and then left the gathering.”
Afghanistan remains a harsh place for women, with gender-based violence on the increase. Figures from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) indicate that 5,700 cases of violence against women were recorded last year, 17 per cent more than in 2012. The real figures are much higher, since most incidents go unreported.
Last year, Afghanistan’s parliament failed to ratify key legislation on the elimination of violence against women. Although the law was passed by presidential decree in 2009, activists hoped it would gain greater legitimacy if it were ratified by parliament.
The bill was rejected in May 2013 after a short 15-minute debate, and has been shelved indefinitely.
Among the dignitaries addressing the Women’s Day event was the current minister for women's affairs, Husn Banu Ghazanfar, who called on the country’s next president to support the achievements made in gender equality since the fall of the Taleban in 2001.
But Shahla Farid, a law lecturer at Kabul University and a member of the Afghanistan Women's Network, argued that the Karzai government has made insignificant progress in this sphere, while the women’s affair ministry had achieved nothing.
“We visited Karzai several times to demand basic rights for Afghan women until we convinced him [to address them],” she said, adding, “If Karzai had a strong will to ensure women’s rights, he would have appointed the kind of person to the ministry of women’s affairs who would have been committed to do it.”
In reality, she said, “We have seen no achievements from the ministry to date.”
Farid said that whatever gains had been made were the result of pressure from the international community and from Afghan women themselves.
“The achievement of this [presidential] term was Karzai’s endorsement of the law on violence against women, which was rejected by the parliament but is still enforceable legislation,” she said. “The presence of women in parliament is an achievement owing to international pressure. There have been no other achievements one could count in this current term.”
Latifa Sultani, head of women's rights section at the AIHRC, agreed that legislative changes had been positive. The government had signed international conventions on women's rights, and gender sections had been created in government bodies.
But in practice, Sultani said, little had been done to stem the rising tide of violence against women.
“The perpetrators haven’t been not prosecuted. Dozens of cases of murder and abuse have taken place, but the perpetrators have escaped, or else no one arrested them,” she said. “Furthermore, we have witnessed a decrease in the representation of women in [public] institutions recently. There are no women in district-level government institutions.”
In Sultani’s view, “What achievements do exist are so flimsy that they could be wiped out entirely by one small negative shift.”
As for the 11 male candidates now standing for president, Sultani said the AIHRC had told them about its programmes for women. “We asked them to review their own commitments on human rights and the involvement of women in power, and to ensure the promises they made to women were not just about securing their votes,” she said.
Farida of the Afghanistan Women's Network said the candidates appeared ill-prepared to advance women’s rights.
“When we talked to them about their plans to work on women’s issues, they had no practical plans. We provided them with some strategies to consider in the future,” she said.
The withdrawal of NATO-led forces from Afghanistan, expected to be complete by the end of this year, is a source of concern for many women.
Sultani said the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement needed to be signed as soon as possible. Karzai has delayed signing off on the deal, which will allow limited numbers of American troops to stay on after 2014.
“We are asking the international community to train, equip and support the Afghan armed forces – whether the government wants this or not – so that the tenuous Afghans have made in the last 13 years, particularly in the field of women’s rights, will not be lost.”
These concerns are shared by many in the international community. Afghan activists noted a recent petition signed by stars including Hollywood actors Keira Knightley and Salma Hayek, calling on British prime minister David Cameron to continue protecting women’s rights after the troop withdrawal
Many ordinary women feel abandoned by both the world and their own government.
Narges, who works for a foreign organisation, said that the plight of women in Afghanistan had served as a convenient tool to elicit international funding.
“Everything achieved for women in the past 13 years was just on paper,” she said. “Afghan women are exhibited in the marketplace as a commodity for fundraising. That is the only value of women.”
Despite a number of requests, the Afghan ministry of women’s affairs declined to speak to IWPR for this article.
Hamid Karzai's government is under fire this International Women's Day, accused of selling out on Afghan women's rights as it tries to woo the Taliban into peace talks.
(EPA/NAQEEB AHMED) Politicians, rights organisations and analysts say that the Afghan leader, by endorsing an edict calling women second-class citizens, has endangered hard-won progress in women's rights since the Taliban fell from power in 2001.
The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation denounced authorities for trying to strike a balance between receiving foreign aid and "keeping the conservative forces of Afghan society happy".
"In practice, the demands of extremist elements residing in the presidential palace, particularly those in the judicial bodies as well as the Afghan Ulema Council, always outweigh those of the international community," it said.
Last Friday, the Council, Afghanistan's highest Islamic authority, issued a non-binding edict saying that women were worth less than men – a statement released by Mr Karzai's office and then endorsed by the president on Tuesday.
"Men are fundamental and women are secondary," it said, adding women should avoid "mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in bazaars, in offices and other aspects of life".
Such advice effectively implies that women should not go to university or to work at all, no matter that in the lower house of parliament, for example, 27 per cent of seats are reserved for women.
The edict went on to say that women would wear "full Islamic hijab", should respect polygamy – Islam allows a man to take up to four wives – and comply with Sharia law on divorce, which severely restricts women's rights.
It further stated that "teasing, harassing and beating women" was prohibited "without a sharia-compliant reason" – leaving open the suggestion that in some circumstances, domestic abuse is appropriate.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Mr Karzai, who has formally outlawed violence and discrimination against women, caused consternation on Tuesday by publicly endorsing the statement, saying that it "reiterated Islamic principles and values" in supporting women.
In response, Afghanistan's first deputy speaker, Fawzia Koofi, who was this week listed as one of the world's "150 Fearless Women" by US website The Daily Beast, accused the Council of returning women to the dark days of Taliban rule.
"This move by the Ulema council drives Afghan women rights towards Talibanization," she told AFP. "Nobody has the right to interfere in women's rights, not even President Hamid Karzai."
Many women are increasingly concerned that Mr Karzai's desire to end the Taliban insurgency through peace talks means that their hard-won rights will be compromised in order to bring the hardline Islamists into mainstream politics.
"It could be a message to the Taliban that he could make compromises amending the constitution," Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir told AFP.
In Kabul and major cities in Afghanistan, enormous progress has been made in women's rights since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime, which banned girls from going to school and women from working.
Women were whipped in the street by the religious police if they wore anything other than the all-enveloping blue or white burka, and those accused of adultery were executed at a sports stadium after Friday prayers.
Since the Taliban fell, however, the number of girls in education has soared from 5,000 to 2.5 million, according to the government and aid groups.
But in remote areas where the traditional patriarchal system is very much the norm, life for most women has barely improved at all.
The case of a woman named Gulnaz, who does not know her real age but says she is 20 or 21, attracted worldwide attention when she was jailed for adultery after being raped by her cousin's husband.
Mr Karzai pardoned her, and she was released in December after spending two years behind bars, but faces great social pressure to marry the man who attacked her, to provide security for her baby and restore her family's honour.
In January, the president described violence against women as "cowardly" and pledged to take action against the perpetrators in the wake of a horrific case of the torture of a child bride, locked in a lavatory for six months.
Heather Barr, researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, said at best Karzai was giving out mixed messages on women's rights.
"This thing from the Ulema council is really, really frightening ... because it is about all women, rather than individual cases," Barr told AFP.
Despite Mr Karzai signing legislation to eliminate violence and discrimination against women, implementation is poor to non-existent.
According to aid group Oxfam, 87 per cent of Afghan women say they have suffered from physical, sexual or psychological abuse or been forced into an arranged marriage.
Afghanistan still one of the worst places to be a woman, says EU ambassador
Franz-Michael Mellbin criticises prosecution of 'moral crimes' and says Hamid Karzai's government has failed Afghan women
Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
Franz-Michael Mellbin said the Afghan government had failed to prioritise women's rights. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
President Hamid Karzai's government has let down Afghan women, according to the new EU ambassador to Kabul, who singled out the failure to end prosecution of rape victims and other abused women for "moral crimes" as a particular "disgrace".
Franz-Michael Mellbin said that despite huge practical improvements in areas from maternal mortality to the number of girls in schools, Afghanistan was still one of the worst places to be a woman and a frontline in the global battle for women's rights.
Mellbin, who previously served in Afghanistan as the Danish envoy, declined to criticise Karzai directly but said the government overall had failed in its responsibilities to be a voice for women's rights, as conservatives opposed to women having any role outside the home gathered strength.
"We cannot be satisfied with what has been done. Right now what I feel is unfortunately very much lacking is that the government is not showing a sense of priority and urgency that we'd like to see," he told the Guardian in an interview to mark International Women's Day.
"What we are lacking is a strong official voice to counter those reactionary voices … this makes it very difficult to fight for progress. We look in vain for strong government policy."
Karzai has always described himself as a supporter of women's rights, but recently there has been heavy pressure on the fragile gains made after the Taliban's fall from power.
Last year a landmark law to prevent violence against women was pushed out of parliament, the quota of seats for women on provincial councils was cut, and a proposal to reintroduce stoning as a punishment for adultery – used more against women than men – put forward by the justice ministry.
Earlier this year, parliament passed a law that gagged victims of domestic violence by preventing relatives testifying against each other, although it was later modified on Karzai's orders.
Many women believe this is happening because political interest in Afghanistan is fading in the west as troops head home. They fear that with the complete departure of foreign forces this year, conservatives will chip away faster at their rights or simply use them as a bargaining chip in peace talks with the Taliban.
"I understand why Afghan women are very worried about the future, and they are, they constantly raise this issue with me," Mellbin said, adding that he was inspired by Afghan women's determination to seize every opportunity made available to them.
"All over Afghanistan women today are 'first movers'. Some will be the first woman in their family to go to school, others to open a business or take public office. There is a tremendous awareness among Afghan women that they are trail-blazing for the next generation, for their daughters."
He plans to make women's rights a priority during his time in Kabul, as part of the EU's "value-driven foreign policy", at least until he sees a government more focused on protecting and expanding gains so far.
"I do not subscribe to the view that silence is an option," Mellbin said. "We need to be more ambitious. Our agenda has to be continued progress, continued advancement."
The ambassador said the campaign for the presidential election on 5 April was encouraging, with all the leading candidates to replace Karzai, who cannot stand again, pitching themselves as modernising nationalists.
"We're trying to prepare a list of issues that we would like to raise with the new government with regard to women's rights as soon as it comes into power," he said.
He plans to push for an end to the trial of women for "moral crimes", which are mostly violations of social norms, such as running away from a forced or abusive marriage. Rape victims have also been jailed for having sex outside marriage.
"[The prosecution of] moral crimes is something that is a scourge for women in Afghanistan, it means that girls and women who are victims … are further victimised by the state," he said. "Its a disgrace for any country to have such an institution."
Activists are likely to welcome Mellbin's stance, after strong criticism of western nations that fund the Afghan government but have often seemed unwilling to speak out on women's rights.
"Over the past year, through an escalating series of serious attacks on women's rights, the response from donors has largely been a deafening silence," said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"No government as dependent on foreign aid as this one has the luxury of not caring what donors think. Donors need to speak out quickly and forcefully every time there is an attack on women's rights. When they fail to do so it just makes it look like they don't care."
We the Women Are in Taksim in Istanbul on the 8th of March!
[Istanbul Feminist Collective]
[The following statement was released by the Istanbul Feminist Collective on 4 March 2014. It has been edited slightly for stylistic purposes.]
We are, as the women who live in Turkey, raising our voices on the streets for eleven years, calling out against patriarchy, against men's violence, sexism, heterosexism, capitalism, militarism, and war, at the night marches of 8th of March.
Since the last 8th of March, it has been a year of increasing violence against women.
Every day, we reading about another femicide in the news. Every day three women are killed in Turkey. The murderers and the rapists receive no punishment. The state is not trying to stop the violence against women, but is trying to stop divorces.
The AKP (Justice and Development Party), which is the government, the legislative, and the juridical power at the same time, has taken our right of abortion. We are sent away from the doors of the public hospitals. It limited our ability to reach the contraceptive methods. The government doesn't hesitate to step forward in order to control women's bodies. They are preparing laws that are going to condemn us to a flexible and insecure work life. Women's shelters and information centers in Turkey are only symbolic in number and are insufficient. Removing the Ministry of Women, the government formed the Ministry of Family and Social Policy. This new Ministry turns womens’s shelters and information centers into places that protect the family and force women to be obliged to the family.
We, as the women who were on the streets in the Gezi Resistance, challenged the sexist policies of the state. We were directly confronted by the violence and sexual harassment of the police while resisting.
This was not the first time, though. Women faced police violence on the 8th of March celebrations of 2005 in Beyaz t. The Turkish state has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights because of that police violence in 2005.
Taksimwhere we as women in Istanbul go on resisting and existing in spite of the police violence and all the obstacles, repeating that “we are not leaving these streets and nights,"is now under police blockade. On these streets, where we have been calling out to the world for women’s freedom for eleven years, we are now faced with the threat of the police violence, harrasment, and tear gas for the upcoming 8th of March.
The oppression is increasing, but we don't give up resisting and revolting against patriarchy! As we have been for the last eleven years, we are going to be in Taksim on the 8th of March for our night march.
The AKP government, which is attacking all aspects of our lives, is also trying to take the streets that we walk on. But despite all of the prohibitions, we are meeting in Taksim and lifting our voice.
We are calling on women from all around the world, to call out for the freedom of women, to call out against the possible police violence and for solidarity, even though they cannot be with us in Taksim. We are going to pass the police barricades in Taksim together.
Let the father come. Let the husband come. Let the police come. Let the nightstick come!
Deliberately to revolt! Deliberately to revolt! Deliberately freedom!
Istanbul Feminist Collective
What you can do to support us:
You can take photos of solidarity and send them to us (including the message you want to give):
You can fax, e-mail, or tweet to related institutions telling your concerns about the possible police violence in Taksim on the 8th of March signed by your organization name to:
Istanbul Governorship: +90 212 512 20 86,
, https://twitter.com/Valimutlu, https://twitter.com/istanbulvilayet
Prime Minister's Office: +90 312 420 66 04,+90 0312 422 18 99 or +90 0312422 26 67,
You can write your own press statement and announce it to the press in your city/country. You can support us sending tweets: FK feministler @ifkfeminist (our hashtag for the march is #feministgeceyuruyusu).
Here is a short video featuring scenes from feminist night marches between 2003-2013:
~~~~~~~~~~~~ About the Cities Page The Cities Page is a Jadaliyya platform promoting critical understandings and investigations of urban life and space, beyond the dominant formal and physical narration on cities. The Cities Page publishes works from different fields that deepen our understanding of the social production of diverse urban geographies and the contestation around them. It aims to consolidate an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to reading and writing about space and cities, incorporating historical, social, cultural, political, legal, economic and technological dimensions. It welcomes contributions in various formats, languages, and on various urban geographies and histories.
Evidence is piling up that the Damascus regime has used rape - of daughters in front of fathers, wives in front of husbands - as a targeted weapon. Le Monde has gathered unique testimony.
By Annick Cojean A Syrian woman looks over Damascus (Le Monde)
AMMAN It is the most dreadfully silent crime currently perpetrated in Syria. A mass crime, carried out by the regime in the most barbaric ways that relies on the most deep-rooted taboos of traditional Syrian society and on the silence of the victims, convinced they will be rejected by their own family, or even sentenced to death.
United Nations investigators and numerous NGOs say because of the silence they have failed to adequately document the widespread accounts of systematic rape since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria.
Mentions of the crime were utterly absent from the Geneva talks, even though activists believe there have been tens of thousands of victims. Yes, rape has been Bashar al-Assad’s secret weapon of war for the past three years.
Alma (all the names of victims have been changed), is lying, scrawny, on a hospital bed in the heart of Amman. She will never walk again, her spine has been shattered by blows inflicted by a militiaman of the regime with the butt of his rifle. In the first months of the revolution, this 27-year-old mother of four, a graduate in management, started working with the rebellion. First, she brought over food and medicine. Then, she carried ammunition in a knotted package on her stomach, pretending to be pregnant.
“You wanted freedom?” One day, she was arrested at a checkpoint in the suburbs of Damascus. She spent 38 days in a detention center of the air force intelligence services, with around 100 other women.
“Compared to this, Abu Ghraib must have been paradise,” she says with a faint smile, alluding to the American prison in Iraq. “I’ve been through everything! I’ve been battered, flogged with steel cables, had cigarette butts in the neck, razor blades all over my body, electricity in my vagina. I’ve been raped while blindfolded every day by several men who stank of alcohol and obeyed their superior’s orders, who was always there. They shouted: “You wanted freedom? Well here it is!”
Many of the women, she explains, in addition to their pain, thought their families might kill them if they found out what had happened to them. Her determination to enroll in the Free Syrian Army became only stronger. When she was released, she became one of the rare women to lead a battalion, at the head of 20 men, before being seriously injured and evacuated by her fellow rebels.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have flowed into Jordan, and this is where, thanks to doctors, lawyers, psychologists, we managed to gather and cross-reference a large number of testimonies, as well as meet several victims, face-to-face.
“Affect the fathers, brothers and husbands” Burhan Ghalioun, the former president of the Syrian National Council and prominent member of the opposition, said international attention should be focused on the mass rape carried out by the regime. “This is this weapon that made our revolution, which aimed to be peaceful, turn so violent.”
As early as spring 2011, he says, campaigns of rape by militias were organized inside homes, while families were still there. Daughters were raped in front of their fathers, wives in front of their husbands. Men became crazy with anger and yelled that they would defend themselves and avenge their honor. “I used to think we had to do everything we could to avoid getting into a militarized phase, and that arming the revolution would multiply the number of dead by 100,” Ghalioun said. “But the use of rape decided otherwise. And I think Assad wanted it this way. Once the revolutionaries were armed, he could easily justify the massacres of those he already called ‘terrorists’.”
This theory is hard to prove. But what is established is that sexual violence has risen, thus contributing to the climate of terror. “Women are used as means to affect the fathers, brothers and husbands,” says the writer Samar Yazbek, who has taken refuge in France. “Their bodies have become battlefields and torture chambers. The silence of the international community on this tragedy seems deafening to me.”
Several international organizations have reported rapes committed by the regime Amnesty International, the International Rescue Committee, the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch. But all of them also mention the extreme difficulty of obtaining direct testimonies, the obstinate silence of the victims, the fear of honor crimes committed against raped women and the anxiety born from the generalized perception that a woman who has been arrested has necessarily been raped.
A particularly well-documented report, published in November by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, confirms the extent of the tragedy and points out the urgency of investigating these war crimes which, if their premeditation is proven, could be qualified as crimes against humanity.
“The regime has made women their first target,” Sema Nassar, the main author of the report, says, speaking via Skype. “They are aimed at, as such, by snipers, especially pregnant women. They serve as human shields, like in the Ashria neighborhood, in Homs, in Feb. 2012, when the army forced women to walk in front of the troops, or even made them board tanks during patrols. They are also subject to kidnappings for ransoms or exchanges. Systematically raping them, whether they are 9 or 60 years old, is a way to destroy the entire social fabric over the long term.”
Gang raped in front of a camera Yes, she does have stories to tell, says Sema Nassar. Specific cases, with dates. Dozens of them. Like this young girl from Hama, currently a refugee in the United States, who was at home with her three brothers when soldiers burst in and told the three men to rape their sister. The first refused; they decapitated him. The second refused; he suffered the same fate. The third accepted; they killed him on the girl, whom they then raped.
Or, there is the story that another Syrian woman has recounted, of being brought to a house in the suburbs of Homs in the summer of 2012, along with around 20 other women. They were tortured and gang raped in front of a camera. The videotape was then sent to her uncle, a prominent sheik, television preacher and member of the opposition.
“This practice is very frequent during raids on villages and systematic in secret service detention centers,” the head of the Syrian League for Human Rights Abdel Karim Rihaoui told Le Monde. Currently living in Cairo, he estimates that over 50,000 women have been raped in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons since the beginning of the revolution.
Electric prods In the Syrian refugee camp of Zaatari, 80 kilometers away from Amman, we met Salma, who looked like she was physically exhausted, with no life in her eyes. She was born in Daraa some 50 years ago but lived in Damascus with her husband and eight children. In 2011, she was stunned to learn that, in retaliation for the uprising of her hometown, her children had been expelled from their school, in the capital. “In what name are you punishing my little ones? They have nothing to do with these events!,” she complained to the school principal.
Al Zaatari refugee camp
She had not even finished her sentence when the secret services burst in. They put a bag on her head and led her to the basement of a detention center, where she was thrown into a pitch black cell full of rats. She spent two days in solitary confinement, with no food or water, before joining two other women in a tiny cell where she spent six months. “We couldn’t lie down. We weren’t allowed to wash ourselves, even during our periods. We were raped every day, as they chanted: “We Alawites will destroy you.” A single sign of protest and we had electric prods in the vagina or anus. They beat me so much that they broke my leg. It turned black. My family didn’t hear about me for six months. As I can’t read or write, I signed any confession with my index finger.” When she was released, her husband had disappeared with their car.
“Incurable” traumas Oum Mohamed, 45, was arrested in the street with her daughter on Sept. 21, 2012, and brought to the Mezzeh military airport. Because the student’s cellphone displayed the flag of the resistance and the photo of a “martyr,” the two women were imprisoned for 20 days during which they were beaten, raped, locked up in a cell measuring four square meters with 17 other women and several children. One woman, the wife of a member of the Free Syrian Army suspected of having been part of the kidnapping of 48 Iranians in a bus in August 2012, was there with her children aged 8 and 9. The husband of another, a prison director who was punished for opposing outrageous torture, was held one floor below, in such a way that he could hear the cries of his wife while she was raped. “Everything was seen as an opportunity for sexual abuse,” she said, as tears filled her eyes. She fears the future of her daughter, who lost almost 45 pounds, is jeopardized for good.
Doctors have described “ravaged” vaginas, martyred bodies, “incurable” traumas. And so the next question: Were these barbaric initiatives carried out by lone groups of mercenaries left to their own devices, or part of a thought-out strategy, deployed by a hierarchy under orders?
The head of the Syrian League for Human Rights Abdel Karim Rihaoui has no doubt: “It is a political choice made to crush the people. Technique, sadism, perversity: Everything is meticulously organized. It is not a coincidence. The testimonies are similar and some rapists have admitted themselves to have acted on orders.”
Lawyers we reached in Syria share this opinion, despite the difficulty of gathering evidence. “I have photos of [sexual] stimulant boxes that the militiamen pack before leaving for a raid in a village,” Sema Nassar says. Several testimonies also reported the use of paralyzing products injected in the thighs of the women before they were raped.
Worse than death One of the victims, Amal, explains that, in a Damascus detention center, a doctor nicknamed “Dr. Cetamol” went around the cells to note the dates of every woman’s periods, and hand out birth control pills. “We lived in filth, in blood, in shit, with no water and barely any food. But we had such an obsessive fear of becoming pregnant that we took these pills scrupulously. Once, when my period was late, the doctor gave me pills that gave me stomach pains all night.” Experts says this is crucial testimony in order to establish the premeditation of rapes in detention.
But babies have been born from these gang rapes, leading to series of tragedies. In Latakia, a young woman committed suicide because she was not able to abort. Another was thrown off the first floor balcony by her father. Newborn babies have been found at dawn in back alleys in Daraa.
“How can we help these women?”, asks Alia Mansour, a member of the Syrian National Coalition. “They are so scared when they are released from detention that they shut themselves away in their despair, without being able to ask for help.”
In Homs, Syrian poet Lina Tibi tells us about a woman who has managed to organize, in one week and in great secrecy, 50 hymenoplasty procedures on girls aged from 13 to 16 who were raped. “It was the only way to save their lives.”
But families are disintegrating. Husbands are turning away and divorcing. In Homs, the family-in-law of a woman who had not even been released from prison yet gathered her belongings to throw her out of the house. Parents are rushing their daughters to marry the first man who agrees.
“The world is preoccupied with the chemical weapons, but, for us, Syrian women, rape is worse than death,” whispers a law student, in tears. She has not told anyone about her tragedy yet. Especially not her husband.
Mayor in Madrid accused of chauvinism over aprons and nail files at fun run
Juan Soler condemned for spending public money on machista gifts for participants in International Women's Day race
By Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
As gifts, nail files and aprons 'perpetuate the stereotype that women belong in the home', says the Socialist party's Carmen Toledano. (Graham Turner for the Guardian)
A local mayor in Madrid has been lambasted after handing out aprons and nail files to participants in a race for equality on International Women's Day.
Juan Soler, a member of the ruling People's party (PP), gave out the items at an event in Getafe, a city in Madrid's metropolitan area.
The gifts were "intentionally machista [chauvinistic]", said the Socialist party's Carmen Toledano. She condemned the mayor of Getafe for spending public money on items that "perpetuate the stereotype that women belong in the home" rather than on programmes aimed at improving women's conditions and job opportunities.
Toledano also noted that a recent EU report found the pay gap between men and women in Spain was 17.8%, 1.4 percentage points above the EU average. Spain is one of a handful of eurozone countries in which the gender gap has widened in recent years.
Toledano pointed to PP legislative efforts to limit access to abortions and recent public sector cuts that have disproportionately affected women, such as reduced bursaries for daycare and the an end to subsided school lunch programmes. "The leaders of the People's party and the measures they're putting in place have one clear objective: that women return to the home and the kitchen," she said.
Madrid officials rushed to defend the mayor's actions, saying the aprons and nail files were promotional items given to them by the city-owned waste collection firm. Adorned with the company's logo and messaging, the items were meant to encourage equality, Madrid said, as "the aprons were for men and the nail files for women".
Officials also stressed that the company operated as its own entity with its own set of directors, and Soler and the city hall were not involved in any way with the planning of the promotional campaign.
A scream of solidarity to my fellow women everywhere
International Women's Day was the perfect occasion to deliver my speech to Stormont demanding society's archaic, patriarchal constructs be torn down
By Cara Park
Cara Park speaking at Stormont on International Women's Day. 'By dressing like this, does that immediately make me a “slut”, a “slag”, a “whore”.' (Justin Kernoghan/Photopress Belfast)
Is mise Cara Park.
I am used to speaking publicly but I am a little nervous about this speech as it is so important to me.
I have always wanted to do this and I am not sure if I will get the opportunity again so if you could humour me, I want to let out a scream.
A scream of frustration.
A scream of solidarity to my fellow woman who are not able to express themselves in such a fashion, who are suffering injustice and discrimination.
If you would join in a cry/a keen for other women who are suffering.
I stand before you today as a woman unfree, in spite of the location of my birth here in the European Union, a colony of the British empire, the island of Ireland, Eire.
This is because I do not have the same rights as my sisters in other parts of these conglomerate nations. I am officially a citizen of the United Kingdom but the same freedom of reproductive choice is not awarded to me.
An bhfuil sin cothrom? [Is this fair?]
I was going to wear a chastity belt today as a symbol of sexual slavery but I don't want to use a gimmicky prop to represent a serious act of oppression against the female population of this island.
I am wearing very little clothing.
By dressing like this, does that immediately make me a "slut", a "slag", a "dolly bird", a "whore", a "loose" woman?
Am I letting the side down by wearing lipstick, fake tan, dyeing my hair, showing my nipples?
I am expressing my femininity.
Does that make me superficial?
Should I be able to dress how I like and not face discrimination?
This may seem like a superficial, trivial matter, but it is not.
Men and women have fought and some have died in the suffragist struggle to award me such freedom of expression.
Other women in the world are not so fortunate.
Some men in this society are not so fortunate.
This is a symptom of a very serious problem.
Putting them in boxes.
Identifying with symbols.
Flags, groups, teams, sides.
What side are you on?
I am a product of both the Protestant and Catholic communities.
I relate to both and belong to neither.
I am not a republican. I am not a unionist. I am a humanist.
I believe we are so distracted by tribal rituals that we forget to address the real inequalities, oppression, racism, gender discrimination that some of our laws uphold.
For example, the gay blood ban.
The fact that I can't speak my native language in a court room.
An bhfuil sin cothrom?
The fact that I am objectified, vilified if I appear overtly sexual.
Sex is a dirty word, we don't talk about sex here. Hush, hush.
Well maybe we should.
I have sex.
I am a sexy woman.
I said it.
I am not ashamed.
We all are born of sex.
Hiding the truth helps no one.
Perhaps if we were more open about sex, if it was not deemed a mortal sin and children were given proper, informative sex education, then so many rapists wouldn't have gotten away with sexually abusing our women, men and children over the years.
It is the shame that has guarded rapists and sadists who have carried out hideous sexual acts against victims.
The shame of confessing, the dirty secrets, the lifetimes ruined by abuse.
We must educate our children and remove the associated guilt of the victims.
End the tyranny of sexual shaming.
The main point I wanted to raise is about a woman's right to choose.
The Offences Against the Person Act which criminalises women for taking their fertility in their own hands.
The patriarchal laws and the predominantly male enforcers of said archaic acts of parliaments condemn us criminals if we terminate our pregnancies.
We are forced to break the law, go to other parts of the UK on illicit journeys, adding secrecy and criminality to already traumatic situations.
We are forced to lie to doctors.
Conceal our shame.
An bhfuil sin cothrom?
We can argue that this is because we are in Ireland, an exceptional place historically, a Christian country. If we are to attribute the suppression of female autonomy as a upholding of fundamentalist Christian values, let me inform or remind you that abortion is not mentioned in the Bible.
It is a social construction, much like the compulsory hair covering in Muslim countries. Burqas, hijabs, gloves are not mentioned in the Qur'an either.
Another act of suppression on the female form.
But the oppression of women by refusal to apply the Abortion Act 1967 is possibly the one point that the opposing conservative parties can agree on.
An bhfuil sin cothrom?
I am calling for the patriarchal laws to be changed and affirmative action taken. We are in a fortunate position here in Ireland compared with other regimes, in spite of facing a lifetime in prison for having an abortion. We should use the relative freedom we possess, like the freedom of speech, to vocalise our struggle and support other people less fortunate.
We must not become complacent! The struggle is not over! Continue the fight for equality in the face of casual misogyny, physical misogyny and, most importantly, resist and revolt against misogyny by the state.
Equal rights for women means equal rights for all! Continue the suffrage, support other women, do not be complicit in the commodification of the female form, do not judge other women in how they dress, who they have sex with, their sense of humour, the books they have read etc. We must unite as collective force and fight the patriarchal powers instead of dividing ourselves into feminist sub-groups.
Do not let the superficial age we live in divide and conquer us, unify, organise, protest, demonstrate, love your neighbours, celebrate differences. We owe it to our suffragist brothers and sisters who have fought for the rights we have today.
Make abortion free, safe and legal.
Corp s'agam, Ré s'agam. My body, my choice.
Equal rights for all.
• This is the text of a speech given at an International Women's Day event at the Stormont assembly
Northern Ireland feminist defends decision to go bare-chested at Stormont
Cara Park, who wore feather necklace to cover breasts at International Women's Day event, is criticised by unionists
By Henry McDonald, Ireland correspondent
Cara Park at the International Women's Day event – a parody of a beauty contest held at Stormont last autumn. (Justin Kernoghan/Photopress Belfast)
A Northern Ireland feminist has defended her decision to partially expose her breasts during an International Women's Day event at the Stormont assembly – an act that has prompted unionists to demand a parliamentary inquiry into the controversy.
The Derry women's rights activist Cara Park, whose breasts were hidden behind a feather necklace at the event, said she was highlighting the plight of women in other parts of the world who could be stoned to death for having their bodies exposed.
Park said: "I just thought: when am I ever going to get an opportunity to stand barefoot and bare-chested in Stormont, while other women elsewhere in the world would be stoned to death for that? I honestly can't understand how a nipple can be offensive."
She was attending an Alternative Ms Ulster beauty contest in the Great Hall of the Stormont parliament buildings at the weekend when the furore erupted over her outfit.
The 32-year-old refused to apologise to unionist assembly members who claimed her stunt was offensive. She said: "My nudity was a statement. It was a very considered thing. It was to do with my freedom to be a feminist and to express myself physically as a woman without being discriminated against."
"I think women should be allowed to be bare-chested. I don't think that other women have a problem with it. My breasts are my own, that's me in my natural state and I think I should be allowed to be in my natural state."
Jim Allister, the leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, called on the assembly's commission "to hold to account those who sponsored an event which permitted such unseemly behaviour".
Allister added: "I do not think Stormont should be the stage for such indecent exhibitionism."
The Democratic Unionist party junior minister in the devolved government, Jonathan Craig, described it as a "cheap publicity stunt".
His party colleague Tom Buchanan said: "This is just shameful and I think that these social events need to be more closely vetted by the organisers to ensure that this does not happen again."
Park is an Irish-language actor and performance artist and a contributor to a Gaelic-language programme on BBC Radio Ulster.
She was one of 25 women who made speeches on the rights and plight of women around the world at the event, which was organised by the Green party's sole assembly member in the devolved parliament, Steven Agnew.
Agnew said he defended Park's decision to go partially nude at the International Women's Day event.
He added: "I certainly don't find the female form offensive. There's exploitative pornography, that's one thing, but an empowered female choosing how she dresses is very much up to that woman."
The event was staged as a parody of a Miss Ulster traditional beauty contest held in the Stormont parliament last autumn.