Malalai Joya is an Afghan activist, writer and an outspoken critic of the Afghan warlords, the Karzai government and the US role in her country. In 2003, Joya became famous by speaking out publicly, as an elected delegate to the Constitutional Loya Jirga, against the domination of warlords. In September 2005, she became a member of the parliament (Wolesi Jirga) when she received the second highest number of votes in her home province Farah.
However, she was suspended on May 21, 2007, for continuing to criticise the warlords and drug barons for destroying her country. Joya wears a burqa to disguise her identity after surviving six assassination attempts and lives in different safe-houses.
In 2010, Foreign Policy magazine listed her among its Top Global Thinkers and BBC termed her ‘the bravest woman of Afghanistan’.
Joya was born in 1978, and is married with no children. At her safe-house in Kabul, The News on Sunday got an opportunity to talk to her on issues relating to security situation, parliamentary development and women’s rights in Afghanistan.
The News on Sunday: How did you enter politics in a war-ravaged country like Afghanistan?
Malalai Joya: I belong to a middle-class family of Farah province. Because of the worse security situation, my family migrated to Iran and then Pakistan to live as refugees. Due to financial problems, I got education till grade 12 in Peshawar. In 1998, we came back to Herat province of Southern Afghanistan where I started teaching. At that time, it was a dangerous venture as Taliban strictly forbade educating girls beyond the age of eight. For those who broke the rules, extreme punishments were meted out. I still remember some horrific memories of the Taliban rule. Along with running an underground school, I was also active in social activities which helped me in my election as a member of parliament in 2005 from Farah province.
TNS: Why was your parliament membership suspended?
MJ: I contested the elections because I wanted to highlight the sufferings of Afghans. Women and children suffered the most during the civil war and the Taliban rule. But I found the parliament a drama and not a democratic institution. I knew from the very first day in the parliament that it is a meeting place for the worst enemies of the Afghan people. Majority of the MPs are warlords, drug lords and human rights violators. It has not brought anything positive to the Afghan people in the past years and it will not do anything for the Afghan people in future.
In May 2006, my membership from the parliament was suspended just because I criticised the warlords and drug lords sitting in the parliament who were involved in destruction of my country and killing of thousands of innocent people. I was physically and verbally attacked by fellow members of the parliament.
TNS: How has Afghanistan changed since the fall of Taliban?
MJ: The current situation of Afghanistan is a disaster and is getting worse. The US and its allies occupied Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, under the pretext of bringing peace, democracy and women’s rights. But they replaced the barbaric Taliban with the brutal Mujahideen associated with Northern Alliance who look different but are mentally similar. They were in power before the Taliban and in Kabul alone they had killed more than 65,000 innocent people.
The US destroyed Afghanistan for taking revenge from the USSR. Today, Afghanistan is not only a safe haven for terrorists, it is a mafia state and is ranked at the top of the most unstable and corrupt countries in the world. Afghanistan produces 93 per cent of the world opium and even some ministers are involved in this dirty business.
TNS: What is the state of women in Afghanistan today?
MJ: The situation for women is as terrible today as it was before. In some big cities, some women and girls have access to jobs and education, but in most provinces women’s lives are hell. In rural areas, most women do not even have a human life. Forced marriages, child brides and domestic violence are very common.
TNS: How do you see Afghanistan after the US and Nato forces withdraw in 2014?
MJ: In my opinion, al-Qaeda, Taliban, Mujahideen, drug lords and warlords are products of the White House’s cold war. The announcement of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is the Obama’s administration’s political gimmick which they used to deceive the American people in order to win the upcoming US elections. No nation can liberate another nation.
On the one hand, the US is talking about pulling out its troops from Afghanistan and on the other they are busy signing new strategic agreements and increasing military bases in Afghanistan. The US would not withdraw troops from Afghanistan as announced, because they have geo-political and strategic interests in the region. Unfortunately, all neighbours of Afghanistan, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, are their enemies and all of them want to occupy the natural resources and minerals of the country.
The level of our people’s political consciousness and awareness has raised and they do not accept the domination of foreign invaders or local criminal forces any more. This gives me hope for a bright future.
TNS: How do you see the ongoing peace negotiations with Taliban?
MJ: All the key leaders of Taliban are present in Afghanistan. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Mullah Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil and Mullah Rahmatullah Hashmi, all are roaming in Kabul freely. The Afghan people want to put them (Taliban) in the cages, but the Karzai government is busy appeasing them by calling them ‘brothers’ and ‘moderate Taliban’ and deceiving Afghan people.
TNS: What is your opinion about the Afghan presidential elections 2014?
MJ: Talking of elections in the world’s most corrupt, mafia-ridden, and occupied country like Afghanistan is ridiculous. The Afghan parliament is working as a mouthpiece for the imperialist forces. The Afghan people have no interest in the elections where such infamous elements are candidates. That is why millions of Afghans don’t exercise their voting rights, and this truth is also corroborated by international independent election monitoring organisations. People know well that there is no difference between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah.
TNS: What security precautions have you taken after life threats?
MJ: Since I was expelled from the parliament, life has been very difficult for me inside Afghanistan. I have been restricted from free movement and meeting people in different parts of Afghanistan, so I have tried to advance my efforts on international platforms. I change places often and can’t have an office. I wear a burqa outside and travel with private bodyguards. I don’t attend public meetings. But I still don’t feel safe. The expenses of bodyguards are paid by contributions of my local and international supporters, anti-war and leftist groups.
(The writer conducted this interview in Kabul where he was part of the Pak-Afghan Media Exchange Programme. Email; zia_
By Aarti Dhar Scroll down to also read "Dramatic increase in worldwide illegal organ trade" (Another of today's multi- billion dollar businesses, exploiting the poor for the benefit of the wealthy) With no dearth of ignorant and poor women, rent-a-womb is a thriving industry today. (File photo)
ANAND (Gujarat): Ethical, legal issues thrown to the winds as poor women play surrogate mothers
Right in the heart of this city, which found a place on the atlas as the Milk Capital of India, is a ‘fertility clinic-cum-hostel’ to house women who rent their wombs, mostly for foreign couples.
The facility, which runs under the name Akanksha Fertility Clinic, caters for 30 surrogate mothers at any given point. Driven by poverty, the women bear and nurse a child of another couple, for a price.
Thanks to the emergence of surrogate motherhood as a multimillion-dollar industry in the country, the clinic is doing a roaring business. What is the success formula? An unending supply of poor and illiterate women and the absence of laws have made the trade the fastest way to make money.
A peep into the clinic-cum-hostel and random interaction with some of the women are an eye-opener. Nazira, wife of a mason near a village in Ahmedabad, chose to become a surrogate to help the family come of out a financial crisis.
Now several months into pregnancy, Nazira will get Rs. 3.25 lakh after the delivery as per a contract signed by her and the commissioning couple. This is in addition to a monthly allowance of a couple of thousand rupees for the gestation period of nine months. If she has twins, the ‘party’ (intending parents) will have to pay her 20 per cent more.
Another surrogate in the hostel, who did not wish to be identified, said she needed money to get her daughter married. She preferred foreign couples because they paid in dollars.
Hansa Pramod, an employee of the clinic, has been delivered of three children for two foreign couples. “First time I moved from rented accommodation to my small house and the second time, to a bigger house,” she told The Hindu.
She admits that when she gave away the children (twins) to an American couple the first time, she felt uneasy but consoled herself in the thought that they were not hers.
Another inmate had four foetuses in her womb, two of which were aborted as the couple did not want so many children. There is no clarity on whether two foetuses were aborted for medical reasons.
“At the moment, there is no law in the country on surrogacy and therefore, it is neither legal nor illegal,” said a senior Health and Family Welfare Ministry official, admitting that ethical, moral, social, monetary and legal issues were raised by various sections of society.
Rent-a-womb is a thriving industry today. With no dearth of ignorant and poor women, and no laws to regulate the mushrooming fertility clinics, it is the fastest way to make money. Costs less in India A commissioning couple can get a surrogate for half the price in India compared to the cost in the U.S. or the U.K., where surrogacy is not allowed or permitted only in special cases. European countries do not allow surrogacy at all.
A random scan of the website and some telephone calls to the in vitro fertility (IVF) clinics across several cities makes it clear that surrogacy is rampant and could cost between Rs. 8 lakh and over Rs. 10 lakh, though the surrogate herself gets less than 50 per cent of the money earned by these clinics as the doctors double as agents. There is no mandatory health or life insurance for the surrogate in case of her death. Surrogacy is also advertised as an enterprise in newspaper advertisements and clinics.
There is no supervisory and regulatory body under which all assisted reproductive technology clinics offering their services could be placed, except a set of guidelines, brought out by the Indian Council of Medical Research in 2005, which, however, are not legally binding, ICMR Director-General V.M. Katoch told The Hindu. Based on these guidelines, the ICMR has now come up with a draft Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Regulation) Bill, 2010, which is with the Ministry of Law and Justice for vetting and is expected to be tabled in Parliament in the winter session.
Justifying commercial surrogacy, Dr. Nayna Patel of the Akanksha Fertility Clinic said all surrogates were volunteers and had legally entered into an agreement with the intending parents. “We not only look after them during delivery but also impart them skills which ensure them livelihood for the future,” she said, dismissing charges of moral and ethical issues as the women were uneducated and poor. “We follow the guidelines and have the best technology available,” she said. The clinic celebrated the birth of 500th surrogate child last month and most newspapers front-paged it!
But CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat says ethical and moral issues are certainly involved in commercial surrogacy. “It is the height of irresponsibility and shame that the government does not have any law to regulate these fertility clinics. The government should bring in the proposed law, though it has many weaknesses.”
Dramatic increase in worldwide illegal organ trade
By Sven Heymann
Since the global financial crash in 2008, the worldwide illegal organ trade has increased dramatically. Until recently, those looking to sell parts of their bodies generally came from the so-called developing countries; now, the phenomenon can be found in large parts of Europe.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2010 there were approximately 107,000 donated organs worldwide— both legal and illegal. Kidneys made up about two thirds of all transplanted organs. According to a report in the Guardian, WHO doctor Luc Noel expects that about 10 percent of all transplants are performed illegally. On the other hand, the California human rights organisation Organs Watch talks of 15,000-20,000 illegal kidney transplants per year.
But the transplants carried out represent only a fraction of the actual need. Only one in ten requests are currently realised, according to the Guardian report. The profits that can be achieved are huge, says Noel.
Gangs of organ traffickers conduct a million-dollar business in the illegal trade. Media reports consistently speak of up to US$200,000 dollars (€160,000) being demanded for a single organ on the black market. The illegal traffickers exploit the social plight of the donors, who urgently need money but often receive only a fraction of the total. Many are cheated out of any money.
The economic crisis is the main cause of the surge in the illegal human organ trade. The European Union (EU) openly admits this. The website BioEdge quotes the EU special prosecutor Jonathan Ratel saying, “Thanks to the global financial crisis the organ trade is a growth industry”. He speaks about a mutual vulnerability to criminal organ dealers: on the one hand, chronic poverty prevails; on the other side, there are well-off patients who would do anything to ensure their survival.
Jim Feehally, a professor of renal medicine at the University Hospitals of Leicester in the UK, brings out the class nature of trafficking in organs more clearly. The main problem is exploitation, the Austrian newspaper Der Standard quotes him saying. While the rich can buy not only organs, but also afford medical treatment, the donors are often denied such care.
The social dimension of the problem becomes particularly clear in the example of China. More than a a million people there need a kidney transplant, but in the past year, just slightly more than 5,000 received one. Under such circumstances, those from the wealthier layers of society, as well as the rich from the Middle East or Europe, will pay US$100,000-US$200,000 for an illegally transplanted organ, plus the cost of the operation, transportation, etc. The vast majority of those affected from the poorer classes can do nothing other than hope to hear about a matching donor organ, while their health deteriorates further.
But such conditions no longer exist only in the so-called developing world. BioEdge reports that desperate individuals in financial need in Greece, Italy, Spain and the Balkan countries are offering their kidneys, bone marrow, lungs and even their corneas.
This tragic fact sheds a light on the situation in Serbia. Since the beginning of the world economic crisis in 2008, the country has experienced an increase in the official unemployment rate from 14 to 24 percent. Given the high average age of about 41, less than half the population over 15 years old are economically active. The aging population needs medical services urgently, but fewer people can afford them because of rising poverty.
An article in the New York Times describes the inhuman situation that many Serbs now face. The piece describes the fate of Pavel Mircov and his wife Daniella. After the 50-year-old became unemployed during the winter, the father of two children could not find a job. When his own father recently died, he was no longer able to afford a gravestone. The phone has already been cut off.
Now, Pavel and Daniella are desperately trying to find a buyer for their kidneys over the Internet. A transplant could bring nearly $40,000. Belonging to blood group O, Daniella could get a few thousand dollars more on the black market. “I need the money to pay for school for my two children”, writes Pavel in his sales offer.
Officially, the trade in organs in Serbia is illegal, and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. But the government ignores the barbaric situation that the population confronts. Government officials told the Times that poverty is not so bad as to justify people selling their body parts illegally. The police in Serbia claim that not a single case of illegal organ trading is known to them over the past 10 years.
The fact, however, is that a veritable network of organ traffickers has now formed in the Balkans. In the small southern Serbian town of Doljevac, the government had to intervene when local residents tried to organise and register an official agency for the sale of organs and blood. With an unemployment rate of about 50 percent, more than 3,000 people wanted to participate. Given the legal situation, many are now looking to link up to the organ trade through Bulgaria and Kosovo.
The Times also explained how the official bans are avoided. It describes the fate of Milovan, a former factory worker from southern Serbia. The 52-year-old donated his kidney to a wealthy local politician. In return, the man was supposed to put him on the payroll of his company and provide him with medication. In order not to get into legal trouble, the two pretended to be brothers. The transplant was finally completed in a public hospital in Belgrade. After the politician wanted nothing more to do with him, the heavily indebted Milovan is now on his own.
Serbia is by no means an isolated case. Kosovo in particular is considered a stronghold of the illegal organ trade. To this day, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), supported by the Western powers in the war in Yugoslavia, is accused of killing Serbs, and then removing and selling their organs. Illegal transplants were performed at the Medicus clinic in the capital of Pristina until 2008. A trial of seven men accused of organ trafficking, human trafficking and other offences has been running since autumn 2011, as Focus magazine has reported.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, chair of Organs Watch, said the current conditions recall the situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, chronic unemployment produced a new wave of willing donors.
The reemergence of such barbaric conditions in the heart of Europe is a direct indictment of the capitalist system. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the reintroduction of the profit system in the former Stalinist-ruled countries led to an enormous decline in living standards. Capitalist restoration not only led to unemployment and poverty, but also to the collapse of public infrastructure and the health system.
The banking crisis is now bringing eastern European conditions to Europe as a whole.
The trade in organs shows the incompatibility of the profit system with the basic needs of the majority of the people.
While technical and medical progress makes possible a high level of health care for the entire population, capitalism is forcing millions of people around the world to sell parts of their own bodies.
Will World Population Day Open the Gates to Coercive Contraception?
by Betsy Hartmann
On July 11, World Population Day, the British government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are hosting an international Family Planning Summit in London to launch an ambitious $4 billion contraceptive program initiated by Melinda Gates. Its aim is to get 120 million poor women, mainly in Africa and South Asia, access to modern contraception as well as to stimulate research into new birth control methods.
On the surface it all sounds good, wrapped in the language of saving and empowering women. But many reproductive health and human rights activists worry that the summit represents a serious backslide to the bad old days of population control when contraception was deployed as a technical fix to reduce birthrates. Indeed, the Gates Foundation’s family planning strategy blames population growth for exacerbating all matter of social ills, from stressing government budgets to contributing significantly to “the global burden of disease, environmental degradation, poverty and conflict.” It as if the fertility of poor women causes these problems, and not the exploitative policies and practices of the rich and powerful.
A recent critical statement issued by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Amnesty International, and three international women’s networks calls for human rights to be at the center of the forthcoming summit. Signed by over 320 women’s groups and activists from around the globe, the statement points to the danger of a return to coercive contraception and forced sterilization. “The Family Planning Summit must ensure that the clocks are not put back on women’s human rights: women’s autonomy and agency to decide freely on matters related to sexual and reproductive health without any discrimination, coercion or violence must be protected under all circumstances.”
These fears are justified. The Gates initiative focuses on India, for example, where the government’s family planning program, supported by international donors including the U.K. government, is forcibly sterilizing poor women from disadvantaged communities, especially in the states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. An April 15 expose in the London Observer describes cases of pregnant women being sterilized and bleeding to death after miscarrying. While donors are not directly implicated in these practices, their failure to adequately monitor how their funds are used contributes to the abuse. A certain political blindness is at work in the Gates initiative. The assumption is that you can just pour in money and contraceptives to health and family programs that already discriminate against the poor and miraculously they will turn around and help women. Add to this the imperative to drive down birthrates and you get a recipe for coercion.
But coercion is not the only problem. Another serious concern is which contraceptives Gates and its associates are pushing, and why. Even when population programs don’t employ force, they often limit contraceptive choice to long-acting methods like injectables and implants that are viewed as more effective in preventing pregnancy and hence reducing population growth. What is the safest and most appropriate method for the individual woman is simply not the priority.
The hormonal injectable Depo Provera is a case in point. For over a decade now, studies have pointed to a possible link between Depo Provera use and increased risk of acquiring HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. In October 2011 the British medical journal, The Lancet, published the results of a study which found that Depo may double the risk of women and their male partners acquiring HIV. The study sent shock waves through the international population community, since Depo Provera is their method of choice for Africa.
Precaution would dictate that Depo be phased out in populations at high risk of AIDS, but instead the World Health Organization has thrown caution to the wind. At a meeting in February the WHO decided to continue its “no restrictions” policy on the use of hormonal contraception, only adding the stipulation that women on injectables like Depo also use condoms to prevent HIV infection. Present at the meeting was only one HIV-positive woman from Africa.
At a time when Depo Provera should be under intense scrutiny, the Gates initiative is vigorously promoting it, along with a Chinese hormonal implant, as the two main contraceptive technical fixes for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The foundation is enthusiastic about a new version of Depo that can be injected under the skin instead of intramuscularly. This will allow it to be delivered by nonmedical providers and maybe even by women themselves. In other words, little or no health screening and counseling, or concern for a possible heightened risk of acquiring HIV.
There is no doubt that women and girls should have the right to safe and affordable contraception and abortion as part of, not a substitute for, broader programs that address the full range of their reproductive and sexual health needs. That broader agenda is what feminists fought so hard to achieve at the UN’s 1994 population in Cairo. Women’s health activists have also fought long and hard to direct contraceptive development away from dangerous methods like high-dose estrogen pills and the Dalkon Shield IUD and to ensure that health and safety, not corporate profits and population control, motivate research in the field. All these gains are now under threat as a dark cloud hangs over World Population Day. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Betsy Hartmann is the Director of the Population and Development Program and Professor of Development Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. A longstanding activist in the international women’s health movement, she writes and speaks on the intersection of reproductive rights, environmental and climate justice, and peace. See and .
In 2011, France campaigned to ban niqabs -- face veils worn by Muslim women -- in an effort that center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy said was critical in ensuring women's rights. Much debated and contested, the veil ban -- which affected only 2,000 women out of 5 to 6 million Muslims living in France -- was supposedly an example of France doing the right thing: fighting the backwards Arab-Muslim traditions that oppress women. However, in doing so, it failed to recognize its own role in stripping women of their rights by enforcing a law restricting women's dress and public behavior, without consideration of their preferences in the matter.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Muslim women have reported discrimination for their religious beliefs and way of dress. In 2009 alone, 425 Muslim women filed workplace discrimination complaints, a number that is on the rise. In one notable case , a 19-year-old Muslim college sophomore was fired from her position as a stockroom clerk at a Bay Area Hollister because she refused to take off her hijab, or headscarf, on the basis of religion. Unlike a cross or yarmulke, the Muslim veil has been the subject of numerous attacks and removal campaigns. It is the most visible sign of the Arab-Muslim culture and has long represented to the West the extremist views of Islam. However, it is not this piece of fabric but a conservative contingency that is truly the culprit in stripping women of their freedoms and futures.
The history of women's rights across the globe demonstrates time and again the propensity of conservatives to adopt "women-centric" agendas that do everything to scapegoat women's freedoms in order to bolster their own platforms. In recent months, in the United States, this has been demonstrated over the debate on women's reproductive rights at the height of the Republican primaries. Just last month, in Arizona, personhood was redefined to designate zygotes with the same rights as adults. Abortion rights were also increasingly restricted as a result of a new bill, which passed into law in April by more than a half-dozen states. As a result, abortions after four months have been banned, inciting debate on the circumstances that might surround a late abortion, for instance, health concerns for both fetus and mother. Former Republican contender Rick Santorum showed support for banning abortions even in the case of rape. He said, "As horrible as the way that that son or daughter was created, it still is her child...I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created -- in the sense of rape -- but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you."
Access to contraception has also been widely debated. A clause in the draft healthcare bill stipulating that employers are required to provide standardized insurance to women, including coverage for birth control, was labeled by GOP supporters as an assault on religious freedom. And it didn't stop there. Outspoken conservative talk show personality Rush Limbaugh famously berated Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke for testifying at an unofficial Democratic hearing in support of insurance coverage that includes birth control. In his words: "She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception." Later he elaborated, "If we are going to...pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch." Ms. Fluke became a scapegoat, subject to attacks from conservative blogs such as CNS News, which reported "Sex-crazed co-eds going broke buying birth control, student tells Pelosi hearing touting freebie mandate." The reaction of GOP candidates? Rick Santorum said that Limbaugh was "being absurd" and Mitt Romney (now a likely presidential nominee) dismissed it, sharing, "it's not the language I would have used."
The women of the Arab revolutions have faced similar backlash as post-revolution nations such as Libya, Egypt, and Tunis work to rebuild their governments and constitutions. Conservative Islamist parties have threatened to reverse laws providing women with rights in divorce and expanded custody, as well as laws on polygamy and early marriage. In fact, in Egypt, laws canceling the khul or no-fault divorce law and lowering the marriage age for girls from 18 to 14 have already been drafted. In November, Tunisian Ennahda candidate Souad Abderrahim called single mothers "a disgrace to Tunisian society," and said that they should not benefit from state protection and "do not have the right to exist."
This type of conservative condemnation -- whether from Limbaugh or Abderrahim --consistently disregards the fact that women did not create these situations on their own. Who has fathered their children? Who are they having sex with? Shouldn't there be equal criticism of the men? But this is nothing new. Women in both the Western and Arab-Muslim world have been blamed by conservatives for the plight of society. A cleric in Iran notably stated in 2010 that women who dress provocatively and tempt people into promiscuity are to blame for the nation's earthquake disasters while far-too-popular American television evangelist Pat Robertson called feminism "A socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians." Despite these outrageous statements, he has a strong followership. In 1988, he sought a presidential bid after three million people volunteered for his campaign and as host of The 700 Club on the Christian Broadcasting Network, he has a platform to share his ideas with an average daily audience of 1 million people.
And it goes beyond women. Conservative voices have attacked minorities across the board. Take for instance the stance on immigrants. In the United States, members of the Tea Party sent out a request to over 35,000 members to combat proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants by sharing "stories of the horrors of illegal immigration," as well as photos or videos of "illegals or their supporters doing outrageous things (like putting the Mexican flag above ours, or showing racist posters.)" Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the PVV party consistently promotes anti-immigration, including campaigns to close Islamic schools, prevent immigrations from Muslim countries, and oppose dual-citizenship for Dutch residents. Party-leader Geert Wilders compared the Quran to Mein Kampf and has blamed immigrants for causing "street terror" across the Netherlands.
Looking beyond outrageous statements, let's take a look at the hard facts on discrimination and violence. In the US, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Three women a day are murdered by an intimate partner, and the Justice Department estimates one in five women will experience rape or attempted rape during their college years, with less than five percent of these reported. In this environment and with elections looming -- just as in the Arab world -- American women are witnessing laws take away instead of protect their rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2011, 135 new reproductive healthcare laws were enacted. To add insult to injury, members of the Republican Party have focused on cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, which provides essential healthcare for low-income and uninsured women, voting against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, voting against equal pay for women, and even an ill-fated attempt to redefine rape. In the Arab region, attacks on women's basic freedoms have ramped up post-revolution. Recently, early marriage -- which is statistically dangerous to women emotionally, physically, and economically -- was espoused by Salafist MPs in Egypt as a strategy to ward off vice and spinsterhood. In Saudi Arabia a Facebook campaign called "We Want Them Four" asks every capable Saudi man to marry four women to reduce the number of spinsters in the country. It is clear then that our enemy is not each other. It is not the Arab region versus the West or Christians versus Muslims. Who and what we are fighting are conservatives and their anti-women, anti-minority agendas. We are collectively working --across religious and regional boundaries -- toward a common goal. And thus, we must reconsider the burqa. What is a piece of religious clothing to some has taken on a life of its own as a symbol of oppression, restriction, and violence. It adds an element of otherness that has moved beyond the women's movement or women's protection, but has been used to separate us. But in truth, the burqa or niqab is just a piece of fabric. What is the real culprit is the invisible burqa -- the economic, political, and social discrimination and violence that we all face, no matter what we choose to wear. It is the struggle that still remains for women across the globe to fully participate in society as equals, as they were born to do, and this is what we must work together to remove.
Like my Egyptian activist friend said to me the other day, we need our own revolution, not as Egyptians or Arabs, but as women. We are sisters in this fight, and as soon as we recognize this, we have a stronger network of voices fighting on our behalf. None of us are free if one of us remains in chains, and we must work together to ensure our collective freedom, advancement, and dignity above all. The fact that there is a movement around suppressing our voices only confirms how strong they must be, so let's come together now and share them.
Iraqi women walk past patrolling Iraqi police personnel in Amara, 2008.
An Iraqi attendant arranges weeding dresses at his store in Baghdad, 2004.
Iraqi women face court-ordered virginity tests that often show they were virgins until marriage but shame them nonetheless, doctors at an institute that carries out the tests and a lawyer told AFP.
Remaining a virgin until marriage can be an issue of life or death for women in the Middle East, where those who are seen as having dishonoured the family by having premarital sex are sometimes killed by male relatives.
An average of several virginity tests are performed per day at the Medical Legal Institute (MLI) in Baghdad, in a small windowless room with blue-tiled walls and a black table with leg stirrups at one end.
Other equipment includes a white scope on a wheeled stand and a bright white light, also on wheels, near the end of the table.
"Most of the cases we received after the first day of marriage," said Dr Munjid al-Rezali, the director of the MLI.
"The husband claim that she is not a virgin, and then the family bring her here, through the courts, this all come through the courts, and we examine her," Rezali said, speaking in English.
"It's not uncommon, we are seeing a lot," he added.
The tests include examination of the woman's hymen, but the man involved may also come under scrutiny.
The man may be tested for impotency, Rezali said, noting that in some cases, a man with erectile dysfunction may pretend the woman was not a virgin to hide his shame.
The results of the tests go directly to the courts, and are not given by the MLI to the parties involved, Rezali said.
"They think that during the marriage, (the) first day of marriage, there should be blood... they think if there is no blood, there is no virginity," said Dr Sami Dawood, a forensic doctor at the MLI who has been involved in the tests.
This belief, he said, indicates that sex education and knowledge is "very poor."
If a man thinks his new wife is not a virgin, he may take the issue to court, leading to the MLI performing a virginity test, said Dawood.
Asked about the results of the tests, Dawood said that "most of them (are) with the woman, not against the woman, but it is by itself... shaming."
However, he said that while women were killed in the past if blood was not found on the sheets after their wedding night, people now seek recourse through the courts and the virginity tests procedure.
The test, which takes between 15 and 30 minutes, is carried out by three doctors, at least one of them a woman, and the results are certified by two others, said Dawood, adding that the tests are done only when ordered by a court.
"The judge is required to send the woman for the medical test when she is accused by her husband of not being a virgin, and that is only done in this case," lawyer Ali Awad Kurdi said.
"If it is proved that the woman was not virgin and sought to get married without telling the man, there is no law that protects her," Kurdi said.
The woman's family is then required to recompense the man for gifts, money and other expenditures related to the relationship.
Various Iraqi judicial officials either declined to speak about the issue, or could not be reached by AFP.
"Non-governmental organisations do not have any means of protecting women from this accusation of this crime, because it is a very sensitive matter," said Intisar al-Mayali, an activist from the Iraqi Women's Association, a local rights group.
Marianne Mollmann, senior policy adviser for rights group Amnesty International, called virginity tests both wrong and ineffective.
"The issue of virginity testing, and forced virginity testing and sort of legal virginity tests in court proceedings or in other ways, violate a whole host of human rights and are just not justifiable," she said.
"Even if it were legitimate to look at whether women were virgins for whatever reason, which it's not, you can't use a virginity test for that, because the hymen might break for any reason," Mollmann said.
The test "doesn't do what it's set out to do."
Liesl Gerntholtz, the director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, said: "The Iraqi government should urgently put measures in place to ensure that women and girls are not forced to undergo physical examinations that are degrading, painful and frightening."
"The use of these tests in court should be banned."