LONDON (TrustLaw) – Women around the world have been forced to marry men they don’t love, attacked with acid and had their genitals mutilated.
They have been denied an education and basic freedoms – and it has all been justified in the name of culture despite laws banning these practices, the Trust Women conference heard on Tuesday, at the opening of the two-day event.
Delegates to the conference, hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and International Herald Tribune, blamed the repression of millions of women and girls on poor law enforcement, a lack of political will, sexist attitudes and the misuse of religion.
“It’s a question of control. Culture and religion has been used … in Afghanistan during the war in order … to keep half the population silent,” said Sima Samar, chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“Culture is not a set of rules that only apply to women,” she added.
Opening a discussion on what happens when culture clashes with the law, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Dutch member of parliament, described the difficulties involved in the shedding of entrenched traditions – citing the example of the male guardianship of women in Muslim societies.
It is a custom that affects 700 million women and was founded on a “seemingly good idea” 1,400 years ago when women in a desert, tribal society needed protection from violence and exploitation, Ali said.
In some Muslim majority countries, the authority of the male guardian is formal and enforced by law, such as in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In countries like Turkey and Indonesia, it is informal and practised as a matter of culture, Ali said.
“Consider what the male tyrant can do with near impunity,” she said. “He can deny his ward food, shelter and medicine, deny her education and not only the right to work but the ability to find a suitable job. He can deny her the right to divorce and the rights of custody to her children,” she added.
“A male guardian can choose any type of punishment he pleases to induce his ward to obey him,” Ali told the conference. “He can yell at her, he can beat her, he can lock her up, he can rape her, he can mutilate her, he can sell her to a stranger in marriage. He can even kill her in the name of honour.”
And yet the system continues – defended by many women, who say their guardians have been good to them and they are grateful. Others argue that it is tradition, part of their identity and must have some intrinsic value having been around for so long, Ali said.
Other women argue from religious conviction – saying it’s God’s will, or from convenience – saying a bad guardian is better than none at all in areas where there is either an absence of government or a repressive regime in place, Ali said.
SIGNS OF HOPE
Despite the many problems facing women, there are signs of hope.
The conference heard about women and girls who are using laws in their countries to challenge damaging customs long considered part of their culture.
Mercy Chidi, who runs the Tumaini Girls Rescue Centre in Kenya, spoke of a petition that was filed in October on the behalf of hundreds of Kenyan girls to force the police to investigate and prosecute rape cases they say have been ignored.
The move was inspired by a 12-year-old girl. She had been raped and became pregnant. At a community meeting she stood up, pointed to the man who attacked her, and asked the elders what they were going to do about it.
“There are very good laws existing on the books, but they are not being enforced,” Chidi said.
Another speaker, Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won an Oscar for her short documentary “Saving Face,” also gave examples of women “using culture to fight culture” in their communities.
One of them is a young woman who set up an organisation that went from village to village in a province of Pakistan convincing men to allow women to attend vocational centres where they would be taught how to embroider and bring back “a lost heritage”.
But what she really does is teach women about their rights and read them the constitution, Obaid-Chinoy said.
“There is a silent revolution taking place in Pakistan with women who are speaking out, with women who are challenging the status quo. With women who are using the law to empower themselves,” she added.
WOMEN'S RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY
Speakers talked about the importance of having the support of their families in order to be able to stand up to repressive traditions. They also said the involvement of men was crucial in any bid for change.
Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi recalled how Iran's revolution in 1979 ushered in a new era in which discriminatory laws were approved one by one.
However, she said, Iranian culture was more progressive than the law, which is why when women began protesting for their rights, many men supported them, understanding that if women won their rights, democracy might return to Iran.
"Women's rights and democracy are two sides of the same coin," Ebadi told the conference.