News Flash February 2014
An Afghan law that protects perpetrators of domestic violence, new Sharia criminal laws in Brunei that allow stoning, sexual assaults in Arab Spring countries, and virginity tests in Indonesia are just a few examples of a rollback of women’s rights in recent years. Libya’s Supreme Court has effectively lifted restrictions on polygamy requiring a first wife’s consent, and the country’s religious leadership has called for a ban on women marrying foreigners and for greater use of the hijab, or head scarf. According to Indonesia’s official Commission on Violence Against Women, as of August 2013 Indonesian national and local governments had passed 60 new discriminatory regulations so far that year. These included dozens of local bylaws requiring women to wear the hijab, and others permitting female genital mutilation or banning women from straddling motorcycles. Mandatory virginity tests have been proposed in several parts of the country. Brunei will see new criminal Sharia laws going into effect this spring that, among other things, allow the stoning of adulterers. Historic gains in women’s rights have been made in some countries, such as Tunisia—the birthplace of the Arab Spring—with new rights for women enshrined in their constitutions.
Hundreds of women’s rights campaigners marched calling for an end to violence against women and for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has postponed the signing of the new criminal procedure code, passed by both houses of the Afghan parliament. Article 26 of the code would have effectively denied women protection from domestic violence and forced or child marriage, and would have given immunity to many perpetrators given its ban on relatives testifying against one another. This development would not have been possible without the perseverance of Afghan civil society groups, most especially women’s rights advocates, and their allies at home and abroad. For now, it remains unclear how the law will go on to be altered. How decisive Karzai would be in this, considering the imminent end of his term after the April presidential elections, is also uncertain. Furthermore, Karzai’s commitment to women’s rights has been in serious question over the past years, as he has presided over the strengthening of forces opposed to gender equality.
Bahrain’s top legal authority has recommended that husbands who force their wives to have sex should not be prosecuted. It has also suggested husbands and guardians who “reasonably” discipline their wives and daughters should be above the law. The Supreme Judicial Council made the recommendations to ensure new legislation on domestic disputes does not contradict Sharia (Islamic) principles.
Brunei’s Sultan has ordered citizens to stop criticizing his plan to institute a harsh version of Sharia law, telling them they’ll be sorry once the law is implemented. He announced last October that Brunei would gradually institute Sharia law punishments such as flogging, severing limbs and death by stoning beginning April 1. Criticizing the sultan is forbidden, but the citizens of Brunei have still expressed their displeasure with Sharia law over social media.
The Egyptian army promised to ban virginity tests after it emerged that more than a dozen women arrested during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square had been forced to submit to them. It hasn’t, and the doctors arrested for performing the tests were acquitted when they brought to trial a year later. Now, the tests are back. After more than a year in which activists say that police refrained from carrying out virginity tests, or employing the types of harsh interrogation methods regularly associated with the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak, reports have resurfaced of police brutality against both men and women. It’s the final sign, activists say, that the police state is fully back. “I thought the tests were history. I thought we had left them behind in the days of Mubarak,” said another woman, who spent nearly a month in detention in December 2013. She asked not to be identified by name. “I cannot believe Egypt has returned to this. I cannot believe that this was done to me.” Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian general who publicly defended virginity tests, argued in April 2012 that virginity tests had been carried out “to protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape.” Forced virginity tests fall into a larger pattern of security service abuse.
Iranian mother of two, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and later given a 10-year jail term instead due to public outrage has been allowed to leave prison for “good behaviour”, a judiciary spokesman said. He said that the decision was a sign of “our religion’s leniency towards women”. There was no immediate word on whether the release was permanent or whether it was subject to some form of probation.
A new report entitled Iran: “Thirty-five Years of Hijab” has been published by Justice for Iran which states that Hijab laws amount to widespread and systematic violation of women’s rights. The report points out that over the past ten years more than 30,000 women have faced arrest throughout Iran due to hijab laws. Iran is the first country where the state forces all girls and women to observe uniform hijab laws. Without a clear definition of hijab, Islamic Republic laws consider women who lack “Islamic veil” in “public” as criminal and punishable by imprisonment and fines. The call for enforced hijab was first raised 35 years ago by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, just 24 days after the revolution was declared victorious, on 7 March 1979. However, given the resistance of a considerable percentage of Iranian women, it took three years of tension and violence to enforce this law. Although Islamic Sharia laws deem hijab compulsory at age 9, Islamic Republic requires all girls to begin observing hijab laws at the outset of primary education at age 7. It also imposes hijab laws on women of all faiths regardless of their sacred teachings on the issue of hijab. Furthermore, it is used as a tool for segregation and imposition of a wide range of limitations on women including violations of fundamental rights, including the right to education, work and movement. The report documents over past 35 years many women have been deprived of education, employment, driving, travelling by air, access to public medical services as well as cultural and recreational facilities because of their hijab.
The report goes on to point out how a high number of women are not only exposed to insult, harassment and physical abuse at the hands of the authorities, but that they also face detention and various forms of torture, including lashing. The report describes the process of arrest and prosecution of women based on the charge of improper Islamic hijab and unjust sentences. It also presents an overview of the psychological abuse where in some cases women have faced death or suicide. However, it also highlights an important historical fact that despite 35 years of violent enforcement measures, Iranian women continue to resist hijab laws and through their daily struggles provide an example for women in other Muslim majority countries, in particular those in transition, to demand their rights and freedom. In addition, based on official statistics, reports by human rights organisations and victim statements instances involving harassment, such as expulsion of women from governmental offices, refusal to grant promotion on the grounds of lacking proper Islamic hijab, banning access to education, summoning female students to disciplinary bodies and expulsion from dormitories continue unabated. Furthermore, despite many promises there has been no tangible improvement since Rouhani took office.
Iranian Airport Authority instructed staff to apply the Islamic Amre be Maroof (moral guidance code), and ensure that all female passengers observe hijab. “Women on flights that cross Iranian airspace must also follow the code”. The policy appears to be a reaction to the long-held practice of most Iranian women flying out of Iran of taking off their headscarf and hijab as soon as they board the plane, doing the reverse on their return.
Farzaneh Moradi, a 26-year-old woman charged with the murder of her husband was hanged in Isfahan, Iran without the knowledge of her lawyer. Farzaneh Moradi was forced to marry a paternal relative at the age of 15 and gave birth to her first child at 16. She fell in love with a man named Saeed at 19 and a year later was charged and arrested for the murder of her husband. At Saeed’s incitement she initially took responsibility for the murder of her husband hoping his parents would forgive her because of her child, and Saeed who had committed the murder would then be in a position to marry her. When transferred to solitary confinement in preparation for her hanging this week, Farzaneh was denied her sole wish to see her daughter one last time. The parents of the man who married Farzaneh as a child bride and have insisted on Farzaneh’s execution are now in charge of her daughter’s care. The prospect of her daughter becoming another child bride is now a possibility.
A number of Iranian trade union leaders have written an open letter to the Minister of Works, complaining that they and their families are living below the poverty line. In their letter the union leaders reminded the minister that almost 90% percent of the country’s working-class families live below the poverty line, with medical expenses absorbing a large proportion of their earnings.
Two sisters, Shler and Halima, (aged 16 and 18), who disappeared on February 11, were found murdered in Said Sadiq two weeks later. The sisters had previously stayed at a government shelter in Suleimania. After a legal decision, the sisters were returned to their family only to be found murdered some time thereafter. Lanja Abdulla, chairwoman of Warvin foundation for women issues, reports about another young girl who was killed earlier this year after she had been in the shelter in Erbil. Lanja Abdulla and other women activists protested and demanded the government protect women and girls from being killed by family members. The state shelters in Kurdistan are failing to protect women and girls at risk of gender-based violence.
A Malaysian court evoked Sharia law to allow a man to divorce his wife by text message. The decision was condemned by women’s rights groups in Malaysia, who say this highlights the way it is inherently biased towards men and leaves women with the short end of the stick. Under Sharia law, a man can divorce a woman simply by announcing his intentions. This is followed by a three month “cooling off” period before the divorce can be finalized, to create an opportunity for resolution. However, if a woman wants a divorce, she must go before a court to seek a divorce, and she must prove her husband has an inadequacy – usually impotency or extended absence. If not, she has no right to divorce him.
Even for a country which has seen much violence by the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, its February 25 attack on sleeping schoolchildren in Buni Yadi was shocking. The attackers set alight the administration block and then locked the pupils in before firebombing the hostels. Up to 59 children were killed; a teacher said they died either in the blaze or at the hands of the attackers, who shot them as they tried to climb out of the windows or caught them and cut their throats. Boko Haram means “western education is sinful” in Hausa, and since the school murders, the federal government has closed five federal secondary schools in three northern states; the pupils have been offered alternatives. The violence continues, with at least 650 already killed this year; northeastern Nigeria is in a state of civil war.
The Council of Islamic Ideology ruled that Pakistani laws related to the minimum age of marriage were ‘un-Islamic’; that non-pubescent children (including babies) could be entered into the contract of marriage by their parents and/or guardians; and that said marriages could be consummated upon reaching puberty by said children according to Islam.
A couple were stoned to death for adultery in a remote area of Pakistan’s western Baluchistan province, leading to six men being held on suspicion of murder. The couple, both married to other people, were believed to be in their 30s. The woman’s father and brother, and the man’s uncle and father have been arrested, along with a cleric believed to have issued the order to kill them. Another man linked to the cleric is also being held. In many rural areas of Pakistan, gatherings of tribal elders, often referred to as jirgas, issue death sentences for couples or women deemed to have offended the conservative culture. Such killings are illegal in Pakistan, but the police force is weak and often ignores them. Even if the cases are brought to court, they can take years to be heard and the national conviction rate hovers between 5 to 10 percent. If convicted, the victim’s family can forgive the killers – a major loophole, since the killers often are the victim’s family. Women’s rights group The Aurat Foundation says it tracks around 1000 cases of honor killings per year just from media reports. The true figure is probably much higher. In one high profile case that captivated the country, five women were allegedly killed in 2012 in remote Kohistan after they were videotaped singing and clapping softly to music with two men present.
A group of Saudi women have petitioned the Shura Council to back a demand to curb the “absolute authority” of male guardians over women in the country. Saudi Arabia forbids women to work or travel without the authorisation of their male guardians. It is also the only country that bans women from driving, and a woman cannot obtain an identification card without the consent of her guardian. A recent case in which a pregnant student had to give birth on campus after a women-only university in Riyadh denied access to paramedics was cited. And a university student died last month after paramedics were prevented from entering her campus because they were not accompanied by a male guardian, a must according to the segregation rules in the kingdom. This year, Saudi Arabia suspended a notification programme that had been running since 2012, which alerted male guardians once women under their custody left the country, even if they were travelling together. Three female members of the Shura Council presented a recommendation that women be given the right to drive in October, but the male-dominated 150-member assembly blocked the proposal.
Sexual and gender-based violence is a major issue in Somalia, especially for internally displaced persons living in south and central Somalia. A Mogadishu-based NGO working to protect women and children has recorded more than 2,000 survivors of sexual violence in Mogadishu since it was set up in July 2012.
An Ethiopian woman in Khartoum, Sudan, who was gang raped by seven men, has been denied by the Attorney General the ability to make a formal complaint of rape and thus instigate a full investigation. She has instead been charged with adultery which carries the potential sentence of death by stoning.
In the face of strong pressure from the more extreme factions, Tunisia approved a constitution that guaranteed equality between men and women, secured a constitutional mandate for environmental protection, only the third country in the world to do so, made a declaration that health care is a human right, with preventative care and treatment for every citizen, that it is a democracy with civil laws that respects freedom of religion and an established right to due process and protection from torture.