Today marks one hundred years of International Women’s Day and what great achievements have been made. The very first IWD was honoured by 4 European countries; today numerous nations across the globe will be celebrating the huge strides made in fighting inequality and discrimination. Whilst celebrating these great achievements, we will also be honouring the women and men, both past and present, who rose to those challenges and against all the odds campaigned and fought for rights that many of us have now taken for granted.
Many argue that ‘feminism’ is no longer relevant in the 21st century and that it has achieved its aims. I believe the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights is just as pertinent today if not more so. The challenges facing women are old and new. The gender gap between men and women still exists. Working women in the UK earn on average 23% less than men. 1 in 4 women in the UK will suffer from domestic violence. 2/3rds of the world’s illiterate people are women however women do 2/3rds of the world’s work, yet only receive 10% of the world’s income. These are statistics we are all familiar with. But there are new challenges facing women. Here in the UK, many feminists acknowledge the huge problem of the over-sexualisation of women. Women have become objectified at almost every level of society and the effect this is having on young girls and boys is a worrying development. At the other end of the scale, politics, culture and even religion are being used as tools to punish women in the worst possible ways.
Since the late 20th century, Zina (fornication/adultery) laws which were hardly applied in practice, have now become part of the penal laws for many Muslim countries. Fiqh based penal laws can be found in a codified form in Libya since 1972, Pakistan and Iran since 1979, Sudan since 1983 and Yemen since 1994. The punishment for zina has included stoning, lashing and death but who have been the target of these laws? It has been predominately women where in many circumstances non-state actors, communities and even family members appoint themselves as judge, jury and executioner. Who can forget the case of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow? A 13 year old Somalian girl who in 2008 claimed she had been raped by 3 men only to find herself being found guilty of adultery and in breach of ‘Shariah law.’ In front of a thousand people she was dragged to a hole in the ground, buried up to her neck and stoned by 50 men. 10 minutes later she was dug up to see if she had died but was found to be still alive and was stoned again till she died. There are many cases like these; not fictional stories but truths testifying to the appalling reality for many women.
What about the barbaric murder of 14 Saudi schoolgirls by the mutawwa’un (committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice) in Mecca in 2002? A fire had started in their school and as parents arrived at the scene, they described how the mutawwa’un forcibly prevented girls from escaping the burning building and also prevented firemen from entering the school to save the girls. Some of the girls were even beaten by sticks and kicked by the mutawwa’un. There was some evidence that the religious police even locked the gates of the school trapping the girls inside. What was the reason for this madness? The girls were not properly veiled. The mutawwa’un yelled at the girls to go back into the burning building and come back ‘properly’ dressed. Many did so, only to be found dead. Every great principle of Islam – justice, sanctity of life, respect for women to name just a few, burned within that building alongside those young girls.
Both these cases took place in the 21st century and there are many more like them. One hundred years of International Women’s Day have helped highlight the cause of women but I cannot help wonder what the next one hundred years will bring. Such hideous and brutal attacks against women are rising particularly across Muslim countries. Much of it is due to the misplaced and erroneous notion of a woman’s ‘honour’ which is illogically placed above everything including life itself. Even more troubling is the view that many Islamist organisations insist on singling out the role of women in society as the ultimate test of authenticity of an Islamic order. The less visible women are in society, the greater the legitimacy of having established a ‘true’ Islamic state, culture or society.
Regardless of the ugly truths we see in many countries, I live in hope for what the next one hundred years will bring. My faith teaches me despair is not the answer and in a strange way, I take comfort from the responsibility placed on my shoulders as one who calls herself ‘Muslim.’ How can I not live in hope when I see women like Dr Hawa Abdi, Ann Njogu, Mukhtar Mai, Buthayna Nasser and organisations like Sisters in Islam and Southall Black Sisters fighting such injustice? How can I not be filled with confidence and optimism when I see ordinary women in Egypt and Tunisia not only joining the protests but actually leading the revolution in their respective countries?
Fighting for women to live in dignity and freedom is a responsibility on us all. By playing our part, we can work towards establishing hope, justice and equality for women in the next 100 years. The future generations of young girls depends on it.