Monday, February 23, 2009

The Death of Female Education - Documentary

Class Dismissed in Swat Valley

A short documentary profiling an 11-year-old Pakistani girl on the last day before the Taliban close down her school.

Watch it and weep

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saudi King appoints first woman to council

(CNN) -- Saudi King Abdullah has appointed a woman to the council of ministers for the first time as part of a Cabinet reshuffle, networks including Saudi state-run Channel One reported Saturday.

Saudi King Abdullah has appointed a woman to his council of ministers for the first time.

Saudi King Abdullah has appointed a woman to his council of ministers for the first time.

King Abdullah announced a new supreme court chief, minister of health, justice minister and information minister as part of the reshuffling, according to Channel One.

King Abdullah appointed Noor Al-Fayez to the Saudi Council of Ministers. She will serve in a new position as deputy minister for women's education.

"People are very excited about this," said Khaled Al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper in Saudi Arabia. "This sends a clear signal that the King means business. Instead of appointing some bureaucrat, he appointed a woman."

Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of Al-Watan Daily newspaper, told CNN the reshuffle signals a major change in his country.

"This is a huge step forward, in education, women's place in society," said Khashoggi.

The new appointments are the largest council shakeup since King Abdullah took power in 2005.

Maeena also said the other new appointments by King Abdullah were very "progressive" moves.

Some other new appointments were:

-- Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, new minister of education

-- Faisal Al-Moammar, new deputy minister of education

-- Sheikh Mohammed Al-Isa, new minister of justice

-- Abdulaziz Al-Khowja, new minster of culture and information

-- Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, new minister of health

-- Sheikh Abdulaziz Al-Humain, new head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Starting at Home, Iran's Women Fight for Rights

Sima Sayyah

Protesters last month outside the Palestinian Embassy in Tehran denounced the killing of women and children in Gaza.


TEHRAN — In a year of marriage, Razieh Qassemi, 19, says she was beaten repeatedly by her husband and his father. Her husband, she says, is addicted to methamphetamine and has threatened to marry another woman to “torture” her.

Rather than endure the abuse, Ms. Qassemi took a step that might never have occurred to an earlier generation of Iranian women: she filed for divorce.

Women’s rights advocates say Iranian women are displaying a growing determination to achieve equal status in this conservative Muslim theocracy, where male supremacy is still enscribed in the legal code. One in five marriages now end in divorce, according to government data, a fourfold increase in the past 15 years.

And it is not just women from the wealthy, Westernized elites. The family court building in Vanak Square here is filled with women, like Ms. Qassemi, who are not privileged. Women from lower classes and even the religious are among those marching up and down the stairs to fight for divorces and custody of their children.

Increasing educational levels and the information revolution have contributed to creating a generation of women determined to gain more control over their lives, rights advocates say.

Confronted with new cultural and legal restrictions after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, some young women turned to higher education as a way to get away from home, postpone marriage and earn social respect, advocates say. Religious women, who had refused to sit in classes with men, returned to universities after they were resegregated.

Today, more than 60 percent of university students are women, compared with just over 30 percent in 1982, even though classes are no longer segregated.

Even for those women for whom college is not an option, the Internet and satellite television have opened windows into the lives of women in the West. “Satellite has shown an alternative way of being,” said Syma Sayah, a feminist involved in social work in Tehran. “Women see that it is possible to be treated equally with men.”

Another sign of changing attitudes is the increasing popularity of books, movies and documentaries that explore sex discrimination, rights advocates say.

“Women do not have a proper status in society,” said Mahnaz Mohammadi, a filmmaker. “Films are supposed to be a mirror of reality, and we make films to change the status quo.”

In a recent movie, “All Women Are Angels,” a comedy that was at the top of the box office for weeks, a judge rejects the divorce plea of a woman who walked out on her husband when she found him with another woman.

Even men are taking up women’s issues and are critical of traditional marriage arrangements. Mehrdad Oskouei, another filmmaker, has won more than a dozen international awards for “The Other Side of Burka,” a documentary about women on the impoverished and traditional southern island of Qeshm who are committing suicide in increasing numbers because they have no other way out of their marriages.

“How can divorce help a woman in southern parts of the country when she has to return after divorce to her father’s home who will make her even more miserable than her husband?” said Fatimeh Sadeghi, a former political science professor fired for her writing on women’s rights.

Janet Afary, a professor of Middle East and women’s studies at Purdue University and the author of “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran,” says the country is moving inexorably toward a “sexual revolution.”

“The laws have denied women many basic rights in marriage and divorce,” she wrote in the book. “But they have also contributed to numerous state initiatives promoting literacy, health and infrastructural improvements that benefited the urban and rural poor.”

To separate the sexes, the state built schools and universities expressly for women, and improved basic transportation, enabling poor women to travel more easily to big cities, where they were exposed to more modern ideas.

Ms. Afary says that mandatory premarital programs to teach about sex and birth control, instituted in 1993 to control population growth, helped women delay pregnancy and changed their views toward marriage. By the late 1990s, she says, young people were looking for psychological and social compatibility and mutual intimacy in marriage.

Despite the gains they have made, women still face extraordinary obstacles. Girls can legally be forced into marriage at the age of 13. Men have the right to divorce their wives whenever they wish, and are granted custody of any children over the age of 7. Men can ban their wives from working outside the home, and can engage in polygamy.

By law, women may inherit from their parents only half the shares of their brothers. Their court testimony is worth half that of a man. Although the state has taken steps to discourage stoning, it remains in the penal code as the punishment for women who commit adultery. A woman who refuses to cover her hair faces jail and up to 80 lashes.

Women also face fierce resistance when they organize to change the law. The Campaign for One Million Signatures was founded in 2005, inspired by a movement in Morocco that led to a loosening of misogynist laws. The idea was to collect one million signatures for a petition calling on authorities to give women more equal footing in the laws on marriage, divorce, adultery and polygamy.

But Iran’s government has come down hard on the group, charging many of its founders with trying to overthrow it; 47 members have been jailed so far, including 3 who were arrested late last month. Many still face charges, and six members are forbidden to leave the country. One member, Alieh Eghdamdoust, began a three-year jail sentence last month for participating in a women’s demonstration in 2006. The group’s Web site,, has been blocked by the authorities 18 times.

“We feel we achieved a great deal even though we are faced with security charges,” said Sussan Tahmasebi, one of the founding members of the campaign, who is now forbidden to leave Iran. “No one is accusing us of talking against Islam. No one is afraid to talk about more rights for women anymore. This is a big achievement.”

Women’s advocates say that the differences between religious and secular women have narrowed and that both now chafe at the legal discrimination against women. Zahra Eshraghi, for example, the granddaughter of the revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, signed the One Million Signatures petition.

“Many of these religious women changed throughout the years,” said Ms. Sayah, the feminist in Tehran. “They became educated, they traveled abroad and attended conferences on women’s rights, and they learned.”

Because of the government’s campaign of suppression, the process of collecting signatures has slowed recently, and many women do not want to be seen in the presence of a campaigner, let alone sign a petition. Most feminist groups limit their canvassing now to the Internet.

But while the million signatures campaign may have stalled, women have scored some notable successes. A group that calls itself Meydaan has earned international recognition for pressing the government to stop stonings.

The group’s reporting on executions by stoning in 2002 on its Web site, — including a video of the execution of a prostitute — embarrassed the government and led the head of the judiciary to issue a motion urging judges to refrain from ordering stonings. (The stonings have continued anyway, but at a lower rate, because only Parliament has the power to ban them.)

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Sunday, February 08, 2009

What did the 'wagging tongues' expect?

Published: February 7, 2009

WASHINGTON — The government workers greeted Michelle Obama like a Hollywood celebrity, whooping and cheering and oohing and aahing over her slate gray power suit. But when she took to the podium, the nation’s self-described mom in chief quickly turned policy wonk.

The first lady pitched her husband’s economic stimulus package, including plans to create 15,000 affordable housing units, weatherize 2 million low-income homes and repair military housing. Such investments, Mrs. Obama told employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would prevent “an increase in homelessness during these tough economic times.”

In her first weeks in the White House, Mrs. Obama has been the gracious hostess and loyal spouse, welcoming visitors to the Executive Mansion and accompanying President Obama to a prayer breakfast and to a charter school to read to second graders. But in a departure from her predecessor, Mrs. Obama has also begun promoting bills that support her husband’s policy priorities.

Last month, Mrs. Obama celebrated the enacting of a pay-equity law with a reception for women’s advocates at the White House. Last week, she supported the economic stimulus bill on her visit to the housing agency and another to the Department of Education.

Mrs. Obama plans to visit all the cabinet-level agencies on her tour to listen to and get to know Washington in the coming weeks, her aides say. They said she relished the chance to serve as one of the president’s chief surrogates on critical policy matters.

“One of the things she does really well is to highlight the benefits of pieces of legislation,” said Jackie Norris, Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff. “She’s really kind of laying out things that are important to the administration. I think she’ll play an active role in supporting the president’s agenda.”

It is a notably different approach than the one embraced by the former first lady, Laura Bush, who like most others steered clear of discussing legislation. Some observers praised Mrs. Obama’s foray into the legislative debate, saying the new first lady, who is a Harvard-educated lawyer and a former hospital executive, was eminently qualified to promote the president’s policies.

Others expressed surprise, saying they had expected Mrs. Obama to focus on her daughters and on the traditional issues she had emphasized in the presidential campaign, like supporting military families and working parents. Her remarks, they said, carried echoes of former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, though Mrs. Obama has said she will not become involved in policymaking as Mrs. Clinton did.

“She went to some lengths to say she was going to be first mom in chief,” Myra Gutin, a scholar of first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey, said of Mrs. Obama. “I don’t think we ever really imagined her edging toward public policy like this. It’s not like she’s making public policy. But it’s a little less neutral than some of the other things she’s talked about focusing on.”

Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center here, countered that Mrs. Obama was successfully balancing her ceremonial role as first lady, her role as a mother and her keen interest in public policy.

“It seems like a combination of responsibilities that fit very naturally with who she is,” said Ms. Greenberger, who attended the signing of the pay-equity law at the White House. “You don’t have a sense that being a mom and being human and being able to understand everybody’s daily struggles has to come at the expense of her intelligence, her expertise and her understanding of the issues.”

Mrs. Obama’s aides say she is still feeling her way as first lady. She is meeting regularly with her staff to plan events and hammer out her policy agenda even as she juggles play dates and goes over homework with her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. (And yes, Mrs. Obama, like her husband, is keeping her BlackBerry.)

When Mr. Obama stood alongside members of Congress in a White House ceremony to celebrate the signing of the pay-equity legislation, Mrs. Obama found a seat in the audience with the women’s advocates, not on stage with the lawmakers.

And in her speech at the Education Department last week, Mrs. Obama quickly corrected herself when she used the word “we” to describe the educational investments the president hoped to make. “I shouldn’t say ‘we,’ but the administration ‘we,’ ” she said.

Her speeches to government employees have been warm and rousing, something akin to pep rallies, first lady style, as she has thanked them for their work. “I’m visiting — trying to visit all the agencies here to say a few things — one, to say hello,” Mrs. Obama said as the crowd roared back, “Hello!”

Indeed, Mrs. Obama seems to savor her role as a bridge between the White House and the community. Last week, she took time to hug, shake hands with and speak to dozens of government employees — from administrative assistants to agency heads — some of whom said they came close to tears at the sight of her. (“I got a hug!” one woman shouted jubilantly. “I got a hug!”)

Mrs. Obama plans to continue honing her message, her aides say. But she is also eager to get out of the White House and into the city.

Last week, she took her staff to lunch at Five Guys Burgers and Fries, where she had a cheeseburger, French fries and a Coke.

And when a little girl at the charter school visited by the Obamas announced that she dreamed of becoming first lady, Mrs. Obama flashed her self-deprecating wit. “It doesn’t pay much,” she advised.

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Mistresses of the Universe

Published: February 7, 2009

Banks around the world desperately want bailouts of billions of dollars, but they also have another need they’re unaware of: women, women and women.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, some of the most interesting discussions revolved around whether we would be in the same mess today if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters. The consensus (and this is among the dead white men who parade annually at Davos) is that the optimal bank would have been Lehman Brothers and Sisters.

Wall Street is one of the most male-dominated bastions in the business world; senior staff meetings resemble a urologist’s waiting room. Aside from issues of fairness, there’s evidence that the result is second-rate decision-making.

“There seems to be a strong consensus that diverse groups perform better at problem solving” than homogeneous groups, Lu Hong and Scott E. Page wrote in The Journal of Economic Theory, summarizing the research in the field.

A fascinating British study supports that conclusion with evidence from the drool of financiers. The researchers, using the saliva of male traders, tracked natural variations of testosterone in the morning and the amount of profits they earned for the firm that day.

“We found that a trader’s morning testosterone level predicts his day’s profitability,” reported the study, published last year in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Higher testosterone meant more risk-taking and, usually, more money.

On its own, that might suggest that men have an advantage on the trading floor. Yet the same study also suggested that elevated testosterone levels could lead to greater assumption of risk; high testosterone levels “may shift risk preferences and even affect a trader’s ability to engage in rational choice.” In other words: when male traders crash ... boy, they crash.

So could it be that the problem on Wall Street wasn’t subprime mortgages, but elevated testosterone?

It’s important to be skeptical of some of the research: often it seems to be conducted or studied by those who have strong views about gender. And it’s generally true that research conducted on matters pertaining to fairness or social justice rarely has the rigor of research conducted on, say, particle physics.

Yet the number of studies reaching similar conclusions from different directions is striking.

One of the shortcomings of any system of men sitting in front of screens making financial bets was reported last year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, in case you missed your copy. That study found that men are particularly likely to make high-risk bets when under financial pressure and surrounded by other males of similar status.

As for women, their risk-taking was unaffected by this kind of peer pressure.

The study’s authors point to an evolutionary hangover. Across cultures, women prefer high-status men, while a woman’s reproductive prospects depend much less on her social status. Thus, when men of similar status gather, they jockey for an edge and jostle for the alpha role — and try to get ahead with high-stakes gambles.

On the plus side, boasting about these financial bets might make a great pickup line. On the downside, the bank goes bust.

A greater gender balance could reduce some of these unhelpful consequences of male herding. After all, we also saw some unexpected gains from the balance resulting from women’s suffrage.

Skeptics have noted that the first president elected after women got the national vote was Warren Harding — an embarrassment to female voters ever since. Yet a remarkable study published recently in The Quarterly Journal of Economics by Grant Miller of Stanford University indicates that female voters did have a profound and positive impact.

Professor Miller examined states where women won the vote before national enfranchisement. He found that when a state gave women the vote, politicians there quickly began behaving differently — in particular, devoting about 35 percent more money to new public health programs. These programs were seen as a priority for women, and the politicians wanted to curry favor with them.

The same happened at the national level: the 19th Amendment of 1920 was followed a year later by the Sheppard-Towner Act, a landmark public health measure, because members of Congress believed that was what women wanted. The upshot of all this was a sharp decline in child mortality, with Professor Miller attributing 20,000 fewer deaths nationally each year to the impact of women’s suffrage.

I’m skeptical of any effort to force banks to accept more women (one woman on the board for every $100 million handout?). But looking at the evidence of how homogeneous groups go astray, let’s all hope that banks seek a little more diversity on their own — just as desperately as they’re seeking bailouts.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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A woman traduced by a 'close' encounter

Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch Photograph: Guardian

By Barbara Ellen

The Observer

Does "on the ground female human rights worker" equate with "slut" these days? Are they perceived as wandering around war zones in cocktail dresses slashed to the thigh, hungry for the next thrill, perhaps a hunky military man to devour, humming the old toe-tapper I Love a Man in Uniform? Or could it be possible that these women pour all their passion and intensity into their jobs?

I only ask because of the curious case of Rachel Reid, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan. Last week, it emerged that a senior army officer, Colonel Owen McNally, had been arrested under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly passing classified information to a human rights worker. Unnamed sources were quick to inform the media that McNally was known to be "close" to Reid, who had divulged the secrets after she "befriended him".

Writing in response, Reid says that, far from being "close" to McNally, she met him twice professionally at the military HQ in Kabul to discuss civilian casualties. (Interestingly, Reid had angered Nato by pointing out that these deaths had tripled between 2006-7.)

Now Reid is horrified that her reputation has been dragged through the mud when she is living in a country "where a woman's reputation can mean her life". She is devastated by the "vicious slur" leaked to the media, saying: "They knew exactly what impression they were creating." Quite. And is anyone else getting deja vu?

As McNally's investigation is still going on, the full facts have yet to emerge. However, to me, this seems eerily reminiscent of Andy Burnham's description of MP David Davies and Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti's "late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls" last year.

Intended or not, the impression given was that Chakrabarti and Davies were steaming up Westminster's windows about more than the 42-day detention period. Briefly but indelibly, Chakrabati was no longer just a human rights professional, she was a femme fatale, pouting and wriggling through the corridors of power.

Now here we have another woman working in human rights and more whispers about how she and a man were "close". One wonders how, in 2009, that it can still be the case that the quickest, most effective way to undermine a woman, professionally and personally, is to imply she's "using her sexuality" to get information.

Men are being targeted too, but it is still much more routine for a woman to be sexually slurred. Andrew Gilligan was never accused of being "close" to anyone during the sexed-up dossier episode. "Close" is unlikely to be perceived as a short cut to destroying a male reputation. By contrast, "close" is dangerous for a woman. Some might say, what of it? No one said Reid was having an affair. "Close" could mean anything - platonic friendship, professional rapport, a meeting of minds. Baloney. "Close" here is as loaded as a revolver. A euphemism for sex or at least sexual tension. In this context, "Close" could be a movie starring Angelina Jolie and Javier Bardem. I can see the tag-line now: "Their passion defied Nato!"

This is why Reid was devastated by "close". She would have realised in an instant the impact of the sudden appearance of her sexuality, barging into her professional life like some drunk through the saloon doors in a budget western. How quickly it would undermine her professional persona. Perhaps even put her life at risk.

From her written response it certainly comes across that any emotional involvement Reid feels is towards her work. That her only "crime" was that she took her job seriously, and is attractive with long hair. Only time will tell if the rest is just chauvinistic graffiti, a sneaky way of spraying "slag" across a global wall.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Helping Afghan Women and Girls
Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation: "As the coalition I'm working with - Get Afghanistan Right - continues to make the case that the Obama administration would be wise to rethink its plan to escalate militarily in Afghanistan, I've tried to engage the arguments made by some feminists and human rights groups who believe that such an escalation is necessary to protect Afghani women and girls. I share their horror when I read stories like this one by New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins describing an acid attack against girls and women - students and their teachers - at the Mirwais School for Girls. But how will escalation or increased US troop presence improve their security or make their lives better?"

Student flees Taliban in 'Pakistan's Switzerland'

By Zein Basravi

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- Hina Khan used to take her life in her hands every morning just to get to school.

Hina Khan, 14, fled to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, to escape the Taliban.

Hina Khan, 14, fled to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, to escape the Taliban.

When she stepped outside her door, the 14-year-old knew that ahead could be suicide bombings, gunfights, kidnappings and beheadings. Death threats were made against her, other students and teachers every day simply because they went to a girls' school in Pakistan targeted by Taliban militants.

"They said don't send your girls to school," Hina told CNN.

She used to live in the Swat Valley, a scenic mountainous region once popular with tourists and dubbed "Pakistan's Switzerland." But those were the days before militants moved in, "striking the fear of God" into residents with violence as they pushed for compliance with stricter moral and religious standards -- so-called Talibanization.

Now she is safer, 100 miles away in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, but her thoughts are often with her friends in Swat, near the border with Afghanistan.

They do not even go to school now, as authorities gave in to militant demands to shut all girls' schools. As many as 200 schools, mostly for girls, have been destroyed since November 2007 when the Taliban began their campaign to take control of the Swat Valley and surrounding areas.

"They have problems there," Hina said of those left behind. Video Watch how the Taliban's power has changed the valley »

"How can they leave their land, their home? Why come here? Here it's expensive, and they are all poor. They can't come here. And I feel really bad. All my friends are there. There is no one here."

The targeting of girls' schools shows an anti-women bias by the militants, who advocate an extreme following of a version of Islamic law, according to Islamabad-based human rights activist Tahira Abdullah. She adds it's almost as if the Taliban does not want women to exist.

"And if they do exist, they need to be within the four walls of their house compound; they need to be veiled," she said.

Abdullah is blunt in her assessment of the situation. "Right now, [Swat Valley] is under the control of the Taliban," she said.

"They are knocking on the doors of Peshawar, and I have no doubt they will be knocking on the doors of Islamabad [if] the government continues the complacency they are showing right now."

But the accusation of complacency is rejected by Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, spokesman for the Pakistan military.

"There is success," Abbas said of operations against anti-government forces in the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan. "The success rate of the army's operation is pretty good in these areas."

He attacked critics of the military operation for failing to recognize the sacrifices of the armed forces. About 1,300 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in operations against militants since 9/11, he said. And he said the fight was made harder because the army lacked modern equipment such as night-vision goggles and unmanned drones.

But the military's continuing fight to secure the area is alienating those it is supposed to help. Some residents said the government is doing more damage than the Taliban ever did.

"If the government doesn't stop this cruelty, finally we will be forced to come here, and this parliament, we will set it on fire, too," said Israr Ali, standing outside the parliament building in Islamabad recently.

Ali had traveled there with hundreds of others from the tribal regions for a protest organized by an Islamic political party in the federal capital.

He said army operations have turned his home into a war zone and that shelling from army helicopters has destroyed buildings and killed his friends and neighbors. The Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies reported that in 2008 at least 7,997 people were killed in terrorist attacks, clashes between security forces and militants, military operations, incidents of political violence, sectarian strife between tribes and border clashes.

More than 230,000 people have fled their homes as a result of fighting in the tribal areas and the Swat Valley, according to a report last month by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Those people include Hina, who fled with her parents and four younger siblings so that they could continue their education.

Hina said she is still scared of the Taliban. But she also is focused on school and her dream to become a doctor. And when she does that, she has another goal -- to help her country "fix problems."

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Humourous take on Fair Pay Act