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08. March 2008

Young women in Besud, Afghanistan © Mabi Angar

Iraq - Women in a Hospital © Manal Omar

Women in a hospital in Hillah waiting for medical treatment.
© Manal Omar

Iranian Woman © Alexander Nitzsche

Saudi Arabian woman © Edit Schlaffer/WwB

Emertha ©Xenia Hausner

Emertha while her visit in Vienna.

Aicha el Wafi&Phyllis Rodriguez Museum © Xenia Hausner

Aicha el Wafi and Phyllis Rodriguez

The International Women´s Day: the morning after

A commentary by Edit Schlaffer ( Die Presse, March 7th 2008)

Another International Women’s Day, another occasion for prestigious conferences. From the World Bank to the United Nations, high-ranking female bureaucrats assure us that - at least on March 8 - the investment in women and girls holds the top priority on their agendas.

The idea that the “future is female” is rhetoric that belongs to the standard repertoire of emissaries and delegates, even those representing countries organized along patriarchal patterns.

So what is the purpose of International Women’s Day? It is about equality and truth.
It is about the women who have no voice, whose protests remain unheard due to lack of an international (women’s) public. It is, for example, about the little Afghani girl who was married to a 70-year old, most likely against her will – an incident that only reached us because a picture of the man as his young bride won the World Press Award.

A short historical flashback: In 1910, the Socialist International introduced Women’s Day at a meeting in Copenhagen to honor the women’s rights movement. Over 100 women from 17 countries were present, including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament. On March 8 one year later, over one million men and women in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland demanded the end of discrimination against women at the workplace. On March 8, 1917, Russian women staged a nation-wide protest for peace and bread; a few days later they received the right to vote.

Today Women’s Day is primarily an opportunity for women in crisis situations and war areas to draw attention to their plight.

Freedom is a great challenge for us. In its efforts to replace frozen traditions with individual freedoms, western culture treads a treacherous path. The dissolution of fixed connections and the subsequent challenging of inherited certainties put the individual under great pressure: fear, insecurity, and loss of orientation are often the inevitable consequences. But there is no progress without risk. Opposite the possible dangers stands moral development, which has been highly successful in turning responsibility into principle. This authority is called conscience.

This is exactly what International Women’s Day is about: that we take the risk to search for freedom. It is difficult enough for us privileged women in the West, where departure from societal norms, independence, and personal opinions are sometimes scorned – but never in a life-threatening manner. It is different in Pakistan, however, where during the most recent globally observed elections in February only eight percent of the possible female voters in the border region around Peshawar ventured to the voting booths that had been set up especially for them. Religious militants had earlier accomplished the closing of most of these locations, and this for the entire world to see.

In Iraq, women are taking on ever more responsibility due to the enduring war. The University of Baghdad’s family expert Muhssin spoke about a changing of roles in the family. A typical example: Fawziya Ibrahim Mohammed, a 36-year old housewife and mother of four, had a horrifying experience: she had to pick up the bodies of her brother and two cousins from the morgue. “The men would certainly be kidnapped and killed,” she said. “The families cannot risk losing more men, who still have to sustain their families.”

Some of Iran’s brave women who brought to life the campaign “One Million Signatures for Women’s Rights” used their civil courage to take a huge risk for freedom and justice. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad persecuted the women who continued to fearlessly fight to change laws that demote women to second-class citizens. The 36-year-old cofounder of the campaign, Parvin Ardalan, was supposed to receive the Swedish Olof Palme prize for her efforts, but two security guards removed her from her Air France flight before takeoff from Teheran.

The prize committee honored Ardalan in absentia. She never would have betrayed her ideals were it not for the threats and being followed. Iranian women who fight for freedom, equality, and self-determination often come under the heel of Islamic fundamentalism.
When we deny these women our solidarity, then we have betrayed not only them, but also the best part of our civilization: our own belief in freedom and justice.

We are observing the development of a global civil society, the burden of which is often shouldered by women who have to carry on with everyday life in extreme situations. For the first time, an Arabic anti-violence network has been initiated. The network is named Karama, which means “honor” in Arabic. Honor is a fundamental social concept in Arabic society.

Women today are not only competent, but also more educated than ever. The educated society is female, not only in the West. In the Near East, the number of female students exceeds the number of male students. Women also use their capabilities. One of Saudi Arabia’s pioneers in health, pediatrician Dr. Maha Muneef, has personally experienced how many injuries can be directly attributed to domestic violence. She touched on a taboo and, together with a group of engaged activists, successfully established legal measures against domestic violence.

The young Rwandan woman Emertha Uwanyirigira, a radio reporter and soccer player who grew up as an orphan after the genocide, reserved an hour of airtime every week on a local radio station for the street children of Kigali, so that the population could learn about their fate. In this way, some of the children have found new families.

Aicha al Wafi, the mother of the 20th hijacker who is charged with having helped to plan the attacks of 9/11, has apologized to the families of the victims. Her efforts have led to the blossoming of a wonderful friendship and reconciliation project together with Phyllis Rodriguez, the Jewish American mother of Greg, who died in the attack on 9/11.

They both have transformed their anger and pain into sympathy and empathy and are thereby sending out a political signal. Beyond her own personal rehabilitation, Phyllis wanted to make the political statement that, at a time in which anti-Muslim sentiments were at the forefront, not all Muslims were responsible for the terrible occurrence.

The personal is political” is the slogan of the international women’s movement and the Leitmotif for the Aichas and the Mahas, who by taking tiny steps in their immediate surroundings achieve great things. The areas that belong to the core of political expression—politics, diplomacy, and the military—are still reserved for men, although the barriers for women are slowly being surmounted and acceptance is rising. The strategies that women effectively implement are through alternative networks and public opinion using the preeminent female characteristic: endurance.


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