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Fighting for the true meaning of International Women’s Day


Protest against honour killings in the Middle East

Heather Kennedy
WVoN co-editor

When Houzan Mahmoud was 12 years old, her neighbour told her that if she didn’t wear a burka, she would be hung by her hair from a tree in hell.

Many years later, Mahmoud is still fighting against what she calls the ‘rotten social values’ entrenched in the Iraqi and Kurdish societies that are her home.

Speaking at a public meeting in London, Women Fight Back, to address the importance of International Women’s Day (IWD) in the UK and Middle East, Mahmoud added: ”I say to that neighbour: ‘I can’t wait for heaven or hell, I just want to live’.”

Speakers and the audience (made up almost equally between men and women) agreed that IWD had become de-politicised, to the point of becoming an insipid marketing device on a par with Valentine’s Day.

Mahmoud from the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and Dibi Ali Kani from the Association in Support of Women in Iran both spoke about the issues confronting women fighting for their rights in the Middle East.

“There has been a mushrooming of women’s NGOs in Iraq, funded by occupation forces and the Government. But in Iraq we have polygamy, we have forced marriage, Sharia law.

“And these NGOs are leaving patriarchy and Islam unchallenged. Women’s organisations have been co-opted by the state and bureaucratised,” Mahmoud said.

With the overthrow of dictatorships and power hanging in the balance, women in the Arab world are fighting for basic rights against old forces of oppression and religious movements vying for political power.

“Part of the reason [for misogynistic attitudes] in Iraq and Kurdistan is local mullahs deliberately misinterpreting the Koran to men who don’t speak Arabic so can’t read it themselves.

“So the mullahs say, go home, beat your wives, it’s your right,” Mahmoud explained.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is gaining prominence. Although they claim to support women’s liberation, under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak they voted against progressive reforms which they saw as conflicting with Islam.

When campaigning for women’s rights in Europe, Mahmoud often hears the argument that misogynistic policies like stoning, forced marriage and female genital mutilation are an inherent aspect of her culture.

She refuted this, saying: “We first had Sharia law under a British dictatorship. Leftist movements have been crushed by continual wars and occupations.

“Religious movements, that receive global support, are the only ones that survive under these conditions.”

Both Kani and Mahmoud pointed out, however, that the UK is far from achieving gender equality, pointing in particular to the pressure in the west which encourages women to compete against one another in terms of their looks.

Janine Booth, a  national executive member of the RMT transport union, lamented that as the rate of domestic violence (DV) increases in a recession-bound UK, the government is closing refuges, forcing women to remain in violent relationships.

An audience member who works for one of the UK’s largest women’s refuge providers said the government refused to accept DV as a class issue.

“But it is working class women who don’t have the resources to escape violence so they are often at much worse risk.”

It’s this social consciousness that must be reclaimed by IWD and the women’s movement, argued Booth.

“International Women’s Day has to return to its radical socialist roots, as a celebration of working class women and their struggles.”

Booth was the first woman elected to the London transport seat on the union’s executive, a reflection of the gender disparity that still exists in the trade union movement and the transport industry.

“Female workers on the London Underground are unsafe, harassed, paid badly.

“We need to campaign to get their rights recognised. International Women’s Day is a day for working women, not just professional women who want to break through the glass ceiling.”

As women across the world struggle for their rights in the face of intensifying poverty, gender violence, political upheaval and oppressive social values, the message from the meeting was clear – the women’s movement must fearlessly confront patriarchy and capitalism and refuse to be co-opted by dominant agendas.

Mahmoud summed up the mood of the meeting with this call to arms:

”We need an army of women on the streets, vocally breaking taboos and demanding for their rights. I can’t give up my freedom of speech now, even if I have to pay for it with my own body.”

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