My New Year’s wish: May democracy and women’s rights flourish together

Date: Jan 2013

I have a dream – a new year’s wish for 2013. It is for Muslim women’s rights to flourish so that they can “shoot for the moon” as Fatima Mernissi, the Moroccan author of the “Veil and the Male Elite” advises. But this requires democracy and women’s rights to be inextricably allied – one cannot thrive without the other. Without the support of democratic values, principles and institutions– the female half of any country is handicapped, as the Muslim experience proves. And without women’s active engagement in furthering democracy, democratic principles and institutions promoting equality and justice are, by definition, crippled – a nation cannot be effectively democratic for half of its citizens.

As Egypt approaches the second anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution; the Morsi presidency transmits dual messages. “We want everything to be Islamic….” in all ways from the president to the drainage systems, countered by “We feel to be alone in the sea is not good for Egypt” or the region.

Egyptians approved a new constitution weak on women’s rights, so that equality for women and minorities, freedom of the press and due process for justice – aren’t adequately protected Peter Hesller points out in the New Yorker. But the new Administration just adopted a new election law requiring political parties to include women candidates in their election slates which is — a modest but good start. Yet the road from dictatorship to democracy could be l-o-n-gin Egypt.

Friedman frames the issue as whether Egypt becomes the next India or the next Pakistan. He cites ndia’s recent appointment of a Muslim as India’s head of intelligence services as “a big, big deal,” but India also has a raft of senior and powerful women political leaders – even while its threatened patriarchal culture lashes back with episodes like the ghastly Delhi rape-murder. India’s experiment with democracy indicates that freedom, independence and democracy do not make a neat or easy trio. India- the world’s largest democracy is wild, cantankerous and cacophonous – but even so, it works. Muslims continue to face discrimination in India, the message from the top leadership is clear: minorities need to be validated and empowered. Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow, Hoover Institute at Stanford University explains how democracy eroded “primordial barriers – such as caste, tribe and religion.” In recent years even Indian village panchayats (councils) have been required legislatively to elect women representatives to one third of the village councils’ seats.
Egypt and India share a parallel colonial history, but then their paths differ. India, blessed by enlightened leaders, paved the way for democracy along with independence. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru among others were indefatigably committed to democracy. Egypt’s path exploded overnight. It also lacked leaders with a bold, new inclusive vision and plans to bring together secularists and Islamists while the military kept the lid on the toxic brew which the Arab spring inherited.Afghanistan has even less foundation for democracy or women’s rights than Egypt. Progress in Afghanistan – particularly on women’s issues is slow. While good laws are written (listing 22 acts of violence against women), they are not well implemented – particularly if they conflict with local tribal and cultural norms. Yet, there is some progress: In 2012, 4,000 reports of abuse of women were reported to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, far exceeding the numbers in 2011. Yet, in the 16 provinces, a miniscule percentage of these reports were registered by the police, and only 163 went to trial, resulting in 100 convictions.

Domestic matters are the purview of the family in Afghanistan. External and institutional intervention is resisted. Traditional jirgas and shuras are alternative places where violence against women in the home and family is too often dismissed by male elders. (Slow Gains in Justice for Afghan Women).Despite these challenges, Ms. Gagnon, Director of Human rights for the United Nations’ Afghanistan office, said: “The commitment of government authorities varies, with some deeply supportive of the law — to the extent of risking their lives to help women — and others reluctant to move cases into the courts.”

Pakistan is the proof point. It shared India’s pre-independence history and broad cultural traditions. But the military with US encouragement squashed democracy, and we can see the disaster this created today. Tragedy upon tragedy follows in quick step. The world is still stunned by the Taliban shooting Malala Yousufzai, a refreshing and dedicated 14 year old student, who has dreams to learn, to teach, to excel. (Fortunately, she is on the mend but will still need further surgeries.) Her horror story was followed by the death of nine health workers – women and men – who were killed for meeting with families to explain the value of the polio vaccine for their daughters. And now we have another seven deaths, six of them women, mostly teachers in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, the Province bordering Afghanistan and the heart of the most traditional elements in Pakistani society. These are heinous acts and certainly not Islamic –- yet the Taliban are said to be responsible for them and proudly proclaim that they shot Malala.

Without the inextricable two step dance between democracy and women’s rights, the aid workers, teachers, health workers and the Malalas of this world – who can light up our lives, pave the way for their brethren, give us hope – cannot do what they were put on earth to do! For the world’s marginalized, impoverished, unemployed women – all of whom have expectations – democratic participation and women’s rights – could be the answer to their dreams and futures.

Happy New Year and here’s to your dreams being fulfilled in 2013.

Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin’s blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife. Khadijah is the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.

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