Women’s Rights at The Next Century Foundation

International Women’s Day celebrated on the 8th March marks the women’s rights movement.  In the 21st century it may come as an oddity that women are still fighting for their rights.  But history shows that from Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes, the 1903 movement seeking the women’s right to vote, to the Emily Maitilis and her female colleagues 2017 call to the BBC to “sort the gender pay gap” – and this is before any recognition of the $10 trillion dollars yearly of unpaid work by women – the battle for gender equality is an ongoing one.  This movement takes on the battle by inspiring young women through the social, economic, cultural and political successes of women around the world – of which there are many. 

This blog highlights the achievement of women in the light of the NCF’s mission.  The Next Century Foundation (NCF) provides non-partisan forums for dialogue for key actors in conflict affected countries.  These spaces initiate open and, wherever possible, non-judgemental discussions, aimed to open the door to further diplomatic discussions and to peace building.  The NCF believes in Roosevelt’s four freedoms: Freedom from Fear; Freedom from Want; Freedom of Expression; Freedom of Religion.  

Freedom of Expression

Women at NCF play an important role; during my time there, myself and the women of NCF have participated and led the organisation’s discussions on Lebanon’s constitutional process; the working group for Afghanistan, opening dialogue with the Kabul Institute for Peace; discussing the Middle East Peace Process with key players in both Israel and Gaza; and interviewed those close to the Syrian government.  They have submitted UN oral and written statements on the plight of the Burmese people in Myanmar, the Brazilian policies destroying the Amazon; the Crises in Yemen and Syria; and the ongoing human rights abuses faced by the Uyghur community.  The NCF’s gender diversity is reflected in its board members and with firm beliefs in women’s right held by its Secretary General, William Morris.  And behind every great man is a great woman, in the form of Veronica Morris.  Veronica has called out the abuse of Sudanese women and her consistent and strong voice has endorsed the freedom of expression for women such as Princess Basmah.  Princess Basmah herself a campaigner for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia and senior NCF member, was silenced in 2019 when arrested and imprisoned. 

Giving women a seat at the table is fundamental to ensuring freedom of expression, and the NCF needs to continue to lead by example and encourage those it opens dialogue with to also be inclusive of women.  The dialogue in the Afghanistan working group is an example of where women’s voices are much needed, to provide a balanced argument on a front dominated by men.  The rumblings of peace talks in Turkey proposed by the Biden administration must allow women to be seated around the discussion table, as parallel talks in Doha have not been inclusive, despite the call for meaningful participation of women in the Afghan peace talks

The Taliban’s arguments on women’s positions are based on their interpretation of scripture, an interpretation they have appropriated to demarcate women’s roles.  This narrative needs to change.  The beauty is that this most beautiful religion is abundant with examples for respecting women and their rights.  The Quran states that men and women are created equally in the eyes of God. 

“Whoever does good and believes -whether he is male or female – such shall enter the Garden, and they shall not be wronged in the slightest.” (4:124)

The notion that men are superior to women, is derived from the verse (2:228)

“Women have rights similar to those of men equitably, although men have a degree ˹of responsibility˺ above them”

This degree refers to the responsibility as a protector, maintainer and provider, not as a privilege.

Although Islam is frequently, and wrongly, criticised for its oppression of women, it was Islam that opened the door to human rights and particularly women’s rights.

Freedom of Religion

Since the nascence of Islam in the 7th century through the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), exemplary female figures in Islam have emerged whose role in society symbolizes how women’s roles are distorted.

Women such as Khawalah bint al-Azwar, one of the greatest female military leaders in history, who led military expeditions.  One such battle was the battle of Yarmouk in August 636, where Khawalah led a group of female Muslim warriors and engaged the Byzantine Army.  Similarly, Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, was the first female Warrior of Islam, who was injured whilst protecting the Prophet (pbuh) at the battle of Uhud.  Khawalah and Nusaybah, defended and propagated Islam, and to understand why they took to the battlefield, it is important to understand the status of women before Islam. 

Through revelations, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught Islam, this included changing cultural practices that undermined women’s rights.  Before Islam female infanticide was prevalent as females were considered burdensome to families.  As women, they were bought, sold and inherited as a sign of prestige and women had no right to their inheritance.  Islam elevated women’s prestige in family and society, giving them respect and equality, in some cases giving them higher precedence than men as the hadith – sayings of the prophet as a source of moral guidance second to the Quran – narrated by Abu Huraira indicates:

“A man asked the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, “Who is most deserving of my good company?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Then who?” The Prophet said “Your mother.” The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said, “Your mother.” The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said, “Your father.”

Both Khawalah and Nusaybah fought for Islam and stood up for how it challenged society’s perspectives of women.  Through Islam women were given the right to vote, and to political and civic participation, and they participated in the military.  Islam defended women’s property rights, and not only could they work, they had full ownership of their money.  Islam also took the right to education for women and men to the next level, making it the duty of every male and female to seek knowledge as related in the hadith (Al-Tirmidihi).  

Nusayibah was one of only two women to pledge their allegiance to Islam at the second pledge in Al-Aqbah, returning to Medina to teach Islam to the women of the city.  Khawalah set an example to men and women to fight for what they believe in, and never accepted defeat.  Other women at the time of the prophet also showed leadership; the Prophet’s wife through most of this life until her death was Khadija (r.a).  She was the first to believe his revelations and accept Islam, and a business woman who financially supported the cause of Islam.  Similarly Aisha bint Abu Bakr was a scholar and teacher.  All these women are not only role models for women today but should be studied by men to understand the contribution to economics, society and politics that women can make.

Freedom from Want

International Women’s day this year appropriately fell in the week of Mothering Sunday as every mother is an inspiration to her children and grandchildren.  My mother, Sughra Begum, no less.  A mother to five children, she has raised the cause of women’s health in Pakistan.  Sughra established a working health centre by persuading the local community to work together, fundraising and lobbying the local council to contribute to this much needed service in my late father’s village.  This health centre has a delivery room, reducing the distress and trauma during child birth.  She has also worked at grass root level to get the local council to take responsibility for cleaning the areas used by children to access schools and women to access markets, improving sanitation in the area.  In her own battles, she has confronted corruption and attempted to expose this, as corruption causes inequality and lower levels of human development.  This assistance has helped towards the struggle of women for freedom from want.

More prominent women who have demonstrated leadership in the face of adversity and provided this freedom from want include German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who revealed her bold open border migration policies when hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled conflict in search of refuge in Europe, and responded to her critics with “Wir schaffen das”, a policy that has been successful.  Jacinda Arden, New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister, managing the Covid-19 pandemic, being the first country to become Covid free in 2020.  The Republic of Singapore’s first female president Halimah Yacob who advocates gender equality and understands how it increases innovation and profitability.  The women’s rights advocate, Dr Alaa Murabit who stated in her 2016 speech at the UN, if women are equally employed they are likely to stimulate more growth than India and China combined; and highlighted the salience of fair employment of women and education of girls breaks the cycle of poverty, social inequality and child marriage.

Freedom from Fear

The analysis on the economic and political development attained through women’s rights are not converted into policies that uphold these rights.  Nadira Shalhoub-Kervokian explains in her book Militarization and Violence Against women in Conflict Zones in the Middle East the reason for this: “The use of the language of ‘rights’ is problematic, not because it is a façade – a lie – but because one’s rights and liberty are defined by those in power”. 

In the context of conflict, this power is at best uncompromising and at worst oppresses women.  One in five refugee or displaced women in humanitarian situations suffer sexual violence as a war tactic; women have fewer economic and other resources to protect themselves; 60% of maternal deaths occur in situations of conflict and displacement; and there is an increase in mortality and malnutrition rates for women and newborn children. The war in Yemen is a clear example of the difficulties women face in conflict zones. 

Yemen’s six year civil war and proxy conflict has been dubbed by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.  Yemen’s people were not beguiled by the economic concessions and political proposals for drafting a new constitution offered by President Saleh following the popular uprising in the Arab Spring of 2011. Like his counterparts across the Middle East, the fact that he was a renegade on previous political commitments failed to stimulate faith in him.  As with other Arab Spring countries, the impatience of the President with unflagging young protestors led to the mass shootings, with 50 protestors losing their lives on 18th March.  This eroded trust in Saleh’s own government, with key figures resigning and the head of the army’s 1st armoured division defecting.  The instability caused by the defections, and the reluctance of President Saleh to relinquish power, led to the long-simmering Houthi – officially Ansar Allah – rebellion to attain footholds in outlying provinces of the country and Islamist militant groups taking control of several cities in the southern provinces.  The NCF UN 2021 Yemen side meetings identified that these long term tribal differences are a key cause for the violence in the country, prior to foreign intervention that has fuelled divides and gravely escalated the conflict.

The protestors in the initial days of the uprising included women who also took part in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) of 2014, discussions intended for political factions to write a new constitution.   This was a great feat in a highly conservative country permitting a 30% quota on women and a law raising the legal age of marriage.  However, the boycott of the NDC by rebel groups, on the basis of foreign interference, and the sectarian tensions deemed Yemen’s NDC document inconclusive.   This essentially closed the door to any reform of women’s rights, returning policies to the boorish beginnings of the pre-Saleh government, policies that included article 40 of the personal status law, that women must obey their husbands in all matters, protecting men from any legal repercussions of violence against their wives

President Saleh backtracked on the agreement negotiated with the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the ensuing clashes between tribal militias and Saleh loyalist troops led to the President fleeing to Saudi Arabia.  Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi transitioned to power a month after Saleh’s return to Yemen in November 2012, on the agreement that the elections take place in February 2013 with Hadi as the only candidate on the ballot paper.  This opened the door to foreign intervention, with a Saudi coalition supporting the Hadi government and the Shi’a based Houthis backed by Iran, as geopolitics enveloped another regional war in the Middle East.  

With the involvement of international forces humanitarian assistance has been used as a weapon of war.  When the Saudi-led forces attacked Hudaydah in 2018, a Houthi stronghold port city used to distribute humanitarian assistance, the Saudis obstructed distribution and the Houthis redirected aid from civilians to their fighters.  The women in Yemen again faced the brutality of this war, making up 76% of all displaced people, and 30% of displaced households being female (including girl) led households, with rampant violence and poverty putting these women in greater danger.  The UN Human Rights Council Group of Experts on Yemen concluded there was evidence of rape, detentions, disappearances and extortion of women, with incidents going largely unreported due to impunity and fear of revictimization.  Sexual violence in this context is not only a war crime under Rome Statute of ICC (07/2002) and UNSCR (1820) but is also condemned under Islamic jurisprudence on war as the First Calipha Abu Bakr (R.A) stated in his sermon of battles being confined against combatants:

“Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman. nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock. Save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone”

In March 2021, one million pregnant women and new mothers are severely malnourished.  These women and their families cannot escape the Yemen’s locked borders and airspace to tell their story and put pressure on Western governments to stop selling arms that perpetuate this war. 

Women’s independent International League for Peace and Freedom found the security situation has now degraded to the point where military dominions have left a very limited space for women to participate in peace building, reconciliation, and peace processes, despite women constituting forces for revolutionary change at the beginning of the uprisings in Yemen. 

As the Oxfam report on Women in conflict zones indicates “Women have the upper hand in negotiating peace building and traditionally have shown their mediation skills in the roles assigned to them in their own tribes and rural communities. Being perceived as neutral and not seeking personal gain helped them to achieve this.”  

Women need to be part of peace negotiations and planning in post conflict situations to shape future public institutions and draft laws to change the norms.  Women need a seat at the table that will not only provide them, but future generations, with freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

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