Of Boris and of Banning the Burkas

The following represents the personal view of the NCF Secretary General and does not necessarily represent an NCF position:

There are two issues here. One is that the full face covering is a Mediaeval practice and one that is abusive in so much as it enshrines the doctrine of male dominance over the female. In a sense it degrades women.

It may be right to speak out against this practice.

However, even the birds of the air have need of nests. And whatever the rights and wrongs of that great cultural leveler, migration, one thing is certain, we are responsible for welcoming the migrant that arrives at these shores in a way which does not foster prejudice and hatred. Britain’s former Foreign Secretary’s remarks were calculated. They were written by Boris Johnson in a newspaper editorial. They are abusive of women in themselves, comparing those who practice full face veiling to pillar boxes with slits. Furthermore his manner provokes those already inflamed with Islamophobia (often exacerbated by but not because of the recent terror attacks) into further hatred. The former Foreign Secretary behaved as a racist. The sentiment behind his words, a concern about what the full face veil represents, may echo genuine concern for those women who choose, sometimes of their own volition, to do this to themselves. But he had no right to say that in that way. Not a man who may become our next Prime Minister.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Boris Johnson was therefore quite wrong. He should apologise. And if it was not his intention to foster religious hatred, he should apologise at least for the unwitting effect his remarks had.

Christ told us not to judge “Lest we be judged”. But there is an expectation that politicians in a position of leadership make considered judgements on our behalf. Boris’ remarks were unwise. Boris’ remarks can hardly have helped in these difficult times.

We should do better. But should we ban the burka and the headscarf like they do in France and Finland? Well maybe there is an argument for banning the hoody in young men and the burka in women because they are socially divisive and threatening. But not the headscarf. The French have gone overboard there. Women in the West have worn headscarves for generations as a fashion statement. And old fashioned European Catholics have always worn headscarves. The Muslim headscarf may be more concealing but is still just a cultural extension of the same thing and we should all find it in our hearts to accept it.

FGM in the UK: how to prevent this tragedy

Although it has been over three decades since FGM was made illegal in the UK, UNICEF estimates that it is currently a reality for 137,000 British girls and women and a further 144,000 are currently at risk of FGM in England and Wales. Despite these staggering figures, only two FGM cases have ever been brought to court in the UK and both have resulted in acquittals.

One of the great difficulties is that police often struggle to obtain enough proof to secure a conviction. Although FGM is certainly being carried out in the UK, most cases are carried out abroad over the summer holidays before the child is brought back to school. Even when it does occur in this country, many of the affected communities are socially isolated and children feel a duty to protect their complicit family members. Many cases also exist where a person has undergone FGM before taking up residency in the UK.

Since being first made illegal in 1985 (in the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act) the law has been amended multiple times to safeguard potential victims of FGM and also to introduce mandatory reporting of FGM in under-18s. Despite this legislation, many are angry that there have been no prosecutions related to FGM in the UK, whereas in France there have been more than a hundred convictions over the past few decades.

The eradication of FGM is made all the more difficult by the domestic nature of the practice – many rightly argue that sending a child’s parents to prison is unlikely to be in the child’s best interests. Education, therefore, is the key to changing the societal attitudes that underpin and perpetuate this crime. FGM is not sanctioned by any religion, there are no health benefits, and the psychological and physical damage from the procedure are long-lasting, not to mention the numerous human rights violations it entails. More time and money must be invested in the prevention of this hugely damaging and out-dated procedure so that FGM is no longer a reality for thousands of vulnerable young girls both in Britain and across the globe today.

#FGM

Mrs June Jacobs CBE

Mrs June Jacobs CBE, Trustee of the Next Century Foundation and former President of the International Council of Jewish Women, has died suddenly following a stroke. She was much loved.

June was one of the founding members of the Next Century Foundation. Many core members of the Next Century Foundation, such as the late Duke of Devonshire, who hosted our first and at that time secret, international conference at his Chatsworth home, were on board because June brought them on board. She was trusted. In those early days it was illegal for Israel’s politicians to meet senior members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. One of the key functions of the NCF at that stage was to bring together senior PLO members like PLO fund boss the late Jaweed al Ghussein, with senior Israelis, men who even now must remain nameless. And June was often the unheralded facilitator of such meetings.

June had many talents. She was a superb chairwoman for one thing, merciless as the best chairs often are. With an iron fist in a velvet glove she would brook no misbehaviour, and treated king and commoner alike.

Perhaps more importantly June was  a great networker and a great campaigner for women’s rights. These two aspects to her character we place side by side because of her work at the United Nations, where she encountered and supported fellow activists. In which context the NCF is particularly grateful to June. She brought onboard human rights workers across the world, one of the greatest of whom, our anchorwoman in Kirkuk, the great Surood Kirkuky, who often risked her life to support NCF missions to that poor benighted city, only did so because she trusted us because she trusted her friend Mrs June Jacobs whom she loved and respected.

That was the best of June, her enviable capacity to make and keep countless friends across the world, and her great compassion. And June was the embodiment of that word: Compassion. Like the greatest of those with a Jewish heritage, she cared deeply for others. She cared most particularly for the Palestinians. This perhaps because she regarded them as particularly vulnerable and the Jewish people, having reclaimed their ancestral homeland, as having a particular responsibility for the wellbeing of their cousins. In which context her compassion was boundless. She had more close Palestinian friends than any Jewish woman since the beginning of time.

There are not words enough to write of June Jacobs. Her constant love and care was a phenomenon. She never came to a meeting empty-handed, sometimes bringing a bottle of wine but more often bringing her own home baked cheesecake – arguably amongst the best in the world. June was a great woman who embodied the best of what it is to be Jewish. The world is a better place because she lived. The Next century Foundation is, in large part, the organisation it is because of her. She will be sorely missed. May God grant her the place among the angels she so richly deserves.

William Morris, NCF Secretary General

Photo of June at the International Media Awards 2017 copyright Matthew Tomkinson 2017

In Memoriam

For Mrs June Jacobs CBE, 1930 to 2018:

Come Summer,
Wrap her up,
In goodness.
Soft balm’ed breeze,
Careen her home,
Whilst still alone,
She trails dependents,
Like a fisherman,
Trails a net,
Behind her.
Save these her fishes,
She protects,
As duty would decree,
Or destiny,
Or perhaps mere providence,
In evidence of which she holds,
Tomorrow in her hand.
And finding death she walks beyond the grave,
Still trailing those that need her care.
As others did in their time,
She does now,
And stands upon their shoulders in so doing.
So too for all of those who care,
And dare,
To stand defiant ‘gainst decree-ed fate,
And cut a path that’s theirs, however late,
A swathe scythed naked from the Summer grass,
For Autumn’s coming and comes in too fast.

photo: © Jackie Richards 2018

India continues to fail its Dalit Women

India’s 2011 census stated that 16% of the Indian population, some 200 million people, are Dalits. Historically, being a Dalit in India means being at the bottom of an outdated and abysmal caste system. This idea still persists and as a result, Dalit people are vulnerable to a host of human rights abuses. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable must also struggle against patriarchal structures. A UN report from February 2018 highlights the fact that the discrimination Dalit women face, alongside factors such as lack of healthcare and sanitation, has resulted in Dalit women living, on average, 14.6 years less than ‘higher’ caste women. This is a shocking statistic. The report emphasises the fact that it is not just being of a lower-caste and one’s gender that acts as a barrier to mobility, opportunity and equality. The colour of one’s skin can also play a factor in how you are treated in India. A fair complexion is praised and promoted across society, through the media and beauty ideals. As a result, racism becomes a pertinent issue. If you are a dark-skinned Dalit women, your prospects in Indian society are not as fortunate as those of higher-caste, fairer women. This is particularly true in terms of employment with statistical evidence demonstrating that Dalit women are less likely to gain employment and when they do, they earn significantly less than their non-Dalit female counterparts. Literacy rates and levels of education of Dalit peoples are also significantly lower than their ‘higher’ caste counterparts. This huge problem persists across the nation and needs continuous attention.

There is a radical Indian feminist push within the country that seeks to move away from more homogenous feminist movements that fail to take into account the further oppression one may face as not just a woman, but a Dalit woman. As a result, we have seen the development of ‘intersectional feminism’ at both a grassroots and international level. Both Dalit and non-Dalit Indian women have used the concept of intersectional feminism to raise the profile of injustices against the Dalits. The ‘Dalit Women Fight‘ in India and the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO) in Nepal are two such groups campaigning for visibility and change. There are other platforms that have established themselves as a means of articulating the voice of Dalit women, notably All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) which is a movement born from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). Womankind Worldwide is an international women’s organisation that lends its support to groups such as FEDO. The voice of these Dalit women is growing in prominence. This gives hope to those that believe in the improvement of the welfare and wellbeing of Dalit women in a country that has historically seen them marginalised and oppressed.

The position of Dalit women in India, a nation infamous for its failure to protect its women and facilitate true equality, is deplorable. Whilst there are grassroots and international efforts making noise, this is not enough. The Indian government has continuously been the subject of great criticism for the position of its women, minorities and those from ‘lower’ castes, yet they continually fail to do anything substantive about it. The international community needs to raise the profile of Dalit women in India and apply pressure where it is needed to ensure that the future for these women is one of hope and change.

Iraq’s Innocent Children – When will their Suffering End?

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 on the 6th of March 2018, Children in Armed Conflict.

Mr President. The bi-product of armed conflict is often devastation to the lives of innocent children, whether during conflict, or in the aftermath. Whilst travelling in Iraq in late 2017 the Next Century Foundation was given alarming reports of the treatment of the families of ISIS fighters. We have heard similar reports from Northern Syria.

In both locations there are camps in which the families of ISIS fighters are being detained. The families were detained without warning, and given no reason for or information about the duration of their detention at these camps. Many of these families have had their identity documents confiscated meaning a definite inability to leave. Likewise, there have been reports of the destruction of civilian property, and of villages and of the removal of livestock owned by those who are now in these camps. This has been corroborated by satellite imagery obtained by Human Rights Watch. By early 2018, over 200 families had been placed in these camps in Iraq over several weeks with 220 such displaced individuals arriving at the camp near Daquq, South of Kirkuk, Iraq, the most prominent of these camps. Children are of course amongst these numbers and there are young children and infants that are growing up in these camps. The imprisonment of women and children who have committed no offense is illegal and the Next Century Foundation wishes to express its concern over the situation as there has been no fair reason presented for the holding of these people or for their treatment. Having declared victory against ISIS, Iraq should be investigating these prison camps and rectifying the situation in order to work towards a better future for these Iraqi people and those children who are part of Iraq’s future. The continued use of these ‘prison camps’ and the current treatment of these many families could potentially be regarded as a war crime, in view of the fact that these families could be considered forcibly displaced.

This issue is not exclusive to Iraq. In northern Syria there are four Kurdish-run camps in which around 800 families from approximately 40 different countries are being held because of their alleged association with Islamic State fighters. Whilst there is the possibility that many of these families do indeed have fathers, sons or brothers who have fought or are fighting for ISIS, collective punishment is illegal. There is no reason to punish those who have done nothing wrong. There has also been little assistance given by the home nations of these families to address this problem, thus far only Russia and Indonesia have worked with Kurdish authorities to have their nationals repatriated.

In these circumstances, it really is the innocent women and children who are suffering. Their detention in such camps, and the treatment they endure, is abhorrent. The young children who have been forced out of their homes and are now living in these conditions are experiencing the fallout of a conflict that is not theirs. It is a necessity for both Iraq and the international community to respond and take action.

The Struggle for Suffrage: 100 Years On

100 years ago today, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, allowing some women in the UK the right to vote for the first time. It is bittersweet to celebrate the centenary of women’s right to vote in a year that has so far been dominated by conversations on gender pay gaps, sexual harassment and gender inequality more broadly. But perhaps it is also a timely reminder that despite the vast achievements of the suffragettes, there is still a lot that needs to be done.

Indeed what the last year has especially highlighted is that we still need feminism as much as we did 100 years ago. To identify as a feminist today has almost become taboo; honest and much needed conversations about the gap in women’s pay and attitudes towards sexual harassment are often interrupted with “well what about.” But discussing the gender pay gap in the BBC or sexual harassment endemic in some business cultures does not diminish the impact nor the importance of issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM) or the lack of basic female rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia. In fact it serves to highlight the continuing endurance of negatives attitudes towards women in all societies and the action needed to eradicate these pernicious beliefs.

The history of the suffragettes has become so sanitised that it is easy to forget that the suffragettes themselves faced a huge backlash for wanting to achieve political equality for women and that this backlash came not just from men but also from other women who felt that women lacked the capacity to understand politics and branded the suffragettes as “ugly spinsters.” Such attitudes are unthinkable today when we have female presidents, prime ministers and heads of state.

So this year, while we honour and remember the sacrifices made by the women who fought for the right to vote, we should also recognise and honour the women that are still fighting, not just in far flung places across the world, but also here at home. The fight for women’s rights anywhere does not diminish the fight everywhere else. Injustice anywhere is felt everywhere, no matter how small.   After all, how can we tell other people to clean up their backyards when we have weeds growing in our own?

And what about Women?

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” – Martin Luther King.

Today, on a day celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, I want to talk about something that matters to me. Amidst the furore of the #metoo movement and the general conversation surrounding female empowerment, I think it is important to get to the root of these issues and that, in my view, is female education.

Article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights establishes education as a fundamental right necessary for developing the human spirit and promoting the virtuous ideals embodied by the declaration. Yet today over a billion individuals are deprived of their basic right to education, the vast majority of whom are young women in developing economies.

I was fortunate enough to be born in a country where it was expected that I would go to school, where my parents had no choice in enrolling me. But I have fought countless battles with my parents on furthering my education, I have fought to be strong and independent and I have shrugged off the weight of gender expectations time and time again.

But my struggle is a fraction of the struggle faced by young girls like Malala Yousef. I have fought with slammed doors and angry faces. They fight for their lives.

I have watched the backlash against the #metoo movement, and against feminism as a whole. I have had people tell me that feminism isn’t needed anymore, that women are equal enough. But feminism will only disappear when we live in a world where we no longer need to point out that two thirds of the 774 million of the illiterate adults in the world are women. It will disappear when being born a girl is no longer a cause for exclusion.

Study after study has shown that educating women leads to prosperity, just for them but for society as a whole. But more than that, education teaches girls to stand up for themselves, to have a voice and a chance.

So today, when we reflect on all the battles we have won and all the atrocities still going on in the world, it is important to remember that human rights violations are not always violent, they are not always bloody, sometimes human rights are violated with a simple “because you are a girl.”

Orthodox Russia – an Ideology of Exclusivity

The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.

The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.

The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.

Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.

This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Discrimination and Intolerance against Women

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.

FGM: Why have we not eradicated it yet?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) causes severe bleeding and health issues including cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth. It affects at least 200 million girls and women alive today. Despite this, very few charities, Non-Government Organisations or activist groups focus on this as one of the most serious issues the globe currently faces. FGM could be eradicated within one generation yet the current response to FGM by government and the media is one of denial and inaction. Why is this?

Image result for fgm

The UN defines FGM as all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and this is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

FGM is a global problem, not just an issue facing central African countries, and should be tackled as such. The UN have been ignoring the prevalence of FGM globally most particularly in parts of the Middle East and Asia. Indian activist, Masooma Ranalvi, recently urged governments and donor countries to help fund research and data collection in Asia at the 2017 ‘Ban FGM’ conference in Rome. This would allow a much better picture of the seriousness of FGM across the globe and would help to spotlight which countries and cultures need the most attention.

It is not just a lack of funding and research which undermines attempts to eradicate FGM. Many cases of FGM go unreported but cases which are reported tend to have very lenient prison sentences. This sends the wrong signal to those who continue to practise FGM. In January 2017, four people were prosecuted for FGM after 17-year-old Mayar Mohamed Moussa died from undergoing a procedure in Egypt. Mayar’s mother and doctor were given a fine of £1000 (EYP) and a suspended sentence of only one year. Lawyer Reda Eldanbouki, who was representing Mayar, expressed shock at the sentences saying “it is unfair and unjust and will be ineffective as it sends the wrong signal”.

A serious side effect has occurred because of the pressure that is starting to be put on communities that perform FGM in Africa. There are a greater number of reports suggesting FGM is being performed on much younger girls and in the dead of night in order for people to avoid the consequences of the law. This ‘under the radar’ approach makes it more complicated for authorities to effectively deal with the problem. The UN and human rights groups need to come together to stop these inhumane procedures by educating people on the dangers of procedures being done incorrectly or in unsanitary conditions.

We have an obligation as compassionate humans to eradicate FGM and help to rebuild the lives of the millions of women and girls it has already affected.

“She doesn’t have the stamina”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign and consequential loss of the US 2016 Presidential election symbolises a key moment in time for women across the world. It is clear that the white, (semi) working-class members of the American public feel disregarded by the political elite, which has widened divisions in society throughout the course of the Obama administration. Donald Trump’s victory represents a very clear rejection of a political establishment and economic system that has not been working for a vast proportion of people in America today. It is common practice for an opposition party to trump another (pardon the pun) when the public begins to feel that their views are not being reflected by the government, but what is most baffling about this election in particular is that the most qualified presidential candidate of this generation was defeated by, undoubtedly, the most unqualified of all time. Countless people have explained this result by highlighting Trump’s ability to appeal to disenfranchised, anti-establishment voters. However, a much more polarising ‘elephant in the room’ is the fact that the American people were more comfortable with seeing a bigoted, under qualified, tax-evading, judgemental, xenophobic man in the Whitehouse than a woman.

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Cecile Richards, President of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, stated that “To be elected as a woman, you have to be twenty times as good as your opponent” – and the recent elections have simply confirmed this. Hillary did what every professional, driven, ‘good’ woman should do – she put her head down and worked hard, devoted her entire life to the beliefs she holds most dear and calmly waited her turn to represent her country. Certainly, she made mistakes en route and not everyone can agree with her policies – but it is difficult to understand why voters, the media and public figures thought it was acceptable to condemn her so brutally, when the majority of her opponent’s actions are completely indefensible. Factors such as this have contributed to a so-called ambition gap amongst women, meaning that they are much less likely to be encouraged or recruited to run for higher political or professional positions as they continually underestimate their own abilities.

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It would be unfair and unjust to completely condemn Trump’s presidency before it has even began. We can only hope that, despite the policies advocated throughout his campaign, he is going to unite people. Even though the political future of America is for now largely ambiguous, what remains clear is that there is still work to do for women across the world. It is of upmost importance for women to not become disheartened by Hillary’s loss, but instead use it as a springboard for endeavours towards a more equal and just future. The 2016 US Presidential elections had the potential to be the greatest day in the entirety of women’s long march towards equality – but we must now remind ourselves that this particular day is yet to come, and we can only look forward to it.

 

Ellie Davies – 11/11/2016