Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

UN Commission on the Status of Women singles out Israel for condemnation

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The United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) has done it again - in its annual session it condemned only one country - Israel, while ignoring the human rights violations of women around the world, including especially the current crisis in Syria - where women are being raped and murdered.

To those paying attention, this should not be surprising, given that in last year's CSW session the conflict in Libya was ignored and again, only Israel was targeted for criticism.

This year's CSW session recommended that the Economic Social Council adopt a resolution condemning Israel for the degrading living conditions for Palestinian women. The eight clause resolution began with: "the Israeli occupation remains the major obstacle for Palestinian women with regard to their advancement, self-reliance and integration in the development of their society..." 

The draft resolution was passed by 29 votes with 2 against (Israel, United States), with 10 abstentions (Belgium, Colombia, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Republic of Korea, Spain, Sweden).

In response, Israeli envoy to the UN Ron Prosor criticised the resolution, stating:

"...council's bring levels of absurdity and cynicism to new heights...The thousands of Syrian women butchered, tortured, raped and trampled under Assad's iron boot don't even get a passing mention in the panel's decisions..."

The US representative John Sammi, also criticised the draft resolution:

"...we remain troubled at this body's insistence on including political elements and one-sided condemnations that detract from the real challenges at hand. We implore this Commission to refocus its energy toward our shared goals, as this resolution is unhelpful to all involved..."

While the advancement of Palestinian women should surely be supported, CWS did not acknowledge the elements in Palestinian society that hold back women including: honour killings, female genital mutilation, child brides, high rates of domestic violence, Hamas's efforts to limit women's freedom of movement and ability to appear in public, and the increasing enforcement of so-called "morality" crimes in Gaza.

In addition, CWS did not condemn the systematic gender discrimination that is occurring across the world especially in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran and ignored the position of women following the Arab uprisings especially in Syria and Egypt. In doing so, CWS in its one session a year, turned its back on any attempt to make itself relevant to the many urgent current crises facing women that demand international attention.

AIJAC has previously reported that while women were central in the protesting that led to the Arab Spring, the emerging regimes have in some cases sought to limit their freedoms.

The case of Egypt demonstrates worrying trends, for example:

  • The dominant Islamist bloc of the Egyptian Parliament chose International Women's Day this year to hold a conference that called for a council for families to replace the existing National Council for Women and condemned the 1978 UN convention against gender discrimination saying it was "incompatible with the values of Islamic Sharia law";
  • On March 9, 2011, army officers violently cleared Cairo's Tahrir Square and held at least 18 women in detention. Women said they were beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to "virginity tests" and threatened with prostitution charges.
  • An Egyptian military court on March 11 acquitted an army doctor accused of conducting forced "virginity tests" on female protesters last year. Ahmed Adel was cleared of conducting the test on Samira Ibrahim, who brought the case against him, after the judge found the witness statements to be "contradictory," the official MENA news agency said.
  • In Egypt the constitutional committee appointed by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces included no women, and in the recent parliamentary elections women won fewer than 10 of the roughly 500 seats.

Meanwhile, an Iranian woman and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, has sought to warn women about the dangers of the ‘Arab Spring' based on her experiences during the Iranian revolution in 1979, in an article in the Wall Street Journal:

"I do not agree with the phrase ‘Arab Spring.' The overthrow of dictatorships is not sufficient in itself. Only when repressive governments are replaced by democracies can we consider the popular uprisings in the Middle East to be a meaningful ‘spring.'

Since women make up half of the region's population, any democratic developments must improve the social and legal status of women in the Arab world. It appears the Tunisian society has strong civil institutions, and there is much hope that democracy can take hold there. But in Egypt, many political actors are talking about returning to Islamic law, which could result in a regression of rights for women and girls similar to what we experienced in Iran in 1979.

There are interpretations of Shariah law that allow one to be a Muslim and enjoy equal gender rights-rights that we can exercise while participating in a genuinely democratic political system. Shariah law and women's rights do not have to be mutually exclusive. Although the 1979 revolution in Iran is often called an Islamic revolution, it can actually be said to be a revolution of men against women. Before the revolution, women's rights were recognized to some extent. But the revolution led to the enactment of numerous discriminatory laws against women.

After the revolution-even before drafting a new constitution or establishing parliament-the revolutionary councils changed the laws. When I first read the Islamic Penal Code instituted after the revolution, I couldn't believe my eyes. The drafters of this document had effectively taken us back 1,400 years.

Before the revolution, I was a presiding judge. When the revolution broke out, I was initially on the side of the revolutionaries and I believed in their cause. I was shocked when the revolutionaries decided that women could no longer hold my position. I was demoted to secretary-while many of my male colleagues who were not as professionally qualified were appointed judges...

In the "green movement" protests after June 2009's disputed presidential elections, the world witnessed how many Iranian women were on the streets, and how strong our feminist movement is. More than 65% of university students are women, many university professors are women, and women are present in all important and sensitive social positions.

However, the law that is being enforced in Iran today does not consider women to be full human beings. Instead, it ascribes to women a value half that of a man. The testimony of two women in court equals the testimony of one man, for example. A man can marry four wives and can divorce his wife at will, but initiating divorce can be very difficult for a woman. A married woman even needs her husband's written consent to travel...

The world was horrified by the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly committing adultery. Sadly, there are many similar cases that people outside Iran do not even know about. For 25 years, I have lent my voice to campaigns by women's rights advocates, lawyers and other activists seeking to ban corporal punishments such as stoning, flogging or cutting off hands...

I have paid a high personal price for my involvement in the struggle for human rights in Iran and women's rights in particular. I have been living in forced exile since June 2009. My husband is still in Iran, where he has been imprisoned and tortured to force him to speak out against me. My sister has also been imprisoned, and other family members are regularly harassed and threatened.

Just this month, my longtime colleague, the courageous lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, was unjustly sentenced to 18 years in prison.

I hope that in the Arab countries where people have risen against dictatorships and overthrown them, they will reflect and learn from what happened to us in Iran. My recommendation to Arab women is to focus on strengthening civil-society institutions and to familiarize themselves with religious discourse, so they can demonstrate that leaders who rely on religious dogma that sets women's rights back are doing so to consolidate power..."

The New York Times has also published an article on March 7, "Arab Spring Fails to Allay Women's Anxieties" that highlights worrying trends for women.

Sharyn Mittelman

 

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