The Burqa Revolution

By Foroohar, Rana | Newsweek, April 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Burqa Revolution


Foroohar, Rana, Newsweek


Byline: Rana Foroohar

Female dissidents are rewriting the rules in countries where they can't even show their faces.

For women in Iraq, running for office is an especially risky proposition. The country's Constitution, like those of many nations that have been racked by conflict, requires that a quarter of all parliamentary seats go to women. Yet even as the number of female leaders and political activists has increased, so has the backlash. In February a female candidate was shot and killed in Mosul.

Yet female activists continue to challenge Iraq's religious conservatives. Hanaa Edwar, one of the founders of the Iraqi Women's Network, a coalition of NGOs, recently blasted the minister of education for trying to separate boys and girls in public schools. "These ideas are imported from Iran!" she says. The minister eventually backed down. Another activist, Jenan Mubark, who became frustrated about the lack of progress toward women's rights, has pulled together a slate of 20 women, who she hopes will be elected into other political parties. Once in Parliament, they could work together as a voting bloc. A surprising number of women are leading political dissent in such countries like Iraq, where women's voices are often suppressed. Women are at the forefront of Iran's Green Movement, and are leading reformist agendas in Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, and Angola. They are especially visible in conflict zones, where they are blogging, marching, holding sit-ins, and launching petitions to secure their rights--as Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi has done with the One Million Signatures campaign, which supports changing laws that discriminate against Iranian women.

In some ways, the rise of dissidents reflects a larger trend toward greater female political participation everywhere. Globally, the percentage of women holding parliamentary seats went from 11.3 percent in 1995 to 18.8 at the end of 2009--largely because of legislated quotas like the one in Iraq. At the same time, the educational levels of girls are rising rapidly across the developing world, leading to greater economic power, particularly in developing nations: in China, 20 percent of entrepreneurs are women, and in Russia, 73 percent of businesses have a woman in senior management. And while women in conflict zones or conservative countries can be at risk for violence if they engage in dissent in public spaces, the Internet has provided a safer way for them to air their grievances.

It may also be that women have grown tired of waiting for justice. Last month the United Nations launched a review of the progress that has been made since the last major conference on women, in Beijing in 1995. Even though the Beijing conference set an official agenda for ensuring women's basic health, safety, and security, it has yet to be broadly implemented. The ongoing threat of death, sexual violence, and the rollback of basic rights for women in conflict areas recently led one U.N. official to observe that "it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in war." Afghan women activists recently had to gate-crash their own country's conflict--resolution conference in London because there was only one female official invited. A new crop of female activists has come to realize thatif they don't fight for their own rights, no one else will.

Women in the developing world are far more prepared to take up the struggle than previous generations were. In many developing economies, there are now as many girls as boys in primary and secondary school, with particular gains in countries such as Iran, India, Egypt, and China. These are often a result of a communist or socialist legacy that pushed broad-based education for both men and women. In other cases, it's simply a result of the striving attitudes common in many developing nations, where there's desperate need for more engineers and doctors, regardless of gender. As in the U. …

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