Dr. Donna Hughes – IWD 2015

Mar 05, 2015 at 09:24 AM

ImageWomen in Leadership: Key to Defeating Extremism

Dr. Donna M Hughes

Professor& Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair
University of Rhode Island

Women’s Freedom Forum

Mar 4, 2015, U.S. House of Representatives

We are here today to celebrate International Women’s Day, and to use this occasion to discuss why we need women in leadership to defeat extremism.

I believe that women’s rights are human rights and they are central for democracy and peace in the 21st century. Today, we are faced with so much misogyny–hatred of women–and extremism. The depths of the atrocities are so horrible I can hardly believe what I read and hear.

To challenge these forms of violence and exploitation, we need women’s leadership. No one else will fight for rights and equality the same way as women who know the cost of suffering discrimination, violence and exploitation.

Extremist crimes against women and girls are not limited to any particular group. Women and girls of all ages, nationalities, ethnicities, races, cultures, religions, or economic groups can be and are victims of discrimination, violence and exploitation. In no country do women and girls have full equality and freedom.

An essential need for girls to achieve equality is education.

The right of girls to go to school and get education is under attack. According to Human Rights Watch, in the last five years there have been attacks on schools in 30 countries. Schools have been bombed and burned. Students and teachers have been murdered, raped, and forced into slavery.

The rise of Islamic extremism or Islamic fundamentalism had brought with it the most extreme attack on education for girls. The Taliban are well-known for banning education for girls in Afghanistan in 1996 and in Pakistan in territories under their control in 2009.

Last December (2014), Taliban gunmen attacked a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, and murdered 141 people, almost all of them school girls and their teachers.

Almost a year ago, the world was shocked when Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group, kidnapped hundreds of girls from a boarding school in Nigeria. There are reports that the girls were sold across Africa and to the Middle East and Europe. The captive women and girls were used for forced labor to serve their captors as slaves and wives. Some were used at their destinations for prostitution.

As a result of attacks and threats against education for girls, many schools have been closed or parents are not sending their children, especially girls, to school. For example, following the abduction of school girls in Nigeria, more than 15,000 students in the northern region of Nigeria stopped attending school.

Women and girls have resisted the attack on their education. In Afghanistan, women opened secret schools in their houses and offered classes for girls.

The most famous spokeswoman for education for girls is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman for advocating for education for girls. She has not been silenced. In fact, now her voice is louder and heard everywhere around the world. Last year (2014) she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

With the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and misogynist interpretations of the Quran, there has been an increase in extreme forms of sexual slavery. The extremists claim that their interpretation of the Quran justifies the sexual enslavement and exploitation of non-Muslim women and girls. The extremists openly acknowledge their violence and claim it is legitimate according to their fundamentalist theology.

Sexual slavery is another name for sex trafficking, which we know exists in every country around the world. It is not unique to any religion or culture. Several years ago, Iranian activists and I researched the trafficking of women and girls in Iran. As in other countries, sex trafficking was one of the most profitable criminal activities in Iran. Many of the girls came from impoverished rural areas. Some women and girls were trafficked to Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. Others have been trafficked to Europe. If they returned to Iran, they were called “immoral” and blamed for their own trafficking.

As the Islamic group known Islamic State (ISIS) has gained territory in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, non-Sunni Muslim women and girls have been raped, abducted and trafficked for slavery. Some of the women and girls have been sold as slaves. These acts are part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The examples of extremist violence and misogyny are growing. Every morning, I read the news and almost every day, there is another atrocity. Just the day before yesterday, a woman senator in Australia was threatened to be beheaded if she did not “introduce sharia law in Australia.”

Rather than shake our heads in horror and say we don’t understand the “barbarians,” we need an analysis, a coherent explanation of these acts. If you want to understand Islamic extremism and the misogyny of it’s violence and exploitation, I suggest you read Maryam Rajavi’s Women Against Fundamentalism. She is an Iranian woman who is the head of a pro-democracy, opposition group, also called the Iranian resistance.

I first heard Maryam Rajavi speak in 1996 in London. She presented an analysis about the nature of the Islamic fundamentalist threat to world peace. Today, what she predicted two decades ago is in the morning papers.

Iran’s development of nuclear weapons threatens the region’s security. If that seems far removed from our topic today — women and leadership — I suggest you read her book. She explains how misogyny is central to the Islamic extremist political movement.

As the world debates about how to respond to the extremist threat, Rajavi’s experience and insight puts events into a coherent explanation.  Rajavi doesn’t blame poverty, unemployment or ignorance to the growing Islamic political movement — and the extremist demand for Sharia law or law based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quaran.

As an Iranian woman who opposed the Shah in the 1970s, then opposed the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and Islamic fundamentalism, Rajavi observed and analyzed the religious dictatorship’s ideology and oppressive practices and concluded that one of the deepest principles of their beliefs was the hatred of women.

In Iran this past year, a vicious form of violence that has arisen is throwing acid in the face of a woman. Strong acid burns the victim causing blindness, disfigurement, and sometimes death.

Acid attacks have occurred in many countries around the word in South America, Central and North America, the Middle East and Central Asia, but the most widespread attacks are in South Asian countries.

The perpetrators are frequently men who claim the women have “dishonored” their families or young men who have been rejected by the women. Most recently, there was a surge of acid attacks in cities in Iran. The attackers claim they are punishing women for violating the country’s dress code. The conservative religious leaders in Iran claim that “improper veiling has gone beyond limits and can no longer be corrected by cautioning the women: The violations will be dealt with by force.” The result was criminal gangs, often on motorcycles, patrolling the streets looking for women or girls in cars or on the streets who were not veiled “properly.”

Maryam Rajavi based her analysis on Iranian or Shia Islamic extremism, but the Sunni extremists generally hold the same fundamental beliefs. They too call for Sharia law, based on their interpretation of the Quran. The sectarian violence between the Shia Muslims and the Sunni Muslims is a power struggle.

If misogyny is central to Islamic extremism, Rajavi takes the logical, but revolutionary, step of concluding that the liberation from oppression depends on the leadership of women.

We must attack extremism at its most hateful, vicious levels, which are the murder of women and girls for the basic right of trying to get an education, the sexual enslavement of kidnapped women and girls, and the disfigurement of women and girls for refusing to obey oppressive dress code, and the threatened beheading of women in leadership.

The people in this room are free. We strongly oppose these forms of extremism. We support democracy, women’s rights and freedom.

I encourage all of you to be the leaders for women’s freedom and rights. And to be leaders against the extremism that is growing around the world. It is a threat to democracy and human rights. I recommend that you take the revolutionary step of understanding how misogyny is at the core of this movement and to take up a leadership role to oppose it.

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