Report on CSW60 Event

csw60Women Standing Against Islamic Extremism:
Mothers for Peace: Faces of Courage & Commitment

 CSW60 – United Nations – 2016

Women’s Freedom Forum Parallel Event

United Nations Church Center, March 23, 2016

The theme of WFF’s parallel event this year was Women Standing against Extremism; stories of mothers for peace and faces of courage and commitment. The event was moderated by Lynn Dykstra. Speakers Antonia Felix, an acclaimed biographer of American women leaders including Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and adjunct instructor at Hamline University; and Fran Belisle, a former Political Officer at the Embassy of the United States, to Algeria and Consular Officer at the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, engaged the participants in a lively Q and A discussion after their remarks.

Introduction to Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)

iwdpanelistsThe 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) took place at United Nations Headquarters in New York from March 14 to 24, 2016. Representatives of member states, UN entities, and NGO’s from all regions of the world, including Women’s Freedom Forum, attended.  The Commission’s primary theme this year was “Women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development.”

Held for ten days in March, the session provides an opportunity to review progress towards gender equality and the empowerment of women, identify challenges, set global standards and norms and formulate policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide. The session also presents a key opportunity for Women Freedom Forum (WFF) participants to observe, strategize, mobilize and plan new initiatives and actions to further the cause of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

At the conclusion of the session, the CSW recognized women’s vital role as agents of development in the effort to bring about gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, specifically with regard to progress on the Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of Agenda 2030.

WFF CSW60 Parallel Event

lynnDuring each CSW Session, WFF has organized a parallel event, and maintained an active role in the NGO communities as a voice for gender equality. Although achieving gender equality is a long road still under construction, the key is to unite as women and empower each other with tales of our successes and of those victimized. Thus, the theme of WFF’s parallel event this year was Women Standing against Extremism; stories of mothers for peace and faces of courage and commitment.

A PhD student from Indonesia whose thesis was on women and extremism in Indonesia joined the discussion by explaining about what actions are taking place in her country to combat this phenomenon. She posed questions to the panelists and asked what advice they would give to the women in Asia.

Another student from Lebanon shared the difficulties and barriers of women in Lebanon with the audience and asked for solutions.

Remarks by Antonia Felix, Women’s Freedom Forum Advisory Board

antoniaThe photos in this room bear witness to the truth as only photographs can. Without exhibits like this, the truth about women’s lives under governments based on fundamentalist ideologies is easily lost in academic and professional language, even in the writing and reporting of scholars and reporters whom we admire for their commitment to studying and exposing the abuses of women by theocratic governments.

Earlier this month, for example, a major non-partisan think tank released a publication about the status of women in the Middle East, and one contributor described 2015 as a “difficult” year for women in Iran. A difficult year, yes.  In 2015, more than 40,000 women were stopped on the roads and ticketed for the crime of “bad hijab,” not completely covering their hair. In most cases, the women’s cars were impounded and they had to go to court to get them back. The tickets also came with fines, which could be up to about $250.00. That harassment by the morality police is demeaning, but other actions against women took a more serious toll: In 2015, Iranian women also suffered imprisonment for using social media, acid attacks, and death by stoning.

In 2015, a young woman artist named Atena Faraghdani was arrested for posting a drawing on Facebook to express her criticism of a bill restricting access to contraceptives. Her crime of posting a caricature of Iran’s conservative legislators got her a 12-year-and-nine month prison sentence. A few months after being taken to Evin prison, she and her lawyer were charged with “illegitimate relations” after they shook hands in a meeting to discuss her case. Those charges were eventually dropped and her lawyer was released from prison, but in spite of an international outcry for this young activist’s release, Atena remains in prison.

One effort for Atena’s release came in a letter signed by 40 human rights groups to Iranian President Rouhani. In that letter, the signees reminded Rouhani and his fellow moderates that they were not exactly practicing what they preached. A few lines read:

dsc_4466You have pledged “support for the Freedom of Speech in Iran’s newspapers, magazines and websites,” and Foreign Minister Zarif also noted during a TV interview that “We do not jail people for their opinions.” Many Human Rights organizations and the UN believe that arresting, charging and sentencing Atena Farghadani for such activities contravenes the above-mentioned rights. It is also of concern to the international community that her continued imprisonment contravenes the spirit of a new era of international co-operation with Iran.

Again, such understated language. The public record shows how the fundamentalist leadership “contravenes” its agreements, such as its long pattern of violating its obligations under the International Atomic Energy Agency agreement. And under a new “moderate” president, the status of women has not changed; in fact, crackdowns on women’s dress and peaceful demonstrations are getting worse. Even though the head of Iran’s judiciary ordered an end to stoning in the mid-2000s, some judges state that they answer to a higher authority and continue to sentence men and women to death by stoning.

2015 was definitely a difficult year for Atena Faraghdani and others like her who dared to speak up about the institutionalized oppression of women in Iran.

We know how women are treated under fundamentalist theocracies, but how are they trying to overcome these challenges? Over the past decade, there has been a growing focus on including women in peacemaking as a way to combat violent extremism and terrorism and build sustainable peace. One strategy is to give women a different view of Islam than the fundamentalist version they have been taught. For example, at the Institute for Inclusive Security’s annual conference in 2010, one of the institute’s peace experts, Shabana Fayyaz, told a story about one woman’s transformation after gaining new insights about Islam. Fayyaz, an assistant professor at the Defense and Strategic Studies Department of Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, met a Pakistani woman “who believed it was her religious duty to collect gold rings from friends to raise money to buy bullets for Taliban fighters. Fayyaz told her she was misinformed and reminded her that the Qur’an said that if one person is killed, all of humanity dies.”  The woman, Fayyaz said,” became a peace practitioner and convinced her son to end his radical ways.”

Another example of how women are overcoming this challenge: In Afghanistan, women’s rights activists lobbied for years for a law that would criminalize rape, child marriage, forced marriage, domestic violence, and the gifting of girls to resolve disputes. Their work led to the Elimination of Violence Against Women law signed by former President Karzai in 2009. It was an important step, but the law is still not widely enforced.

Some women in Afghanistan are joining local police forces to not only earn a living but also to make the system more accessible to women, to encourage them to come forward with their grievances.  These policewomen have suffered abuse from the male police and even been killed for daring to go to work.

Iranian women defy the morality police by taking selfies without headscarves and posting them on a Facebook page called “My Stealthy Freedom.” The photographs are worth a thousand words in defying the laws that oppress them.

Where does this degradation of women at the core of fundamentalism come from? Why is it there? One explanation is that religions in patriarchal societies claim that a man’s object of desire, woman, is the source of sin, the source of temptation. In that mindset, women become temptations, traps, objects rather than human beings. The road to spiritual purity for a man is much simpler when desire can be blamed on someone else, the other half of the population. These attitudes at the core of religious belief became part of all societies, of all civilizations. There are fundamentalist interpretations of Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism as well as Islam.

As one woman activist in Afghanistan described it one month after Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in 2005: “The problems of women in Afghanistan are not so simple as to be solved overnight by the removal of the Taliban. The main cause for pain in our country is the existence of Islamic fundamentalism as a military and political force. They are misogynist to the marrow of their bones.”

That deep-seated attitude toward women, passed down and coded into laws, is a learned attitude. If it can be learned, it can be reflected on and transformed.


Remarks by Fran Belisle

franWhen I was approached about participating in a panel discussion on “Women Standing Against Islamic Fundamentalism,” I thought of all of the brave women I have known over my life, and all of the stories that I have heard over the years, and wondered how I was going to narrow it down to focus on just one person

I reached out to some people for advice and one of the suggestions was the Mourshidat program and I thought “Wow, what a great idea”.  And it is – women being supported as religious authorities brings such a great narrative and positive direction towards peace.  And I commend the Governments of Algeria and Morocco for being so supportive of this program and I commend the female Mourshidates for being brave pioneers and role models for both girls and boys.

Then I thought about talking about Amel and Lamia Zenoune. As a lawyer this one hit close to home for me.  Amel was a third year law student at the University of Algiers when she was going home for Ramadan. She was dragged off a bus and murdered by the GIA for having her law school backpack with her.  Her mother, rather than call the rest of her daughters home from University and hiding them away, was defiant and strong against the GIA.  Her sisters all continued their education and Amel’s sister Lamia, in her sister’s memory, graduated from Law School and is now a practicing attorney in Algeria.


But then I realized that I don’t need to talk about any of these women.  I just need to talk about my best friend, my sister, Souad Lehtihet.  Souad was my assistant at the US Embassy in Algiers and has saved my (metaphorical) butt many, many times and my (actual) life once.  So in the 11 years that we have known each other, I have come to appreciate just how brave and strong she is.

Despite offers of more money from foreign companies, offers of cabinet posts in the Algerian Government, pleas to leave Algeria (mostly from me), and constant threats to her and her family, she remains a constant voice, a constant symbol (and a royal pain in the ass) against extremists.

Not only does she juggle the everyday wife, mother of two, career women balance that we all struggle with, but she also does it while working for the most unpopular team in town – the United States.  Every day she navigates the tumultuous waters of US and Algerian Foreign Policy – attempting to explain “us” to “them” and “them” to “us” – all while fighting the battle within her country, her homeland, against extremism.

iwdpanelists2Her dedication to democracy, to human rights, to women’s rights, and to peace is unwavering.  Battling those who want to drag Algeria back 1000 years, battling those who want to plummet her country into a black hole of violence all the while talking US policy makers off the ledge before they make things worse in her country.

I cannot think of a more delicate dance and I cannot think of a more graceful dancer than Souad.  She epitomizes the women we are highlighting here – A mother, a wife, a daughter, a Muslim, a career woman, an Algerian, a friend, and a woman standing against Islamic Fundamentalism – my sister – Souad Lehtihet.



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