WFF CSW61 Parallel Event – March 22, 2017

Women Standing Against Islamic Extremism: Meet Faces of Courage and Commitment

Salvation Army New York, NY – March 22, 2017

On CSW61 Review Theme: Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the MDG’s for women and girls (agreed conclusions of the fifty-eighth session)


On March 22, 2017 Women’s Freedom Forum held a parallel event during the CSW61 session of the United Nations in New York.

The panel discussion titled, “Women Standing Against Islamic Extremism; Faces of Courage & Commitment” was moderated by Lynn Dykstra, Advisory Board Member and UN Representative.

She began the event by saying, “We welcome you here today as part of this UN-CSW61 Global gathering of the strongest, the wisest, the bravest of women – and men – who work together to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves; who cannot travel to experience this immense outpouring of universal energy.  Yet, by each of you being HERE, those who are not, feel the response to their outcry for support of basic human rights and dignity for gender equality in all walks of their lives.”

WFF shares its research, to unleash the potential for women to challenge social control, claim their rights, and transform their societies. So how do we do that? – Very much one-on-one.  We hold meetings, conferences, seminars, photo exhibitions to share our research. We have an international social media outreach.

And, we extends this reach and influence by producing and distributing publications that highlight current developments in women’s issues in the Middle East.  Most notable among our publications is a pioneering annual report, titled “Working from Within”, whose mission is to dissemination current information and promote research regarding the condition of women and youth in Iran.

Our latest Report is released here today. It details documented actions that women and youth face daily.  This is not a pleasant read; but a necessary one.

I want to bring your attention to the photo exhibition in the room.  These are “Faces of Courage and Commitment”. These images are representative of hundreds of women in Iran who paid the ultimate price in their fight for gender equality and human rights in a fundamentalist regime.

Teachers, doctors, mothers, sisters, university students, aunts, grandmothers, cousins.

These Iranian women fought to protect their families, live a centered life of equal access and/or simply gather in peaceful protest.  Arrested, imprisoned, tortured, murdered.  They are Women of Courage and Commitment.

We will show examples of programs that are implemented on a local level by local women in Middle East countries; and let you decide if something like these could work for you.   Everything global starts with something local and everything local start with a motivation of one or more women with the commitment to carry it through, regardless of the risks.

Antonia Felix is an acclaimed author of biographies of many US public figures including Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Fir
st Lady Laura Bush; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Antonia Felix: We do hear that women’s rights and treatment are improving in Afghanistan, especially since the Elimination of Violence Against Women law was passed in 2009, but we don’t hear that the law is not enforced, since most officials at all levels of power do not believe in gender equality. Proof that the EVAW law is failing to change society comes when we learn about very public tragedies, like the stoning to death of a 19-year-old woman named Rokhshana who had run away from home to avoid a forced marriage. That was in 2015. The EVAW law outlaws forced marriage, but that did not stop the mob that killed Rokhshana.

Or the enraged mob that went after a 27-year-old religion student named Farkhunda, whom a man selling charms in front of a mosque falsely accused of burning pages of the Quran. Did the crowd of men who happened to be on that street in Kabul that day, the men who kicked, beat, burned, and ran over this young woman with a car, care about the EVAW law?

Farkhunda, who was murdered openly on the streets on a spring day in 2015, is a symbol for women’s protest in Afghanistan.

While girls and women who live in cities may have better access to schools, jobs, and leadership positions, the majority of Afghanistan’s population lives in rural areas, where warlords and the Taliban keep the extremist, fundamentalist mindset and behavior alive, forcing women to live in fear of violence every day.

Today we want to share stories of women’s courage and commitment, and I will use Afghanistan as an example of what women activists are doing in the face of violent and institutionalized oppression.

The oldest women’s activism organization, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA, has been speaking out and serving women and children since the 1977. First women’s political group in the country, and one of the first groups to publicly criticize the Soviet Occupation back in the late 1970s.

The women in this organization are convinced that women’s rights will only be achieved when Afghanistan has a secular, democratic government. Until then, the religious framework that demeans women and ethnic minorities and anyone on the margins will continue to prevent real social change. As one RAWA member recently put it, “Religious fundamentalism is the main concern for all our miseries.”

… This is a new approach, and activists who want to work with mullahs to shift society’s attitudes about gender believes it holds a lot of promise. The approach has its critics, too, who think that this strategy will only give mullahs more legitimacy and not change their beliefs about women and Islam. One such critic is another important women’s rights organization, the Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, or SPA, which has about 31,000 members, both men and women, with 50 percent of its leadership made up of women. SPA members are staunch believers in secular approaches to social change and view strategies like the 2016 conference as ways to give mullahs more power and status while not changing their message.

.. Women activists on the forefront in Afghanistan are looking for support to create change from the inside, not to receive outside “gifts” of social change ideas from international power brokers who, many argue, have used the idea of the “oppressed Muslim woman” as a hollow justification for war. The images here today speak for themselves in illustrating that oppression, brutal oppression is real, of course, but for many reasons, the financial aid and international approaches to improving women’s lives in places like Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere, are not effective.

The security situation in Afghanistan, for example, prevents those in charge of programs from visiting the sites where their activities are being performed, which blocks them from providing leadership and oversight. It is complicated. But by sharing information about what women are trying to do at events like this today, we can hope that the voices of courageous women activists will be heard among our networks of friends, family, workmates, and colleagues.

Zahra Amanpour, a business owner working to empower women and men to move forward with their entrepreneurial dreams. 

Zahra Amanpour: One of the principles I was taught that guides my life and work is the idea that if you can change the circumstance of women in society, it will impact every other aspect of society because women are at the heart of everything that ties societies together, i.e. family, community.  But this can work in either direction and be used for good or bad. The main vehicle of oppression within Islamic fundamentalism is the oppression of women and the removal of their ability to support themselves and fend for themselves both economically and socially.  As a result, men, organizations, communities and the overall culture becomes obsessed with enforcing the rules and removing women from any position of power.  This literally leads to the collapse of the family, community, culture and anything else that makes a society healthy and self-sustainable, thus a power vacuum is created for the fundamentalists to step into and thrive.

So when I started to look for a way to integrate this understanding into the world and my work, I found economic development.  My first exposure to economic development was actually while I was putting a weekly newsletter together for WFF and came across a story of women in North Africa who were starting their own micro businesses and supporting their families and communities.  I was fascinated by this idea and started to look into micro business and micro financing. I eventually started working in the field and have worked with women, immigrant communities and other underserved communities here in the US to start their own businesses ever since.

I have witnessed firsthand what the economic empowerment of women can do in society.  It makes women less dependent on men, government, and other entities to be able to provide for their children.  It raises their position in a family and community and decreases the likeliness of their being victims of domestic violence.  It creates lasting bonds in communities.  It raises the overall quality of life for families and communities.  It makes it more likely that the next generation will be educated and be less likely to fall victim to the forces of suppression.  The benefits are truly endless.

Of course any organization that wants to support women from this perspective has to be extremely sensitive to the realities of the culture they are stepping into.  You can’t walk into a village in the Middle East and just start offering the women a means to support themselves and giving them financial responsibility.  This would not be well received and likely rejected by both the men and women. It is a process of relationship building and educating that can take years to be accepted and adopted.

Some organizations that have been able to accomplish this are:

  •  They are focused in South America and Africa, but have partnerships in the middle east
  • The Grameen Foundation has a specific focus in the Middle East through the Grameen Jameel Microfinance Limited.  Ninety-four percent of their clients are women.

When you look at each of the women’s stories who have been supported by these types of organizations you realize how simple the actual solutions can be.  For example, it can be as simple as financing a cell phone for a woman who is picking her crops and selling them in the city but needs to be able to communicate with potential distributors and retailers if she is going to grow past her own stand.

I think this is the real lesson for anyone who wants to work with women in the Middle East or anywhere else, for that matter, and implement solutions that work.  Simplicity should be your guiding principle because it can cut through the complicated and suppressive circumstances that many women are navigating and offer them something they can grab onto and grow as they choose.

I hope I have shared something with you today that you find valuable and a better understanding of one way to address the issues women face in the Middle East and around the world.  While I do believe some things have to come from the top, I am someone who believes that the bottom up approach leads to much more long term and self-sustainable solutions for people and women are at the heart of those solutions.


Tania Torres, founder of her award winning multi-cultural communication business in Phoenix, AZ. 

Tania Torres: I’ve been dedicating the past 15 years of my life to the field of communications. At my own marketing firm, Torres Multicultural Communications, my staff and I have had the honor of working with major government entities such as the U.S. Census Bureau and some of the leading non-profits, such as Mi Familia Vota, the largest Latino civic engagement organization in the U.S.

We have been playing key roles in shaping civic engagement strategy for Hispanic Americans, currently numbering 55 million in the U.S. during the 2012 and 2016 elections.

I am an immigrant. I was born in Mexico and the story goes that at 2 weeks old, my mother and father crossed the U.S. – Mexico border with me in tow in search of a better life and flee economic and government repression in my country.

Today I will talk about universal communication techniques that could be applied in the empowerment and women’s rights arenas.

The three techniques I’ll be covering today are the power of communicating through: A Picture, Storytelling and The Arts.

I have found these three communications applications serve as effective communication platforms and “equalizers,” meaning no matter what language you speak, what country you’re from, no matter your ethnicity or culture – your chances of connecting with individual’s increases significantly.

The power of an image:

Visuals are powerful communication platforms. You don’t have to be the same ethnicity, culture or even speak the same language to understand raw human emotion.  Who can forget the image of the Syrian boy covered in dust and blood sitting in an orange ambulance chair after being pulled out of Aleppo rubble? One photo of this Syrian boy went on to capture the world’s attention.

A look at how our brains process information has found that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. The brain processes visual information over text 60,000 times faster; and we understand a visual scene in less than 1/10th of a second.

Another form of powerful communication is the art of storytelling:

Brene Brown, TEDx Houston has said, “Stories are just data with a soul.”

Researchers have discovered that our brains are more active when we hear stories versus data, facts and figures. Stories plant ideas and emotions in a listener’s brain. Research shows that multiple regions of the brain are engaged during stories…

Combined storytelling with the arts:

What’s been effective for me is to combine storytelling and the arts.

We have started an art gallery called, Chingona Soles… We have worked with 60 artists in Phoenix, Arizona and we gave them one black stiletto to turn into a piece of artwork. What they have turned back to us in 6 years in a row is incredible. They all tell stories of women that have inspired them in their lives, their mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends who have made an impact in their lives. They are in display on my art gallery and available for auction and the proceeds are given to a nonprofit organizations such as “stress for success.”

… In conclusion, I challenge my fellow leaders in the empowerment and women’s rights arenas to find ways to communicate your missions and the impact that you’re making through the use of cutting through the clutter with powerful images that leave a memorable impression. Breakdown communications walls with storytelling that put a face on the people behind your movements. And wherever possible find ways to connect the two. Reach people’s minds – but most importantly their hearts, through unique and moving programs with arts in the center.

The program ended with a lively Q& A discussion with the audience.

Moderator Lynn Dykstra concluded that, “The Faces of Courage and Commitment are all of YOU.  Each and every one of you in this room – men and women and those you represent are all working toward the original goals of the PLATFORM for ACTION of the 1995 Beijing Conference.”

“To remove all the obstacles to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision-making.”  This and the subsequent Official Platforms of every CSW Conference since then move us all forward.

We honor you for your extraordinary part and participation in the events of UNCSW61. We want you to leave this week with hope and motivation to change the world of women’s rights – starting in your own front yard.

“Photo Credits: Kira Bucca”


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