Save the Children's "Mother's Index 2013," released less than a week before Mother's Day, generated buzz on Tuesday for its ranking of the best countries in the world to be a mother. Out of the 176 nations on the list -- 46 developed and 130 developing -- the top six are all located in Northern Europe while the bottom 12 are in Africa (Finland placed first, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo came in last). The United States finished in 30th place despite performing well on the index's educational and economic measures. The metrics holding the America back? Maternal mortality rate, under-5 mortality rate, and especially female representation in government, where it ranked 89th (women hold only 18 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress).
It's this last prong of the methodology that we found particularly interesting. Is there really a connection between a higher percentage of females in national government and a mother's quality of life?
According to Save the Children, the answer is yes. The report hypothesizes, "When women have a voice in politics, issues that are important to mothers and their children are more likely to surface on the national agenda and emerge as national priorities."
The organization based this conclusion on a number of factors. First, it compared individual countries to regional peers and nations with similar gross national incomes (GNIs), and found that the strongest performers in terms of mother and child health and well-being (maternal mortality, under-5 mortality, and access to education) also had higher proportions of parliamentary seats held by women. The team also found that when a country performed better in terms of those three health and well-being metrics than its GNI would predict, a differentiating factor was participation of women in government.
For example, Rwanda has the highest percentage of female lawmakers in the world (52 percent), and it surpasses other countries with similar levels of national wealth in terms of maternal mortality, under-5 mortality, and years of education. Nepal and Afghanistan, which have made great strides in improving the quality of life of women and children, also have the highest levels of female political representation in South Asia.
It's data Congress might want to take a closer look at.
When Amina Tyler, a 19-year-old Tunisian activist, posted topless photographs of herself on Facebook in March, she caused a global uproar. The tremendous backlash within Tunisia to the images -- which included one of Amina topless, hair short and black, with the words, "Fuck your morals" splashed across her chest -- quickly spilled beyond the country's borders as the feminist protest movement Femen, declared a "topless jihad" in her defense.
But while Amina's name exploded onto the international scene, she herself largely disappeared from the public eye. In April, Amina told Femen's leader, Inna Shevchenko, over Skype that she had been kidnapped by her family, beaten, drugged, and subjected to a virginity test. She also admitted that she had been coerced into doing an interview with the French station Itele in which she declared she didn't want to be associated with Femen. "I will continue the struggle that started in Tunisia," Amina declared during the Skype conversation. I will do a topless protest and then I will leave."
But as recently as May 1, there was still confusion over the whereabouts of the activist. In the Atlantic, Jeffrey Taylor described her as "in hiding" somewhere in the North African country.
On Wednesday, however, the young dissident finally reappeared with another topless photo posted to the Femen Facebook page. So far, the image has generated a number of headlines in the Arabic press but virtual silence in the U.S. media. This time she was blonde, and the words scrawled on her chest were in bright red instead of black. But the message was essentially the same: "No More Moral Lessons."
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
When it comes to women's rights in Saudi Arabia, things always seem to move one incremental step (or, in this case, cycle) forward, two steps back. On Monday, AP reported that al-Yawm, a Saudi daily, had cited an unnamed Saudi religious police official as saying that women will now be allowed to ride bicycles in the country, but only for "entertainment" purposes.
The underwhelming story inspired its fair share of sarcasm in the blogosphere. Cartoon images of fully veiled women pedaling on bikes circulated online. Jezebel ran with the headline, "Saudi Arabia Lets Women Ride Bikes for Funzies." Meanwhile, Policymic listed five ways the change doesn't represent progress at all (and accompanied the list with a few can't-miss GIFs).
But, alas, even this modest sign of progress may have been an illusion. The pan-Arab daily al-Hayat spoke to the country's religious police chief who called the matter "funny," adding that because riding bikes is uncommon in Saudi society, officials never considered the practice as something to either be banned or allowed for women. (Al-Hayat also name-checks the outlets that were a little eager in reporting the AP story, including Fox, the Huffington Post, and ThinkProgress).
In light of the ambiguous wording, it remains unclear whether it would be acceptable for women to ride bikes in public if the mood strikes. My guess, for what its worth? Probably not.
(h/t: Riyadh Bureau)
Image entitled "Allowed", by Mohammad Sharaf
Rape has played a devastating role in Syria's two-year-long civil war, but data about how prevalent the practice is in the murky conflict have been hard to come by. In one of the most ambitious efforts yet to nail down statistics, a study released Wednesday indicates that Syrian government forces have committed most acts of sexual violence.
Women Under Siege, along with Columbia University epidemiologists, the Syrian-American Medical Society, and Syrian activists and journalists, has spent the past year documenting and mapping incidences of sexual violence in the war-ravaged country. And while the group acknowledges that the data-- derived largely from media and human rights reports -- is incomplete and unverified, the numbers do paint an interesting picture of who is behind acts of sexual violence in the country, and how often they're occurring.
One of the report's most compelling findings is just how many of the cases of sexual violence on record have allegedly been committed by government forces:
According to the study, government forces have carried out 56 percent of sexual attacks against women. But if you include pro-regime shabiha (plain-clothed militia) perpetrators, the number is closer to 80 percent. When it comes to men (who were the victims in 20 percent of the cases tracked by Women Under Siege), the figures are even more staggering. 90 percent of the reported sexualized violence against men was committed by government forces, possibly due to the fact that these tend to occur in detention facilities. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army, has only carried out 1 percent of the documented sexual attacks.
FP caught up with Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe to delve deeper into the story behind these figures. Here's what she had to say:
Our number of reports has nearly doubled since we last put out our stats in July, yet the stats have remained remarkably consistent. Our lead Columbia epidemiologist thinks that indicates we are potentially on the right track. But again, the key caution is always that we are only getting a portion of what's potentially out there.
Wolfe acknowledges that rape is being committed on all sides of the conflict, but stresses the importance of looking at "why so much of the information coming out of Syria indicates that the majority is being enacted by government perpetrators." According to Wolfe, there are a number of explanations for this finding.
While the Syrian opposition has been diligently documenting atrocities and reporting these to international actors, the Syrian government has restricted journalists' access to information on sexual violence. "Much of the rape appears to be occurring in government detention centers, at checkpoints, and during army raids on towns," she told FP. "Whatever less structured [rape] carried out by opposition forces may be underreported."
There's another potential explanation, Wolfe adds: "It is entirely possible that government forces are actually carrying out the majority of the sexualized violence." Past studies of sexual violence in conflict show that state forces are more likely to perpetrate sexual violence -- a pattern that might just be recurring in Syria.
People across the world are celebrating International Women's Day today as both a reminder of the struggles women face and a celebration of their achievements and progress since the holiday's inception in the early 20th century. In many countries, it's even an official national holiday. But in a few, men are explicitly excluded from participating.
In countries such as China, Madagascar, and Nepal, the holiday is specifically geared toward "women only." In China, for instance, women get a half day off but men have to work. Other less institutionalized examples of male discrimination exist as well. The London borough of Tower Hamlets, for example, once made news by banning all men from its libraries on International Women's Day.
This "positive discrimination" against men raises interesting questions in a world where gender gaps are still so pronounced. Just look at the latest figures for cross-country rankings of women's political representation. Rwanda, is the only country in the world where women outnumber men in parliament, and just by 6.3 percent. The bottom five countries, conversely, have zero female participation, and Yemen, which comes in sixth-to-last, has a mere 0.3 percent. The United States ranks pretty poorly as well, finishing in 77th place with women holding only 17.8 percent of national legislative positions.
Globally, women are behind when it comes to literacy, health, and income, and things are not changing fast enough. According to the World Economic Forum's comprehensive 2012 study, only nine countries have closed health and education gaps, while none have managed to completely eradicate gaps in economic or political participation.
Debates about the best ways to change these numbers often center on methods of "positive discrimination," from legislative quotas to affirmative action programs. But does positive discrimination reinforce problematic gender divides? Or is it necessary in a world where women are still so widely disadvantaged? These questions might be too complicated to tackle in a blog post, but they are certainly worth thinking about. Particularly on International Women's Day.
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
After several months of will-she-won't-she, today brought a fresh wave of speculation that actress Ashley Judd will challenge Mitch McConnell for his Kentucky Senate seat in 2014. It's still unclear whether Judd, a Democrat, could pose a serious challenge to the Senate minority leader, and, given that Kentucky's unemployment rate continues to hover around 8 percent, it's unlikely either candidate would run a foreign-policy focused campaign. Still, just what would the foreign policy of a Senator Ashley Judd look like?
Judd doesn't appear to have staked out positions on U.S. drone policy, defense spending, or Iran just yet. But where Judd has spoken out publicly is on women's issues in the developing world like family planning, public health, and in particular rape -- perhaps as a result of being a rape victim herself. She's given a speech before the U.N. General Assembly on human trafficking and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She's on the board of the D.C.-based Population Services International, and her role as global ambassador for their YouthAIDS program has taken her to countries such as Cambodia, Kenya, and Rwanda (the picture above shows her in Thailand). In 2010, she made a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo to highlight how valuable minerals like tin and tungsten fuel violence against women. She's also chronicled her travels on her blog, ashleyjudd.com, where she at times gets intensely personal in her reflections:
Here's what she wrote about traveling to Congo and using Apple products made with minerals potentially mined in Congo:
Apple is known for the clean lines of their products, the alluring simplicity of their designs. Dare I....go so far....as to suggest...this signature cleanness is stained by the shit and urine of raped women's leaking fistulas?
On interviewing a women whose mother was raped three times:
I am still holding her child. I have been crying some. She tells me I am not like other white women. I confide in her, telling her I have chosen not to have children because I believe the children who are already her [sic] are really mine, too. I do not need to go making "my own" baby when so many of my babies are already here who need love, attention, time, care.
Judd has made this last point before, and Republicans have sought to highlight a 2006 statement Judd made in which she called it "unconscionable to breed, with the number of children who are starving to death in impoverished countries."
While Judd may not have a fully fleshed out foreign policy platform yet, it is clear she's passionate about some issues. But whether advocacy on rape in Congo will win her traction in Kentucky remains to be seen.
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
China's People's Daily may have taken some heat this week for publishing what the Shanghaiist described as a "leering" slide show of a "beautiful" journalist, but some news outlets in Kazakhstan have been one-upping the Communist Party daily when it comes to misogyny. This week, in honor of International Women's Day on March 8, the Kazakh website Vox Populi is hosting a Miss Military Kazakhstan contest -- encouraging readers to vote not for models but for "beauties" from various military and law-enforcement units who "wear shoulder straps" and guard the country.
On Wednesday, Kazakhstan's Tengri News reported on the competition as if it were a horse race:
Judging by the current results of voting the National Guard of Kazakhstan has the most beautiful officers. Three girls from the National Guard of Kazakhstan have taken the leading positions in the rating: Sergeant of the National Guard Bibigul Sauytova from Astana is in the first place, Junior Sergeant of the National Guard Saltant Bayzhumanova from Astana is in the second place and Sergeant of the National Guard Natalya Fokina is in the third place.
It's not clear how many times this particular contest has been held, but Tengri News reports that authorities in the country do host an annual Lady of Kazakhstan Police contest, with the winner appearing on the cover of a police magazine.
Which brings us back to International Women's Day. According to the website for the century-old celebration, the "tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, etc with flowers and small gifts." In keeping with that tradition, Vox Populi will award Miss Military Kazakhstan with a digital camera. And in a separate development, Tengri News is reporting that police in the country will give female drivers flowers and forgive them traffic violations in honor of the holiday. So, there's that.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
Economic arguments have a particular resonance during periods of sluggish growth, and that logic even seems to extend these days to the hot-button issue of abortion. In Switzerland, a new, very literally named initiative --"Protect life to remedy the loss of billions" - is calling for a referendum to ban abortion in the country for economic reasons. The initiative committe is led by politician Heinz Hürzeler, a member of the country's Social Liberal Movement, and maintains that in Switzerland, where 12 percent of pregnancies end in abortion, the practice represents a huge blow to the economy (comparatively speaking, Switzerland has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, with only 6.4 abortions for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44). As AFP reports:
It calculates that if the more than 100,000 foetuses aborted in Switzerland over the past decade had been born, grown up and worked for 45 years, they would have contributed nearly 334 billion Swiss francs ($359 billion, 274 billion euros) to the country's GDP.
And, as consumers, the same 100,000 people would over 80 years pump more than 324 billion francs into the country's economy, it says.
Economic arguments abound in favor of abortion (and contraception more generally), and they tend to focus on the burden and welfare demands posed by unsupported children on both the individual and societal levels. Freakonomics has even weighed in on the debate, linking abortion to decreased crime rates in places like Romania, Canada, and Australia.
Perhaps less well known are the economic arguments for banning the practice. Like the Swiss initiative, these tend to rely on what pro-life author Larry Burkett has called "the George Bailey Affect" after the main character in It's a Wonderful Life: How the world would look, if, for each abortion, we substituted a consumer child who would grow up to become a productive member of society.
As for the campaign in Switzerland, the initiative has until August 2014 to garner 100,000 signatures, at which point the abortion ban will be put to a national referendum. Abortion was only decriminalized in Switzerland in 2002, also by national referendum.
To everyone's surprise, 2013 might prove a historic year for women in the U.S. military, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Wednesday that the Pentagon will remove the ban on women in combat.
All the attention is focusing on ground troops, but it's actually on the high seas that the last glass ceiling, or in this case high-strength alloy steel hull, is being shattered. Last October, the Navy announced that beginning in January, women will be allowed to serve on attack submarines for the first time, and the number of women in crews on Trident-class submarines will also be increased.
And the United States isn't alone. Britain has also said that this year will see the beginning of female participation on Royal Navy submarines, and countries such as Canada and Australia have already seen successful integration of women in submarine crews.
While these changes are being welcomed by men and women around the United States, the question remains: Why have submarines proved the final stubborn frontier? Out of the 42 countries that use submarines, only six allow women to serve.
According to the BBC, the British Navy banned women's participation for their own good, citing "health concerns about carbon dioxide." Unsurprisingly, two years ago, a study by the Institute of Naval Medicine deemed these concerns unfounded. The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, raised questions about cramped quarters and privacy:
On fast-attack submarines, approximately 150 personnel live in space the size of a three-bedroom house. Officers sleep in three-person staterooms, each the size of a small closet, and all 15 of them share a single shower, sink and toilet.
For female officers to live on the submarines, some three-person berths would be reserved for them and they would share the bathroom -- known as a "head" -- with men in a time-sharing arrangement.
But logistics and CO2 aside, the Navy has always been a bit behind the times when it comes to female participation. In the United States, it wasn't until 1978 that women were allowed to participate in surface warfare, and many of them left in the 1980s because of the lack of opportunities available. Now, as the Navy suffers from lack of personnel and women become more dominant in fields like engineering, they are finally being allowed below the surface.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The Uprising of Women in the Arab World is not pleased with Facebook.
The group, which advocates for women's rights in the Middle East, issued a press statement on Nov. 7 claiming that Facebook, once hailed as the catalyst of the Arab Spring, was purposefully targeting the organization through censorship. After a member posted a controversial photograph to the group's Facebook page on Oct. 25, group leaders say, the social networking giant reacted by blocking the image and suspending the account of the administrator who posted it for 24 hours.
"The photograph was part of a campaign which asks the members of our Facebook page to post pictures of themselves holding banners that explain why they support The Uprising of Women in the Arab World," Diala Haider, one of the organization's administrators, explained in an interview. "Women from all the Arab countries participated and expressed their demands and outrage at social discrimination and the ways in which women have been marginalized in the public sphere."
This particular photograph was posted by Dana Bakdounes, a young woman from Syria. In it, Bakdounes is pictured with her hair uncovered, holding her passport, which has a photo of her wearing a hijab. She also holds a sign which reads: "I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body."
Haider says that after the first time Bakdounes' photo was removed by Facebook, supporters of The Uprising of Women in the Arab World responded by posting the image to their own Facebook pages and on Twitter. Convinced that the removal of the photograph had been an error on the part of Facebook, one of the administrators, Yalda Younes, reposted the image to the original page. Facebook then allegedly removed the photograph again and suspended her account for seven days. The group filled out a feedback request stating that Facebook's actions were a violation of free speech, and on Oct. 31 the block on Bakdounes' photo was removed. But just a week later, after the organization posted a status update on Facebook asking its supporters to follow the group on Twitter and use the hashtag #DanaWind for solidarity, Haider says Facebook suspended all five of the administrators' accounts and sent them an official notice warning that their accounts could be deleted if they violated Facebook community rules again.
"We've had a lot of religious fanatics and extremists who use offensive and insulting language in reaction to our efforts," says Haider. "They call us infidels for supporting the freedom of women to choose things like whether to wear a veil or not. We've come under attack, but that was expected.... The real surprise was Facebook's reaction to the page."
In a statement posted on Reddit on Nov. 13 and confirmed to Foreign Policy as official by a Facebook spokesman, Facebook explained that the incident was simply an error:
"We made a mistake," the statement reads. "In this case, we mistakenly blocked images from The Uprising of Women in the Arab World Page, and worked to rectify the mistake as soon as we were notified.... To be clear, the images of the woman were not in violation of our terms. Instead, a mistake was made in the process of responding to a report on controversial content.... What made this situation worse is that we made multiple mistakes over a number of days, and it took time to rectify each of these missteps."
Incidents such as the removal of Bakdounes' photo raise questions about Facebook's content moderation system, which has come under fire in recent months. In February, Amine Derkaoui, a Moroccan employee of oDesk, one of the outsourcing firms that Facebook used to moderate its content at the time, leaked internal documents to Gawker detailing the social media site's content guidelines. According to the documents, while "camel toes" and breastfeeding mothers are off limits, "Crushed heads, limbs etc are OK as long as no insides are showing." Facebook terminated its partnership with oDesk in May.
An incident similar to the removal of Bakdounes' photo occurred in April 2011 when a photograph of gay men kissing was removed (and subsequently reposted by Facebook with an apology for its "error"). The site has also been criticized for blocking the New Yorker's Facebook page after the magazine posted a cartoon that depicted female nipples. In October, a group of Navy SEALS claimed that Facebook was censoring an anti-Obama meme when it took down the image and provided no explanation for its removal until after the story was reported -- at which point Facebook issued statements to news outlets apologizing for its mistake.
These episodes begin to make more sense when you factor in the system that, at least until May, Facebook used to moderate its content. Derkaoui told Gawker that he was part of a team of 50 people from across the globe -- many from poor countries -- who moderated Facebook's content from home for as little as $1 an hour. He did not return requests for comment, and Facebook has been tightlipped about which companies it now uses to moderate content, failing to respond to emailed questions sent by Foreign Policy.
Vaughn Hester, who works at Crowdflower, a San Francisco-based crowdsourcing firm that also tasks employees from around the world with moderating content, told The Daily Beast in September that "asking moderators to flag photos that are ‘offensive' can result in very different attitudes in terms of what constitutes offensive content versus permissible content." Given what seems to be the inherent subjectivity of the content moderation industry, as well as the vast cultural and religious differences between employees from different countries, it seems possible that a photograph like Bakdounes', which Americans might not find offensive in the least, could have upset a moderator from another country.
Panagiotis Ipeirotis, an associate professor in the Operations and Management Sciences department at New York University's Stern School of Business, says that there are many ways to identify and eliminate biases in the content moderation industry.
"You might, for example, compare different moderators' work against each other," says Ipeirotis. "So, if you're worried about cultural biases, you can take five moderators from different regions and get blended input on an image."
Ipeirotis says he is unfamiliar with Facebook's content moderation policy, but maintains that the content moderation systems of different companies are only as efficient as the standards they implement.
Haider says that while she understands that mistakes are made, it's important that Facebook take incidents like this seriously because arbitrary acts of censorship aren't compatible with the site's role as a forum for free speech.
"It's only normal that Facebook, which has penetrated the whole globe, hires employees from all over the world with various religious and cultural backgrounds," she says. "This becomes problematic only when those employees favor their cultural and religious biases over Facebook's policy of respecting freedom of expression. This is why Facebook should take serious measures regarding such mistakes. We trusted that Facebook would be a supporter of freedom of expression and the uprising; we have faced the opposite by feeling that Facebook is assisting extremists and misogynists to put us in a corner.... It is disappointing, to say the least."
Facebook outlines some of its guidelines for acceptable content on its community standards page while maintaining that it attempts to balance the need for a safe online environment with its commitment to freedom of speech.
"Facebook gives people around the world the power to publish their own stories, see the world through the eyes of many other people, and connect and share wherever they go," the page reads. "The conversation that happens on Facebook -- and the opinions expressed here -- mirror the diversity of the people using Facebook. To balance the needs and interests of a global population, Facebook protects expression that meets the community standards."
Despite the removal of Bakdounes' photograph, The Uprising of Women in the Arab World's Facebook page has over 66,000 likes, and Haider acknowledges the important role that social media sites such as Facebook have played in mobilizing activist groups such as hers.
"We wanted a forum that can provide a free space for women and men from around the Arab world to meet and voice their concerns and propositions for a better reality for women within the transforming Arab societies," she says. "In this sense, Facebook helps break the borders and helps in sharing real experiences and awareness with the least possible costs."
Iran suspended accreditation for Reuters today, but not, as one might expect, over reporters prying into the country's nuclear activities or besmirching the good name of the Supreme Leader. Instead, Reuters is reportedly being sued by a group of female Iranian ninjas, like the one pictured above.
A video produced by Reuters about the thousands of women learning ninjutsu was unfortunately titled, "Thousands of female Ninjas train as Iran's assassins." The inference that the women -- whose interest in the ancient martial art is primarily motivated by "staying fit," according to one participant -- are violent marauders offended the athletes, who are overseen by the Ministry of Sports' Martial Arts Federation. In case it wasn't obvious, you don't want to offend a highly-trained cadre of Iranian ninjas. Anger these black-belted beauties and they'll ... take their legitimate complaint to the appropriate authorities who will suspend your press credentials. Hiiiii-yah!
Reuters released a statement about the gaffe, saying, "We acknowledge this error occurred and regard it as a very serious matter. It was promptly corrected the same day it came to our attention." The agency is currently in negotiations with Iran to regain accreditation (There are 11 accredited Reuters employees in Iran). However, the ninjas argue that the damage has already been done.
"It can harm our chances to travel to other countries to take part in global tournaments and international championships because Reuters is considered by many to be a reliable source," Raheleh Davoudzadeh told PressTV, Iran's semi-official news agency.
While the assassins line might not seem like the highest order of business for a country facing sanctions and potentially an armed attack, glibly labeling a group in a way that plays into stereotypes about violence is no laughing matter. As poll after poll shows, language matters tremendously when people are asked to consider military action.
Don't believe us? Why don't you tell her that.
The case of Bibi Aisha, the young girl who graced the cover of TIME Magazine after her nose and ears were cut off, has been dropped. The only arrested suspect, Aisha's father-in-law, was released in Afghanistan, according to government officials. Aisha has been living in the United States for the past two years following her dramatic recovery, so there is no one available to press charges against Haji Suleiman. The provincial attorney, Ghulam Farouq, maintained that the suspect was innocent since he did not actually cut the young girl. But Suleiman is far from innocent -- he was accused of holding a gun to 18-year-old Aisha while several other men mutilated and left her for dead. He then marched around the village with the young girl's nose in hand. Aisha's father, Mohammedzai, relayed his anger, saying:
"We don't know who released him. We don't know at all. It's either government weakness or our weakness. We don't have money to pay the government and we don't have someone in the government to support us."
Aisha won the hearts of readers around the world with her horrifying tale of survival. She was a servant, a child bride fleeing the brutal abuse of her in-laws who would make her sleep with the animals as if she was an animal herself.
Aisha's father feared what the Taliban would do if Aisha spoke out. But she ignored his advice to keep quiet:
"My father told me not to tell anyone the full truth, that I was given away, that I went to jail for two or three months, not to tell anyone anything. But I will tell them all these things because I am not such a person to lie. I will tell them because I think my story must be told."
Aisha quickly became the face of the Afghan woman's plight -- the United Nations estimates nearly 90 percent of women in Afghanistan suffer from domestic abuse. The haunting photograph of beautiful, but disfigured Aisha draped in a purple scarf, won the 2010 World Press Photo of the Year.
Her attackers may never be brought to justice, but Aisha continues to recover. She is currently studying English in New York City.
Nisa Yeh via Flickr Creative Commons
What do chicken-processing factories, noodle factories, and polygamy clubs have in common? Easy -- they're all ventures undertaken by the Malaysian company Global Ikhwan Sdn Bhd. Before his death in 2010, the chairman and founder Ashaari Mohamed doubled as the leader of the radical Islamic sect Al-Arqam, banned in 1994 by the state's National Fatwa Council for what Malaysian newspaper The Star terms "deviationist" teachings. But his passing hasn't sapped the derring-do of the Global Ikhwan team. Their latest venture deals with that peskiest of pesky social ills -- women who, you know, make their own decisions:
A wife must obey and serve her husband like "a first-class prostitute" to keep him from straying and to prevent greater social ills, according to the Obedient Wives' Club.
The Malaysian branch of the club, launched here yesterday, was formed as an answer to social problems such as infidelity, prostitution, domestic violence and abandoned babies, which its members believed stemmed from a lack of belief in God and the failure of women to keep their husbands content.
The 800 Muslim women who comprise the club have faced a virulent backlash since they announced its creation on June 4. But the response issued this weekend by OWC national director Fauziah Ariffin suggests that the criticism hasn't really hit home:
I believe we have been misunderstood and misinterpreted. When we said that husbands should treat their wives like first-class prostitutes, we were not putting wives on the same level with prostitutes. We are talking about first-class elite types, not street hooker types.
Our wives provide men with top-level service. However, ordinary prostitutes can only provide good sex, but not love and affection which only a wife can provide.
Oh, I see. Wives should be like Eliot Spitzer's call girl. Charming.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
When one woman made a mistake at work, her boss called her a "stupid fucking female" and spit in her face. She was later stalked, sexually harassed, and raped. Another woman got drunk with her coworker, who was her superior, when he raped her. She spent the next two years forced to continue working with him; her work assignments were downgraded because she took medication to cope with the trauma of the ordeal. A third woman was sexually harassed by a supervisor and raped by a coworker. When she sought help from her workplace's chaplain, she was told that "it must have been God's will for her to be raped" and was recommended to attend church more often.
Where do these women work?: The U.S. military.
These are the stories of some of the plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed in an Eastern Virginia federal court yesterday against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. The litigants are current and veteran service members, 15 women and two men, and they charge that, even twenty years after the landmark Tailhook case, the military has allowed a dangerous culture of rape and sexual abuse to proliferate. Specifically, Gates and Rumsfeld are charged with running "institutions in which perpetrators were promoted; ...in which Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subject to retaliation...and ordered to keep quiet."
Since 2005, when Congress mandated that the Defense Department create a task force on military sexual assault, other similar efforts have attempted to do something about this increasingly egregious problem. Last March, the Pentagon released the latest Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military which showed an 11 percent increase in reports of sexual assault in the military during fiscal year 2009 (equivalent to one-third of female service members reporting sexual violence). The Pentagon even says that reported incidents probably represent only 20 percent of those that actually occur.
While sexual assault in the military carries its own unique implications -- a particularly high-stress workplace environment, a traditionally male-dominated work culture, a strict mandate to follow superiors' orders, among much else -- the military is not the only workplace where women (and men) are assaulted. According to one statistic, one out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And, on average, 36,500 incidents of rape and sexual assault happen annually in the workplace.
This year, that number unfortunately includes Lara Logan. The CBS news correspondent is recovering in an American hospital after being sexually assaulted and beaten by a mob in Tahrir Square last Friday. The media firestorm surrounding Logan's ordeal ranges well into the vulgar. As Jezebel points out, "media outlets are clamoring to respond -- in the most offensive way possible" detailing Logan's looks, sex life, and past experience reporting from war zones and other dangerous places, implying that she had it coming.
Today, journalist Nir Rosen (who has written for FP) resigned from his fellowship position at New York University's Center on Law and Security after some heavy backlash to his critical tweets of Logan, including "Jesus Christ, at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger." On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Debbie Sclussel, an extreme right-wing commentator, wrote that Logan "should have known what Islam is all about."
Sadly, the "Muslims did it" argument has found its way into the mainstream. Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post noted that Egypt is a place where women "are not free to pass through the street without being groped and catcalled." The Daily Beast, today, ran a piece titled "Egypt: Unsafe for Women." Even film critic Roger Ebert joined the debate, tweeting: "The attack on Lara Logan brings Middle East attitudes toward women into sad focus."
While the statistics on women's experiences in Egypt are terrible and alarming -- 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women visitors have experienced harassment -- Egyptian culture is by no means the only one where rape, sexual assault, and harassment are embedded and pervasive.
Sadly, Logan's story is not an isolated event: Not isolated to an attractive foreign reporter pursuing a story, not isolated to those 18 days in Tahrir, not isolated to broader Egyptian culture, not isolated to the experience of women in every country around the world. Yet the way this incident has been explained in popular media -- as a result of Logan's looks, her job, and the unique cultural environment in which she was working -- reduces Logan's experience into a singular, rather than societal, problem.
Perhaps the most unique thing about these cases is that they are so public. As we can see in the cases of the 17 service members suing the Pentagon, and the countless others who remain silent, sexual violence in the workplace (and everywhere else) is notable not for its rarity but for the stigma and difficulties attached with reporting it.
The photos coming from Cairo and other parts of Egypt have many around the world glued to their computers, compulsively clicking through slideshows of the protests and brushing up on recent Egyptian history. On social networking sites and in the comments of various news sites (including this one), newbie Egyptologists have been asking: Where are Egypt's women?
Seeking to answer that question and helping to dismiss the idea that this is a boys-only revolution, a new Facebook album is making its way around the internet. Titled "Women of Egypt," it depicts women in both hijabs and jeans, with mouths open defiantly voicing protest. The Facebook user who created the album and compiled the photos said that the album is an "homage to all those women out there fighting, and whose voices and faces are hidden from the public eye!"
Perhaps one of the most provocative and moving of this photos is what's being referred to as "The Kiss Photo" which depicts an older Egyptian woman kissing a soldier on the cheek. According to The Atlantic's Garance Franke-Ruta, this is "truly exceptional."
[The photo] was a powerful statement of national unity.
But it was also far more radical than that in a country in which men and women are barely tolerated holding hands in public in the most liberal precincts of comparatively Christian Alexandria, and where public displays of affections are frowned upon and likely to be met with cutting glances and vicious neighborhood gossip elsewhere...
In short, when it comes to women in public life, Egypt can be pretty conservative. It's not Saudi Arabia or Iran, but it's also not Lebanon."
Franke-Ruta noted that 90 percent of Egyptian women wear the hijab and even with a quota, only 1.8 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly are held by women.
In fact, many experts are saying that the number of women taking place in the anti-government protests is "unprecendented." Slate rounds up various estimates of women in the crowds:
Ghada Shahbandar, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, estimated the crowd downtown to be 20 percent female. Other estimates were as high as 50 percent. In past protests, the female presence would rarely rise to 10 percent. Protests have a reputation for being dangerous for Egyptian women, whose common struggle as objects of sexual harassment is exacerbated in the congested, male-dominated crowd.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
Give the Bulgarian government points for efficiency, if not productivity. On the same day the country's defense minister lifted its ban on women serving on submarines, the parliament voted to mothball the country's only submarine. It's the thought that counts, I guess.
The U.S. navy also lifted its own ban on women in subs this month and a group of female officers are currently in training to begin service onboard four nuclear submarines in December 2011. Presumably, the USS Wyoming, USS, Georgia, USS Ohio, and USS Maine will still be there when they're done.
Egypt is infamous both for the sexual harassment women endure and the government's lackluster response to the problem. Now, a private venture called HarassMap will allow women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment through text messages. Victims will receive a reply offering support and practical advice, and reports will be compiled into a larger map of harassment hotspots. The project is set to launch next year, and utilizes open-source mapping technology, which was also used earlier this year to help relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake.
According to the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, 83 percent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment, including groping, lewd comments, and stalking. Almost half reported harassment on a daily basis. And belying popular belief, harassment incidents do not seem to be linked to revealing outfits -- three-quarters of victims were veiled at the time of incident. There are currently no laws prohibiting harassment. Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, has even said that the media exaggerates the threat posed by sexual harassment.
The most recent statistics available place Egyptian mobile phone users at around 40 percent of the population and the female literacy rate at about 60 percent. While HarassMap could be important on a practical level for those women able to access it, those working on the project think it could change societal norms.
Rebecca Chiao, one of the volunteers behind the project told Britain's Guardian.
"In the last couple of years there's been a debate in Egypt over whether harassment of women on the streets is a serious issue, or whether it's something women are making up. So HarassMap will have an impact on the ground by revealing the extent of this problem. It will also offer victims a practical way of responding, something to fight back with; as someone who has experienced sexual harassment personally on the streets of Cairo, I know that the most frustrating part of it was feeling like there was nothing I could do."
U.S. cities, including New York and Washington, and entire countries like Britain and Australia, already have similar maps where citizens can report incidents by e-mail. Hollaback, first started in New York, is also in the process of launching an iPhone app.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images
No surprise that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusoni and Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi seem to be extremely fond of each other: they're both prone to making extremely... questionable... comments. Berlusconi put on his old sage hat Sunday and offered this relationship advice:
I said to a girl to look for a wealthy boyfriend. This suggestion is not unrealistic.
Berlusconi, being famously wealthy himself, noted that women are drawn to him because he's a "nice guy" -- and oh yeah, that "I'm loaded." He went on to say women like older men because they think, "'he's old. He dies and I inherit.'" Classy.
Of course Berlusconi's trysts are well known. He's been accused by his wife of putting attractive young women on his party lists in European elections, and last year he was embroiled in a scandal over his 'companionships' with a slew of women. His wife is seeking a divorce.
As if his comments on women weren't bad enough, he went ahead and made a Hitler joke -- based on the premise of Hitler's followers urging him to return to power. Berlusconi preemptively acknowledged his crassness, saying "I already know I am going to be criticized."
TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
A new study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association questions some traditional gender notions surrounding sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It found that sexual violence against civilians in the eastern DRC is indeed horrifyingly widespread. Most notably, both men and women reported being victims of sexual violence-23.6 percent of men surveyed and 39.7 percent of women. Additionally, this study was the first to ask about perpetrators' genders in conflict-related sexual violence. 41 percent of female and 10 percent of male survivors reported that their attacker was a woman.
This study was an attempt by researchers to add some needed depth to current understanding of sexual violence in the DRC-a part of the world commonly known as "the ground zero of rape" where sexual violence is used as a weapon of a war that first began in 1994 and has since killed millions of people, even after a 2003 peace treaty.
The typical language surrounding rape in the DRC-"Stop raping our greatest resource: Power to the girls and women of Democratic Republic of Congo," for example-asserts that women are the abused and men the abusers. Atrocities in the DRC have gained attention recently as writers and activists, including the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, have noted that fighting over minerals in the Congo have turned smart phones into "blood phones."
Previous studies have only provided anecdotal reports and often only evaluated already identified survivors of sexual violence. Because of social stigmatization many survivors (especially male) face in reporting violence, rates of non-report are as high as 75 percent, and may be higher in conflict areas, according to the study.
With a mission to assess the wider impact of sexual violence in eastern Congo, American researchers went door-to-door with a 144-question survey administered to 998 adults (593 female and 405 male) in North and South Kivu provinces and the Ituri district. It asked about basic demographic information (including education, health care access, and past and current substance abuse), as well as lifetime exposure to sexual violence, combatant experience, and opinions on women's roles in society, and justice for sexual violence. Respondents were asked if they had ever been forced into sexual slavery, sexual abuse type (including rape and attempted rape, molestation, and gang rape), and about the identity of the perpetrator, number of attackers, and consequences of the attack. They were also assessed for symptoms of PTSD, depression, and other types of mental illness.
This area has a long history of forced recruitment into armed groups. Twenty percent of those surveyed reported personal combat history-both men and women performed the same tasks within armed groups, except for sexual slavery (women were more than twice as likely to be victimized here than men). The majority of sexual violence reported was conflict-related, disputing some recent studies that have shown civilian-perpetuated sexual violence is on the rise.
"We can no longer think that sexual violence is just violence against women perpetrated by men, it is about everybody," study author Lynn Lawry, of the International Health Division of the U.S. Department of Defense, told the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). Action and advocacy combating sexual violence needs to include men and boys, a statement echoed by a paper from Sweden's NordicAfrica Institute published in May, which criticized "the invisibility of men and boys as victims of sexual and gender-based violence."
Some NGOs have disputed the study, saying that while there were male victims of sexual violence, statistics on female perpetrators are too low to be conclusive. For example, according to IRIN, Ciarán Donnelly, head of the International Rescue Committee in the DRC, noted that it was "unclear whether women kidnapped by armed groups and forced to perform sexual acts on others were listed among the perpetrators." The study's methodology has also been called into question-interviewers had to avoid currently active combat zones.
The study was funded by the DOD's Africa Command, the International Medical Corps, and McGill University.
People may be fixated on the World Cup right now, but there's also another big tournament going on -- Wimbledon! And all the racket swinging has inspired this week's quiz question:
Which country has the most women tennis players among the world's top 200?
a) Australia b) Czech Republic c) Russia
Answer after the jump …
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
Enter the cells of the Badam Bagh prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, and what culprits will you find locked up inside? A 16-year old recipient of an unplanned marriage proposal, a pregnant wife irrationally accused of adultery, and a veiled old woman who just displayed a "bad attitude."
These unlikely suspects were accused of "moral crimes," a new category of infractions for which half the incarcerated females in Afghanistan are held. The "immoral" misdemeanors also include refusing to marry, resisting rape or being raped, and -- especially devastating in light of prevalent and severe domestic violence that compels many women to flee belligerent spouses -- running away from home. Numerous "moral crimes" do not actually violate or even pertain to penal code; but this grouping of offenses requires no codification. Rather, they are loosely described as violations of Sharia law, however the accuser may choose to interpret it. In other words, "moral crimes" altogether lack definition, merely subscribing to a "You'll know it when you see it" kind of classification that allows discrimination to infiltrate the legal system.
In some respects, conditions for impounded women have actually improved. Hundreds of female inmates were previously held with male inmates at the notoriously inhumane Pul-e-Charki prison; but after parliamentary reports revealed the frequency of rape within its walls, the reportedly cozy Badam Bagh -- in which women can move freely, take computer classes, and sew and sell handcrafts -- was built. Clearly once detained, the women aren't subject to any kind of "Black Jail," where beatings, sleep deprivation, and isolation in cold cells are daily protocol.
But the reasons behind their detentions remain discriminatory and cruel. These ill-fated women, jailed with their children for what can be indefinite periods of time, are surely suffering from the crackdown on "moral crimes" -- the enforcement of which propagates the notion that immorality is inherent to the female sex.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
While stoppages and barricades stymie the "Freedom Flotillas" en route to Gaza, the "Speed Sisters" -- an eight-woman speed-racing troupe breaking onto the driving scene in the West Bank -- are revving up to shatter barriers at high speeds.
These unfearing females -- comprised of Christians and Muslims from ages 18 to 39 -- competed last Friday in the "Speed Test," a car race in the West Bank city of Ramallah that makes the typical NASCAR loop look like child's play. Thousands of fans attended the event to cheer on the seventy helmet-clad contestants as they navigated through treacherous obstacles, spinning loops, and serpentine pathways. And these eight women, gripping the wheels with fingerless gloves that accentuate their brightly painted fingernails, may have particularly piqued the crowd's interest: they are the first female team to enter the Speed Test. The Speed Sisters follow in the footsteps of the one female contestant -- now the group's coach -- who raced in the first competition five years ago.
While racing, many of the Speed Sisters wear t-shirts emblazoned with the British flag to pay homage to their sponsor, the British consulate in East Jerusalem. It is the consulate's personnel that facilitated the creation of the women's team, and its budget that subsidized about $8000 worth of training, coaches, and car refurbishing -- all part of a campaign to foster development in the West Bank and other communities of Palestinian refugees. But even with a financier, the women's road to the finish line is a bumpy one: they share a donated hatch-back that pales in comparison to the other high-powered BMWs and Mercedes on the track, and they face doubt and skepticism from their male counterparts.
Regardless, this strong female showing in a male-dominated arena is inspiring in such a conservative Muslim society -- especially one in which mounting political strife can often preclude a focus on social equity.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
It's hard to imagine being criticized -- much less punished -- for taking World Cup spirit too far. Indeed, excess seems to be precisely the name of these games. For anyone who thinks their face-paint masterpieces are prize-worthy, the award for over-the-top aficionado has already been claimed by Sasa Jovic : armed only with a backpack, world map and, of course, his national flag, this Serbian ultra-fan embarked on a 10,000 mile walk to Pretoria to catch his home country's match against Ghana. The Serbs lost 1-0. No word yet on whether Jovic arrived in time to witness defeat.
As it turns out, however, not every patriotic display is quite so praiseworthy. Thirty women were ejected from Monday's Netherland-Denmark game for "ambush marketing" (a very "serious offense" according to the South Africa Police Service). Their fateful mistake? Too much color-coordination. The fans were caught cheering in identical orange mini-dresses distributed by the Dutch brewery, Bavaria. Under Fifa's strict marketing rules for the Cup, only official sponsors are permitted to advertize at matches-and Budweiser is the only beer on tap at these games. The women, two of whom were summoned to Court on Wednesday (and then released on bail), insist they were just showing Dutch pride, but Fifa claims they were illegally paid to don Bavaria apparel.
The only question left: which is worse, paying your customers to flaunt your logo, or bribing foreigners to root for your team?
David Cannon/Getty Images
For those of you who don't subscribe to the bimonthly print edition of Foreign Policy, you're missing a great feature: the FP Quiz. It has eight intriguing questions about how the world works.
The question I'd like to highlight this week is:
How many ambassadors to the United States are women?
a) 3 b) 15 c) 25
Answer after the jump ...
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
For those of you who don't subscribe to the bimonthly print edition of Foreign Policy, you're missing a great feature: the FP Quiz. It has eight intriguing questions about how the world works.
The question I'd like to highlight this week is:
After Mexico, which OECD country has the highest rate of teen births?
a) Czech Republic b) Turkey c) United States
Answer after the jump …
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
It seems like Uganda is taking two steps forward and one step backward
this week in terms of securing human rights for its citizens. Amid
growing debate regarding the national Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the Ugandan parliament unanimously passed
a law which not only outlaws the practice of female genital
mutilation, but imposes a strict punishments of ten year to life-long
sentences for convicted perpetrators.
Not a single parliamentary member spoke against the bill, and Francis Epetait, Uganda's shadow health minister explained the reasoning:
"This practice has left so many women in misery. So we are saying no. We cannot allow women to be dehumanised."So as gender activists celebrate in Uganda, national rights advocates still cringe as the likelihood of the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill looms nearer. The Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law released a statement yesterday to mark International Human Rights day in which they call the pending bill an "unprecedented threat to Ugandan's human rights:
“Uganda today stands at a crossroads. We can either turn further towards an agenda of divisionism and discrimination, and pay the costs in terms of internal suppression of our own citizens coupled with international isolation and marginalization, or we can embrace diversity, human rights and constitutionalism.”
SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images
Where is the worst place for children to be born in 2009, especially girls? Surprise! Afghanistan. Today, UNICEF published a special report titled State of the World's Children; Daniel Toole, UNICEF regional director for South Asia, told a news briefing in Geneva earlier today:
Afghanistan today is without a doubt the most dangerous place to be born.
After eight years since the U.S. invasion, this is just one more incentive to encouarge the Obama administration to make a decision on its role in the region.
More optimistically, the reports highlights signatory countries of the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child who have shown marked improvement, including India, Serbia and Sierra Leone.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
The World Economic Forum posted the 2009 Global Gender Gap Report today, its yearly survey of gender inequality based on economic, political, educational and health factors. For the first time, two African nations entered the top 10 rankings: South Africa at #6 position (up from #22 in 2008) and Lesotho in the #10 slot (up from #16 in 2008).
The increased ranking for South Africa is due to increases in parliamentary and ministerial positions for women under the new government. Lesotho holds its strong position thanks to its lack of gender gap in health and education services.
These advances for South Africa may come as a surprise to many who feared for women's empowerment in South Africa following the May election of President Jacob Zuma, a practicing polygamist and accused rapist.
The World Economic Forum reports that two thirds of countries surveyed have made reduction in their gender gaps since 2006. However, the United States fell four spots since last year, coming in at #31 on the list. It looks like the death of macho due to the global recession may not be occurring as quickly as some expected. In any case, the United States is not alone in its loss of gender equality; Germany, the United Kingdom and France also saw declines in their rankings since last year.
Unsurprisingly, the bottom of the list remained largely unchanged from last year with Yemen, Chad, Pakistan, Benin, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran continuing to boast the world's worst gender gaps.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
The Financial Times reports on a new cottage industry in Korea -- matchmaking services pairing South Korean men with women who defect from North Korea:
Defying the gloom among small businesses in South Korea, Mr Hong predicts a rosy future for his enterprise, run from a small office in the suburbs of Seoul. Driven by a haemorrhaging economy, defections from the authoritarian North are soaring, and the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are women. Of the 2,809 defections registered last year – up from 1,043 in 2001 – 2,197 were women.
In 2006 Mr Hong was the second South Korean to open a specialist agency finding husbands for them, but his niche market is exploding. The 39-year-old has identified 10 competitors, most of them established last year.
Mr Hong’s own match certainly lends credibility to his business. His wife, Kang Ok-shil, defected from North Korea in 2002 and has a crucial foothold in defectors’ social networks. They have named their agency Nam-nam-buk-kyo, an ancient adage meaning “the south’s got the boys, the north’s got the girls”.
Mrs Kang, a 41-year-old former electrical worker, says many North Korean women see South Korean men as less domineering. “North Korean men are more authoritarian. North Korean men have the perception that men are the sky and women are the ground,” she says, quoting a famous Korean aphorism.
South Korea’s unification ministry offers less romantic reasons for the disparity. The men in the North are trapped in military service, often for 10 years or more. Women become the breadwinners and are increasingly involved in cross-border trading, presenting opportunities to defect. Many women are also trafficked into prostitution and hostess bars.
While South Korea has a skyrocketing divorce rate, the company claims that almost none of the marriages they have arranged have broken up. They attribute this to the fact that “North Korean women are more persevering."
Amidst the continued debate and controversy surrounding South African world champion runner, Caster Semenya, South African officials have gone a bit overboard in their outrage about gender testing procedures used by IAAF. In regard to revoking Semenya's title, South African Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile stated earlier today:
"I think it would be the third world war. We will go to the highest levels in contesting such a decision. I think it would be totally unfair and totally unjust."
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