INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY – Middle East Perspectives

March 12, 2003

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY – Middle East Perspectives

Saturday March 8th was International Women’s Day. Formed in 1977 by the United Nations, International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to ponder on the progress made to expand women’s equality, to gauge the challenges facing women in modern society, to contemplate future steps to improve the status of women, and of course, to commemorate the gains made in these areas. The theme for 2003 was Women and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). World-Wide Women (WWW): Surfing the Digital Revolution. This theme encourages us to take a closer look at the impact of ICTs and, in particular, the Internet applications on women, and their uses as a tool for the empowerment of women and the promotion of women’s equality. [1]

As Athabasca University Students, we know first hand how important ICTs have become. Distance and the demands of a family are no longer issues for women wishing to return to school. With the click of a mouse an assignment can be submitted anytime day or night. The same thing goes when we are looking for a job. Companies now advertise on-line and accept applications by email. But how do ICTs fit in with International Women’s Day?

For starters, ICTs have helped women gain access to a wide range of up-to-date information that may not be available locally. Surfing the net can lead women to women’s services and organizations, as well as increase their awareness of women’s issues and educate a wide variety of people across the world about these issues. ICTs also break the isolation many women are faced with. Whether their isolation stems from living in a remote community or just from being a harried mother, virtual communities and on-line support groups provide a whole new world of information and comfort. Most importantly though, ICTs are helping women to mobilize and take action for social equality throughout the world.

North American women have come a long way since the early 20th century days of fighting for the vote and the right to enter male-dominated careers, yet the fight for the women of Iran is just beginning. Parvin Camphor remembers the days before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when women were free to attend university, hold high-level jobs and choose their dress. Since the Revolution women have been second- class citizens ruled with an iron fist by conservative males. The intensity of the Revolution and the suddenness with which it appeared “out of the blue” surprised many people both in Iran itself and in the rest of the world.

Before the revolution Shah, who to some was ruining Iran by trying to westernize it, ruled the country. When Khomeini overthrew Shah in 1979 and became supreme spiritual leader (Valy-e-Faqih) of Iran his views of women, which were in opposition to the Shah’s family laws of the 1960s, now came to affect millions of Iranian women. One of his first announcements as the leader of Iran was to call for all Iranian women to veil. Iranian women took to the streets in objection and his position was modified, calling for Iranian women to wear modest Islamic clothing in public; the full-length black veil was not the only expression of modest Islamic dress for women. Many women chose instead to wear a scarf and long overcoat. The punishments for not wearing proper dress are severe. Parvin tells of guards in the streets whose only purpose is to watch for improperly dressed women; even a hair showing can land a woman in jail.

As the Islamic Republic established itself in Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s, gender relations took center stage. Numerous public spaces were segregated. Women were to use different areas at the beach, and sit in different areas of the university lecture hall. Women were prohibited from being judges and other professional areas were closed to them. The legal age of marriage for women was lowered to 13; their rights to divorce were drastically limited. An Iranian woman must receive written permission from her father (if single) or husband (if married) in order to leave the country. Parvin, a Canadian since 1977, also tells of having to obtain written permission from her Canadian husband when she returned to Iran to visit relatives a few years ago. She also needed to obtain written permission from him in order to return to Canada.

If the Shah regime had expressed a vision of Iranian women as being modern and Western, then the Islamic Republic wanted desperately to undo that process. In the 1997 Presidential elections, women played a big role in bringing President Khatami into power. He ran on a platform calling for a more liberal stance on women’s issues.[2] Unfortunately, the power system in Iran is established in such a way that the President has only limited power. The head of the legislative branch and the head of the judiciary do not share President Khatami’s views on social reforms. Nevertheless, Iranian women will continue to fight for equality with their male counterparts. It remains to be seen how the status of women will finally be settled in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This oppression of women is prevalent in other middle-east countries as well; the plight of the Afghanistan women under the Taliban is one of the more heard about stories. Their oppression is double that of Iranian women. Since the Taliban has taken over women are forced to wear burquas, full-body coverings with a slit for the eyes. Beating, amputations and executions are common punishments for swaying from the strict Islamic rule of the Taliban. Girls are only sent to school long enough to learn to read the Qu’ran. Women are permitted from going to the well to obtain water for fear that they may have the opportunity to talk to other women and “conspire” against the Taliban. And without a male accompaniment women are also prohibited from being in public. To learn more about the plight of the Afghani women visit the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan at

The cause of these middle-eastern women’s misery lies in their cultural practices, not Islam. In some Muslim societies, women are oppressed by backward ethnic customs, which are often justified in terms of Islam. For example, while Islam undeniably goes against female circumcision, this brutality is practiced in Sudan, Algeria, and Egypt in the name of Islam. This rite is actually an African tribal custom. While Islam demands that women must choose their own husbands, forced marriages are commonplace amongst the Muslims in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It is important to remember that the ancestors of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were Hindus. These people mix bits of Hinduism with Islam and label it Islam. Governments are doing the same things, rewriting or reinterpreting the laws of Islam to coincide with their political agendas.

For Canadians, International Women’s Day should serve as a reminder to all that the fight to end the oppression of the world’s women is far from over. Though the majority of the world is rapidly coming to accept women as equals to men, the status of equality between men and women in middle-eastern countries still has a long way to go. The dinners, rallies, and events held in honour of International Women’s Day across the world all strove to show that women are human beings, and as such should demand freedom of thought, dress, marriage, education, and employment. ICTs are enabling women to reach out, tell their stories, gain support and learn of a different way of life. Equality and basic human rights should not need to be fought for.

1 Taken from the Government of Canada Status on Women of Canada Fact Sheet 2003.

Sandra Moore is an AUSU councillor, the head of the groups and clubs committee, a mother of two, and a full time AU psychology major. Somehow she finds time to also write for The voice.

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