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Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Take on Boko Haram

 

"Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated."

- Ayaan Hirsi Ali


In case you missed it, please take a moment to read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's recent article on Boko Haram, which was first published in The Wall Street Journal.

Though many people want to deny it, and despite all the achievements of the women's movement, violence against women is on the increase today -- including here in the United States.  It's happening because, in the name of culture or religion, practices like honor killing, forced marriage and female genital mutilation are going unpunished.  The AHA Foundation exists to change that, and in doing so, to save innocent women and girls from terrible pain and suffering.

We depend on the generosity of individual donors to do our life-saving work.  Please consider supporting our work by donating today.

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Since the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria last month, the meaning of Boko Haram—the name used by the terrorist group that seized the girls—has become more widely known. The translation from the Hausa language is usually given in English-language media as "Western Education Is Forbidden," though "Non-Muslim Teaching Is Forbidden" might be more accurate.

But little attention has been paid to the group's formal Arabic name: Jam'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-da'wa wal-Jihad. That roughly translates as "The Fellowship of the People of the Tradition for Preaching and Holy War." That's a lot less catchy than Boko Haram but significantly more revealing about the group and its mission. Far from being an aberration among Islamist terror groups, as some observers suggest, Boko Haram in its goals and methods is in fact all too representative.

The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists' mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai—as she rode a school bus home in 2012—because she advocated girls' education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.

How to explain this phenomenon to baffled Westerners, who these days seem more eager to smear the critics of jihadism as "Islamophobes" than to stand up for women's most basic rights? Where are the Muslim college-student organizations denouncing Boko Haram? Where is the outrage during Friday prayers? These girls' lives deserve more than a Twitter hashtag protest.

Organizations like Boko Haram do not arise in isolation. The men who establish Islamist groups, whether in Africa (Nigeria, Somalia, Mali), Southwest Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan), or even Europe (U.K., Spain and the Netherlands), are members of long-established Muslim communities, most of whose members are happy to lead peaceful lives. To understand why the jihadists are flourishing, you need to understand the dynamics within those communities.

So, imagine an angry young man in any Muslim community anywhere in the world. Imagine him trying to establish an association of men dedicated to the practice of the Sunnah (the tradition of guidance from the Prophet Muhammad ). Much of the young man's preaching will address the place of women. He will recommend that girls and women be kept indoors and covered from head to toe if they are to venture outside. He will also condemn the permissiveness of Western society.

What kind of response will he meet? In the U.S. and in Europe, some moderate Muslims might quietly draw him to the attention of authorities. Women might voice concerns about the attacks on their freedoms. But in other parts of the world, where law and order are lacking, such young men and their extremist messages thrive.

Where governments are weak, corrupt or nonexistent, the message of Boko Haram and its counterparts is especially compelling. Not implausibly, they can blame poverty on official corruption and offer as an antidote the pure principles of the Prophet. And in these countries, women are more vulnerable and their options are fewer.

But why does our imaginary young zealot turn to violence? At first, he can count on some admiration for his fundamentalist message within the community where he starts out. He might encounter opposition from established Muslim leaders who feel threatened by him. But he perseveres because perseverance in the Sunnah is one of the most important keys to heaven. As he plods on from door to door, he gradually acquires a following. There comes a point when his following is as large as that of the Muslim community's established leaders. That's when the showdown happens—and the argument for "holy war" suddenly makes sense to him.

The history of Boko Haram has followed precisely this script. The group was founded in 2002 by a young Islamist called Mohammed Yusuf, who started out preaching in a Muslim community in the Borno state of northern Nigeria. He set up an educational complex, including a mosque and an Islamic school. For seven years, mostly poor families flocked to hear his message. But in 2009, the Nigerian government investigated Boko Haram and ultimately arrested several members, including Yusuf himself. The crackdown sparked violence that left about 700 dead. Yusuf soon died in prison—the government said he was killed while trying to escape—but the seeds had been planted. Under one of Yusuf's lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram turned to jihad.

In 2011, Boko Haram launched its first terror attack in Borno. Four people were killed, and from then on violence became an integral part, if not the central part, of its mission. The recent kidnappings—11 more girls were abducted by Boko Haram on Sunday—join a litany of outrages, including multiple car bombings and the murder of 59 schoolboys in February. On Monday, as if to demonstrate its growing power, Boko Haram launched a 12-hour attack in the city of Gamboru Ngala, firing into market crowds, setting houses aflame and shooting down residents who ran from the burning buildings. Hundreds were killed.

I am often told that the average Muslim wholeheartedly rejects the use of violence and terror, does not share the radicals' belief that a degenerate and corrupt Western culture needs to be replaced with an Islamic one, and abhors the denigration of women's most basic rights. Well, it is time for those peace-loving Muslims to do more, much more, to resist those in their midst who engage in this type of proselytizing before they proceed to the phase of holy war.

It is also time for Western liberals to wake up. If they choose to regard Boko Haram as an aberration, they do so at their peril. The kidnapping of these schoolgirls is not an isolated tragedy; their fate reflects a new wave of jihadism that extends far beyond Nigeria and poses a mortal threat to the rights of women and girls. If my pointing this out offends some people more than the odious acts of Boko Haram, then so be it.


Breakthrough: The UK Prosecutes Its First FGM Cases

 

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Thirty years after first banning the practice, the UK announced last month that it will prosecute its first cases of female genital mutilation (FGM). The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated last week that Dr. Dhanuson Dharmasena will be tried for performing FGM on a patient and Hasan Mohamed will be tried for aiding him. This is a huge breakthrough in the UK, as no case has ever been brought to trial.

According to the statement given by CPS, the crime occurred in December 2012, when a patient of Dr. Dharmasena’s was giving birth. The patient had faced FGM prior, and post-birth, the physician restored the FGM by sewing back up most of her vaginal opening. He was allegedly aided and encouraged by Mohamed.

FGM has been outlawed in the UK since 1985. In 2003, the UK updated the law to criminalize FGM performed on any UK citizen or resident in any country. This was passed in response to the increasingly popular practice of “vacation cutting,” when girls are sent to their home countries to undergo FGM, usually during school vacations. The new law also increased the maximum penalty from five to fourteen years.[1]

Compared to the UK, France has prosecuted a relatively high number of cases: twenty-nine trials have led to 100 convictions in the past three decades.[2] However, doctors in France perform compulsory physical exams, which is a controversial practice. Still, advocates say the occurrence of FGM in France has dropped dramatically as a result of the physical exams as well as educational campaigns in communities where FGM is prevalent.[3]

The US has yet to prosecute a single FGM case despite a federal law banning the practice. In January 2013, the federal FGM law was amended by the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act, which prohibits knowingly transporting a girl out of the country for the purpose of undergoing FGM. The Act was designed to address the problem of “vacation cutting”, in which girls living in the United States are taken to their parents’ country of origin (typically during school breaks) to undergo the procedure.

Under the new federal law, anyone found guilty of doing so may be sentenced to up to five years in prison. The AHA Foundation’s founder, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and our Executive Director specifically consulted with Representative Crowley (NY), a key proponent of the bill, on the serious problem of “vacation cutting.” We lent our support for the amended language contained in the new bill.

Twenty-one individual states also specifically ban the practice. The AHA Foundation has undertaken a campaign to encourage state legislators in the remaining 29 states to pass criminal prohibitions against FGM. We have written model FGM state legislation and have reached out to numerous state legislators to encourage them to introduce it with considerable success:

  • In February 2012, New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg introduced our model FGM legislation, which was unanimously passed in the State Senate.  We continue to reach out to members of the Assembly committee on Women and Children to encourage them to bring this bill up for a vote.

  • The AHA Foundation worked with Louisiana state legislators to include similar “vacation cutting” provisions recently added to the federal law.  In May of 2012, Governor Jindal signed into law a bill criminalizing FGM in the state of Louisiana. The law went into effect August 1, 2012.

  • In February of 2013, we provided written testimony in support of a proposed FGM bill in Kansas, which includes an extra-territoriality component and other provisions contained in our model legislation.  The Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on March 1 and was unanimously passed by the Senate on March 27th.  It was signed into law by Governor Brownback on April 10, 2013.

  • The AHA Foundation is working with Representative Thomas Murt to enact parallel legislation in Pennsylvania, which has no specific law banning the practice.  On March 19, 2013, Rep. Murt introduced an FGM bill in the Pennsylvania House.  After consulting with the AHA Foundation, the bill included the language of “vacation cutting.”  We continue to work with lawmakers to ensure that this law is enacted.

The UK case exemplifies the difficulties facing governments and law enforcement agencies when it comes to prosecuting such a crime. In the announcement of the prosecutions, CPS also explained that it had reviewed several other FGM cases brought to its attention but could not prosecute due to lack of evidence. In another case, a man had called an FGM helpline, confused as to its nature, and asked for help getting his two daughters cut. He could not be prosecuted because FGM must be committed before it can be prosecuted.

In explaining the lack of convictions, some advocates point to the fact that it is difficult for medical professionals to determine when a girl was cut, which means it could be argued in court that the FGM occurred before the victim entered the UK or was a legal UK resident. These difficulties deter prosecuting authorities from taking cases to court.

In some instances, individuals who are in a position to help girls at risk or who have undergone the procedure are hesitant to report FGM because they feel that it is a “cultural” practice that must be respected by outsiders. Girls who have gone through FGM are often reluctant to report the crime themselves. Whether it is the result of fear of retribution, out of loyalty to their family, or simply because they don’t know that help is available to them, they often do not come forward themselves to report the crime or name the perpetrators.

Despite the dearth of prosecutions and convictions for these heinous crimes in both the UK and the US, laws banning the practice of FGM are important. They send a strong message that these abusive practices are not acceptable, are a public health crisis, and will not be tolerated. The laws give reluctant parents who are facing pressure from family members an excuse as to why they are not able to cut their daughters. Girls and women facing FGM or who undergo the procedure are given the message that they can ask for help, and gives them the courage to speak out, raising awareness that this traumatic practice continues.

At the AHA Foundation, we closely follow news of the prosecutions in the UK and around the world with the hope that justice prevails. We are optimistic that the publicity this trial garners will raise awareness that FGM is illegal yet still happening in the UK, as it is in the US, perhaps saving girls who would have otherwise been forced to undergo FGM from facing this clandestine torture.



[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/10713683/Doctor-becomes-first-person-in-Britain-charged-with-performing-a-Female-Genital-Mutilation-procedure.html

[2] http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/diane-abott-calls-for-mandatory-checks-on-schoolgirls-to-secure-prosecutions-for-fgm-9184171.html

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/the-french-way-a-better-approach-to-fighting-fgm-9006369.html


Moral Courage and a Love Marriage

 

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“As a child, I was told that a good Afghan girl does not do anything that will bring shame and dishonor to her family, and she does not, under any circumstances, marry outside her culture and faith.”  Naheed Elyasi is an Afghan-American woman who had to determine what was more important: marrying an Afghani to maintain her family’s honor, or following her heart and marrying for love. She shares her story in Irshad Manji’s Moral Courage project.

Naheed’s family immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up navigating both her Afghan and American identities. She says she was always headstrong and questioned her family’s traditions and beliefs. Things came to a head, however, when she was an adult and thinking about marriage. Her parents expected her to marry a Muslim of Afghan or Middle Eastern heritage, but she simply couldn’t force herself to fall in love with any of the men she dated and of whom her parents approved. Her upbringing was so ingrained in her that she didn’t dare bring shame or dishonor to her family by dating anyone else.

Naheed grew up in a world where her reputation wasn’t only about her, but reflected upon her entire family. Manji points out that “The culture of honor puts a disproportionate burden on women to do nothing that could merely be interpreted as transgressing social norms…one of those norms is to maintain cultural homogeneity through marriage.”

Ultimately, Naheed decided that “Being in a relationship or a marriage is the most important and intimate decision you can make for yourself, and I can’t imagine letting anyone else make that choice for me.” When she told her parents that she was in a relationship with Richard, an African-American divorcee with a teenaged son, they stopped speaking to her for several years. Now, happily, they have met and accepted Naheed’s husband, Richard. She says, “When I finally let go…to live my life, whether they accepted it or not, they changed.”

Naheed’s story illustrates how difficult it can be to escape cultural notions of honor, especially for young women. However, it also shows the fulfillment that can be gained from making one’s own decisions; in her case, she eventually won the acceptance of her parents when they saw that she was in a respectful and loving relationship. It is never easy to give up one’s family and community, but Naheed says that her years spent in the relationship she chose for herself, even those where she was estranged from her parents, have been the best of her life.

Many young women growing up in similar familes will understand Naheed’s reluctance to reject what her parents wanted for her because it can be tantamount to a rejection of the family as a whole. For many years, the idea of looking beyond the Muslim community for a partner was anathema to Naheed because of the rift it would cause with her parents. Though she went through many years of pain and estrangement, she knew that she had to find love on her own terms. It is by no means an easy choice to make, but Naheed did what was right for her and is happier because of it.

Lessons from the Shafia Mass Honor Killing

 

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Gerard Laarhuis, Assistant Crown Attorney, Ontario, discusses the mass honor killing of four members of the Shafia family at the AHA Foundation's Third Annual Conference on Honor Violence, Forced Marriage, and Female Genital Mutilation.

During the AHA Foundation’s Third Annual Conference on Honor Violence, Forced Marriage, and Female Genital Mutilation, held in December of 2013 in New York City, an impressive host of speakers engaged a large crowd of activists, teachers, doctors, academics, and lawyers. The keynote presentation was “Profile of A (Mass) Honor Killing: The Shafia Family Murders,” given by Gerard Laarhuis, Assistant Crown Attorney in Ontario, Canada.

Laarhuis led the Shafia murder case, the first successful prosecution of a multi-victim honor killing in North America. In 2009, Mohammed and Tooba Shafia, along with their son Hamed, conspired to and killed their three daughters Zainab (19), Sahar (17), and Geeti (13), as well as Mohammed’s polygamist first wife, Rona (50). (The Shafias have three other living children.)

During Laarhuis’ presentation, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of this case was the fear and oppression the Shafia children lived under in the months leading up to their deaths, and presumably, for much of their lives. Rona was treated as a servant and second-class citizen in the family, even though she raised the children as her own. In her diary and in messages to family members, she repeatedly mentioned fearing for her life at the hands of Tooba and Mohamed. She sent photos of herself to her family back home because the photos of her that had been around the house kept disappearing; she thought she might be killed and wanted there to be a record of her existence.

Zainab, the oldest, had run away to a shelter once before due to the abuse at home. Sahar had coached her boyfriend to pretend he was dating one of her friends if her brother Hamed were to catch them together. Geeti reported that her father said he was going to kill her and her sisters on many occasions. It is hard to imagine the extreme punishment these women faced at the hands of not only their parents, but their brother too. In the ensuing investigation of the murders, the other three children indicated that they knew their parents were responsible for the deaths of their family members and knew the motivation for the homicides. There was no denying that this was an honor-based crime and that the Shafias wholeheartedly believed it an act necessitated by the behavior of the victims.

Laarhuis’ presentation and the reporting around the case have underscored the need for comprehensive training and guidelines for authorities dealing with potential honor violence situations. Tragically, there were many signs that Zainab, Sahar, and Geeti were in a dangerous situation well before their murders. The sisters told authorities that they feared the violence of their parents and brother. Sahar and Geeti began failing in school, losing extreme amounts of weight, acting out, and dressing in a manner that was deemed "promiscuous." Zainab ran away and briefly married her boyfriend in an attempt to get out of her father’s home. Her family forced her to immediately annul the marriage.

Despite evidence of abuse and reports to the proper authorities, it is in fact very common for victims of honor violence to recant their accounts under pressure from their families. In the case of the Shafia sisters, at one point, the authorities interviewed them in front of their parents, which, unsurprisingly, caused them to stop talking. Soon after, Sahar attempted suicide and was interviewed by a caseworker. She initially described how terrified she was of her brother, but when she was informed that her allegations would be reported to her parents, she stopped cooperating with the investigation. These multiple warnings that the Shafia girls were being abused and threatened went unaddressed, and a few months later, they were dead.

In January 2012, Mohammed, Tooba, and Hamed Shafia were convicted of the four murders and sentenced to life in prison. Their case made headlines throughout Canada and the rest of the world. This case illustrates the importance of education, awareness, and training for authorities who may interact with victims of honor violence. There is no excuse for not intervening sooner in their case, when there were numerous signs that things in the Shafia household were heading toward a dangerous and violent end. If we are able to recognize and address honor violence before it escalates to an honor killing, we may be able to save the lives of women and girls like the Shafias.  

The training of law enforcement professionals, child protective services and other service providers is a top priority for the AHA Foundation. We have already trained thousands of professionals on the best practices for identifying and handling cases of honor violence. Armed with this knowledge, these professionals are better equipped to appropriately address situations of honor violence, before it is too late.

Meet Kamala Khan

 

Kamala Khan

Image via Marvel.com

There’s a new superhero in town, and she’s not your typical white guy in a cape. The newest addition to the Marvel Comics family is Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl from Jersey City. She discovers that she is a polymorph—a shapeshifter—and takes on the identity of Ms. Marvel. But evil villains aren’t the only challenges facing the new Ms. Marvel. Not only will she be negotiating the tricky web of high school, teenaged Kamala also has to deal with her conservative Muslim family.

In a news release, Marvel said, “Like a lot of children of immigrants, she feels torn between two worlds: the family she loves, but which drives her crazy, and her peers, who don’t really understand what her home life is like.”

When we heard about Kamala, we were thrilled to see some diversity coming to the world of comic books, which have historically featured superheroes that are white, straight, and male. Marvel, no doubt, hopes that having a character like Kamala will attract new readers and spark interest in the growing diversity of its characters. In fact, they already have several Muslim superheroes as well as characters that are black, Latino, or gay. But do Kamala’s superpowers make her any more equipped to reconcile her conservative Muslim background with her American lifestyle?

Introducing a character meant to represent a specific group always runs the risk of tokenism, and one worry is that Kamala and her family will become caricatures of Muslims in America. In the words of series editor Sana Amanat, “Her brother is extremely conservative. Her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant. Her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.” But just because this character speaks to a specific group of people doesn’t mean she speaks for that group of people. If not handled well, her home life might turn readers off.

This is a setup we’ve seen before in TV, movies, and books: a conservative family trying to maintain their values while their headstrong child tries to assert her independence. We’re interested to see what shape the conflict in Kamala’s life takes. Will Kamala face the same kinds of dilemmas that some of her peers grapple with and if so, how will she choose to handle them? Will her family’s concern for her happiness and for the greater good of the family conflict with her independent Western lifestyle? Will they support any decisions she makes for herself, and if not, how might they oppose her? Will they fixate on how she is acting too American and not adhering to their more conservative cultural ways? Will her mother punish her for wearing Western style clothing and makeup or for talking to boys? If she chooses not to be married young, will her decision be supported by her family, or will they say she is dishonoring them? We’re not sure Marvel Comics will delve too deeply into the critical subjects of honor violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation addressed by the AHA Foundation, but we hope that Kamala can open a dialogue about some of them.  If the conflicts with her family don’t accurately reflect what it is like to grow up torn between two cultures, this Ms. Marvel might be short-lived.

Many girls whose lives are similar to Kamala’s will hopefully be reading these comics and will see themselves in her. “This story isn’t about what it means to be a Muslim, Pakistani or American,” says Amanat. “Those are just cultural touchstones that reflect the ever changing world we live in today. This is ultimately a tale about what it means to be young, lost amidst the expectations bestowed upon you, and what happens when you get to choose.” That’s something her readers will definitely be able to relate to, even if not everyone has to make the same choices. So however Kamala’s story unfolds and whichever bad guys she fights, it’s how she’ll solve the more human problems that will make her a real superhero.

New Statistics on Child Marriage Around the World

 

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The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Girls Not Brides (GNB) have examined the practice of child marriage -- a form of forced marriage -- around the world and found that 70 million young girls are currently married. This year, approximately 14 million child brides will be married off as children (click here for the full  ICRW-GNB pamphlet). This is a devastating number, and yet there is some hope on the horizon.  The scourge of child marriage (and the broader problem of forced marriage) has begun to attract the attention of the international community, national governments, and a host of advocacy organizations dedicated to combating the practice.  Together, they have begun to develop concrete strategies to combat the practice of child marriage. 

The ICRW and Girls Not Brides have articulated five specific strategies to reduce the incidence of child marriage in the developing world: empower girls with information, educate parents and the community, enhance access to education, provide economic support, and encourage legislation penalizing child marriage.  These strategies may not seem groundbreaking, but they are changing the way the world thinks about child marriage.  By focusing on the structural forces that perpetuate child marriage and by educating individuals on the harms of early marriage – not just to the individual, but to society at large -- ICRW-GNB is providing girls, boys, men and women with the information and tools needed to end child marriage in their own communities. 

While the AHA Foundation’s mandate focuses on instances of forced marriage in the United States (as well as situations where girls from the United States are taken overseas for a forced marriage), we are deeply concerned with the global phenomenon of forced and early marriage.  In 2010 and 2012, the United States Congress passed legislation that would authorize funding for international programs that would prevent child marriage and increase access to education for girls. This legislation passed with full bipartisan support. Given the current gridlock in Washington, it is heartening to know that legislators can come together to try and end this horrific practice. The AHA Foundation strongly encourages the continued funding of programs that address the root causes of forced and early marriage, and is proud to be a part of the network of organizations working towards a solution. 

Fighting Sudan's Legitimized Honor Violence

 

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Amira Osman Hamed is facing forty lashes for not wearing a headscarf similar to the one in this image.

Amira Osman Hamed is a Sudanese woman facing a punishment of forty lashes for not wearing a headscarf in public. Her punishment, which was supposed to take place this last week, has been postponed to November 4 following an appeal by her lawyers.

Amira is a civil engineer and a women’s rights activist. On August 27, she was arrested for not wearing a hijab, which violated the Sudanese penal code. The code states, “Whoever does in a public place an indecent act or an act contrary to public morals or wears an obscene outfit or contrary to public morals or causing an annoyance to public feelings shall be punished with flogging which may not exceed 40 lashes or with fine or with both.” Amira intends to submit to the punishment as a protest against this unjust law. She follows in the footsteps of journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein, who was arrested for wearing pants in 2009. (Her fine was paid against her wishes; she too wanted to receive the flogging in order to protest the law and draw international attention.)[i]

This punishment is legally-sanctioned honor violence and an example of how honor-based systems affect people’s lives in many societies. Many of Sudan’s laws are based on punishing violations of honor and propriety and require citizens to adhere to strict cultural and religious norms. The women of Sudan, a notoriously autocratic state, additionally face the systemic honor violence of the legal code and are more or less powerless to defend themselves. Occasionally, activists like Amira garner attention from the international community and shed light on this inequitable system.

Much of Sudan’s penal code is based on Sharia law, but it is enforced unevenly. In many cases, punishments like floggings occur on the spot.[ii] The law in question—which falls under “Offenses against Honor, Reputation, and Public Morals” in the penal code—is intentionally vague. It does not define the crime and thus allows police officers complete discretion in determining what is “obscene” or “contrary to public morals.” Sudan’s police and military often use these cases to make an example of people to elicit fear and to prevent locals from exercising their civil liberties. In practice, the law induces explicit conformity and restricts women from moving about freely in their communities.

Contrary to common belief, the Koran does not require women to wear the hijab, an article of clothing that actually predates Islam.[iii] But many people—from the Sudanese government to individuals—insist that if a woman does not cover herself and dress modestly, as with a hijab, she is violating the tenets of Islam and can be ruthlessly punished.  

Regardless of the belief system behind this law, flogging is inarguably a violation of human rights (and is banned by the Organization of African Unity, of which Sudan is a member). Forty lashes is an inhumane punishment by any measure. Honor violence in any form is a human rights violation, and Amira is incredibly brave for challenging this law—we only hope she doesn’t have to go through with it.

*Take action to support Amira’s cause by writing to the Sudanese Minister of Justice through Amnesty International.

 


[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/10/woman-sudan-hijab-flogging_n_3894950.html

[ii] http://www.thedailybeast.com/witw/articles/2013/09/26/sudanese-woman-wants-her-flogging-sentence-to-make-a-point-about-human-rights-in-her-country.html

[iii] http://edition.cnn.com/2009/US/08/12/generation.islam.hijab/

Wedding Season: Forced Marriage in the U.S.

 

Bride

Fall is in the air and wedding season is drawing to a close. You may have spent the summer watching friends and family exchange vows, but forced marriage and arranged marriage have been in the news recently as well. Though the terms may sound interchangeable, arranged marriage and forced marriage describe vastly different situations. In many cultures, it is customary for families to arrange meetings between their children in the hopes of fostering a voluntary relationship that will lead to a marriage. In such situations, while the families arrange the initial meetings and a marriage is encouraged, the ultimate decision regarding whether to marry remains with the couple and both parties consent. A situation that begins as an arranged marriage can also become a forced marriage, sometimes without the family even realizing that their encouragement to marry a particular person has crossed the line to become a forced marriage. In other cases, the forced marriage can be a much more sinister story all throughout.

In Indianapolis recently, Lakhvir Singh was convicted of a number of crimes for abusing his wife, who came to the United States from India on the premise of visiting her brother. When she arrived, her mother informed her she was to be married to Singh, whom she’d never met. A hellish few months ensued, in which she was raped, beaten, verbally abused, forced to do domestic chores and unable to leave the house. The police intervened only when she was able to sneak a phone call to her brother to tell him how she was suffering. This is an obvious example of a forced marriage. The bride (whose name has not been released in order to protect her identity) was brought to the United States on false pretenses, was not informed of the marriage until it was already arranged, and never gave her consent. She was then left isolated from friends and family in a foreign country where she did not speak the language. 

In a contrasting perspective, Slate ran a piece recently about the pros and cons of what the author refers to as her own arranged marriage. Debie Thomas describes selecting her husband from among other suitors after meeting each of them for only a few minutes. While she was tempted to reject her parents’ desire that she marry someone of their choosing, she ultimately felt she couldn’t: “I knew my arranged marriage was set in stone. Saying "no" (though I still longed to) was not an option—the stakes in our honor-and-shame-based family were too high.” The pressure to marry before she was ready, the threat of shaming her entire family if she refused a suitor they chose, the emphasis on “honor” and maintaining her family’s standing in the community: all of these factors indicate a forced marriage. As Thomas herself acknowledges: “He and I picked each other out of the proposals our families offered us…But what can "choice" mean in such restrictive circumstances?”

Seventeen years into her marriage, Thomas and her husband consider whether their incompatibility means they should divorce—an indication that her family and community may be more lenient about the marriage now, or that she is better positioned to assert her independence now than as a 22-year-old. She refers to her husband as a partner and a good father to their children; she was not raped or abused like Singh’s wife. And while she was forced, she was not tricked into marriage, as in many other cases.  Indeed, it is possible that her family never even realized that their behavior and the pressure they placed on Thomas amounted to coercion.

Despite the fact that Thomas’s experience has been far different from the young woman in Indianapolis, both are cases of forced marriage. And, while the two women come from different cultural backgrounds, both cases exemplify the cultural expectations of honor and duty that underlie both forced and arranged marriages. 

The two cases also highlight the sometimes hazy line between forced and arranged marriages, particularly where families are heavily involved in the matchmaking process. Nevertheless, there is an important distinction between arranged and forced marriage, and that is the freedom for the individual to consent to or refuse the marriage. As we at the AHA Foundation say, one party’s “yes” to a marriage is only as good as his or her ability to say “no.” There may be a gray line that makes it hard to distinguish to a family member at what point their influence, however well-intentioned, becomes coercion. Different as they are, these cases clearly illustrate two of the many iterations of forced marriage.

FGM is Not Female Circumcision, and Other Thoughts on Terminology

 

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In our advocacy and awareness-raising efforts, the AHA Foundation uses the term female genital mutilation (“FGM”), but you have likely heard other names and terms for this procedure.  Truth be told, there is a lot of terminology floating around and while we believe FGM to be the most accurate term, other organizations and groups define the practice in different ways. Therefore, we thought it would be helpful to present a brief glossary and history of different terminology in order to explain our belief that FGM is both the most accurate and most effective term to describe what has been done to the approximately 140 million girls around the world living with its consequences.

The World Health Organization, among many other groups, uses and promotes the use of the term “FGM.” Specifically, it breaks down FGM into four distinct categories.

  • Type I: clitoridectomy or clitoral circumcision. Some or all of the clitoris is removed. (Removing only the prepuce of the clitoris is an extremely rare form of clitoridectomy and is the closest physical parallel to a male circumcision.)

  • Type II: excision, or the removal of the labia minora and/or majora.

  • Type III: infibulation, the narrowing of the vaginal opening by sewing together either the inner or outer labia, leaving only a small opening for menstruation and urine. 

  • Type IV: any other non-medical procedure that alters female genitalia. This can include pricking, scarring, cauterizing, or cutting any part of the genitalia.

The one thing that all of these versions of FGM have in common is that they serve no medical purpose and have the potential to inflict serious harms both physical and psychological. In societies that practice FGM in any of its forms, the procedure is primarily a social convention.  FGM is not medically necessary or religiously prescribed. Whether it is seen as marking the transition from girlhood to womanhood, symbolically protecting a woman’s honor, restraining her sexual urges, or increasing her chances of finding a husband, FGM is rooted in societal notions of honor and tradition. Contrary to what many people believe, no major religion demands FGM of its followers.

A number of organizations and advocacy groups refer to the procedure as “female genital cutting”, or “FGM/C” to encompass both terms. The argument for “cutting” instead of “mutilation” primarily hinges on the belief that mutilation implies malicious intent on the part of parents or the community, or is otherwise demeaning or insensitive to the cultural particularities of any group that performs FGM. Some argue that referring to it as cutting is a less provocative and more balanced term. Particularly when speaking with those who have undergone the procedure themselves or in reaching out to affected communities, we do see the value in using the more neutral terminology of “cutting” rather than “mutilation”, but otherwise believe it important to state clearly that the procedure is a form of abuse.

The argument for referring to FGM as “female circumcision” is blatantly off-base. Female circumcision was the popular term until approximately the 1980s, when FGM and FGC came into usage. As mentioned above, to perform a procedure that parallels male circumcision, one would only remove the prepuce of the clitoris, something that is hardly ever done. (The prepuce is the “hood” or fold of skin that surrounds the clitoris and has no impact on sexual arousal or pleasure.) In nearly all cases, at minimum, either part or all of the clitoris, labia minora, labia majora is removed. To use the term “circumcision” to refer to what is happening to these girls minimizes the brutality of the procedure and ignores the fact that is an act of violence.

The words we use have a vast impact on how people understand and interpret these issues. The AHA Foundation is working tirelessly to strengthen legislation and increase the penalties for performing FGM in the United States. To refer to FGM as circumcision, or to fall into the trap of cultural relativism that says we cannot judge cultural practices we don’t participate in, is to ignore the very real trauma that girls face as a result of FGM. FGM is not a sensationalist term, it is a phrase that reflects the reality and the horror of the practice—and, we hope, one that draws attention to the need to end it.

Positive News in the Fight Against Female Genital Mutilation

 

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On Monday, July 22nd, UNICEF released its report on the state of female genital mutilation (“FGM”) around the world. While FGM remains a widespread problem, there are stories of progress and hope among the bleak statistics that 30 million girls will be subjected to FGM in the next decade.

One bright spot is the story of Bogaletch Gebre, her sister Firkte, and their organization, KMG-Ethiopia, which was detailed in the online version of the New York Times on July 17th. Gebre underwent FGM at the age of twelve and nearly died as a result.   Every other girl in her village underwent the same brutal procedure. Once she recovered, Gebre was eligible for marriage. That’s the way it had always been, and it seemed impossible that things would ever change.

Today, KMG-Ethiopia uses a process called “community conversations” to help families understand the harmful consequences of FGM, and to try to change ideas about what makes a young woman a respected member of the community. Gebre knew that outsiders condemning the practice wasn’t going to change people’s minds, so she began organizing conversations that involved everyone in the community—young and old, male and female. These conversations have led to a dramatic shift in community perceptions of FGM, and an incredible decrease in the number of girls being subjected to FGM, The “community conversations” model is highly effective for several reasons:

  • The whole community took part in the conversation about FGM. KMG-Ethiopia recognized that FGM was linked to notions of honor and status in the community, and sought to challenge those assumptions.  Since FGM served as a prerequisite to marriage, it was crucial for men as well as women to understand the dangers of FGM and the absence of any real justification for the procedure.  Once people began questioning the linkage between FGM and notions of marriageability and honor, the practice began losing support. 

  • The community understood the health dangers of FGM, and disentangled it from their religious beliefs.  Community members looked to the Koran or the Bible and realized that FGM was not religiously mandated, as many believed. And when parents understood the health dangers that their daughters faced as a result of FGM, they were more likely to question its necessity.

  • Parents saw alternatives to FGM for their daughters. As the community began thinking about FGM in a new light, it released the pressure on parents to cut their daughters for the sake of their future status in the community. Clearly, parents were not practicing FGM to intentionally harm their daughters, but to ensure they had marriage prospects. Now there is pressure not to perform FGM—many parents feel that they will be shunned and their daughters won’t find husbands if they go through with it.

The most inspiring part about KMG-Ethiopia’s work is that it has changed the minds of a community within the space of a generation.  This is a remarkable accomplishment and an important reminder that violent traditions such as FGM are never wholly intractable.  We are hopeful that, with a thoughtful approach and the broad participation of entire communities, this harmful practice can be eradicated in our lifetime.

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