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women’s rights » Women's Courage

Posts Tagged ‘women’s rights’

The Role of the Rural Development Scheme (RDS) in the Development of Women Entrepreneurship Under Islamic Microfinance

March 7th, 2011

Looking at the RDS as a case study in the development of women entrepreneurship in Bangladesh by means of Islamic Microfinance, we can analyze the role of the burgeoning industry in poverty alleviation, and women empowerment in particular. The RDS is a provider of Microfinance services in Bangladesh, following the rules set by the Islamic Shari’ah. The RDS caters to the investment needs of the agriculture and rural sector; its target market segment include destitute women and distressed people. The RDS is an investment project that conforms to social responsibility fort he downtrodden in the rural areas as its prime priority. It uses depositors’ funds in interest-free ways in rural areas where downtrodden people are susceptible to interest-based groups.

90 per cent of the RDS’ customers are women; the project is currently being operated in about 2200 villages in 45 districts through 21 branches, with a recovery rate of approximately 99.7 per cent.

The cardinal principle of the Scheme is the ‘Group Approach’, Allah loves those ‘who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation’ (Al-Quran 42:38). For all decision-making activities, this mutual consultation is given high priority. The scheme works with each member of the group guaranteeing other members’ investments, and once the investment is approved, the investment (along with a percentage of the profit earned by the business) needs to be paid back by the client in 45 equal weekly installments.

This model has worked really well in terms of the scheme serving as a great source of empowerment for its women customers (who are also the majority of its borrowers). Since the establishment of the RDS, there has been a positive impact on women’s income, decision-making skills, and in reducing overall gender disparity in Bangladesh. Moreover, the group approach adopted by the RDS works really well with women because women in general find it easier to identify with organizations that essentially reflect feminine qualities such as relationships, interdependence and cooperation. An article written by Mahmood Ahmed on the RDS also points out that that scheme has seen a really high repayment rate because women are more likely to repay loans than men, owing to their “mother-hood” skills that they have developed while looking after their husbands, children, and families at home. This hypothesis particularly applies to the women and culture of Bangladesh.

RDS is therefore one out of the many Islamic Microfinance models that has proven successful in alleviating poverty and empowering women by means of granting them interest-free loans.

Women in Revolution

February 24th, 2011

After reading one of my colleague’s posts about women in the Iranian revolution, I could not help but wonder how various political upheavals have benefitted or hurt women’s rights. Revolutions come at times of great political unrest, where the current regime has become so intolerable that people must forcibly remove it and replace it with something new. What sparks a revolution is an investigation for another time but the fundamental qualities are very much the same. Charismatic leaders tap into the populace’s feelings of oppression and pain under governments that impose upon their people for too long or prevent opportunities for equal political expression. After a while, there is usually a spark that ignites people’s passion and the revolution cascades from there. This is no more visible now than across the Middle East where a YouTube video of a man setting himself on fire sparked the political conflagration we can see today. Yet revolutions, especially violent ones, are chaotic and hard to control. Their outcomes are highly uncertain and promises leaders make to increase participation can be revoked once the new regime is in place. It is irrefutable that women play important roles in these types of movements but their interests are not always represented once the feverishness has subsided. For the rest of this piece I will examine the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Cultural Revolution in China, comparing their outcomes for women’s rights and attempt to divine how these lessons might relate the current revolutionary action in the Middle East.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran was heavily supported by women. While under the Shah’s regime, women had several restrictions on their personal agency, like having to ask a husband’s permission before leaving the house. They were inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary message and were active participants in the overthrow, even receiving praise from the cleric for their efforts.[1] However, this period of good will quickly ended and the new government, from Khomeini’s direction, rolled back women’s personal rights even further. Ironically the political rights were not restricted in the same way. Now Iranian women have fewer rights than they did under the Shah.

During the Cultural Revolution, which was disruptive both violently and socially, Chinese women made significant gains. In fact, Mao once famously said, “Women hold up half the sky,” and he made them valuable and important members of the revolutionary movement.[2] Forced marriage and foot binding were made illegal, and women were allowed to enter the labor force in a formal way. Women even made gains in reproductive rights through governmental birth control programs that encouraged delaying marriage and pregnancy and gave much of the population access to free or low cost contraceptives. While China still has a work to do on improving women’s rights, it seems this revolution brought about change for the good.

Recognizing that these examples are anecdotal rather than empirical, we can still draw the conclusion that revolutions, even when heavily supported by women, can produce different results.  Turning to the Middle East, many experts are pointing to the promotion of women’s rights as a causal factor in the new push for political reform. The Tunisian leader, Ben Ali, cited his good work in this area as proof of his good governance. Realistically, this strategy may have induced the societal awareness that was necessary to proliferate a revolution. Tunisian women have the highest rate of literacy in North Africa and have risen in social status significantly. As in Iran before, even the Islamists are speaking out for women.[3] Whether this will later be rhetoric used to gain support in the short-term is unclear. In Egypt, women are beginning to break away from the Muslim Brotherhood, which until the overthrow of Mubarak was the only political alternative to the dominant political party. Even still, the Brotherhood is claiming a commitment to promoting women’s rights.[4] Without a doubt, in times of revolution women are clearly courted for their support. Leaders recognize in that time their value, but depending on the eventual ideology that dominates the new political system, this agenda could easily fall away or be revoked entirely. My hope is that these women will learn from the Iranian example to be judicious and careful to guard against those looking to exploit their support for political expediency.

[1] Marshall, Tayana. “Iranian Revolution Turned Against Women Who Supported It.” The Peak. Vol 90: 5. June 5, 1995. www.peak.sfu.ca

[2] Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future. MLM Revolutionary Study Group. March 2007. http://www.mlmrsg.com/attachments/049_049_CRpaper-Final.pdf

[3] Bennhold, Katrin. “Women’s Rights a Strong Point in Tunisia.” The New York Times. www.nytimes.com. Feb. 22, 2011.

[4] Londono, Ernesto and Leila Fadel. “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faces prospect of democracy amid internal discord.” The Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com Feb. 21, 2011.

Women's Rights in Iran

February 18th, 2011

Araceli Y. Flores

Over the course of this blog, I hope to shed light on the gap between the rights “guaranteed” by legal institutions and the very disparate reality that women face in accessing and attaining these rights on the ground. Bangladesh, as presented in my previous posts, fits this mold perfectly: Over the years, its constitution, constitutional amendments, and legal frameworks have worked to promote a progressively more liberal view of women’s rights and freedoms. While there are an infinite number of offenses to these rights, a commitment exists, at the very least, in written form.

This week, I would like to address a completing different, grimmer set of circumstances in which the government itself perpetrates abuses of women’s rights and justifies these abuses through the nation’s legal code. Iran presents a unique case in the study of women’s rights. Since the end of the twentieth century, the world has seen the advent of globalization and a general trend toward increased democratization and economic liberalization. With these two forces working hand in hand, societies are often pushed toward increased openness and challenged to protect the rights of their citizens. Instead of progress, however, Iran has seen a reversal of the rights provided to women: On February 11, 1979 the pro-Western Iranian constitutional monarchy was overthrown and the nation became the Islamic Republic of Iran. The new, theocratic leadership rolled back much of the progress made by the women’s movement under the Iranian monarchy. Ironically, many women initially supported the Iranian Revolution because they believed its promises of greater “Independence and Freedom” would help advance equity for all citizens. [1]

Sadly, the women’s rights gained under the Shah regime were systematically removed and denied under the new government. Even before the Revolutionary Council had indoctrinated a constitution for the “new” Iran, they passed a series of laws directed toward effacing women’s basic marital and family rights: The revolutionary regime passed laws allowing men to take multiple wives and granting men full custody of children in all divorce situations [2]. Just last year, a new bill was passed allowing men to marry new wives without consent of their current wife. The bill also places greater restrictions on women’s access to alimony post-divorce, and places taxes on alimony that is received. [3]

Interestingly, women in Iran have greater access to basic political freedoms, such as the right to vote, run for Parliament, and travel freely than they do to social freedoms and bodily protections: Women are subject to police beatings and torture for violating perceived social norms, such as immodest dress in public. Moreover, women’s protections within the private space, the home, are even more tenuous—many women are silent suffers of domestic violence. [4]

A recent petition to revoke Iran’s status as member of the UN Women’s Commission captures the social status of women perfectly: “Women lack the ability to choose their husbands, have no independent right to education after marriage, no right to divorce, no right to child custody, have no protection from violent treatment in public spaces, are restricted by quotas for women’s admission at universities, and are arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for peacefully seeking change of such laws.” [5]

These realities paint a grim picture of the status of women’s rights in Iran. Next week, I hope to explore the ways in which different women’s movements within civil society are challenging the social norms and restrictions placed on them by their government.



[1] “Women’s rights under Iran’s revolution” BBC NEWS (2009): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7879797.stm

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Iranians Protest Bill on Rights of Women” New York Times (2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/18/world/middleeast/18iran.html

[4] “EXCLUSIVE: U.N. Elects Iran to Commission on Women’s Rights” FoxNew.com (2010): http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/04/29/elects-iran-commission-womens-rights/#ixzz1EHxP6llC

[5] Ibid.

Fighting Political Instability with Female Economic Empowerment

February 17th, 2011

Throughout the world, political instability causes innumerable problems for international security. Failed states like Somalia and poorly governed states like Pakistan are breeding grounds for dangerous actors. For example, Somalia has become the number one state responsible for piracy on the high seas. Similarly, the ungoverned regions of Pakistan, like the Swat Valley, are the strongholds of extremists, such as the Taliban, that launch attacks on both the Pakistani and Afghan governments. Therefore, if the United States is to address a major root cause of global instability, it would do well to focus on the problems of political instability that many states face.

One major factor in political instability is income inequality. It was well documented in a study in 1996 that political instability, often manifesting in violent protest or unrest, is significantly influenced by disparities in income distribution.[1] Their causal logic is fairly straightforward. When there is a large gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population, the social fabric of society is much weaker. The groups separate not only in wealth but in political status and importance, feeding unrest. In fact, the recent overthrow of the government in Kyrgystan and the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were preceded by food shortages and general lack of economic opportunity for the populace.[2][3] In an ironic twist, economic development is also adversely affected by income inequality. A World Bank report on the issue outlines a couple important factors for this link. When there is a high level of inequality, it becomes difficult to reach political compromises between the wealthy and the poor, which further decreases the likelihood for investment in the country. Additionally, high inequality lowers the levels of trust and commitment necessary for enterprise by increasing the risk associated with business transactions.[4] In light of this evidence, combating income inequality should be an important goal for governmental policy.

One important way that income inequality can be reduced is through female empowerment in the workforce. It has been shown that women entering the work force in developed nations has contributed “more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India.”[5] Women have provided the energy and new ideas that have spurred vast growth in these countries and these results can be replicated in the developing world. Nevertheless, there are numerous barriers in place preventing women from expanding their economic impact. Strict gender roles and various patriarchal instruments are large hurdles for women in many developing countries. A study in the World Economic Forum demonstrated a significant correlation between sex equality and GDP per capita.[6] This is a telling finding. Furthermore, Denmark and Sweden are often viewed as two of the most stable governments in the world and they top the charts for female employment percentages. They also are two of the most equally countries when it comes to income distribution. These links are not random. The developing world, and much of the developed world, should look to these nations as excellent models for policy in the future. As gender equality increases in all states, there will be a great spurt of economic growth creating economic opportunity for both sexes which in turn will lead to better results for political stability.

[1] Alesina, Alberto and Robert Perotti. “Income distribution, political instability and investment.” European Economic Review. Vol. 40: 6. June 1996. pp 1203-1228.

[2] Dzyubenko, Olga. “Kyrgys troops break up crowd, see coup attempt.” Reuters. www.reuters.com. Aug. 5, 2010.

[3] Whitaker, Brian. “How a man setting fire to himself sparked an uprising in Tunisia.” The Guardian Online. guardian.co.uk. Dec. 28, 2010.

[4] “Income inequality.” World Bank Group. http://www.worldbank.org/depweb/beyond/beyondco/beg_05.pdf

[5] “The importance of sex.” The Economist Online. www.economist.com. Apr. 12, 2006.

[6] “A guide to womenomics.” The Economist Online. www.economist.com. Apr. 12, 2006.

Cultural Significance of Islamic Microfinance and its Empowerment of Women in Muslim Countries

February 11th, 2011

When examined from an Islamic perspective, the Microfinance industry highlights certain objectives such as social justice, equitable distribution of income and wealth, and promoting economic development. An Islamic Microfinance Institution (IMFI) needs to ensure the accomplishment of these objectives, while building an inclusive financial system that gives due consideration to the cultural factors associated with the industry.

To successfully reach that goal, the current Islamic Microfinance industry needs to diversify its product range and design; an innovative range of Shari’a (Islamic Law) compliant products and services would prove be a resort for financial access to a much larger proportion of Islamic Microfinance costumers worldwide.

To satisfy the above-mentioned objectives, many IMFIs have been trying to adopt an approach that targets “family empowerment” as their goal. This is in line with the teachings of the Qur’an, which promotes men and women to play their respective roles in ensuring the financial and social well-being of the family.

Adopting a “family empowerment” approach rather than a strictly women-focused one avoids cultural issues that could arise in male-dominated Muslim societies. This allows the Microfinance industry to continue empowering women, while adhering to specific cultural norms. For instance: in Egypt, women make 47% of the Micro-entrepreneurs , who have been able to make profits of approximately USD 73, on an average.

Despite the fact that in a Muslim country like Egypt, where women operate 88% of the home-based businesses, and only 28% of external/commercial businesses, 45% of women have noticed a positive change in their lives, from education to economic possibilities, since participating in a microfinance program.

Women’s Rights Implications in Post-conflict Afghanistan

February 9th, 2011

After 9/11, the Bush administration authorized the use of force in Afghanistan, an operation given the name Enduring Freedom. Ten years later, the U.S. is still heavily involved both militarily and from a civilian operation capacity as it and its NATO allies fight to create stable security forces and a government. Originally, it was understood that fighting al-Qaeda necessitated the removal of the Taliban regime, which had become symbiotically intertwined with the fundamentalist terrorists. Taking away the patron government for al-Qaeda was the central reason for the use of force, however many officials and scholars point out that the Taliban’s defeat would result in a net gain for women’s rights in the country. Before the Taliban came to power, women were 70% of the school teachers, 50% of the government workforce, and 50% of the students at the main university in Kabul.[1] In fact, Afghanistan had a relatively egalitarian society in comparison to many of its neighboring countries.

This all changed once the Taliban took power. After 1996, the fundamentalist regime effectively shuttered women in the homes. They were prohibited from working or going to school and could not leave the house at all unless accompanied by a “close male relative.”[2] Those women who had suffered the loss of their male relatives during the Soviet War essentially became imprisoned in their own homes. Women could be wantonly accused of prostitution or infidelity, crimes that came with a public death sentence by stoning or hanging. Once the U.S. and NATO forces arrived and deposed the Taliban, women finally received the political attention they deserved. The new constitutions adopted in 2004 reversed many of the policies that the Taliban had instituted. Bearing in mind several UNSCR resolutions that support female political empowerment, the new constitution guaranteed gender equality as an important ideal, gave women the right to vote, and reserved 25% of the seats in the lower house of parliament for women leaders.[3][4] Afghanistan now has one of the highest levels of mandatory female political leadership in the world. These are significant legal gains for women, but it does not directly address many of the cultural problems in which the Taliban’s policies were rooted.

As Hamid Karzai continues to struggle with managing the new government while facing a vigorous insurgency, it is rapidly becoming apparent that a reintegration of the Taliban as political stakeholders will be necessary. This is an unfortunate reality for many post-conflict regimes; effectively, the deposed powers must find a political solution to their struggle if they are to have an incentive to put down their arms. NATO leaders have publicized a new policy that allows Taliban fighters to surrender, undergo vocational training and become part of the new political and security apparatus.[5] This policy is outlined in hopes that it will dissuade Afghans from joining the insurgency and instead focus on rebuilding Afghanistan. For now, these “rehabilitated” soldiers are behaving, but there is a significant risk that once the military forces pull out, they will use their new political power to roll back many of the gains that women have won.

The U.S. has a responsibility to maintain a strong relationship with the Karzai government to ensure this doesn’t happen. As its largest patron, it has significant leverage for directing the policies that the government produces. Using these levers of influence will be key to ensuring women are not again disenfranchised. Aid for Afghan women to start businesses and support their families would also encourage long-term female empowerment. Finally, if women in certain regions are again subjected to harsh restrictions, the U.S. and its allies should relax their asylum policies to allow those women the opportunity to come to the West to find refuge. If these policies are pursued, there will be a good chance that women will hold on to the rights they have gained and continue to push for better education, health, and access to employment.

[1] Hanford, Cindy. “Women’s Lives Under the Taliban.” National Organization for Women. www.now.org. November 2001.

[2] Hanford.

[3] “Resolution 1889.” United Nations Security Council. United Nations. Oct. 5, 2009.

[4] Cortright, Peter and Sarah Smiles Persinger. Afghan Women Speak: Enhancing Security and Human Rights in Afghanistan. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame. www.nd.edu. October 2010.

[5] “Afghan Taliban starting to reintegrate?” United Press International. www.upi.com. Jan. 5, 2011.

Translating Political Ideals into Human Reality: Bridging the Gap Between Law and Practice in the Promotion of International Women’s Rights.

January 13th, 2011

“Millions of women throughout the world live in conditions of abject deprivation of, and attacks against, their fundamental human rights for no other reason than that they are women.” Human Rights Watch [1]

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a landmark text which proclaimed the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. The document asserted a firm belief in certain fundamental freedoms that every government should both respect and protect, among them: the right to life and liberty; health and wellbeing; education and self-expression [2].

On December 18, 1979, the General Assembly added a new dimension to the canon of international treaties on human rights: The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) reiterated the “truths” upheld in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; however, it took this conviction a step further by underscoring the urgent need to conceptualize the vision of fundamental human rights in the context of both men and women. The convention’s opening preamble “affirms the principle of the inadmissibility of discrimination and proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind, including distinction based on sex” [3].

These declarations put forth by the preeminent international body, the United Nations, seem to speak to some form of universal consensus on, and commitment to, women’s rights. However, the global reality offers a much starker depiction of the story: women’s continued struggle to actually claim these freedoms and access the rights guaranteed to them. These rights are being systematic denied in two ways. The first form, one we are most familiar with, is blatant government transgression of human rights: In 2009, Afghanistan – a signatory of both the UDHR and CEDAW– ratified “Shia Family Law,” allowing for marital rape and child marriage in Shiite populations [4]. In Pakistan, a woman is raped every two hours and gang-raped every eight hours, according to the country’s independent Human Rights Commission [5]. Pakistani laws and customs, which punish the victims of rape instead of the perpetrators, exacerbate this tragedy: Who report rape are often accused of adultery, an offense punishable by flogging and stoning [6].

The second form, however, is more insidious. Despite government efforts to internally promote ideals of women’s rights, their laws lack teeth in the face of societal norms or adverse socioeconomic conditions: In 2002, the People’s Republic of China passed the “Population and Family Planning Law,” prohibiting sex-selective terminations of pregnancy for nonmedical purposes [7]. However, a culture that traditionally espouses the value of sons over daughters, combined with often extreme poverty, has effectively crippled the law and prevented its enforcement. These forces often act as superseding powers, acting informally to constraint well-intentioned policies from taking root.

Through the course of this blog, I intend to grapple with the apparent disconnect embedded in international laws and domestics constitutions that often offer the promise of equality, but not the reality of its achievement. Using case studies of various countries, I will demonstrate how culture, tradition, and socioeconomic conditions act as de facto institutions that redefine the law and direct its enforcement, often to the detriment of women. While exposing the failures and shortcomings of these governments, I also hope to applaud the victories won by external actors – transnational corporations, grassroots organizations, the media—in grounding the law and making its goals tangible within disparate societies. On the individual level, I also hope to analyze how education, access to health care, and financial independence can inform and empower women to become champions of their own rights and to succeed.

Universal human rights cannot be achieved until their realms of influence extend beyond words and into deeds:

“Gender equality must become a lived reality” – Michelle Bachelet, Former President of Chile.



[1] Women’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/en/category/topic/women

[2] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

[3] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm

[4]“Afghan Women Protest Marital Rape Law, Men Spit and Stone Them,” Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) News (2009): http://www.rawa.org/temp/runews/2009/04/16/afghan-women-protest-marital-rape-law-men-spit-and-stone-them.html

[5] “Pakistan Votes to Amend Rape Laws,” BBC News (2006): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6148590.stm

[6] “Pakistan: Women’s Rights Unchanged, IRIN News (2001): http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=13844

[7] Population and Family Planning Law of the People’s Republic of China (Order of the President No. 63): http://www.gov.cn/english/laws/2005-10/11/content_75954.htm

Rethinking International Security: Look to the Women

January 13th, 2011

Traditionally, issues in international security are related to security challenges such as weapons proliferation, state building, terrorism, military conflict, drug trade, and other threats that have a direct impact on the security of nations.  However, there is a recent trend among policy makers to think outside the traditional security box to examine the fundamental problems in societies that allow or promote these challenges.  Non-traditional security problems such as poverty, climate change, and human rights are rapidly moving to prominence on the foreign policy agenda.  Bold research is being carried out on the effect of women rights and their level of health on widespread society as a whole, and some of the conclusions are astonishing.   But how is that empowering women leads to beneficial social outcomes?

Just last year, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton went before the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and delivered a moving speech that highlighted both the accomplishments and challenges of women across the globe.  She looks to Liberia as a model example, where a women’s prayer group expanded to inspire women across the land to force a peace negotiation of the civil war and subsequently elect the first African female head of state (UN HQ. NYC, NY. 3/12/10).  Similarly, Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer Prize Winning columnist for The New York Times, blogged about how female empowerment can lead to a deradicalization of society, especially in places like the Middle East.  With female empowerment, especially expansive rights for reproductive control, households are smaller and more able to care for their children.  Also, societies with a huge number of young men are often hot beds of discontent, which can easily be twisted into extremism and eventually terrorism (“On the Ground.” 3/13/10).  In a piece on the Middle Eastern countries and oil exportation, Michael Ross illustrates the beneficial aspects of active female participation in the labor force.  Women who work are able to plan for smaller families, exert greater independence, and influence politics at a significantly higher level than their shuttered counterparts (Ross, Michael.  “Oil, Islam and Women.” Feb. 2008).

Through an exploration of these causal links between women’s rights and societal stability and growth, I hope to illustrate the vital importance of female empowerment as a key tactic in the struggle for global peace and security.  Each post will attempt to link a major women’s rights issue to the promotion of stability and peace in society, such as terrorist extremism, economic development, and regime type difficulties.  It is time to recognize that terrorism, authoritarianism, drug abuse, and many other transnational problems that confront the world today can be tackled through means beyond military deployment, covert operations, and economic sanctions.  By taking a proactive stance to improve female education, access to reproductive control, and equal access to work and political activity, our global society will not only be fulfilling a moral obligation to a group of people who have been subjugated for centuries, but also begin to fix the fundamental flaws in many harsh societies that give rise to the security threats stable nations face today.