Monthly Archives: March 2014

Indigenous Beliefs in Other Dimensions

Malidoma Patrice Some’, from Burkina Faso, contrasts his indigenous people’s traditional beliefs with modern beliefs in his book Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community. His Dagra tribe, like others in Africa, believes that the Otherworld empowers this world, that spirits of ancestors exist in nature and people must be respectful of their presence to be healthy and fertile. In Nigeria, young people often carry charms to protect themselves from supernatural forces;[i] in South Africa striking miners carried charms in 2012 to (unsuccessfully) protect themselves against police bullets.

In addition to a supreme God, there are nature spirits, ancestral spirits, and evil spirits, as Koala described in Chapter 1. During the dry season when the people aren’t able to farm, the villagers commune with spirits through ancient ritual, storytelling, initiations, dance and music. Ritual includes sacrifice in front of shrines in a room set aside for the ancestors. Communal, family, and individual rituals are the way to stay connected to the ancestral realm. Elders know how to do them properly, serving as shamans, diviners, and healers. Some’’s grandmother was such a powerful medicine woman that his tribe believes she was able to take on the body of a dog when she got too old and feeble to walk.

The Dagra believe our spirits continue on after death, some reincarnate in a new body and others become a part of nature. Some’’s grandfather addressed him as brother because he believed his brother’s spirit returned in his grandson. The Dagra believe everyone has a life purpose, “intended to keep this cosmic order healthy.” At Some’’s own “fetal ritual hearing,” when his mother was pregnant with him, the shaman reported that he came to “carry our name across the big sea,” so Malidoma means “be friends with the enemy.” His grandfather raised him in his early years, because they believe babies and elders are closest to the Otherworld, while fathers are too young to be wise.


It’s not just indigenous people who believe in the spirit world and write about the information they gain on other dimensions. Dr. Eben Alexander was a rational nonbeliever, a Harvard University surgeon and professor, until he was in a comma for a week due to bacterial meningitis that attacked his brain, leaving him on life-support machines.[ii] Because his brain was out of commission for longer than in most near-death experiences, he was able to ask questions over time, assisted in his other dimensional journeys by the spirit of his dead sister. OM, as he refers to God, taught him that there are a multitude of universes [just as String Theory physics predicts and Robert Monroe’s books on astral travel describe]. The dimensions aren’t separate; he explains, “This terrestrial realm is tightly and intricately meshed within these higher worlds.” The universal essence is unconditional Love: “Love and compassion make up the very fabric of the spiritual realm.” Some evil exists because without it there could be no free will or growth. Dr. Alexander learned, “Our role here is to grow toward the Divine, and that growth is closely watched by the beings in the worlds above,” which he described as “the souls and lucent orbs” called angels. While on the other dimensions, he felt energized by prayers of his family and friends. For skeptics that consciousness exists out of body, he recommends the book Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century.

Scientists only understand about 4% of what’s in the universe, since 96% of it is mysterious invisible dark matter and dark energy. The math of Super String Theory and Information Theory indicates there are multiple dimensions (10) and multi-universes. The invisible information field of Quantum Physics and Super String Theory of mathematicians doesn’t jive with common sense (which led educated people to believe the world was flat and the earth the center of the solar system), but it’s been proven mathematically and sometimes experimentally. Tribal shamans have known about the information field and multiple dimensions for eons of time using different terms.

Quantum Mechanics, the study of sub-atomic energy, began early in the 20th Century in Germany with brilliant young physicists. Quantum physics discovered a universal field that conveys information. This enables distant effects on an electron or photon, including the mere act of observing it. A discovery called quantum non-locality found that if two electrons are paired or ”entangled” and then separated, and you change the spin on one in a distant location, the other immediately changes in response. This means the electrons didn’t communicate with a wave function, but instantaneously through an information field.



Mindfulness meditation taught in The Mindful Schools curriculum, taught to over 30,000 children, produced statistically significant improvements in behavior.[iii]  Their video titled Room to Breathe shows students practicing the technique. African-American teenage boys with high blood pressure were able to bring their blood pressure down over the four months they practiced Transcendental Meditation (a phrase or mantra is repeated about 20 minutes while sitting quietly). The teens reported that they were able to concentrate better, felt less anger and had improved relationships with others.[iv] Prisoners who learned to do Vipassana Buddhist meditation in India and Alabama had fewer disciplinary problems.[v] Filmmaker David Lynch advocates going within in mediation as a way to eliminate school violence. He recommends,


In today’s world of fear and uncertainty, every child should have one class period a day to dive within himself and experience the field of silence—bliss—the enormous reservoir of energy and intelligence that is deep within all of us. This is the way to save the coming generation. I have been “diving within” through the Transcendental Meditation technique for over 30 years. It has changed my life, my world.[vi]


Candace Pert, Ph.D., explains in Molecules of Emotion that stress causes:


The largely autonomic processes that are regulated by peptide flow, such as breathing, immunity, digestion, and elimination, to collapse down to a few simple feedback loops and upset the normal healing response. Meditation, by allowing long-buried thoughts and feelings to surface, is a way of getting the peptides flowing again, returning the body, and the emotions, to health.


Meditation involves inner listening, quieting the mind by concentrating on one thing, such as breathing in and out, or a phrase, or a picture. T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” reminds us to be in the “still point of the turning world, there the dance is.” The Buddha talked about this peaceful state in terms of the middle path and non-attachment. Jesus advised to be in the world, but not of it. The Dalai Lama suggested allowing the mind in meditation to be like clear water; “stay with this unfabricated mind without allowing conceptions to be generated.”

  [i] Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, ed. Adolescent Psychology Around the World.   Psychology Press, 2012, p. 63.

[ii] Eben Alexander, MD. Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Which Countries are Happiest?

Which Countries Are Happiest?

“Is it easy to find happiness in this 21st century, a fast moving life where one finds difficult to even find a smile on one’s face? asks Dhwani, 14, f, India. Despite their number one concern being the global economic crisis and unemployment, global youth feel happy—76% say they’re very happy even though one in three is stressed, according to a Viacom survey of 15,000 youth ages 9 to 30 from 24 countries.[i] Latin Americans and the younger respondents are especially happy. As we’ve seen, what makes young people most happy is spending time with family and 45% say their best friend is a family member. Friends also make them happy. They average over 200 online friends; three-quarters of the respondents report social media has a beneficial effect on their friendships and changes the way they think about the world. Over 80% say they always try to be positive and can accomplish anything if “I work hard enough.”

Beyond the fulfillment of basic needs, having more technology and possessions don’t lead to happiness. The WIN-Gallup International Global Barometer of Happiness surveyed 58 countries and found no relationship between income and happiness; what influences well-being is social status compared to peers.[ii] Americans who’ve spent time living with poor people living traditional lives in Africa comment on their happiness and lack of complaining, even when dealing with prolonged hunger. For example, a development expert commented in her book, “I was awestruck by the Ugandans’ ability to endure suffering and still embrace great joy.”[iii] In Havana, Cubans told me that Americans have a lot of material things, but Cubans enjoy life more, dancing, going to the beach, and spending relaxed time with family and friends. When I asked an Indian high school principal how his generation is different than teens today, retired Colonel Sekar said, “We enjoyed life better and are more at peace with failures.” Another Indian principal told me his generation had more time to play sports and enjoy life. Europeans tend to work less, have less stuff, and have more time and quality of life than Americans.

A 2012 Gallup World poll about well-being reported that Latin America stood at the forefront for positive emotions, with Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela at the top.[iv] The poll asked 1,000 people age 15 and older in 148 countries questions like “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday? Did you feel a lot of enjoyment, physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, or anger?” Thailand and the Philippines also scored high for positive emotions. Negative emotions were highest in the Middle East and North Africa, with Iraq, Bahrain and Palestine topping that list. Singapore is very prosperous but the people were the least emotionally expressive. The countries of the former USSR also scored low on expressing emotions. Countries with greater economic suffering become unstable—on average, about two countries per year collapse into revolution.

The Gallup World poll found East Asian countries tend to have lower levels of life satisfaction that would be expected, while Latin Americans had higher levels than expected.[v] The poll found that well-being follows from good health, feeling secure and having freedom. Having a good job helps but economic factors have less impact, after basic needs are met. Few differences were found between men and women except that having children is more difficult for men and marriage is more beneficial for them, while their social connections were more important to young people.

            In Pakistan, Hassan observed that villagers are happier than wealthy urban dwellers:


The villagers, despite of not earning enough and facing daunting economic challenges, sleep like babies at the end of the day for multiple reasons.

A. They are tired from the day’s work and have spent lots of time in the fields. Hence, when they return home in the evenings, all they care about is a few bites of food and sleep. This is their life.

B. Their faith is strong and subtle so that they do not worry about any robbery. They have submitted their everything to Allah and believe that He will protect their well-deserved earnings. The rich are insecure about the safety and protection of their wealth, house, car, etc. which doesn’t give them the inner peace they desire. 


A World Happiness Report, presented to a 2012 UN conference on creating a new economic model, found that happiness is more strongly associated with community engagement, social networks, mental health, and individual freedom and lack of corruption than with money—again, once basic needs are met.[vi] In this framework, individualism and social support both are helpful. Costa Rica is an example of a happy poor country. In the Happiness Index of 170 counties, the wealthy US ranked at a low 150. An Indian man explained to an Australian woman living in India, “We Indian people, we look at the people more poor, more low, more hard than us and we be thanking God we are not them. So we are happy. But you white peoples, you are looking at the peoples above you all of the times and you are thinking, Why aren’t I them? Why am I not having that moneys and things? And so you are unhappy all of the time.”[vii]

As usual, Scandinavian countries are among the top of the list of good outcomes, among the happiest, while the lowest are poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa indicating that poverty of course diminishes life satisfaction. The UN Happiness Report advocates “adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment.” Examples of taking action towards this goal, Brazilian youth in an eco-village are trained to conduct happiness surveys and practice altruism, resulting in new neighborhood activities to take action when needs are identified.[viii] Schools near San Paulo teach compassion and wellbeing, encouraging children to be “doctors of joy.”

OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) rated 36 countries on their life satisfaction,[ix] reporting that the strongest influence on well-being is high social status among peers. Other influences on satisfaction include community and civic participation, education, jobs, health, and work-life balance. The lowest satisfaction scores are in Hungary, Portugal, Turkey, Russia and Greece, again indicating that economic difficulty lowers life satisfaction. The OCED report found that happiest countries are Australia, Norway and the US. Australia has near full-employment and 71% of the people trust their political institutions, compared with the OECD average of 56% trust. Australian men had one of the highest scores for helping with family work, higher than the US and Canada. This finding is a wonderful contradiction to the old stereotype of the macho Aussie man drinking beer with his mates.

UNICEF’s large survey of about 10,000 youth in 17 countries found that in East Asia and Pacific, the young people said they are happy most of the time (52%) or sometimes (47%). The happiest were younger and urban kids, and those who live in Australia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Happiness was low in China. What makes youth happy is contact with family and friends. Youth feel sad when they’re scolded or punished as for doing poorly in school, when they’re left alone, and when thinking about death.

In Europe and Central Asia, two-thirds of the young people felt happy most of the time, more so in Western Europe (80%) than in transition countries (60%). Those in two-parent and more well-to-do families were more likely to be happy. Similar to Asian students, causes of happiness were being with friends and family, followed by doing well in school and playing or having free time. Like Asia, being scolded caused unhappiness, as did getting poor marks in school, and problems or quarrels at home. They worried most about family problems, doing badly in school, and economic problems. Other worries included the environment, politics, war and future employment. Despite their fears, 60% believe their life will be better than their parents’ lives, but only 43% believe life is better today than a decade ago, while 26% believe it is worse–especially in eastern countries.

About the same percentage of South American kids feel happy as Europeans, while one third of kids in South American don’t often feel happy. Unhappiness increases with poorer families, kids who are black or indigenous, and in the Caribbean. What upsets kids is family problems and quarrels, school problems, and money worries. The saddest news they had heard recently was about natural disasters, followed by hunger, war, child abuse, delinquency, and violence. However, 76% think the quality of their lives will be better than their parents, more than in Europe. Youth are generally optimistic.

More than 100 questions about happiness were asked of 1,280 Americans ages 13 to 24 in 2007 by the Associated Press and MTV. As for people of all ages, relationships are the greatest source of happiness in this order: spending time with family (73% say their relationship with their parents makes them happy), spending time with friends and with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Money was not high on the list, nor was sex, although 70% said they would like to be rich in the future. Having highly educated parents has a more positive effect on happiness than income. These young people report their electronic devices increase their happiness. Having spiritual beliefs is also associated with happiness (80% of those who say religion and spirituality are very important to them are happy, compared to 60% who say spirituality is not an important part of life). Comparing groups of young people, 72% of whites said they’re happy with life in general, but only 56% of blacks and 51% of Hispanics agreed. When asked to name their heroes, nearly half mentioned one or both of their parents, with Mom a bit out in front—as with our SpeakOut respondents. Most want to be married and have kids.

In general kids seem happier, as studies show they laugh a lot more than adults. Women tend to laugh more than men and men are the best laugh-getters, states Robert Province in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. (It’s good for our health, increasing the healthy function of the tissue lining the blood vessels, reports a 2005 study at the University of Maryland.) Differences in life satisfaction aren’t much different between men and women, according to the OCED report, although women are slightly more likely to be concerned about their health and having a social support network and slightly less concerned about income.

A study of 420,000 people from 63 countries found that people who had the freedom to make their own choices claimed the highest levels of well-being.[x] The analysis revealed, “a very consistent and robust finding that societal values of [freedom and autonomy] were the best predictors of well-being,” reported study authors Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer. Freedom influences happiness, agrees a Chinese student.


American people are mostly comfortable with their condition. I know people from all poor and rich families; they are the same, feel happy here. But in China everyone wants to have more, so how can they happy? In the States, people mostly the same rights, it’s fair. But it’s not fair in China in school, society, organizations, or companies. It’s difficulty to get anywhere without connections. Zheyu, 20, m, Central China


An illustration of this equation that freedom equals happiness is the high teen suicide rates in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, where autonomy is discouraged. Russian health experts explain that suicide happens because of rigid parenting, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. One of the few Russian child psychologists, Anatoly Severny, observed, “At home, you order, you enforce, you punish your kids instead of trying to understand them. Schools use what I call repressive pedagogic. Kids are forced to do everything.”[xi] Post-materialistic values seem to be better for child raising.

Max, a high school teacher in the Ukraine, told me that, in contrast to Russia, every school in his country has a psychologist, albeit low paid. Teachers meet regularly to discuss their students’ progress and hear reports from the psychologist about at-risk students. The same teacher stays with elementary school students for four years. As a master teacher, he supervises a group of around 400 students from grade 7 until they graduate, so he gets to know them very well. Parents contact him about their concerns, and he organizes trips and he talks with his students. He works to make his group a team and therefore he doesn’t find bullying or depression to be a problem. At-risk kids (such as those with addict parents) are encouraged to stay involved in activities like sports and school clubs. Other support systems for families are free kindergarten at age three, free school lunches, and free medical care and mandatory pre-natal checkups. If necessary a local doctor will come to the pregnant woman to check on her health.

If very unhappy Sandy Hook Elementary school shooter Adam Lana had this kind of teacher attention, the tragedy might never have happened. To help students, school districts in various states in the US teach Social and Emotion Learning, SEL.[xii] As in the Ukraine, students have an adult advisor plus a discussion group of peers. Students learn to express and handle difficult emotions, resolve conflict, and engage in role-playing to learn empathy. Studies of students in SEL programs find they have higher self-esteem, less depression and anxiety, and less disruptive behavior, as well as higher standardized test scores. Indian Principal Sekar uses SEL in his school as well as he advocates holistic and progressive education in an era when the industrial assembly line model isn’t relevant. In his school newsletter he wrote, “As schools adapt and evolve to make themselves relevant and contextual, socio-emotional learning will acquire pride of place, more than books, curriculum and marks.” However, he said parents and the community aren’t yet ready for this trend.

In a movement away from zero tolerance of misbehavior using punitive suspension, expulsion, and police explained in Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse by Annette Fuentes (2013) and Youth in Revolt by Henry Giroux (2012), US schools are teaching staff and students how to succeed. They learn conflict resolution, empathy, peer mediation and communication skills. These programs include Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS), Safe and Civil Schools, Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS), and Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS).[xiii]

[i] “The Next Normal,” Viacom Media Networks. This market study claims to be the “broadest single study of Millennials to date” and the first “truly global portrait.” 2012. Analyzed 15,000 youth ages 9 to 30 in 24 countries.

[ii]  Mary Rauto, “Survey Rates Fiji as the Happiest Country,” the Fiji Times Online, January 20, 2012.

[iii] Jacqueline Novogratz. The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Rodale Press, 2009, p. 19.

[iv] Jon Clifton, “Latin Americans Most Positive in the World,” Gallup World, December 19, 2012.

[v] Romina Boarini, et al., “What Makes for a Better Life?,” OECK Publishing, march 2012.

[vi] “First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations,” Earth Institute, April 2, 2012.

[vii] Sarah Macdonald. Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure. Broadway Books, 2003, p. 111.

[viii] Laura Musikanski,” The UN Embraces the Economics of Happiness, Yes Magazine, April 12, 2012. Reported by Susan Andrews about Future Vision Eco-Village to a UN conference on “Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.”

[x] Robert Preidt, “Study: Freedom More Important to Happiness than Wealth,” USA Today, June 24, 2011.

“What Is More Important for National Well-Being: Money or Autonomy? A Meta-Analysis of Well-Being, Burnout and Anxiety Across 63 Societies,” Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer, Victoria University of Wellington; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, Issue 1.ß

[xi] Will Englund, “Teens Choosing Death in Russia,” Washington Post, March 7, 2012.

[xiii] Jane Ellen Stevens, “The Secret to Fixing School Discipline? Change the Behavior of Adults,” Aces Too High News, March 20, 2013.

Measure National Progress Not by GDP but Happiness

New Ways of Measuring Progress

Instead of valuing a steady increase in consumption and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that harm the environment, pioneering Bhutan developed a Gross National Happiness Index in the 1970s identifying 124 variables that influence fulfillment. (Bhutan also created a national Organic Policy for agriculture, with no GO, no pesticides, no Monsanto.) Others developed a Quality of Life index and in the US an NGO called The Happiness Initiative provides a happiness metric. The “we” spirit is typical of Scandinavian countries like Denmark, contrasted to the “I” focus leading to the decline of the US, explains Thom Hartman in Threshold. Adam Werbach, a young former head of the Sierra Club, advocates a sharing economy in his Strategy for Sustainability A Business Manifesto (2009). For example, he suggests instead of buying a car, rent a Zipcar car sharing program and rent out rooms to travelers through Airing.

Riana Eisner, author of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, argues that the true wealth of nations stems from the contributions of nature and people.[i] She points out that companies that make the Working Mother Magazine best list are rewarded with healthy profits. In my telephone interview with Eisner, she of course pointed to Scandinavia as a model of a caring economy, with universal health care and long parental leave and good childcare. She said critics call them “nanny states” although men and women benefit equally. Eisner advocates moving from a hierarchical system of domination to a partnership model that values the contributions of women and nature. Neither socialism nor capitalism has the answer so a new caring economic system is needed; she hopes young people will contribute to the change. She advocates that schools teach children how to care for themselves, others and nature.

How to Increase Women in Government

What Governments Can Do to Increase Equality

Family Law

Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, maintains that transitional measures are necessary to accelerate women’s representation in government. The 2012 World Bank report on gender in development and its Adolescent Girls Initiative gives the following examples of proactive government programs.[i] Governments can reform traditional family law, as in Kenya or in Ethiopia where the law requires both spouses to agree on administering family property. When the US eased divorce laws, domestic violence decreased. Morocco eliminated references to the husband as the head of the household. Countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile and South Africa have a Minister of Women’s Affairs and equal rights are included in the constitution in the Philippines.

The Scandinavian countries provide an excellent model of how to support both men and women in enjoying multiple roles at home and work. Juggling multiple roles and less access to funding sources discourage women from running for office. In Sweden, eight in 10 women work outside the home because they have long parental leave (480 days paid parental leave before the child is eight) and free childcare, although it’s not a perfect system.[ii] In the Netherlands families can take a day off each week and the government subsidizes daycare as a family benefit. In Canada, couples with a baby may take six months leaves of absence with 90% pay. In Australia, a mother on maternity leave can earn 18 weeks of pay at minimum wage and her partner can take two week of paid leave, as well as the right to request flexible work hours. As with every global problem, the model solutions exist.


Education Incentives

Governments can increase girls’ school enrollment by giving families small payments or bags of grain as in Ecuador and Malawi and by teaching families about the return on girls’ education, as in Madagascar. “Second-chance” programs offering vocational skills, internships, and life-skills encourage girls to return to school in Senegal. Mexico’s 2012 federal budget set aside 15% for children’s programs including education and Oportunidas that pays poor families to send their children to school and get medical checkups.[iii] Most Latin American countries provide some incentive for school attendance and medical care for children. Mercedes, an Argentinean high school teacher, complained to me that although the government gives students lunch, a uniform, and a laptop and some of them get money to attend school, most of her students don’t value education or go on to university. Some of the girls get pregnant in order to collect welfare as their parents do: Most of their parents don’t have jobs and don’t provide models for their children. When I asked her how students are different than when she was in high school, she said they’re more hyperactive and less respectful. School-based programs, such as in South Africa and Canada, discuss gender roles and relationship skills with the intent of reducing violence against women.


Gender-Sensitive Budget

Since the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and partner organizations began the Gender-Responsive Budgeting Initiative in the mid-1990s, the project has expanded to nearly 40 countries. A gender sensitive budget allows citizens to see how women’s issues are funded or underfunded. Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, put this type of budget in place in 2005, as did India. UNYouth points out that youth-serving development programs often benefit educated, urban and male youth, although educating girls cuts infant mortality, increases her earnings and investment in her family, and increases her country’s income.


Quotas for Female Legislators

Over 97 countries use gender quota systems resulting in women being nearly 33% of their legislatures, compared to 12% in countries without quotas, according to UN data.[iv] Quotas can be assigned by national legislation or the constitution or by political parties, as in the Nordic case. Sweden’s quota system resulted in women holding 45% of its parliamentary seats in 2012. In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union established a 33% quota for party officials in 1996. In France, a 1998 law required political parties to nominate an equal number of male and female candidates for elections, but parties often choose to pay fines rather than comply. In Spain, parties may get around the quota by including women on their list whose last name puts them lower on the alphabetical Senate ballot. If women are put at the bottom of the lists for national elections, they have no chance of being elected. Colombia requires that 30% of all political appointees be female, including the cabinet.

After quotas were established in Albania the percent of women legislators doubled to over 16%, Nepal has almost one-third women legislators–the highest in Asia, and Rwanda has over half female legislators. Electoral Politics: Making Quotas Work for Women gives other examples of successful implementation of quotas.[v]

When the Indian government established quotas for women leaders in local government, public services such as sanitation and schools improved, girls had role models, and there were more arrests for crimes against women.[vi] In women-led councils the number of drinking water projects was more than 60% higher. However, a pharmacist I interviewed in Delhi said too often the wives of politicians are appointed, included an illiterate woman appointed to an education post in his area. A bill to reserve seats for women in the parliament is pending, as only 6.5% members of parliament are women. The upper house passed the Women’s Reservation bill in 2010, after 13 years of debate. It would amend the Constitution to reserve one-third of seats in parliament and state assemblies for women, similar to the existing reservation in local government. The lower house tabled the bill again in 2012, perhaps because of unwillingness to give up some seats occupied by men.

Argentina passed a law in 1991 requiring that one in three candidates nominated for election to the legislature must be women. It also has a woman president, two female Supreme Court Judges, and legalized gay marriage. However, the living condition and opportunities of women in cities is very different than women in rural areas. A political party in Costa Rica alternates men and women candidates on electoral lists.

Some countries reserve seats for women, mostly in South Asia and Africa. In Iraq, 25% of the seats in parliament are reserved for women, but they don’t have much power. The Minister for Women’s Affairs, Nawal al-Samarraie, quit when the government cut her budget to $1,500 a month for the entire ministry. In Morocco reserved seats increased the percentage of women in parliament from 0.6 to 10.8%.

Although only 25% of EU national parliament members and senior ministers are female, Spain requires that women make up 50% of its cabinet and 50% of all company boards and quotas for women corporate board members are also required in Norway. Former Spanish Socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero appointed 31-year-old Bibiana Aído as head of a new Ministry for Equality. However, she was removed after three years due to budget cuts.


[ii] “Swedish Childcare System is Hardly a Utopian Model,” The Local: Sweden’s News in English, May 30, 2011.

[iii] UNICEF News Notes, December 23, 2011

[v] Homa Hoodfar and Mona Tajali. Electoral Politics: Making Quotas Work for Women. Women Living Under Muslim Laws, 2012.

[vi] Lori Beaman, et al., “Political Reservation and Substantive Representation: Evidence from Indian Village Councils,” India Policy Forum, 2010.…/politicalreservationandsubstantiverepresenta.

Women in Government Internationally

Women in Government

Why are most countries having men leaders only and not ladies?

Zulea, 17, f, Kenya


I’d like to be the first Kenyan leader who completely eradicated corruption and poverty. Lylac, 16, f, Kenya


The lack of equal representation of women in governments is not due to lack of female ambition or ability, but “arises from men choosing men,” explains Margot Wallström, former chair of the Council of Women World Leaders.[i] She suggests that women need to support each other and publicize gender discrimination perpetrated with “master suppression techniques.” She explains, “I have lost count of how many times I have experienced or witnessed men ridicule or ignore women at meetings or in public, and exclude them for the decision-making process.” Thirdly, she says laws are needed to stop discrimination—such as quotas for female candidates–and enable a better work-life balance.

Some countries had early women’s movements as part of their nationalist struggles against colonial rule, as in Turkey, Egypt and India. Feminism spread around the globe in the 1970s spurred on by the UN’s International Year of the Woman in 1975. The UN organized conferences on women in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995).[ii] I attended the Copenhagen conference and was surprised that most of the official delegates were men. My son and his dad made the local TV news, showing a father caring for his baby. The 15-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action occurred in 2010. Motivated by UN leadership, governments set up ministries for women’s issues in the 70s. Universities set up Affirmative Action programs and Women’s Studies programs in the 1970s—I was the first coordinator at my university.

The UN adopted CEDAW in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Only eight nations haven’t signed on. The US is the only developed nation that hasn’t signed as conservatives oppose following UN regulations. It deals with poverty, violence, AIDS, access to representation in government, etc.[iii] “The CEDAW Convention is at the core of our global mission of peace, development and human rights,” observed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. We can pressure our politicians to sign on or enforce CEDAW.

The African Union provides a model policy on how to “function in accordance with the promotion of gender equality.”[iv] However, it’s 2009 policy reports: “70% of member states currently have gender policies and yet few of them have been implemented. . . . A few of them have established Gender Management Systems (GMS),” which it would like to see adopted in all member states.

Public-private programs assist women to advance in the workplace; Mexico’s federal program, Generosidad, awards the Gender Equity Seal to private employers who do an excellent job of gender equity. It inspired similar programs in Brazil, Costa Rica, and Egypt. The European Women’s Lobby wages a campaign for “50/50 for Democracy,” which began in 2008.

The countries that have the best equality programs are in Scandinavia, with Iceland at the top, followed by Norway and Finland (according to the Global Gender Gap Index created by the World Economic Forum in Geneva).[v] The US was in 17th place in 2011.  The most egalitarian country in Africa was Lesotho. Norway is at the top of an index of best countries for mothers, with the US much lower at 31 out of 44 developed nations, partly due to its least extensive maternity leave.[vi] In Sweden both men and women are entitled to 480 days of parental leave for childcare and elder care. A Feminist Initiative political party was formed in 2005.[vii] Although Sweden is a leader in equality, oppression of women exists if there’s any truth to the disturbingly violent 2009 films Millennium Trilogy based on novels. They reveal the ugly underbelly of corruption, prostitution, and violence against women displayed in the life of the tough punk main character, Lisbeth Slander.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union reports that women’s presence in parliaments (only 19% globally) and in ministerial positions significantly increases investments in social welfare and legal protection, as well as honesty in government and business.[viii] Scandinavians have the most equal representation of women in parliament with women at 42%.

In India in 1993, the government changed the constitution to require that one third of village panchayats chiefs be women. A reporter comments, “In rural India, which is by any measure more patriarchal and conservative than urban India, the promotion of women to public positions of power constitutes nothing short of a revolution.”[ix]. In villages run by women, more water pumps or taps were installed and were better maintained.[x] Although fewer than 11% of members of the country’s parliament are women, a proposal in 2010 to extend the one-third reservation for women in parliament caused uproar. It was passed by the upper house, but not the lower house.[xi] Despite this activity, an Indian activist told me in 2010, “India never had a feminist movement! I think that is the problem with the ‘women’s movement’ in India. It does not have a feminist foundation.”[xii]

What about on the local tribal level of leadership? I asked a Nigerian chief, James Iowarri, if women can be chiefs. “Yes, in some communities, women can also be made Chiefs, while in some, only men can be made Chiefs, while their wives are made Lolo or Olori. In IgboLand–my tribe, an accomplished woman of integrity, dedication and of note, can be made a Chief. Such women are rare but they exist.” In Bali, Indonesia, only men head the important communal groups called banjars.

The first country to give women the right to vote was New Zealand, in 1893.[xiii] Since then women have headed countries including: Australia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka (the first country to have a woman prime minister), Bangladesh, Liberia, Haiti, Philippines, Ireland, United Kingdom, Israel, Norway, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, Jamaica and Denmark. In 2011, 20 women were presidents or prime ministers.[xiv] Sonia Gandhi (Italian by birth) is the head of the ruling Congress Party in India.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born 1938) became the first African woman president in 2006. She said voters told her during the campaign, “Men have failed us. Men are too violent, too prone to make war. Women are less corrupt, less likely to be focused on getting fancy cars and fancy homes for themselves.” Her campaign relied on women going village-to-village, door-to-door campaigning. She appointed women as Ministers of Youth and Sports, Gender and Development, Commerce, Foreign Affairs, and Finance. She believes that being mothers gives women leaders “a sensitivity to humankind” that will make the world a better and safer place.[xv]

She explains in her book This Child Will Be Great that African women are honored as mothers and aunts, but are not considered equal to men. Her husband felt free to hit her. She was reluctant to divorce him though because fathers get custody of children, but finally did get a divorce and he did take her four boys. She went on to be educated in the US to be an economist and served in Liberian government agencies, the UN and the World Bank

She was jailed and threatened when young rebels brought civil war to her country. Samuel Doe was only 28 when he and his fellow soldiers forcefully took control of Liberia in 1989, followed by civil war between battling warlords until 2002. They relied on child soldiers, killed a quarter of a million of the 3 million Liberians and uprooted most who survived. When soldiers kidnapped and threatened to kill her, she calmed them down by saying, “Think about your mother. How would you feel is someone did this to her?” Democratic elections were finally held in 2005 with Johnson Sirleaf’s victory at the polls. When she asked children what they wanted, they said to go to school. Her first year as president, school fees were abolished in public primary schools and reduced in high schools, creating a 40% increase in school enrollment. Parents can be fined if children were working on the streets during school hours.

In 2010, she reported on her accomplishments:[xvi]


Women hold strategic positions in the Cabinet and in other government bodies. I have established a market development fund supported by private donations to empower rural women through better working conditions and literacy training. A second fund, also from private donations, provides funding for the building of 50 schools, training of 500 teachers and scholarships for 5,000 girls throughout the country; girls and women have voices in claiming participation in societal endeavors.


She was reelected in 2011 winning over 90% of the vote, soon after being    awarded a Nobel peace prize along with two other African women activists. One of them is Laymeh Gbowee, co-founder of the Women’s Peace Network in Liberia which helped to end a decade of civil war.[xvii]

Over 97 countries use gender quota systems resulting in women being nearly 33% of their legislatures, compared to 12% in countries without quotas, according to UN data. However, if women end up at the bottom of the lists for national elections, they have no chance of being elected. Sweden has a quota system and women held 47% of its parliamentary seats in 2007.[xviii] Argentina passed a law in 1991 requiring that 1 in 3 candidates nominated for election to the legislature must be women. In France, a 1998 law required political parties to nominate an equal number of male and female candidates for elections, but parties often pay fines rather than comply. In Iraq, 25% of the seats in parliament are reserved for women, but they don’t have much power, and the Minister for Women’s Affairs, Nawal al-Samarraie, quit when the government cut her budget to $1,500 a month for the entire ministry.

By 2010, only 19% of parliament representatives were women, up from 11% in 1995.[xix] At the current rate of progress, it will take 40 years to reach gender parity in the world’s national legislatures.[xx] The highest numbers of women legislators were in Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa. Nine chambers lack any women at all, as in Saudi Arabia. Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in parliament because genocide killed so many people. The highest percent of women in lower or single legislatures were in these countries, 2007:

1. Rwanda – 48%

2. Sweden – 47%

3. Finland – 42%

4. Costa Rica – 39%

5. Norway – 38%

Although only 25% of EU national parliaments and senior ministers are female, Spain requires that women make up 50% of its cabinet and 50% of all company boards (quotas for women corporate board members are also required in Norway). Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Zapatero appointed an equal number of women and men to his Cabinet, including 31-year-old Bibiana Aído, head of a new Ministry for Equality. However, she was removed after three years due to budget cuts. Zapatero explained,


I’m not just antimachismo, I’m a feminist. One thing that really awakens my rebellious streak is 20 centuries of one sex dominating the other. We talk of slavery, feudalism, exploitation, but the most unjust domination is that of one half of the human race over the other half. The more equality women have, the fairer, more civilized and tolerant society will be. Sexual equality is a lot more effective against terrorism than military strength.”[xxi]


Neus, a Spanish graduate student, added:


Yes, the equality in the government cabinet is what he promised that would do if he got elected. It is the first step towards a more egalitarian job market, since we still have lower salaries for the same position that a man has in the private sector. And most of the high position jobs are given to men. I guess that the public sector is the one that has to model and demonstrate women’s abilities and then the private may follow. We are in the very beginning, but things are changing; we have to keep pushing for our rights!

   Activism for Gender Equality

The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project poll of people in 22 nations about gender equality, released in 2010, found that solid majorities support it and say inequality persists in their countries, as many believe that men have more access to better paid jobs.[xxii] Women are far more likely to think gender inequality is problematic. Nigerian men were the only exception to believing in equal rights. Muslim respondents—men more than women—are least likely to advocate equality and in fact their preference for equality in marriage has decreased over time in Nigeria and Pakistan. Attitudes towards marriage became more egalitarian over the decade in seven of 19 countries, as in Jordan, Russia, Poland, Lebanon, Mexico and the US.

Many people of various religions feel that when jobs are scarce, men have more right to a job, including mainly Muslim countries and India, China, South Korea and Nigeria. Men are more likely to have this view. When asked if it’s more important for a boy to have a university education than a girl, a majority agreed only in Egypt (50%), among Nigerian Muslims (50%), Pakistan (51%), and India (63%). When asked if men or women have better lives, about half agreed men did (more women than men) and about half said they were the same. The exceptions were South Korea and Japan where respondents thought women have a better life, perhaps because of men’s long work hours. It’s encouraging that advocacy of equality is increasing, but worrisome that it lags in Muslim countries.

What do women want? Only 10% of all young Europeans in a large survey favor keeping a strong distinction between men’s and women’s roles.[xxiii] Women want equal opportunity with men and not to be treated as inferior. They want equal pay for equal work. In the US, a woman earns only an average of 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns for full-time work, although women are half the workers. The wage gap is bigger for employed mothers and women of color, despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. For a college-educated woman, the wage losses over her lifetime are over one million dollars, compared to her male peers.

A telephone survey of US Generation Y women found almost half would like to be entrepreneurs  (47%) so they can be their own boss and balance career and family.[xxiv] Although most would like to see a woman President, they are not interested in holding political office or in being a CEO because of their focus on balance. Their top political issue is improving education.

Globally, women are taking a stand. Nala, a 16-year-old Maasai girl in Tanzania, helped organize support groups for Maasai women. In her twenties, she founded the Massai Women’s Forum, which now has over 30 chapters. It expanded from adult literacy classes to village nursery schools, loans to women’s groups, and girls’ education programs. It’s considered one of the few organizations that really help people by creating a social network to create change. Nala described her work as “to educate young Maasai women who are being forced to marry older men…to advocate the right of Massai women’s education, because Maasai women need to do something different and not just get married. ….We have a lot of girls fleeing from forced marriages and coming to MWF because many them need education support.” [xxv]

When Nala finished primary school, her father wanted her to marry. She put up a “big struggle” and refused to get married. She was strong-willed, given the nickname “half-man” by an uncle after she protected her family’s cattle herd from being stolen. Her male relatives were going on to secondary school and she wanted to go with them. Her cousin helped intercede with her father and tried to convince his father—an age group leader—to help her. After months of planning, disguised in a red blanket worn by Maasai men, at midnight she got in a waiting car of an educated Maasai friend of her cousin, who drove her to the capital city of Dar-es-Salaam. Her helpers talked her father into calling off the marriage and repaying the dowry. As 16, she began coordinating women’s groups.

Another woman activist in an extremely patriarchal society is Tawakkol Karman, a leader in the 2011 rebellion in Yemen, inspired by the youth uprising in Tunisia.  She’s known as the “mother of the revolution” and “iron woman.” She’s 32, a college-educated journalist, the mother of three children, active in the opposition party Islah. She organized protests and sis-ins beginning in 2007., campaigning for women’s rights and press freedoms. See her photo online.[xxvi] Yemeni women are often burka-clad with only their eyes showing, the majority is illiterate, and many girls are married off as children, their legal testimony worth half of men’s. Some held a veil burning to protest.

When asked to comment on this section, Ms. Karman emailed me via Facebook, “wonderful subject, but many women–especially from the new generation of young people–are wearing the veil only because the generation of young people in Yemen has more freedom than its predecessors.”‎  She stopped wearing the niqab, keeping the headscarf, in 2010 so she could be “face to face with my activist colleagues.” The demonstrations started at Sanaa University with ten people the day after Ben Ali left Tunisia. Men were surprised when Ms. Karman took the microphone to speak but they followed her and her Facebook and cell phone messages. After a week, she was acknowledged as the movement’s leader.

She was jailed in January but released after three days although thugs beat her and other protestors. Dictator Saleh told her brother, “Control your sister. Anyone who disobeys me will be killed.” The Muslim imams accused her of degrading the morals of Yemeni women. Saleh declared that women and men mingling in the demonstrations was a violation of Islam. A text message spread: “Saleh has brought shame upon his country’s women; meet tomorrow at 3.30 p.m. at Sanaa University for a women’s march of honor,” resulting in 10,000 women in black abayas marching through the capital on April 16. Ms. Karman said when her husband and father tell her to stop her activism, worried for her safety, “I ignore them, of course.” The demonstrations steadily grew to over a million protestors.

This is not her first foray into activism, as she previously led sit-ins at the Ministry of Social Affairs to gain the release of jailed journalists in her role as head of Women Journalists Without Chains. Framed photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Hillary Clinton sit on the mantel in her sitting room. She told a journalist that Clinton is her role model and she was inspired by Mandela’s memoir and Gandhi’s autobiography.[xxvii] She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize on October 7, 2011, along with the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Leymah Gbowee, peace activist in Liberia. She found out about the award where she has spent most days for eight months, in a protest tent in Change Square in central Sanaa.

Here is her analysis of the role of women in reducing terrorist extremism:[xxviii]


Women have more opportunities in challenging extremism and terrorism than men due to woman’s nature in having patience, containing others, hating killing and bloodshed and—more importantly—women have tremendous feelings of love and sacrifice towards their husbands, children, and communities that is enough to enhance the attitude of coexistence, respect, trust, and listening to the other. This, in turn, will lead drying the roots and sources of extremism. Extremism stems from the culture of rejecting the other and the culture of hating the other. Therefore, there is no solution other than spreading the culture of coexistence and dialogue, skills that women master and possess.

A Yemeni woman cannot be part of terrorism because she herself is suffering from terrorism. She is banned from taking part in public life, fearing she will mingle with men (which is forbidden). The intellectual terrorism that is practiced against woman by a large segment of men in the Yemeni society makes her ineffective in the public domain either politically or socially. A Yemeni woman without doubt has no role in recruiting or training terrorists in order to kill innocent people. If the policy of excluding women from public life and preventing her from effectively taking part in developing this country and challenging terrorism along with men continues, the culture of extremism will flourish and the ramifications will be disastrous.


Malalai Joya is a pseudonym for an Afghan feminist and youngest member of the Afghan parliament fears for her life. A documentary called Enemies of Happiness filmed her running for office in the country populated with the highest percent of young people. She was suspended from attending parliament because she spoke up very directly about the corrupt Karzai government’s embracing of violent warlords and the US support for this regime. ”Collateral damage” from western military has killed thousands of civilians, she protests. This in a country where she reports “killing a woman is like killing a bird,” rape goes unpunished every day, girls are still sold into marriage, and most (80%) women are illiterate. She has to travel with bodyguards because of the fundamentalists’ threats on her life, like Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali.[xxix] )

Her courage and outspoken commitment to freedom and literacy started as a teenager, when she taught Afghan women in refugee camps where she lived near Peshawar, Pakistan. She then risked her life to teach girls in secret schools under the Taliban, back in Afghanistan. It’s one time she was grateful for having to wear a burka that disguised the schoolbooks she carried. She tells her story in A Woman Among Warlords and continues to lobby for democracy in her country and for withdrawal of foreign troops. Like Tawakkol Karman who led the rebellion in Yemen, she had a supportive father and husband and was inspired by reading about revolutionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.[xxx] Ms. Joya’s list also includes Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Bhagat Singh, Saeed Sultanpur, and Victor Jara. The courage these three young women demonstrate in patriarchal societies is inspirational.


Margot Wallström, “A Womanly Virtue: Female Representation as Global Security Strategy,” Harvard International Review, May 1, 2011.

[vi] Editorial, “U.S. Moms Deserve Better,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 2011.

[viii] Claire Devlin and Robert Elgie,” The Effect of Increased Women’s Representation in Parliament: The Case of Rwanda,” Oxford Journals, February 3, 2008

[x] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Alfred a. Knopf, 2009, p. 197.

Women’s Campaign International coaches grassroots activists about how to achieve their goals and run for office.

[xii] Rita Banerji,

The 50 Million Missing Campaign

[xiv] Lynn Harris, “Female Heads of State.” Glamour Magazine, November 1, 2010.

[xv] Deborah Solomon, “Questions for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” New York Times Magazine, August 23, 2009.

[xvi] Lynn Harris, “Female Heads of State.” Glamour Magazine, November 1, 2010.

[xvii] Gbowee wrote Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, 2011. She’s featured in a documentary, Abby Disney’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 2009.

[xviii] Michelle Nichols, “Share of Female Lawmakers Hits New Global High,” March 1, 2007

[xix] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report,” June 15, 2010, p. 25.

[xx] Helen Clark comments about the impact of women in government.–international-womens-leadership-conference.en;jsessionid=axbWzt…?categoryID=593043&lang=en

[xxii] “Gender Equality Universally Embraced, But Inequalities Acknowledged,” July 1, 2010.

[xxiii] Young People Facing the Future: An International Survey. Foundation Pour L’Innovation Politique, directed by Anna Stellinger, p. 31. An email survey of 17,000 people aged 16 to 29 in 17 countries in 2007.

[xxiv] 500 women aged 18-29 Willow Bay, March 23, 2007, Huffington Post Similar findings were reported in

[xxv] P. 157 Benjamin Gardner

[xxvi]  Sudarsan Raghavan, “In Yemen, Female Activist Strives for Egyptian-like Revolution,” Washington Post, February 15, 2011

[xxvii] Dexter Filkins, “Letter From Yemen,” The New Yorker, April 11, 2011.

[xxviii]Letter from Tawakkol Karman to Women Without Borders, February 2, 2010.

[xxix] Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Infidel. Free Press, 2007. See also Fadumo Korn. Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2006.

[xxx] Malalai Joya. A Woman Among Warlords. Scribner, 2009, p. 33.

Women in Muslim Nations

Women in Muslim Nations

In a Global Gender Gap Report, all 14 of the Arab countries ranked in the bottom 30.[i] In a 2009 survey of 15,000 youths, 67% of the female respondents believe it’s OK for a husband to beat his wife if she speaks to another man.[ii] This ownership of women’s bodies continued in the 2011 revolution when around 18 young women protestors were tested for their virginity, supposedly to find out if they were prostitutes. No women were on recent committees to shape policy and the constitution, despite women having the right to vote since 1956.

Some Muslim feminists point to progressive steps taken by the Prophet on women’s behalf and look to his youngest wife, Ayisaha, whose writings or hadith are quoted in shar’ia Islamic teachings. An interesting note is Muslim women were initially reluctant to participate in street protests in Egypt because of a history of widespread sexual harassment in a male-dominated crowd. However, the demonstrators were very respectful of women as organizers urged a peaceful protest—“purity” was the theme. Alia Mustafa El Sadda, a 20-year-old law student at Cairo University, protested with her mother, aunt, and two younger sisters because the demonstrations were the “only chance” for change.[iii] She said the protest was unique in its high number of women, and the respectful way the men related to them. See the Equality chapter for my interview with three women activists in Tahrir Square.



Today in a lot of countries like India, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia and even in my own country, girls are given less importance than guys or considered a burden sometimes. Even in really developed areas of those countries girls are less trusted by parents. Part of it is because they are considered the honor of the family, and their respect is considered a respect of the family. And part of it is because parents in these countries give a lot more importance to what society says. Today in these countries, if a girl is raped and loses her respect, the parents who still love her as their child, force her to commit suicide for the fear of what society will say. But society never says anything to that guy who committed rape. If a family has limited resources than their son’s wishes are usually priority.

When we were young we realized in our house we sisters were given more love and rights than our brothers, which was really unusual. But I think my father was born with that kind of heart and when he saw how people hate their daughters or consider them less loveable than sons, mostly because girls increase the burden on poor parents. Their marriage requires a lot more money. And then there is a very wrong tradition of giving money and property to a daughter when she is being married. All these things forced parents to consider their daughter a burden. My father wants for a girl to not to feel herself less capable than boys and less important than boys.

I shouldn’t go out without my dad or my elder brother with me. Society won’t think it right. And society matters a lot here, especially in a small city where I live, it matters a lot more for a girl to go out alone and I don’t want anyone to talk bad about my dad. I have been very depressed about my college plans since I’m not getting very many opportunities to go out and search, being a girl coming in the way. [She got into medical school with her excellent exam scores.] Sahar, 17, f, Pakistan


I asked Hassan to film villages near his home in Peshawar. I told him I was surprised that the people on the street, the children playing, were all male except I saw two women in purdah walking down the street. Hassan explained,


I was new to the village. They saw me for the first time with the camera. The women outside quickly went to their homes because they are scared of their men and they know that they are supposed to be inside at such times. We are talking about people who are absolutely confined to their own homes and not go out a lot. I live in Peshawar and we do have some exposure to girls. For example, we have co-education here. Women go out of their homes to markets, interact in schools, colleges, universities, cafes, etc. Villages have different lives than cities.


I also asked him about the role of women in Islam (the S.A.W. is respect to the prophet’s name, a calling for Allah’s blessing):


Women are surely a degree less than men when it comes to basic powers. Men are seen to be authoritative figure, just like every modest society. Wives are entitled to obey their husbands and speak to them in a lower tone. Women are supposed to cover themselves completely once they go out and interact with other men. In fact, their tone shall also be loud and to the point so the opposite person doesn’t hold anything in his heart. [I asked if this means they shouldn’t flirt and he said yes.] When it comes to business affairs, or for example, it’s a phone call, she should have an erect, serious voice to avoid controversies.

 Please keep in mind that this doesn’t take any credit away from the importance of women in Islam. Islam has made tireless struggles in the Dark Age to make sure women get their divine rights. Women are also considered very respectful in the society. In fact, there is a saying by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), “Paradise is under the feet of mother”. He (S.A.W) means to say that if you want to win the paradise, if you want to achieve the eternal life, win your mother’s heart. There are also many other examples and quotes from Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W), which shows that women hold an important place in the society.


Saudi Arabia

A college student told me about gender roles in his country in an interview:


In Saudi Arabia, the only time girls and boys interact is in pre-school. If you go to friends’ homes, boys don’t eat with girls or play together. Girls might make cookies together, make crafts, or play clapping games, and boys play sports like soccer. Girls cover their hair with hijab—headscarf. When it’s time to get married, my mother or aunt will look for a wife for me. I’d like a tall woman, not fat, from my town, who will be a good mother. My mother quit teaching high school when she had her first son.

Mohsen, 19, m, Saudi Arabia


An American journalist who taught young journalists in Saudi Arabia reported on gender relations in his HBO special, My Trip to al-Qaeda.[iv] Lawrence Wright said the men are “nearly incapacitated by longing.” Some young men refer to the burka-clad women as BMO, “black moving objects.” He was “constantly flabbergasted by the lack of understanding between the sexes. I had thought Saudi women would be a force for change, but this was not really true.” There’s no civil society, nothing for young people to do but shop. He said as kind of a joke what civilizes young men is the desire to please girlfriends, but in reality segregating the sexes does lead to deviant behavior and subordination of women. A Saudi woman told me that because of all the regimentation, everything happens underground.

King Abdullah has made some progressive steps, founding the kingdom’s first co-ed university and giving women the right to vote and run for local office in the local advisory councils (no lawmaking power) starting with the 2015 elections. There are no national elections. He hasn’t yet overturned the the policy of male guardianship, putting Saudi women in the legal status of minors, or the ban on women driving. He did overturn a court’s decree of 10 lashes for a woman caught driving in a protest movement. As a consequence, the average woman spends half her income on a driver and protests have sputtered off and on since 1990.[v] One of their Facebook pages is “Support #Women2Drive.” A Saudi feminist, Wajeha al-Huwaider called the kingdom “the world’s largest women’s prison.”



When the young Taliban men took over in Afghanistan (1996 to 2001), they ruled that girls and women couldn’t be educated, employed, or walk on the street without a male family member walking with them–leaving widows in a real bind. Violence against women by their husbands wasn’t punished. They also required men to grow a beard. Traditional practices keep women subordinate as films illustrate.[vi] The movie Osama portrays an Afghan widow and her daughter living under the Taliban. They disguise her as a boy so they can go out of the house, but she’s discovered when she’s forced to attend a madrassa school. In his book A Thousand Splendid Suns Haled Hosseini describes the hardships women endured under the Taliban. His book and movie The Kite Runner tells the story from boys’ experience, as portrayed in the movie of the same name. This movie shows prejudice against the Hazara ethnic group by the ruling Pashtuns (the Taliban are Pashtun) and the practice of bacha baz explained below.

Even after the Taliban were overthrown by the US in 2001, they’re still bombing girls’ schools and throwing acid at girls who attend school. Most women still aren’t educated and depend on their husbands, but over 300 Muslim women protested in the capital of Afghanistan, April 2009. They were called whores by some of the men who supported religious restrictions on women’s rights. A 2009 law gave Shia minority husband the right to refuse to provide food for his wife if she refuses to have sex with him, a woman must have her husband’s permission to work, and only men have legal custody of their children, as in the 19th century in the West.[vii] The women delivered a petition to Parliament to repeal the 2009 law that permits Shiite Muslim husbands to rape their wives, requires a husband’s permission for a woman to go to school or work outside the home, and requires that if a husband wants his wife to dress up or “make herself up” she must obey.

Women live in fear in Afghanistan. “I get threatening calls almost every day asking why I think I am important enough to work in an office,” said Fouzia Ahmed, 25, a government secretary in Kabul. “The truth is, no women feel safe here. We are always threatened. That’s why we need the eyes of the world.” An Afghan woman is shown on a Time magazine cover, her ears and nose chopped off by her husband’s family because she tried to run away from domestic abuse.[viii] The local judge, a Taliban commander, allowed it. (The 18-year-old is currently being sheltered in New York City after having reconstructive surgery on her face.)

Afghan men can’t talk to an unrelated woman unless engaged to her. Segregating the sexes, however, leads to perverted sexuality and pedophilia, as in the Afghan Pashtun practice of bacha baz, young boys kept as lovers by older men. “How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face? We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful,” explained a 29-year-old man.[ix] A common expression is, “Women are for children, boys are for pleasure.”

An innovative model program to train slum women to earn money was set up as part of an Indian billion-dollar aid program for Afghanistan. The training takes place in a guarded Kabul park where men are not allowed. Women and girls can take off their burqas, play on the swings, and learn organic farming, sewing, and literacy. A 19-year-old girl commented, “This is the one place that’s ours. For us, home is so boring. Our streets and shops are not for women.”[x] A former member of the Afghan parliament, a feminist, Malalai Joya described her experience in her book A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice published in 2011 when she was 32. When she spoke up in parliament about corruption, they turned off the microphone and her life was threatened to the point she had to leave parliament.



Some fundamentalist Islamic leaders see women as the source of all kinds of trouble, even earthquakes. In 2010, an Iranian cleric in Tehran blamed potential earthquakes on women. Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi explained, “Many women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society which increases earthquakes.”[xi] A global campaign tried to prevent Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old widow and mother of two, convicted of adultery in Iran, from being stoned to death. In one day alone, 500,000 responded to an Internet call for save her and her sentence was suspended.

A tourist in Iran in 2010, Sheila Collins reported to me about segregation of the sexes,


What surprised me is there is a very close bond of friendship between the boys starting at a young age. You see them everywhere–high school, college–with arms around each other, sometimes holding hands, greeting each other with real warmth and affection. [I saw the same in Egypt.] According to our Iranian guide these friendships are so strong they last through adulthood. Perhaps it is because they are segregated from girls from the beginning in school, etc. I was so glad to see young people – boys and girls – sitting on the grass, on benches acting pretty much the way we did when that age. There were no duennas around to keep an eye on them. Cities were less conservative and the young women often made fashion statements out of their Jaballahs and headscarfs. I hear rumors that things are tightening up because the ayatollahs see creeping western influence. Religion is there, that’s for sure, but many young people seem to be very much making up their own minds.


Ali, a young Iranian, told me that when his niece, age 18, and her boyfriend were eating dinner in a restaurant, neighbors called the police because it’s illegal for an unmarried couple to be together and even spouses can’t show affection in public. The boy was taken to the police station and the girl’s parents were called to pick her up. When Ali was a teen, boys and girls would gather in the gardens or the beach where the police wouldn’t see them. They would sometimes drink alcohol, although that’s illegal too. There’s no dance clubs, no bars. The guitar, chess and playing pool used to be illegal and playing cards still are outlawed. He said in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait they make a big deal out of prohibiting alcohol, although people manage to consume it, as they did during Prohibition in the US.

Women are a majority of university students, but leaders are discussing plans to segregate classes there too. I asked him why more women are in universities. He said they want independence or a good husband so they study harder. He added that it’s difficult for poor women and men to go to university because there are no student loans and it’s hard to get scholarships.

Since women led some of the Green Revolution protests against election fraud in 2009, this female activism is called “the lipstick revolution.”[xii] Women’s rights groups also organized the One Million Signatures Campaign in 2006 to change discriminatory laws against women, such as only husbands have the right to initiate divorce and have custody of their children. Men can be polygamous and have “temporary” marriages to have sex.[xiii] Dozens of women involved in the effort have been harassed, jailed or executed by the government.[xiv] When Neda Aga-Saltan was killed by a sniper on the street while demonstrating against the unfair elections of June 2009, she became a worldwide symbol of resistance. The video of her death went viral. Other women wore Neda masks and carried signs saying “I am Neda,” as shown in a documentary about her.[xv] The regime made a DVD of their version of her death to try to counter its power.

Islamic extremists continue their restrictions on women. In Iran, since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the law mandates that women cover their hair and wear long coats in public. Patrols search the streets of Tehran looking for “loose morality,” meaning signs of modernism like loose-fitting veils, short coats, or being too suntanned. The Interior Minister developed a “chastity plan” to promote the proper covering from kindergarten on up. An expatriated Iranian writes graphic novels about growing up under the extremists: You can view some of her drawings on YouTube.[xvi]

All the characters in the film Ten (2002) are women, except for the seven-year-old-son of the main character, who one after the other converse with the driver of a car. It shows male control in the way the boy tells his mother want to do and is rude to her. The mother/driver says the only way she could get out of an unfulfilling marriage to the boy’s father who wanted to “own me,” is by lying to the divorce court, saying he was a drug addict. A prostitute tells the driver that married women sell sex wholesale, while women of the street sell it retail, however the driver took action to divorce and marry a man who is a good friend. She repeats that you must love yourself before you love someone else, but the film ends with her son telling her where to go (to his grandmother’s home) and she complies.



Nawal El Saadawi was born in village near Cairo in 1931 when the British ruled Egypt, as she explains in her two autobiographies about a woman who breaks with tradition. She later joined other girls in her high school to break down the metal door to their boarding school to join a protest march against the British. Big landowners owned most of the agricultural land, not the peasants who took their young girls out of school to help work around the house. Although her relatives were disappointed about the birth of a girl, her parents were loving and supportive of her and her education, as her father was an educator and she was a bright student.

Early on her parents bowed to family pressure from her aunts and uncles and grandmother to search for a husband for her, starting when she was only 10. She found ways to scare off the suitors, like blackening her teeth and smiling to show them off to one unappealing man whose coffee she spilled in his lap while tripping on new high heels. This tactic earned her a “sound trashing” but kept her single. She later picked her own husbands, three of them over time, with two divorces. Starting at age 11, she was no longer allowed to go out of the house to play with other children in the fields, kept inside to safely do domestic tasks. Her parents did allow her to go to live with her aunt to go to school in Cairo.

Her parents struggled to find funds to send five sisters and three brothers to private schools (the government schools were crowded and the teachers not well educated). Because her mother insisted, Nawal continuing going to school rather than marrying. She went on to medical school where boys and girls were not supposed to have friendships—even conversations, and sex or circumcision practices weren’t mentioned in class. Students memorized information, but didn’t practice doing surgeries. She went on to become one of the few women doctors, receiving her degree in 1955, and then to be director of public health education for the government.

While working as a rural doctor, she saw the hardships women suffered from male relatives, like the girl married off at age nine to a man 50 years older. He literally drove her crazy by having painful anal intercourse while she was bent over in prayer. She thought Allah was hurting her. Dr. El Saadawi knew girls who burned themselves or drowned themselves in the Nile to escape this kind of cruelty, as did the girl mentioned previously. Her feminist writings led to her dismissal as director, and later to jail and exile where she taught university students and wrote autobiographies and novels.

Her name was on a fundamentalist death list, so it wasn’t safe to stay in Egypt, and she left in 1993. One threatening letter to her said,


             You are a heretic, an enemy of Islam, an instrument of the Devil. You are the woman who caused Adam to be chased out of Paradise, and brought death and destruction with her.. . . The slogan of your immoral association, “unveiling of the mind,” is heresy. [She founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and it’s magazine Noon.] Do you not know that Allah commends all Muslim women to wear the veil? The veil is sacred and you are inciting women to disobey Allah. Women like you deserve only death.[xvii]


The most striking theme of Dr. El Saadawi’s autobiographies is the cruelty with which girls and women are treated, by both sexes. The custom in her village was that a bridegroom should beat his bride with a stick before she ate any of his food to make the point he ruled over her on earth, just as Allah rules from Heaven. The Korean teaches “to the male a share equal to two females,” so her grandmother gave the boys twice as much as the girls. Love was also haram, sinful, forbidden, despite all the love songs on the radio that didn’t mention marriage. But boys had a saying, “Nothing shames a man but his pocket,” since not having money is the only thing to cause shame.[xviii] She writes about her aunt and others like her, “It was the cruelty that had grown in them through suppression, the steam held back under pressure until their bodies were filled with it to bursting point.”[xix]

She is critical of Islam, as when she points out men are promised 72 perpetual virgins for eternity. Reading the sayings of the Prophet, she was surprised to learn that sexual pleasure was confined to men whose virgins would say to him, “In Paradise, there is nothing better than you, nothing that I like more than being with you.” She explained, “Everything in a woman’s life was seen as shameful, even her face.”[xx] Women are the daughters of Eve, responsible for sin, impure during menstruation when they’re not to be touched and not to mention Allah’s name in prayer. When she was six, without warning, a midwife grabbed her and cut off her impure clitoris with a razor, saying it was God’s will.

A Muslim teen in Pakistan, Hassan gives his perspective on women in Islam:


In the dark ages, when Arabs were so lost that they’d bury their newborn daughters, it was hard for them to groom up as a moral person. With Islam, new laws were imposed on the people. It says that women can’t leave their houses without proper covering, that is needed, and in addition, they are not equal to men. It’s also, realistically, hard for them to make it to mosques on daily basis. At the grand union of Muslims in Saudi Arabia every year, called HAJJ, men and women pray together and there is no discrimination. They even stand together. There are also mosques in Muslim countries where there’s a separate space for women to pray. So there isn’t as such a restriction. Men are guided to go since it’s convenient. Women can’t since it doesn’t fit in the society. And as we know human nature, when a man and woman interact, the third person around is the Devil so it leads to destruction in the society.


After the Youth Revolution of 2011, she founded the Egyptian Union for Women (EUW) in March.[xxi] A staff member, Sally Ali El-haak, age 18, emailed:


I knew Nawal from her writings, my parents are totally against her and that caused many problems in home! They were against me because I’m so rebel and upset from this sick society! I met Nawal for the 1st time on October 2010, we were some youth gathering at her place to discus political issues and secularism and her books. It’s a monthly forum she tried to fund it 20 years ago and after the revolution, Moubarak and his regime won’t obstacle her again. So, Me, Omar Ahmed, and Dina Amiri are her assistants in the EUW.


Another EUW staff person who calls himself a feminist, Omar Ahmed has done a lot for a 21-year-old. Social media officer for Sony Ericsson in Cairo since he was a teenager, he studies foreign trade at Helwan University, participated in the Tahrir Square revolution in 2011, and is the only male staff member for the organization committee at the new Egyptian Union for Women. He believes he only has one life so he invests in it fully. His parents are liberal, although his mother wears hijab, since she considers it her duty as a Muslim woman. Omar adds that most young women who also wear hagib couldn’t recite verses from the Koran that require veiling. His feminist beliefs started when he was a boy and his nanny read to him, as about Qasim Amin, a 19th century writer. Amin wrote, “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.” Amin opposed veils for women as a symbol of slavery.

Omar comments more on the ups and downs of women’s rights in Egyptian history, stating that under King Farouk women had the right to vote and go to school, but when he was overthrown by army officers in 1952, women lost ground. President Sadat’s rule in the 1970s brought Islamic fundamentalism to the fore, influenced by Saudi Arabian traditions. It lives on in the Muslim Brotherhood, whose older members view women as the gateway to hell because of Eve’s sin, not fully human. The younger Muslim Brotherhood members are talking about breaking away and forming their own organization advocating a secular government.

Omar believes these traditionalists have the majority support in the villages. The Egyptian education system teaches obedience to parents, teacher, and boss. Around six TV channels are Islamic. The Brotherhood had 88 members of Parliament under President Mubarak, officially labeled independents since religious parties were outlawed. Omar fears that Muslim Brotherhood majorities in the new Parliament would create a new constitution like Iran’s. However, he thinks that now as a legal party their hidden funding sources will be monitored and that will be helpful, like germs die in the sunlight. Although out of 80 million Egyptians, only 6 to 7 million are on Facebook, it’s expanding to the villages where Omar thinks it will gradually counter the influence of fundamentalists. Facebook members have doubled since the revolution.

The February revolution didn’t have a plan or a unified leadership, it’s main goal being to get Mubarak out. Omar participate because he felt it was his duty to be there with his friends to achieve freedom. He’d been to a few demonstrations before the revolution, but wasn’t a member of a political party or movement. Since the protests started on January 25 women were represented and sometimes the majority. They were the first to bring blankets to sleep in the square. They were attacked by the police and threw stones when the camel drivers entered the square to attack the protestors, just like the men. It was like one big family of 5 to 6 million. No one brought up religion, gender, or age as everyone had the same goal. Will Dr. El Saadawi’s Egyptian Union for Women make a dent in feminist reform?



            Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali described her evolution away from her Muslim beliefs in her book Infidel.[xxii] She tells us Mohammad consummated his marriage with his young wife Ayisha when she was only nine and playing with dolls, although some Muslims say she was older.[xxiii] Ayaan was raised in her early childhood in tribal society in Somalia where her illiterate grandmother was a nomad, married against her will at age 13. The family would pack their mats onto camels and move to another place every month or so to find more water and pasture. They believed not only in Allah, but also the influence of Djinns (spirits) and ancestors. Loyalty to one’s clan was all-important. Later, in Kenya, she observed increasing reliance on tribal affiliation and religious tradition as the government fell apart due to corruption.

Her grandmother insisted she and her sister suffer genital cutting and the resulting pain of their future husbands breaking through scar tissue on the wedding night without foreplay or any sex education from parents. Otherwise girls would be considered dirty, not pure and unmarriageable. A woman is supposed to be baarri, a pious slave who submits to her father, then her husband. Submission is the message girls and women get. They can’t go outside without their father’s permission and are taken from school and married off when they’re girls. Her father was a political leader who moved the family to Saudi Arabia where Ms. Ali saw her first toy at age eight. She heard the word haram—forbidden–every day. Boys and girls playing together was haram, as was taking a bus with men, or having a headscarf fall off even with no males around. The Saudi boys were in charge at home, telling their mothers and sisters what to do. One tactic was to blacken her teeth when meeting a suitor who came to her parents’ home to look her over.)

(To update haram, in 2010, Saudi religious police tried to punish three young people who appeared on an MTV show for “openly declaring sin.” On the show, one of the youths said,  “We are not free to live as we like.” The episode showed how Aziz tries to meet his girlfriend for a date, unacceptable in the kingdom. “I feel great solace when I talk to her,” he said in his declaration of sin. In the same year, four women and 11 men were sentenced to flogging and prison terms for mingling at a party in the northern town of Ha’il.)

Ms. Ali’s family moved to Nairobi in 1980. Her Muslim Girls’ School followed the British system with O level exams at the end of year 11 and A levels in year 13. Some of the teachers hit the students when they made mistakes. A devout teacher warned them to beware of Western decadence, “the corrupt, licentious, perverted, idolatrous, money-grubbing, soulless countries of Europe.” However, once she learned to read English, she started reading western novels she got from the library, where girls and boys were more equal, as in Harlequin romance novels, European fairy tales, Nancy Drew detective stories, the adventures of Enid Blighton, the Secret Seven, and the Famous Five. In literature class they read novels including 1984, Huckleberry Finn, The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Cry, the Beloved Country.

The novels countered the traditional belief that love and sex were lowly and that love marriages were a stupid mistake that forfeited your clan’s protection if your husband left you. Without a clan protector, a girl could be raped and left to die without honor. Another example of western culture was her brother listened to “devil music” tapes of Michael Jackson until his mother threw out them out the window. When they visited family back in Mogadishu, Somalia, they watched Indian movies and Arab soap operas on TV.

After Nairobi, she ended up in living in the Netherlands. Her father decided to marry her to a Canadian Somali without consulting her, just as he took another wife without telling her mother. When her plane landed in Frankfort she decided not to continue her flight to Canada to join her new fiancé. She took the train to the Netherlands and applied for refugee status. She worked as a translator, got into an excellent university to study political science, and was elected to parliament. She was critical of funding Muslim schools where children weren’t encouraged to ask questions and told not to be friends with unbelievers. Although she considers herself Dutch, she and her guards are now in the US because of extremist Muslim immigrants’ threats to her life due to her criticism of the Islamic treatment of women and children. Her partner in a film about this topic, Submission, was killed by a Muslim extremist so Dutch authorities took threats to kill her seriously. (As an update, in the Dutch election of 2010, the anti-Islam party called the Freedom Party did its best finish with 24 seats out of 150 parliamentary seats. The winning VVD party (The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) continued a European shift to the political right by advocating cuts in government spending and limiting immigration.)

In the US in 2007, Ms. Ali set up the AHA foundation to help protect and defend the rights of women in the West against militant Islam.[xxiv] She warns against excusing crimes in the name of tolerance of cultural differences:[xxv]
Feminists need to be wary of the celebration of “cultural diversity” unless they want to inadvertently celebrate polygamy, child-marriage, marital rape, honor killings, wife beating, selective abortion of female fetuses and other traditions that are now legitimized in the name of culture. . . Westerners run many aid programs in non-Western nations. Most of these programs are value-neutral, and pose no challenge to the cultures of recipient nations. That must change.


A hopeful note is a 2004 film, The Syrian Bride, about the complexities of life on the border between Israel and Syria. The sister of the bride is an Arab woman who lives in a traditional Druze village in the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. She had raised her children and wants to go to university to be a social worker.  Her husband doesn’t want her to go, telling her the villagers will say, “Your wife wears the pants. You’ll shame me, people will say I can’t control my wife.” At the end of the film she walks away from a family gathering for the wedding, on her own, implying that she will attend university.

In Lemon Tree, 2008, the same actress, Hiam Abbass, played a Palestinian widow who refuses to allow the Israeli government to cut down her lemon grove as a security measure when the Defense Minister moves next to her. The actress grew up in a village and reported that her own father doesn’t think acting is an acceptable profession for a woman, but she does it anyway. Some Muslim nations are changing: A Jordanian young woman with a master’s degree, Nebaal Mhade emailed me: “The old imperative that the girls stay at home, this thing was old, in the meantime, the girls compete with men in all areas of work and just the opposite, it is now becoming the pride of her family.”

A young Algerian activist tells about her rise to leadership:


I have been involved in political work since my adolescence–then an elected municipal councilor and member and spokesperson in several international bodies and committees. I am currently working for International NGOs in Maghreb Region, willing to see some progress made for women and within their daily lives.

            These past experiences and my day-to-day work as a political official and leader in Algeria have taught me numerous important lessons: As a woman in a male-dominated society I have to live under a double standard, constantly being forced to do better work than the other(s) (men) in order to defend my position, while being constantly discriminated against for what I think, say or do because I am a woman. This painful experience nevertheless has provided me with the necessary self-esteem and self-assertiveness that is crucial to possess in order to make a difference in society. Algeria must abandon its discriminatory Family Code, adopted in 1984, even though amended in 2004, which has relegated women to the status of legal minors. Kahina, ?, f, Algeria[xxvi]

Despite sex segregation and oppression, educated Muslim women are breaking tradition.


[i] “Survey of Young People in Egypt: Young People’s Attitudes Toward Gender Roles, “Population Council, 2009.

[iii] Jenna Krajeski, “Women Are a Substantial Part of Egyptian Protests,” Slate, January 27, 2011.

[v] Robin Morgan, “Keys to the Kingdom,” Ms. Magazine, Summer, 2011.

[vi] Osama, 2003, is about a 12-year-old girl whose widowed mother disguises her as a boy so they can go outside—based on a true story, the first Afghan film after the fall of the Taliban. 2003 Divorce Iranian Style, 1998, was shot in a divorce court. Runaway, 2001, was filmed at a shelter for runaway girls and abused women in Tehran.

[ix] Joel Brinkley, “Afghanistan’s Dirty Secret: Pedophilia,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 29, 2010, p. E8.


An exile in Sweden, Parvin Ardalan co-edits a website Change for Equality iran ( Her website includes links to international news about women’s rights.

[xvii] Nawal El Saadawi. Walking Through the Fire. London, Zed Books, 2002.

[xviii] Ibid, p. 312.

[xix] Nawal El Saadawi. A Daughter of Isis. London: Zed Books, 1999, p 235.

[xx] Ibid., p 11.

[xxii] Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Infidel. Free Press, 2007. See also Fadumo Korn. Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2006. She was also the victim of female genital mutilation.

Status of Women in India

Women in India, a Democracy and Future Super Power

In India, where uneducated women are expected to obey their fathers and then their husbands, some are rebelling against violence and injustice. When Sampat Pal was a little girl in India, her parents wouldn’t let her go to school, so she wrote the alphabet on village walls and floors. They finally agreed to send her to school, but removed her when she was 12 to marry a man 13 years older. A year later she had the first of her five children. At 18, she started meeting with local organizations to work on women’s health issues and fight against child marriage, dowry abuse, and domestic violence. Her husband didn’t like her speaking with men but, “He supports me now,” she said. She reported, “There used to be a pervasive feeling of helplessness, a collective belief that fighting back is just not possible, but that is slowly changing.”[i]

She organized the Gulabi (Pink) Sari Gang in 2006 to help victims of domestic violence. She told her group of women, “To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force. We function in a man’s world where men make all the rules. Our fight is against injustice.” The group started with a few women and spread to villages throughout the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The women use clubs and bamboo batons to influence wife beaters, rapists, and corrupt government officials to change. One of the members whose husband used to beat her reported he stopped when she joined the gang; “I learned that the more you suffer silently, the more your oppressor will oppress you.”

When a landlord raped a teenage girl, he paid the police not to investigate. The Pink Gang called the police chief and he got on the case. In 2008 the group discovered that a government shop that was supposed to give free grain to the poor was in fact selling it. The pink-clad women stopped the trucks carrying grain to the illegal market by deflating the tires and taking the drivers’ keys. They pressured government officials to get the grain to the poor. Ms. Pal also teaches women job skills such as weaving plates from leaves and sewing. (See endnote for other youth activists in the news. [ii]) The gang had over 20,000 members by 2008. A movie called Pink Saris was released in 2010, with excerpts online.[iii]

In another pink protest, when Hindu activists criticized a movie star for living with a man without being married and filed criminal suits against her for leading young people astray, the incident outraged thousands of Indian women, who responded in 2010 by collecting many pairs of pink panties and sending them to the Hindu organization behind the attack.

Reeni, a 17-year old female student from India stated, “I want my country to ensure greater safety for women in India. Women should be able to travel and work on their own without worrying about their security. They should get respect and be treated as equals at their workplaces or even while walking on the road or sitting in a bus.”[iv] An Indian male student, Deepak, 18, said he’d like to do away with “self-immolation,” which still is sometimes performed by young brides and widows and he also mentions the problem of slavery.

A high school girl reports,


Women’s liberation is a myth, considering the worsened condition of the fairer sex in the social setup. Though women have increased their contact with the outer world, have reached the pinnacle of success and are now at par with men in all fields, inside the homes, it is the same old story. It is women who carry out all the household. Men are not bothered at all about the extra load that women carry. Moreover, crimes against women refuse to subside. Rape, harassment, dowry, infanticide–the females have to bear it all. To add to this, the society still feels that ladies are inferior to men; it is still male-dominated society.

Garima, teen, f, India


Rajni Jaimini, a high school teacher in Delhi, reports that sex roles are changing. Although her architect husband doesn’t get home until around 9:30 PM, he gets the children ready for school in the morning, and her father-in-law greets them with a snack after he picks them up from school. Although her parents didn’t want her to date in college, some girls who came from outside of Delhi without parental supervision had sex with various boys. They tried to keep it a secret because men want to marry a virgin. What Rajni appreciates about western values is more freedom for women, but she wants to preserve the extended family with the grandparents providing childcare, love, and free place to live. She’s also happy with her arranged marriage, glad she didn’t have to play the dating game.

She reports harassing women, called Eve teasing, is still a problem on the streets and in public transport in the North. The boys are usually migrants from villages who are not used to seeing girls’ legs; they whistle and make comments as happens in the US too. Some universities try to diminish it by banning women from wearing jeans and short skirts. Prevention of dowry burning is the goal of government legislation that permits the groom and his family to be jailed if the bride complains about mistreatment. To deal with overpopulation, Rajni reports government health clinics are widespread where women can pick up free condoms for their husbands or get other forms of birth control from a doctor like IUDs and pills. Women can choose to get sterilized during the hospital birth of their last child.

A novel called Miss New India looks at changing roles of young women. Anjali Bose, 19, is a business college student in the state of Bihar in North East India. Her parents are typically obsessed with the search—including Internet sites–to find her a good husband from similar Kayastha caste and Bengali background, despite not having much of a dowry to offer a suitor. They’re traditional lower middle-class, eating fish and rice with their fingers and the women taking a bath in a sari, the daughters sleeping next to her mother. Anjali wondered, “Marriage equated to servitude, like her mother’s and sister’s. But if not in marriage, how did a woman in Bangalore live?”[v] Her American English teacher urges her, as one of his best students with a special “spark,” to go to Bangalore in the south to find a job in a call center. He hopes she’ll avoid early marriage to someone her parents select and a repetition of her parents’ squabbling and unhappiness.

Suitors like to do home visits where they can assess “the mother’s modesty, the father’s authority, the spontaneous hospitality, the obsequiousness of the staff, the absence of ostentation.”[vi] Anjali agrees to meet an attractive man who her family allows her to spend six hours with him in his red rental car after finding him suitable. He rapes her in the car. That night, while her parents sleep, she escapes to Bangalore in jeans and T-shirt, suffering groping and fear while traveling alone. Her English teacher found a boarding house and lent her money to get her established, taking a crash course on how to do service calls for Americans, learning about US TV shows, chain store names, and sport metaphors.

As an attractive woman, Anjali is befriended in Bangalore by a man she calls Mr. GG whose wife refused to leave the US. He comments about his wife, “I find American-raised Indian girls too independent. They lack true family feeling.”[vii]  Anjali agrees to have sex with him once, but doesn’t accept his offer to travel with him outside of India.  She decided, “If I’m to give myself away, it might as well be to a well-established man who saved me and performed favors and kindnesses. A well-connected man who would owe me.” She gets caught in the midst of a terrorist plot, and Mr. GG rescues her. After being in jail, the police offer asks her why she didn’t let him know she had connections.

Her English teacher told her that historically India isn’t structured around networking and contacts, but around family and community, which falls apart in a big city like Bangalore with people from all over India. She makes her own network; her new connection with Mr. GG gets her a job as a telephone debt collector and she finds a wealthy family who takes her in like a daughter. Could she have made these connections without being an attractive tall green-eyed woman? She tells her new friends they’re part of a social revolution and someone asks, “Are we riding a tiger, have we started something we can’t control?” Anjali realizes her parents’ generation’s fight was to establish an independent India, which was achieved, but “I’m terrified, tempted, and corrupted by the infusion of vast sums of new capital.”[viii] Mr. GG writes in a newspaper column “’The New Miss Indias will transform our country. Dynamo is inflamed by the new species of tiger-lamb.” It’s not clear how Anjali is a tiger, since she depends on men to rescue her.

Since India is a BRIC nation, one of the rising economic superpowers, we need to understand if it will continue in the conservative patriarchal direction practiced by the 80% who live in villages. Or will India expand on the dedication to equality of some of the educated elite who live in urban areas—considered decadent and westernized by traditionalists. The three catastrophic issues facing India in this century are population explosion, the AIDS epidemic (over 2.5 million people with HIV) and female genocide—all are sex related.[ix] Yet sexuality is a taboo subject, despite the fact that India may overtake China as the most populous nation before 2030. Over half of Indians are under 22, childbearing age.

In Sex and Power, Rita Bannerji analyzes this important question in terms of the horrifying treatment of women, which fits the definition of genocide: abortion of girls, female infanticide, child brides (about 65% of girls marry before the legal age of 18), dowry murders (an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 yearly[x]), polyandry where a girl is married to brothers—catching on in areas with a shortage of girls, gang rapes, honor killings, and neglect of girls’ health and education. As a proverb says, raising a daughter is like watering a plant in your neighbor’s yard. A girl is an outsider both in her family of origin and her husband’s family. These cruel practices resulted in the elimination of around 50 million women. The 2011 census revealed the problem got worse: the gender ratio for children six and under is 914 girls for every 1,000 boys, the lowest ratio since independence, down from 927 girls in the last census.[xi]  She points out that missing women phenomenon carries over to Indian communities in other countries. She adds that, “thousands of women who live in horribly abusive violent marriages in India would get out. Divorce, just like marriage, is a family/community decision–not an individual choice. If they got out, they would face excommunication.”

Ms. Bannerji reviews the “yo-yo” history of religion in India from celebrating sexuality to abhorring it to find a precedent for gender equality and a healthy acknowledgement of human sexuality. She found a model in Tantric philosophy, based on equality and balance between female and male, Shakti and Shiva. But in modern times, sex is not discussed; even kissing in movies is unusual and very chaste. An example of resistance to airing sexual problems is production of the film Water (2005), about child widows in the 1930s, was shut down in Varanasi by Hindu fundamentalist groups and the state government.[xii] Four years later woman director Deepak Mehta completed the film in Shi Lanka and the DVD is available in the West. Poor houses for widows still exist.

Girls and boys are not supposed to interact, due to the religiosity of conservative people. Yet at the same time it’s become acceptable for girls to show flesh in beauty pageants, films, and modeling. Ms. Bannerji believes, “Female genocide in India is the psychopathic fallout of the socialized dichotomy of men and women and sex and the sacred, and the inability of Indian society to overcome this schizophrenic vision.”[xiii] The future is bleak, she believes; because of widespread illiteracy and politicians cater to the majority religious conservatives to get their votes.

Her campaign to bring female genocide to public outrage is explained at, including a petition to sign. The website includes distressing comments from readers like this one:[xiv]


I have lost my 24-year, well-educated daughter Anshu Singh, in North East Delhi. She faced dowry death on January 2010 just after 45 days of her marriage. I have great concerns about my rest two daughters. I am in fear how to save them from this cruel world of making crimes on girls. My family is in great trauma since two months. The police are not taking pain to catch the culprits.


Ms. Banerji informed me in an email in 2010 “young India refuses to challenge the old ideologies and traditions that have reduced women to the status of trash in this country.”


Within India more than 60% are unaware of the degree of female genocide in India (they know its a lot but they don’t know how many). But when they are informed of the scale they don’t doubt it. They hear about feticides, infanticides and dowry murders on regular enough basis on the news and people talking, so they don’t question the scale of it. But what is worrying is that we don’t see the reactions that we think are necessary to gear a public condemnation or rejection of the practices. So for instance outside India our survey shows responses like horror, shock, anger, etc. But within India we are not seeing these responses. And we feel that we are now dealing with is a widespread and deeply rooted psychosis.

            Here is an interesting article on why women characters must be traditional on TV–taking hardship and abuse subserviently. [xv] It says, “The makers of these serials say TV gives as good as it gets–women are usually appreciated by audiences as subservient, overtly loyal and moralistic or evil, conniving and home-breaking characters. Television cannot be about superwomen. It has to be about the average Indian women; otherwise it will lack identification,” Ekta Kapoor, the creator of India’s most wanted ‘bahus’ [young daughter-in-laws are a popular soap opera story] Tulsi and Parvati, told IANS.

            So yes they respect the older generations–and so customs like dowry, dowry related murders, female feticide and female infanticide perpetuate.  And it gets worse every year. Old India is based on the idea of the patriarchy, which is absolute in its control, and submission of women. The old sayings are “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.”  “Having a daughter is like spitting in your neighbor’s yard.” “A girl leaves her parents’ house in her wedding palanquin.  It is only her bier that can return.” And so young India refuses to challenge the old ideologies and traditions that have reduced women to the status of trash in this country. 

            For example, one dowry related case that we dealt with in the 50MM campaign involved the murder of a young, highly educated woman who was working for multinational company.  When her in-laws and husband continued to press for more and more money even after the marriage, she began to take out large loans through her company to give them that money. She was killed 45 days after the wedding. The same thing with female feticide.

 Another case we had–where this young woman doctor, whose husband was also a doctor, was being harassed by her husband and in-laws to abort her twin girls. She was not only a professional but came from a wealthy, upper class, well-educated family.  She did get out, but last year she was trying to return to her husband and in-laws house because she told me, “The children must have a father.”  When her baby was six-months-old the mother-in-law tried to kill her by kicking her down the stairs. She was saved because she was strapped to her cradle. So I asked the mother–how can you think of something like this?  She was financially able and the children were safe and happy. She basically told me, “In our society the children must have a father and we must learn to forgive.” You may want to read the “Democratic” or modern section that I cover in my book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies


Nisha Singhania, senior director of Grey Worldwide India, reports a decade ago, most young women saw themselves as housewives.[xvi] Later, most said they wanted to be teachers or doctors. “If they had a profession at all, it had to be a noble cause,” Singhania says. “Now, it is about glamour, money, and fame.” Nikita, 13, says, “I want to be known for what I do, so you just wait. You’ll hear of me someday, but until that day happens, keep peace.” In the past, “As a girl, you never spoke to your parents. They spoke to you.” But today 67% of these young urban women say they plan to take care of their parents into their old age. Many plan to marry when they’re ready, not when their parents want, and 65% believe dating is a necessary preliminary to marriage. “The relationship with the husband used to be one of awe,” Singhania says. “Now, women want a partner and a relationship of equals.”

Female role models in Indian culture used to convey perfection, Singhania says. Now, 62% of girls say it’s O.K. if they have faults and that people see them. Watch a short video interview with Indian women business leaders, some of whom inherited their leadership from their fathers.[xvii] A business professor explains on the video that the reason for more women in technology enables more flexible work arrangements and leads to a more gender-neutral business world. Also, the increase of smaller families encourages fathers to pass their businesses to daughters. Political role-models include Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful figure in the ruling Congress Party, like her mother-in-law former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.


[i] Anuj Chopra, “Pink Gang Women,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 2009, p. A6. See a video:

[iv] Outlook Magazine, January 12, 2004

[v] Bahrain Mukherjee. Miss New India. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, p. 258.

[vi] Ibid, p. 24.

[vii] Ibid, p. 101.

[viii] Ibid, p. 306.

[ix] Rita Banerji. Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies. Penguin Books, 2008, p. 285.

[x] Banerji, p. 306. A 2004 estimate by Amnesty International was 15,000 while independent surveys report 25,000.

Banerji’s summary of violence against women in India:

[xii] An Australian camera woman describes the conflict in Varanasi that shut down production and the continued existence of widow houses.

[xiii] Banerji, p. 319.

[xvi] Pete Engardio, Businessweek, October 3, 2005.