Wonder Women

Wonder Women

Women face unequal treatment in nearly every country in the world. And our region is not an exception, rather a textbook example. Refusal to recognize the existence of domestic violence, unequal access to financial resources, absence in decision-making bodies are only few of the widespread mechanisms to keep women in the place traditional societies have allocated for them.

Regional Post spoke to leading women’s rights activists from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran to find out what developments are going on in their societies and how their nations fight discrimination in the world of blurring borders.

 

Interview : Karine Ghazaryan

Nana Pantsulaia

Being a researcher with specialization in oriental studies, Nana Pantsulaia started her work at “Child and Environment” non-governmental organization. In 1998, she founded “Educational Cooperation and Development Center” NGO. Since 2005, Nana Pantsulaia is the Executive Director of Women Fund in Georgia, a grantmaking organization which supports women’s rights, and targets marginalized women who live in rural areas, women with disabilities, LBT women, young women and girls, and more.

Does the government of Georgia support women and equality issues? How do official bodies help the movement?

— It is important to mention that since the collapse of the communist regime in the beginning of the 1990s, the government of Georgia undertook a number of important obligations to improve the status of women in Georgian society, including ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as well as elaboration of National Action Plans to achieve gender equality. In the course of the past years, Georgia adopted the Law on Gender Equality in 2010, the Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence, Protection and Assistance of Victims of Domestic Violence and the Law against Trafficking, both in 2006. In line with this, Georgian government has maintained a more or less liberal legislation on reproductive rights, abortion, and family planning.

What are the positive changes you see in the society?

— There is a huge discrepancy between the country’s official (and quite superficial) gender equality strategy and the real situation of women and girls. The legislative gains made in the past two decades were accompanied by growing backlash against women’s rights and gender equality – a part of the larger tendency in the whole Southeast Europe. As a result of the conservative backlash and resurgence of traditions and customs, in Georgia women still face such problems as exclusion from public and political life, violence, projection of gender stereotypes and rigid gender roles, trafficking, marginalization of women representing ethnic and religious minority groups, oppression of lesbian and bisexual women as well as trans people. There is also stigmatization of women with disabilities, ignorance towards rural and internally displaced women’s needs, etc.

In your opinion, has there been any rise of nationalism in recent years in Georgian society? If yes, how does it affect women's rights movement?

— All of the above mentioned is very much connected to the rise of nationalism and religious fundamentalism over the course of past years. A post-Soviet Georgian citizen’s national identity has become strongly linked to the traditional Orthodox Christianity. Even though officially Georgia is a secular state, the Georgian Orthodox Christian Church has an unquestioned power and authority and it is traditionally limiting and oppressive towards women’s freedoms and human rights.

Apart from other issues, violence against women and trafficking are quite common in Georgia. The studies show that there is an extremely high rate of domestic violence. According to statistics, every 11th woman living with a partner or husband is subject to physical or sexual violence, not counting other, more widespread forms of violence, such as psychological and economic violence, etc. Violence against women exists in every society, and encompasses different forms of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. However, despite its scale and social impact, due to different reasons it remains largely under-reported and relatively under-researched especially in regions of Georgia.

How does the ongoing improvement of the relationships with the EU affect Georgian government’s approach towards gender equality?

— Speaking of the political orientation Georgia takes, it must be mentioned that in June 2014, the EU and Georgia signed an Association Agreement which entered into force on July 1, 2016. It is noteworthy, that one of the pre-conditions of signing the agreement was the adoption of the law on the elimination of all forms of discrimination and amendment of related sub-bills in 2014, which was accompanied by a fierce debate with the Orthodox Church.

Lara Aharonian

Lara Aharonian is an Armenian-Canadian rights activist. She was born in an Armenian family in Beirut and left to study psycho-education in Montreal during the Lebanese Civil War. In 2003, she moved to Armenia and co-founded Women’s Resource Center of Armenia. She is also the co-founder of Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Yerevan. Lara Aharonian was presented Woman of Courage Award by the Universal Rights Awards initiative.

The Women’s Resource Center was founded in 2003. How has the situation with women’s rights changed in Armenia since then?

— After the independence, many NGOs started to open up in the country including women’s rights organizations, but they did not always approach women’s issues from feminist point of view, that is to say, they didn't necessarily analyze the roots of inequality in the society. At that time NGOs were also based on a much smaller grassroots. Gradually, a kind of a movement started: the civil society became a bit more diverse; independent initiatives started to be implemented; individual activists, feminists, artists, lawyers appeared in the field. They did research, criticized each other, changing the discourse and creating much healthier atmosphere. NGO sector remains there with various organizations including those which not always identify themselves as feminist.

Do people fear the word “feminism” in Armenia?

— Not only in Armenia. We live in a patriarchal world, and when an ideology appears which breaks its values, the system starts to resist. And patriarchy is a very successful system as it manages to instill ideas in us from the childhood with the help of the media, the church, etc. As a result, there is also a radical stereotypic image of feminism in the society which has been misrepresented by the media. In the meanwhile, feminism is very diverse and has gone a long way of development, from suffragists up to intersectionalism.

Does the government support gender equality? 

— The government wants equality to be pushed forward without serious changes in the existing system. So, they support the organizations which, for example, work on increasing the number of female parliamentarians, without trying to understand the reasons why there is a small number of women in the parliament at all. Quotas help, but it is important to turn to the reasons to be able to solve a problem.

The law on domestic violence was passed just weeks ago. Why it caused such dispute in the society?

— The government has an obligation to inform and prepare the society, which it did not. As a result, people were hearing only loud voices of nationalists spreading fear and insisting that what a man does in his family should not be regarded as violence but rather as a traditional value. People misunderstood the purpose of the law. Moreover, its final version was passed without participation of civil society, and even the term “domestic violence” was changed to something not recognized by international law. What is notable, just right after that Armenia signed Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women which may have a much larger impact, yet no voice opposing was raised. This makes me think: why conservative activists appear in some cases and are completely silent in others? However, we have to recognize that having a domestic violence law is still very positive.

What is in your opinion the most effective way to inform and prepare the society for changes?

— It is crucial to work in the field of education, to create safe spaces for people to speak up and encourage kids to think critically because when they do, one does not need to prepare them for changes – the demand comes from below. But it is also worth shocking people from time to time, to show them what the reality is. Because one should never forget that today, at this moment, there are people suffering and they need help.

Is there an issue which you think the Armenian society overcame to some extent?

— The issue of speaking up. In 2003, people were more shy and afraid to talk about their problems. Now, victims of domestic violence, for example, are engaged in the movement themselves. And it is much more difficult to deny the existence of domestic violence in our society when those women stand up at the National Assembly and tell their stories.

 

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh is an Iranian human rights activist and lawyer. She is famous for representing imprisoned opposition activists. The list of her clients includes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. She herself received the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament together with Iranian film director Jafar Panahi. She also appeared in Panahi’s documentary-like “Taxi.”

Do movements like the latest protest against hijab law gain support in the society? In general, is there public support for women’s empowerment?

— Many women and men approach me in the streets to support psychologically: they try to cheer me up, say how glad they are that I defend the Girls of Revolution Street. The hijab protest started from that street, and now regular strangers often offer money for bail to set free one of the girls, Nargis Hosseini, who took off her scarf in public and was arrested. So, I personally feel the movements have a wide public support. Just today a male friend of mine told me he would never think hijab is something that important for women, and these protests demonstrated him the opposite. Girls of Revolution Street showed many people hijab is a serious issue.

Does the government support women and equality issues?

— The government of Hassan Rouhani acknowledged there are numerous people who oppose the compulsory hijab. He even promised once to protect women’s rights. However, during the last eight years no steps were taken to protect them in this regard and no woman was given a leading position in the government. Along with that, administrative corruption and poor economic state of the society do not let women achieve tangible political or business success. Moreover, activists are being prosecuted by the government.

What about religious institutions?

— The highest political and religious authority, the Supreme Leader, as well as the Guardian Council of the Constitution, which is subordinated to the Supreme Leader, insist on keeping the compulsory hijab. However, there are clergymen who do oppose compulsory hijab, sometimes. But they do not tell about this, for example, during a preaching in a mosque. It is said only unofficially. Still, even in this way they can have positive impact.

Do you think the Western sanctions affect women’s activeness in social life?

— I do understand why Western countries use the system of sanctions. Still, the sanctions contribute to the worsening of the economic situation and the rise of tension in the society. Of course, in this situation women are more vulnerable – for one, it is much more difficult for them to find a job than for men. So, I think there is a link between the sanctions and women’s rights.

What, in your opinion, are the main obstacles in the way towards equality in Iranian society?

— They are many, but hijab is one of the most important. Let me put it this way: the government quotes morality and religion to constantly control female body; it forces women to hide their hair, be regular, do not stand out, to censor their body on several levels: One should wear manto and then something under it in case of wind, etc. On the other hand, as anywhere in the world, in Iran also, there are cases when men abuse women and children sexually. And the judges of the men-ruled country always advise me not to take those cases, or not to follow them up too much. With all these in mind, I do come to a conclusion that a government which can force me to put that half meter of fabric on my head every single day, can do anything to my body. With the power it has in courts, in executive bodies and other institutions, that government can easily neglect my nature, neglect sufferings of women, not try to make their lives better.

Do you think there may be notable changes in the nearest future?

— I cannot predict that, I can only try to defend those girls who are at risk because of their protest. I think, regardless of what changes we will or will not see in the society, the winter of 2017-2018 will stay in the Iranian history.

 

Shahla Ismayil

Shahla Ismayil has been engaged in public activism for women’s empowerment and participation since 1998. She is a gender expert and certified international specialist on Human and Institutional Capacity Development (HICD). Since 2002, Shahla Ismayil serves as Chairwoman of Women’s Association for Rational Development (WARD), a non-governmental organization registered by the Ministry of Justice of Azerbaijan in 2005.

Could you compare the situation with women’s rights in Azerbaijan now and in the 1990s?

— This year we celebrate 100th anniversary of women’s voting rights. During this century the situation with women’s rights has been constantly changing, and in the last decades Azerbaijan as an independent state has acquired many international obligations, some of which put tone on women’s rights protection. For example, we have signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1995, so every 4 years the government of Azerbaijan presents an official state report, and the NGOs present alternative reports. Our organization also submitted a comprehensive shadow report in 2015 and conducted full advocacy, as a result around 80% of our recommendation were reflected in the final concluding observations and recommendations of the UN CEDAW committee, as of 06 March 2015. The committee gave Azerbaijan 74 recommendations in 17 areas of concern. The economic situation in recent years empowered Azerbaijani women with more independence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a huge unemployment rate like in many countries of the region. Men migrated for earnings, and women undertook the burden of the household; they were kind of forced to become breadwinners for their families. As a result, they became economically engaged, and this was a big step forward. Now women in general have better access to the job market, to entrepreneurship opportunities, microcredits, etc. Still there is the unequal segregation of work in the household: women cannot dedicate as much time to job as men do, partially because the kindergarten infrastructure is not very well developed.

Do women also participate in political life of the country more actively?

— They do, and this activism is growing. But there are some challenges remaining as well. First of all, women lack self-confidence to step into politics. It is not regarded as a friendly sphere for them. Yet, there is no law which will prevent women from starting a career in politics. There is 35% of women in municipal governance, and it’s a very big achievement compared to the 4% in 2004 and 26,5% in 2009. We have 16,8% of women in the Parliament. Other part of statistics says that among about 30 ministries and state committees only one is headed by a woman, and that’s the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs. Women also keep the senior positions of the first vice president, the vice speaker of the National Parliament, deputy prime minister of Nakhichevan, head of Ombudsman Office, vice president of the State Oil Company, etc.

Is equality a part of the government’s agenda?

— Regarding the policy level, we luckily have it. We have adopted the Law on Gender Equality in 2006 and Domestic Violence Law in 2010. There are a number of upcoming legislative initiatives which are gender sensitive. In every ministry and state committee there are gender focal points. We work on National Action Plan of UNSCR 1325, which I hope will be adopted by the end of 2018. The latter also shows that the political will for gender equality is there. What the country really lacks are tangible action plans for implementation of the existing policies. The NGOs could help here, but unfortunately the situation with civil society is not very good now: in 2014, after the Ukrainian Euromaidan, the legislation regarding NGOs changed tremendously. The donors’ community has shrunk, more than 50 international organizations closed their offices in Azerbaijan. But I have to mention that NGOs working with women’s rights are not separately discriminated.

How do you think the developments on Nagorno Karabakh issue and the ongoing militarization affect the women’s rights movement?

— The short escalation of the conflict in April 2016 really fueled the society and demonstrated that even a few days of war can rehabilitate all the hatred. Nagorno Karabakh is one of the two topics that can unite the entire country within few days. It is a sensible issue for everyone, it is regarded as a national honor. Yet the information about political developments around Nagorno-Karabakh is so scarce that it is also difficult for us to say what are the real moods in the society around these processes. For one thing, I can say that not everybody thinks war is the best option.

What do you think are the ways for Azerbaijan to achieve gender equality?

— The key, in my opinion, is still economic empowerment. This is by far the biggest achievement of ours, and it makes sense to intensify efforts here by supporting women’s equal access to job market, equal pay, favorable childcare infrastructure, etc. We cannot start investing all the resources into engaging women in politics as this will be way less effective. They have to have self-confidence, they have to have resources, and they have to have their issues solved on a family level. If a woman is ready inside, if the family issue is solved, then she is ready to go against the flow. Economic independence will lead to political empowerment and it will be a natural and conscious progress.