Last week, Women Under Siege published an article I’ve been researching for several months on a vicious legal and customary practice: allowing rapists to escape punishment my marrying their victims. There is no comprehensive list of countries that allow this practice, so it took a lot of digging to find out. Even though many Muslim countries have this provision in their law code, many Latin American countries did as well up until the last decade or so. And even when laws have been repealed, it may continue as a cultural practice because of the shame and stigma of rape.

Here’s a preview:

In Afghanistan, custom plays a large role. This was apparent in the case of a woman named Gulnaz who became pregnant after a man raped her—and who was then herself imprisoned for adultery. Her case, and the fact that a victim can be jailed for the crime she had to endure, gained international attention in December 2011, when President Hamid Karzai agreed to release Gulnaz. Although the BBC reported that her release was not on the condition that she marry her attacker, she told reporters that she may end up marrying him anyway, pressured by tradition.

While that tradition may be tied to religion, said Judith Tucker, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University and the author of Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law, it “doesn’t really have a root in the schools of Islamic law.”

According to Nada Rifki, a Moroccan women’s rights activist and writer for GlobalGirl Media, a nonprofit that trains teenage girls around the world in journalism, “Most of the men in our very patriarchal Muslim society will never marry a woman who was touched by another man.”

“Since I was a child,” Rifki said, “I was taught that, along with all the other girls in my society.”

Because of the shame associated with rape, she explained, many Moroccans consider marriage to one’s rapist the only viable solution for a victim. And until that notion changes, young girls like Filali may continue to opt for suicide over a lifetime of living with the men who violated them.

Check out the rest of the article here. Women Under Siege is a fantastic and necessary project connected to the Women’s Media Center that investigates how rape and other forms of sexualized violence are used as tools in genocide and conflict throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

This Monday, April 8, Georgetown Take Back the Night and H*yas for Choice hosted two editors of the blog Feministing, Lori Adelman and Chloe Angyal, for a panel on sexual assault and reproductive health on college campuses.  I spoke about my experiences at a Catholic university and the campus climate around reproductive health issues.  They generously invited me to write a post for Feministing on my thoughts.  Here’s an excerpt:

All this silence, all this mistrust and confusion, sends students the message that sex is bad and dirty and not to be talked about. But the problem goes beyond how to get people the resources they need when talking about contraception or abortion is taboo. How can we talk about and promote healthy sexual experiences in a place that tells us sex is bad?

If we’re trying to combat sexual assault, it’s not enough to teach women how not to get raped.  On college campuses, 90% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.  These are our acquaintances and friends, members of our community, people we see every day – and that means there’s something deeply wrong in how we relate to each other.  We need to teach men and women how to build healthy relationships and honest, communicative, consensual sexual relationships.  We need to create a culture of consent, where people feel empowered to define their boundaries and respectful of the boundaries of others.

You can read the full post on Feministing here.

Note: This post was originally written for Feminists at Large, and published on January 31, 2013 .

ChoiceJesuitValueThis picture is of me, standing proudly in the free speech zone of Red Square, holding a piece of paper with a statement that some people might find controversial, disrespectful, or downright heretical.  To me, it is one of many beautiful pockets of truth amid the messy contradictions that are part of our Jesuit Georgetown identity.

Choice is a Jesuit value.  Let me tell you what I mean.

This week, H*yas for Choice launched our “Choice Is . . . ” campaign.  We wanted to show that even though people see abortion as a black-and-white issue, in reality to be pro-choice is to embrace all the shades of gray of human experience.  We want to show that no one’s life fits the same mold, and to be pro-choice is to respect every woman and man’s right to make decisions about their bodies for themselves.  That applies whether the decision is to have sex, to remain abstinent, to use birth control, to get an abortion, or to raise a child.  As Planned Parenthood’s newest campaign puts it, “nobody knows a woman’s specific situation – we’re not in her shoes.”

The reason H*yas for Choice has to use an asterisk instead of an o, and the reason we can only give out condoms in a free speech zone, is that the Vatican finds contraception and abortion morally unacceptable under any circumstances, so our Catholic University is prohibited from giving us access to benefits.  If we look at the history, this prohibition is completely arbitrary, and following it blindly is completely out of step with the Jesuit values I was taught to embrace since my first moment on Georgetown’s campus.  Let’s take a look at three of those Jesuit values, straight from Georgetown’s website for Mission and Ministry:

Cura Personalis

“Cura Personalis suggests individualized attention to the needs of the other, distinct respect for his or her unique circumstances and concerns, and an appropriate appreciation for his or her particular gifts and insights.”  I quote this sentence with pride because it has been the foundation of my personal growth and development around service and social justice at Georgetown.  I’ve learned that true service is based in humility and solidarity – that service based in privilege and the assumption that “I know best” is likely to do more harm than good.   It is not for us to judge or presume we know best.  We can only make a positive impact when we truly listen to those we serve.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that this language so closely echoes Planned Parenthood’s talking points – that we must respect each woman’s knowledge and understanding of her own situation, and respect her needs and priorities.

Faith and Justice

“This commitment links the authentic following of the Gospel of Jesus with an obligation to address the social realities of poverty, oppression, and injustice.”  This is an important point.  People who oppose contraception and abortion rush right past living breathing women in need to worry about justice for the unborn or unconceived.  I want to talk about justice for the women themselves, women who are part of our community.

Poverty and oppression are inextricably linked to a woman’s ability to control when she has children and how many she has.  Without being able to control her own reproduction, a woman cannot control her own income, ensure access to education, or have any job security.  Studies on this issue tend to focus on women in developing countries, but this is still true for women in the US and is absolutely true for many women at Georgetown.  We should especially consider the high rate of rape and sexual assault in the US and yes, right here on campus, even though people don’t like to talk about it.  One in four women will be sexually assaulted or raped over the course of her four years at college, and blocking access to contraception or abortion is perpetuating an injustice.

Community in Diversity 

“Approximately 52 percent of our student body are women,” says Mission and Ministry.  That’s 52 percent of the student body who will face choices that the male authorities of the Catholic Church will never have to face.  How can Georgetown value diversity if it expects all students to conform to the same behaviors, same ideas, and same morality system?  To value diversity is to seek out and incorporate different perspectives, to learn from each other, and to understand and accept that different people have different needs and different contexts.

That extends to the ways that gender intersects with other identities and factors that make us diverse – race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status.  All of these things affect us differently and make our situations and choices that much more complicated.  If we want to respect and value the diversity of our community, we must abandon judgment in favor of compassion for everyone’s unique circumstances.

We’ve heard people say that H*yas for Choice is anti-religion, anti-Catholic, anti-Georgetown.  That’s not it at all.  Dig a little deeper under the doctrine and you’ll see what I mean.  When we say we are pro-choice, we mean we hold distinct respect for each person’s unique circumstances and concerns, and an appreciation for his or her particular gifts and insights.  We mean we feel an obligation to address the social realities of poverty, oppression, and injustice.  We mean we value the diverse needs, contexts, and choices of every member of our community.

Choice is a Jesuit value.  Pass it on.

The United Arab Emirates, the conservative Gulf state home to the consumer paradise that is Dubai and rolling in oil money, recently passed a law that requires all public and private sector organizations to include at least one female board member.  It’s a big step for the UAE, since women make up 18% of the labor force and only 1.5% of corporate board members across Gulf states.  The law is part of a broader effort to encourage the growth of SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and strengthen the economy outside of the oil sector, so the quota indicates that the UAE Cabinet views women’s business leadership as an integral part of future economic growth.  The Emirates is jumping on an opportunity to become a leader in the region on advancing women in business.  Well done, UAE.

Contrast that with a report from Catalyst that just came out tracking women in top positions in US companies.  Its results: women are stagnating in corporate leadership positions.  The number of women in top positions has grown only 0.5% from 2011, and is still slightly lower than the number from 2010.  Though women in the US make up half of the workforce, in 2012 they held only 16.6% of board seats and only 14.3 percent of executive officer positions of Fortune 500 companies.  The situation is even worse for women of color, who hold only 3.3% of board seats.

European countries facing similarly deplorable numbers have implemented quota systems similar to that in UAE.  Norway mandates that all corporate boards with more than nine members must have at least 40% representation from each gender.  Iceland, Belgium, Spain, and Italy also have quotas, and the UK is considering them.  But we aren’t seeing any calls for quotas in the US.  Why could that be?

Sheikha Lubna Al-Qasimi, UAE Finance Minister

A quote from Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bint Sultan Al Qasimi, UAE minister of foreign trade and coincidentally the UAE’s first female minister, seems to reflect an American attitude on the subject.

“While quotas are set by law in some countries, I believe this should not be the go-to solution for the UAE and the region in general. As a woman I would prefer to attain my position by real merit rather than always wonder if I was appointed to the board just to hit a quota or through affirmative action,” she said in response to the new law.

It’s a very American response: that real merit, hard work, and gumption are all we need to make it to the top.  But the dismal numbers of women’s business leadership in the US point to structural factors and roadblocks that no amount of gumption is going to get past.  The fact that women are usually the ones expected to carry the responsibilities of childcare and care of the elderly means that women lose valuable years in the workplace that their male peers spend advancing their careers.  It is almost impossible for women to catch up in terms of promotions or salary.  Meanwhile, there is outright discrimination against women in the workplace, when it comes to hiring, pay, promotions, and yes, appointments to corporate boards.  The Catalyst study identified a pool of over 700 women executives qualified to serve on corporate boards with a lot to offer.  So why is it that they are so drastically underrepresented?

In our conversation on women in the workplace in the US, we put the onus on women to overcome structural difficulties, but only tentatively consider that maybe the best solution is to shift the structure entirely.  We need to recognize that women’s participation and leadership is crucial to a thriving economy, and we’re going to have to make a lot of changes to make that happen.  For starters, there’s nothing wrong with a little boost to get women’s voices heard on corporate boards.

Note: This post was originally written as an opinion piece for The Hoya, a Georgetown University newspaper, and published on October 26.

Mark Stern argued in his column “No Suppression of Stupidity” that Metro’s recent attempt to censor racist advertisements was a violation of free speech. The ads, sponsored by the anti-Islamic American Freedom Defense Initiative read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

“There is no doubt that the AFDI’s posters are offensive and ridiculous, but hatefulness and stupidity have never been cause for censorship in the United States,” Stern wrote. “It is only by protecting the speech of those whom we like least that we preserve the liberties we cherish most.”

He’s right, of course. But to leave the story at that — not to go beyond a wistful sigh that there’s nothing we can do to stop people like AFDI founder Pamela Geller from posting hateful messages in our public space — makes it seem like the victory must lie on the side of hate speech. On the contrary, many individuals and religious groups, including members of the Georgetown community, have responded to these ads exactly in the manner that First Amendment watchdogs would want: by making their own voices heard in support of love and tolerance.

It started in New York when, after these ads were posted in the subway system, people responded with vandalism. Some ads were slapped with a sticker saying “RACIST,” while others were covered in black spray paint. Then, counter-ads started to run in D.C. and New York. United Methodist Women ran an ad saying, “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations posted a quote from the Quran: “Show forgiveness, speak for justice and avoid the ignorant.” Sojourners, a Christian organization, posted an ad stating simply, “Love your Muslim neighbors.”

Closer to home, a group of Georgetown students have been going to Metro stations and distributing flyers supporting peace. Our very own Rachel Gartner, rabbi and director of Jewish chaplaincy at Georgetown, wrote a piece for The Washington Post denouncing the ad and calling on Jewish Americans to speak out against it as an obligation of their faith. “As a rabbi, I insist on the responsibility to speak out against hateful speech,” Gartner wrote, “particularly when it comes at least in part from one of our own. Judaism teaches [that] anyone who has the ability to intervene but does not is held responsible [by God] for those sins.”

Gartner makes an important point: the First Amendment guarantees not simply a right, but also a responsibility, to speak out and take responsibility for the consequences of our speech. These ads are meant to incite fear and hatred of Muslims, equating savagery with jihad and, by extension, with Muslims. This tactic is crude, offensive and irresponsible. Anti-Islamic propaganda has real consequences for the daily lives of Muslims and non-Muslims around the country and around the world.

U.S. media rarely provide a platform to share the experiences of the Muslims who are vilified in public discourse. When the other side of the story is never told — when all we see are depictions of Muslims as terrorists intent on jihad — it becomes easy to accept racist stereotypes about who is “civilized” and who is “savage.” These attitudes creep into policy decisions just as they spur horrific hate crimes. Speech has consequences.

Censorship is not the answer. More speech is better, especially in cases such as this. It is significant that the response to these ads has overwhelmingly been one promoting love. On a topic that too often incites a squabbling match rather than meaningful debate, Jews, Christians and Muslims have refused to take the AFDI’s bait. Instead, they are using it as an opportunity to come together against intolerance. Juxtaposed with the AFDI’s ad referring to human beings as savages, the ads calling for peace, love and justice expose the AFDI ad for what it really is: racist, cynical and hateful. They shame the AFDI for dishonoring its right to free speech so egregiously.

It’s been six months since I first wrote about the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and the House and Senate versions of the bill still have yet to be reconciled.  Yes, that’s six months in which Republicans and Democrats cannot agree to renew legislation that had made a huge impact in reducing violence against women and that has had bipartisan support since 1994.  The political deadlock surrounding this bill is absurd – and it just gives the Democrats yet another chance to bring home why women should vote for Obama and Biden this fall.

Obama has a huge asset in Joe Biden as he tries to get the message across that the Democratic Party is the party that supports women, and this is an area where Joe Biden especially gets a lot of love from me.  VAWA has always been his baby, and no one can accuse Biden of pandering to women on this issue – he’s been working tirelessly to end violence against women since 1994.  On Thursday, Biden released a statement urging Congress to renew the bill, saying that “VAWA is just as important today as it was when it first became law, and I urge Congress to keep the promise we made to our daughters and our granddaughters on that day—that we would work together to keep them safe.”

In July, Biden released the “1 is 2 Many” PSA starring himself, David Beckham, Jeremy Lin, Eli Manning, and the president himself.  In the PSA, these male role models say that “no woman should ever have to fear violence, especially from someone they know and trust.”  This bystander intervention approach, focusing on changing men’s behavior instead of addressing women who are victimized, is right on target.

Biden has also gotten a lot of criticism from Catholic leaders for his adamant pro-choice stance, saying that he personally accepts the church’s stance on abortion but “for me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.”  His perspective is a refreshing change from the absurd claims of the USCCB and the conservative establishment last spring that Catholic religious freedom hinges on denying everyone else access to contraception and abortion.  Biden supports Obama’s unapologetic adamance that women have the right to make their own healthcare decision.

Compare that to Paul Ryan’s horrific record on issues of choice, contraception, rape, and even fair pay.  Yes, Ryan voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  He opposes all abortions with no exceptions, he co-sponsored a “personhood” amendment, and he supports defunding Planned Parenthood.  He also voted to pass the House version of VAWA that removes protections and programs for LBGT, Native American, and immigrant populations affected by violence against women.

Obama and Biden are feminist allies, no question, and they’ve made a point in this election to make sure we know that.  For me, it’s no question to vote based on the issues of abortion, contraception, violence against women, and fair pay, because these are the issues that affect my life on the most basic level – my right to physical safety and autonomy.  Everything else is secondary. Joe Biden, thanks for having my back.

 Note: This version of this article was published on October 30, 2012, on the Common Ground News Service.

Abeer Abu Ghaith, a poised young woman overflowing with optimism, works tirelessly to help Palestinian women achieve their dreams and improve their lives. She is just one of many women who are finding creative ways to overcome the restrictions Palestinians face in finding work and starting a business.

Abu Ghaith, herself Palestinian, knows first hand how hard it is for women to succeed in the job market. Even with a degree in computer systems engineering, she had difficulty breaking into the overwhelmingly male field, and therefore turned her attention to empowering women and youth through information and communications technology (ICT) and social media.

Now, as country officer for the regional network, the Active Leaders for Women’s Advancement in the Near East (ALWANE) Coalition, she is leading a campaign to increase women’s representation in decision-making positions in the public sector. Her work includes several efforts to support women’s employment and entrepreneurship by increasing opportunities for women to work from home, growing women’s internet and computer literacy, and improving internet infrastructure in rural areas.

Discussions about Arab women in US media and policy circles tends to focus on cultural restrictions to their participation in public life, and non-profit and government programmes often seek ways to change cultural attitudes. But Abu Ghaith demonstrates that it may be more productive to focus first on the wider social, political and economic realities that affect both men and women.

The conditions in the West Bank add particular challenges and restrictions for Palestinian men and women alike. Bureaucratic delays and restrictions on imports and exports on the border with Israel mean that businesses lose time and revenue. The Palestinian market is too small to absorb all Palestinian university graduates. Difficulty navigating the hundreds of checkpoints that prevent movement from one area to another, compounded by the fact that few quality jobs are available outside of urban centers like Ramallah, is a significant challenge to men and women who need work but can’t travel.

The problems Abu Ghaith aims to address, such as obstacles to mobility and the limited job market, are not specific to women. Solving them, however, will have a significant and positive impact on women’s lives.

The challenge of traveling for work becomes even more daunting for women because of social norms that limit their mobility even further. And laws based on a narrow interpretation of Islam regarding divorce, inheritance, and other matters that affect women’s personal and financial lives limit their ability to raise the capital to start a business.

Rather than theorise about the cultural obstacles for women who want to work, Abu Ghaith’s work focuses on solving practical problems, such as mobility, so women can earn incomes and prove the value of their work to their communities.

Abu Ghaith’s solution involves working with businesses to set up opportunities for remote employment through the 5aleek Online initiative. It seeks to expand the Palestinian market by connecting local, regional and international employers with local individuals.

Simultaneously, she is seeking to increase access to internet and computer literacy so that women from villages can work for a company in Ramallah 50 miles away, even if they cannot physically travel there. It’s a creative solution that finds a practical way to give Palestinian women access to work.

Abu Ghaith is also running an awareness campaign that involves recording and publicising the stories of successful Palestinian businesswomen who are creating change in their communities. Highlighting the stories of women who have already created opportunities for themselves, the campaign inspires young women to get involved in business and entrepreneurship, and increases social acceptance of women in business.

Abu Ghaith includes Palestinian men in the ALWANE-Palestine committee, garnering support from influential men as well as women for ALWANE’s campaigns.

According to Abu Ghaith, women and youth are the key to political and economic development in Palestine and the region. Give them to tools they need to succeed, and they’ll take it from there.

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