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The Three Abrahamic Religions and their Image of Woman

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Recently a lengthy scholarly article by Dr. Sherif Addel Azeem dealing with the conception of woman in the three Abrahamic religions, has appeared under the title of Women in Islam vs. Women in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth and the Reality. I have relied on such an article in double checking the historical data of the Islamic tradition on its conception and treatment of women. While agreeing with some of its premises and conclusions, I disagree with others as will become apparent further down in this essay. The juxtaposition of those variant views stimulated by Dr. Azeem’s article has yielded some surprising insights which I’d like to share with the reader.

As is commonly known, the Judaeo-Christian conception of the creation of Adam (which in Hebrew means first man) and Eve (which in Hebrew means first woman) is narrated in detail in Genesis 2:4-3:24. God prohibited both of them from eating the fruits of the forbidden tree. The serpent then seduced Eve to eat from it and Eve, in turn, seduced Adam to eat with her. When God rebuked Adam for what he did, Adam tries to place all the blame on Eve. “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” Consequently, God said to Eve: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.” To Adam He said: “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree … Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life…”

In this narrative, or myth if you will, both Adam and Eve get punished and held responsible for disobedience. God is not punishing one for the faults of another, which would be unfair; neither does he accept Adam’s rationalization that the woman is exclusively responsible for the deed of disobedience. He holds them both responsible and punishes both. This needs to be kept well in mind: God judges, assigns the blame justly and equally; both Adam and Eve are punished.

On the other hand, the Islamic conception of the first sin, while appearing similar to the Judeo-Christian view at first sight (complete with the act of creation, the idyllic garden where everything is good but where Satan lurks in the form of a serpent, the positing of limits to freedom, the act of disobedience, and a meting out of punishment), it is nevertheless different in its conception of woman and what it implies. Here Eve does not come across as a seducer and temptress. The narrative is found in several places in the Qur’an, for example: “O Adam dwell with your wife in the Garden and enjoy as you wish but approach not this tree or you run into harm and transgression. Then Satan whispered to them in order to reveal to them their shame that was hidden from them and he said: ‘Your Lord only forbade you this tree lest you become angels or such beings as live forever.’ And he swore to them both that he was their sincere adviser. So by deceit he brought them to their fall: when they tasted the tree their shame became manifest to them and they began to sew together the leaves of the Garden over their bodies. And their Lord called unto them: ‘Did I not forbid you that tree and tell you that Satan was your avowed enemy?’ They said: ‘Our Lord we have wronged our own souls and if You forgive us not and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall certainly be lost.” (7:19:23).

A careful comparison of the two accounts of the primordial story of the Garden reveals some essential differences. The Qur’an seems to assign equal blame on both Adam and Eve. Nowhere in the Qur’an, try as one may, one will discover the slightest hint that Eve tempted Adam to eat from the tree or even that she had eaten before him. Here Eve is no temptress, no seducer, and no deceiver. Moreover, Eve is not punished with the pains of childbearing. God, according to the Qur’an, punishes no one for another’s faults. Both Adam and Eve committed a sin and then asked God for forgiveness and He forgave them both.

Needless to say, the image of Eve as temptress in the Bible, absent in the Qur’an has impacted in a negative way the image of women throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. All women were believed to have inherited from their mother, the Biblical Eve, both her guilt and her guile, as part of original sin. Consequently, it is almost logical to think of all of them as untrustworthy and somehow, morally inferior. In the New Testament we read these words by none other than the evangelizer and prime theologian of Christianity, St. Paul: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I don’t permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (I Timothy 2:11-14). Also this: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (I Corinthians 14:34-35). It couldn’t be more clear.

And yet a caveat is in order here. As the founder of Christianity, nowhere in the gospels do we discern Jesus teaching and approving any kind of subordination of one of his followers to another. Instead, he expressly forbade it in any Christian relationship. All three Synoptic gospels record Jesus teaching his disciples that any subordination of one to another, both abusive and customary, is a pagan practice—not something to take place among his followers. Having issued his strong prohibition against subordination of others, he prescribed the Christian alternative to subordination as being the exact opposite: profound service to others, extending even to making the ultimate sacrifice of giving one’s life if necessary: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”

His first phrase, “lord it over”, described the Roman masters who wielded ultimate and unlimited power. His second phrase, “high officials”, referred to lesser Roman officials who, having some limitations of power, “exercised authority” over their citizens. In the nearly identical passages in all three Synoptic gospels, Jesus sternly commanded his disciple that “It shall not be so among you”, clearly forbidding both abusive extreme “lording it over” others, and even more moderate, ordinary “exercise (of) authority” over others. Egalitarian Christians consider that this teaching of Jesus to the men who were the 12 Apostles trumps any subsequent interpretation of the teachings of Paul and Peter that allegedly establishes “Husband-Headship” requiring “Wife-Submission”, or denying women opportunities to serve in any leadership position within the Church. The New Testament of the Bible refers to a number of women in Jesus’ inner circle—notably his Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene who is stated to have discovered the empty tomb of Christ and known as the “apostle to the apostles” since she was the one commissioned by the risen Jesus to go and tell the 11 disciples that he was risen.

According to the New Testament, Christ saved a woman accused of adultery from an angry mob seeking to punish her, by saying: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”.

Unusually for his epoch, Jesus is said to have provided religious instruction to women. The Gospel of John provides an account of Jesus directly dealing with an issue of morality and women. The passage describes a confrontation between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees over whether a woman, caught in an act of adultery, ought to be stoned. Jesus shames the crowd into dispersing, and averts the execution with the words: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” According to the passage, “They which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last,” leaving Jesus to turn to the woman and say, “Go, and sin no more.”

Another Gospel story concerns Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary where the woman Mary sits at Jesus’ feet as he preaches, while her sister toils in the kitchen preparing a meal. When Martha complains to Mary that she should instead be helping in the kitchen, Jesus says that in fact, “Mary has chosen what is better”

The story of Mark 5:23–34, in which Jesus heals a woman who had bled for 12 year suggests not only that Jesus could cleanse his followers, but this story also challenges Jewish cultural conventions of the time. In Jewish law, women who were menstruating or had given birth were excluded from society. Therefore, the woman in Mark was ostracized for 12 years. Jesus healing her is not only a miracle, but by interacting with an unclean woman, he broke from the accepted practices of the time and embraced women.

So, Jesus treated women with compassion, grace and dignity. The gospels of the New Testament, especially Luke, mention Jesus speaking to or helping women publicly and openly. Martha’s sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet being taught, a privilege reserved for men in Judaism. Jesus had female followers who were his sponsors, and he stopped to express concern for the women of Jerusalem on his way to be crucified. Mary Magdalene is stated in the Gospels to be the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. In the narratives, Jesus charged her to tell others of what she had seen, even though the testimony of a woman at that time was not considered valid.

The historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that women were more influential during the period of Jesus’ brief ministry than they were in the next thousand years of Christianity. Blainey points to Gospel accounts of Jesus imparting teachings to women, as with a Samaritan woman at a well, and Mary of Bethany, who rubbed his hair in precious ointment; of Jesus curing sick women and publicly expressing admiration for a poor widow who donated some copper coins to the Temple in Jerusalem, his stepping to the aid of the woman accused of adultery, and to the presence of Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ side as he was crucified. Blainey concludes: “As the standing of women was not high in Palestine, Jesus’ kindnesses towards them were not always approved by those who strictly upheld tradition. According to Blainey, women were probably the majority of Christians in the first century after Christ. Jesus always showed the greatest esteem and the greatest respect for woman, for every woman, and in particular He was sensitive to female suffering. Going beyond the social and religious barriers of the time, Jesus reestablished woman in her full dignity as a human person before God and before men … Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.

Comparing to Paul’s traditional standing towards women to Jesus’ attitude toward them, what becomes immediately apparent is that somehow his example was not imitated after his death and resurrection. Paul seems eager to put women in their proper place. To be sure, this is not unusual in many religions: the founder establishes certain innovative ideals which at times may even go against well established and revered traditions and customs, but after his death the initial enthusiasm and zeal begins to cool. The attitude toward women in Christianity seems to have been a retrogressive phenomena hardly representing the example of its founder. We shall see further down that something like that also happened to Islam: at a certain point in time a downward movement began and the religion begins to gradually lose its pristine impetus. To be sure, the theory and the ideal remain but the practice leaves much to be desired

Let’s in turn have the Qur’an speak for itself on this issue: “For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in Allah’s praise– For them all has Allah prepared forgiveness and great reward” (33:35). “The believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil, they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His Mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise” (9:71). “And their Lord answered them: Truly I will never cause to be lost the work of any of you, Be you a male or female, you are members one of another” (3:195). “Whoever works evil will not be requited but by the like thereof, and whoever works a righteous deed -whether man or woman- and is a believer- such will enter the Garden of bliss” (40:40). “Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has faith, verily to him/her we will give a new life that is good and pure, and we will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions” (16:97).

It should be clear from the above passage that the Qur’anic view of women is no different than that of men. They, both, are God’s creatures whose sublime goal on earth is to worship their Lord, do righteous deeds, and avoid evil and they, both, will be assessed accordingly. The Qur’an never mentions that the woman is the devil’s gateway or that she is a deceiver by nature. Moreover, it never mentions that man is God’s image; all men and all women are his creatures, that is all. According to the Qur’an, a woman’s role on earth is not limited only to childbirth. She is required to do as many good deeds as any other man is required to do. The Qur’an never says that no upright women have ever existed. To the contrary, the Qur’an has instructed all the believers, women as well as men, to follow the example of those ideal women such as the Virgin Mary and the Pharaoh’s wife: “And Allah sets forth, As an example to those who believe, the wife of Pharaoh: Behold she said: ‘O my lord build for me, in nearness to you, a mansion in the Garden, and save me from Pharaoh and his doings and save me from those who do wrong.’ And Mary the daughter of Imran who guarded her chastity and We breathed into her body of Our spirit; and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of His revelations and was one of the devout” (66:11-13).

In fact, according to Dr. Azeem, the difference between the Biblical and the Qur’anic attitude towards the female sex starts as soon as a female is born. For example, the Bible states that the period of the mother’s ritual impurity is twice as long if a girl is born than if a boy is (Lev. 12:2-5). The Catholic Bible states explicitly that: “The birth of a daughter is a loss” (Ecclesiasticus 22:3). It was this very same idea of treating daughters as sources of shame that led the pagan Arabs, before the advent of Islam, to practice female infanticide. The Qur’an severely condemned this heinous practice: “When news is brought to one of them of the birth of a female child, his face darkens and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide himself from his people because of the bad news he has had! Shall he retain her on contempt or bury her in the dust? Ah! what an evil they decide on?” (16:59). The Qur’an makes no distinction between boys and girls. It considers the birth of a female as a gift and a blessing from God, the same as the birth of a male. The Qur’an even mentions the gift of the female birth first:” To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. He creates what He wills. He bestows female children to whomever He wills and bestows male children to whomever He wills” (42:49).

In order to wipe out all the traces of female infanticide in the nascent Muslim society, Prophet Muhammad promised those who were blessed with daughters of a great reward if they would bring them up kindly: “He who is involved in bringing up daughters, and accords benevolent treatment towards them, they will be protection for him against Hell-Fire”. “Whoever maintains two girls till they attain maturity, he and I will come on the Resurrection Day like this; and he joined his fingers”.

Now, to be fair, we should ask: is the Qur’anic position any different? One short story narrated in the Qur’an sums its position up concisely. Khawlah was a Muslim woman whose husband Aws pronounced this statement at a moment of anger: “You are to me as the back of my mother.” This was held by pagan Arabs to be a statement of divorce which freed the husband from any conjugal responsibility but did not leave the wife free to leave the husband’s home or to marry another man. Having heard these words from her husband, Khawlah was in a miserable situation. She went straight to the Prophet of Islam to plead her case. The Prophet was of the opinion that she should be patient since there seemed to be no way out. Khawla kept arguing with the Prophet in an attempt to save her suspended marriage. Shortly, the Qur’an intervened; Khawla’s plea was accepted. The divine verdict abolished this iniquitous custom. One full chapter (Chapter 58) of the Qur’an whose title is “Almujadilah” or “The woman who is arguing” was named after this incident: “Allah has heard and accepted the statement of the woman who pleads with you (the Prophet) concerning her husband and carries her complaint to Allah, and Allah hears the arguments between both of you for Allah hears and sees all things….” (58:1). A woman in the Qur’anic conception has the right to argue even with the Prophet of Islam himself. No one has the right to instruct her to be silent. She is under no obligation to consider her husband the one and only reference in matters of law and religion.

According to the Bible, a man must fulfill any vows he might make to God. He must not break his word. On the other hand, a woman’s vow is not necessarily binding on her. It has to be approved by her father, if she is living in his house, or by her husband, if she is married. If a father/husband does not endorse his daughter’s/wife’s vows, all pledges made by her become null and void: “But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand ….Her husband may confirm or nullify any vow she makes or any sworn pledge to deny herself” (Num. 30:2-15). In Islam, the vow of every Muslim, male or female, is binding on him/her. No one has the power to repudiate the pledges of anyone else. Failure to keep a solemn oath, made by a man or a woman, has to be expiated as indicated in the Qur’an: “He [God] will call you to account for your deliberate oaths: for expiation, feed ten indigent persons, on a scale of the average for the food of your families; Or clothe them; or give a slave his freedom. If that is beyond your means, fast for three days. That is the expiation for the oaths you have sworn. But keep your oaths” (5:89). Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, men and women, used to present their oath of allegiance to him personally. Women, as well as men, would independently come to him and pledge their oaths: “O Prophet, When believing women come to you to make a covenant with you that they will not associate in worship anything with God, nor steal, nor fornicate, nor kill their own children, nor slander anyone, nor disobey you in any just matter, then make a covenant with them and pray to God for the forgiveness of their sins. Indeed God is Forgiving and most Merciful” (60:12).

In Islam, the honor, respect, and esteem attached to motherhood are unparalleled. The Qur’an places the importance of kindness to parents as second only to worshipping God Almighty: “Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, And that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, Say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, But address them in terms of honor. And out of kindness, Lower to them the wing of humility, and say: ‘My Lord! bestow on them Your Mercy as they Cherished me in childhood’ ” (17:23-24). The Qur’an in several other places puts special emphasis on the mother’s great role in giving birth and nursing: “And We have enjoined on man to be good to his parents: In travail upon travail did his mother bear him and in two years was his weaning. Show gratitude to Me and to your parents” (31:14).

The very special place of mothers in Islam has been eloquently described by Prophet Muhammad: “A man asked the Prophet: ‘Whom should I honor most?’ The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother’. ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother’. ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your mother!’. ‘And who comes next?’ asked the man. The Prophet replied: ‘Your father'”. Among the few precepts of Islam which Muslims still faithfully observe to the present day is the considerate treatment of mothers. The honor that Muslim mothers receive from their sons and daughters is exemplary. The intensely warm relations between Muslim mothers and their children and the deep respect with which Muslim men approach their mothers usually amaze Westerners.

The one question all the non-Muslims, who had read an earlier version of this study, had in common was: do Muslim women in the Muslim world today receive this noble treatment described here? The answer, unfortunately, is: No. Since this question is inevitable in any discussion concerning the status of women in Islam, we have to elaborate on the answer in order to provide the reader with the complete picture.

It has to be made clear first that the vast differences among Muslim societies make most generalizations too simplistic. There is a wide spectrum of attitudes towards women in the Muslim world today. These attitudes differ from one society to another and within each individual society. Nevertheless, certain general trends are discernible. Almost all Muslim societies have, to one degree or another, deviated from the ideals of Islam with respect to the status of women. These deviations have, for the most part, been in one of two opposite directions. The first direction is more conservative, restrictive, and traditions-oriented, while the second is more liberal and Western-oriented.

The societies that have digressed in the first direction treat women according to the customs and traditions inherited from their forebears. These traditions usually deprive women of many rights granted to them by Islam. Besides, women are treated according to standards far different from those applied to men. This discrimination pervades the life of any female: she is received with less joy at birth than a boy; she is less likely to go to school; she might be deprived any share of her family’s inheritance; she is under continuous surveillance in order not to behave immodestly while her brother’s immodest acts are tolerated; she might even be killed for committing what her male family members usually boast of doing; she has very little say in family affairs or community interests; she might not have full control over her property and her marriage gifts; and finally as a mother she herself would prefer to produce boys so that she can attain a higher status in her community.

On the other hand, there are Muslim societies (or certain classes within some societies) that have been swept over by the Western culture and way of life. These societies often imitate unthinkingly whatever they receive from the West and usually end up adopting the worst and most superficial (often called “progressive”) practices of Western civilization, the worst perhaps being the dispatching or religion per se as passé and unprogressive and not very modern and “enlightened.” In these societies, a typical “modern” woman’s top priority in life is to enhance her physical beauty. Therefore, she is often obsessed with her body’s shape, size, and weight. She tends to care more about her body than her mind and more about her charms than her intellect. Her ability to charm, attract, and excite is more valued in the society than her educational achievements, intellectual pursuits, and social work. One is not expected to find a copy of the Qur’an in her purse since it is full of cosmetics that accompany her wherever she goes. Her spirituality has no room in a society preoccupied with her attractiveness. Therefore, she ends up spending her life striving more in realizing her femininity than in fulfilling her humanity. The cartoon below brilliantly makes the point. But there must exist a more nuanced and harmonious view of women. Paradoxically, it turns out that the more balanced, harmonious view is the traditional one, often forgotten or discarded.

Why did Muslim societies deviate from the ideals of Islam? There is no easy answer. The ineluctable fact remains that Muslim societies have deviated from Islamic precepts concerning so many aspects of their lives for a long time now. There is a wide gap between what Muslims are supposed to believe in and what they actually practice, as indeed there is also one in Judaism and one in Christianity. The gap has been there for centuries and has been widening. Terrorism and ideological fanaticism is not and never was an Islamic phenomenon. Perhaps it is this ever widening gap that can be blamed for disastrous consequences on the Muslim world: political tyranny and fragmentation, economic backwardness, social injustice, scientific bankruptcy, intellectual stagnation, etc. The non-Islamic status of women in the Muslim world today is merely a symptom of a deeper malady. The cartoon of the two women carrying AK47, one Moslem and one Western, makes the point in this regard. Any reform in the current status of Muslim women is not expected to be fruitful if not accompanied with more comprehensive reforms of the Muslim societies’ whole way of life. Irshad Manji has recently shown us a possible way to analyze the situation and begin the reform process with her book titled The Trouble with Islam Today. The subject will be dealt in part II of this essay. Indeed, the Muslim world is in need for a renaissance that will bring it closer to the ideals of Islam. To sum up, the notion that the poor status of Muslim women today is due to Islam itself is an utter misconception. The problems of Muslims in general are not due to too much attachment to Islam, rather, they may well be due to a long and deep detachment from it.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

The daily reality of working poverty

MD Staff

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Louisette Fanjamalala, has worked hard all her life, yet, like millions of working poor around the globe, she barely makes enough to survive.

Fanjamalala, from Madagascar, lives with four teenage children – two of her own and two orphans she has adopted. Their home is a cramped one-room house in the Antananarivo suburb of Soavina. Her husband left years ago.

For years, she worked in textile factories, getting only short term contracts and earning as little as 70 000 ariary (about US$20) a month in some cases, and, at best cases 300 000 ariary (about US$90). That was barely enough to feed her family. Now, things are even worse.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to be hired because I am considered as too old. It is a shame because I am qualified, I work as fast as and even better than younger workers. However, nowadays, human resources departments usually turn down my request without even giving me an appointment,” she sighed.

Because she was also a victim of violence at work, Fanjamalala recently received support from an ILO programme which provided her with new skills and a sewing machine. She now makes some money by doing sewing work at home for people in her neighbourhood. She also makes clothes and curtains that she sells at the local market. However, getting food on the family table remains a constant challenge.

“Fanjamalala’s story is unfortunately very common in Madagascar and in many developing countries,” said Christian Ntsay, Director of the ILO Office in Antananarivo. “You only need to walk in the streets here and talk to people to realize that the findings of the World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018  (WESO) on vulnerable employment and working poverty translate into a reality faced by millions of people,” he said.

“Ninety-three per cent of Malagasy workers like Louisette Fanjamalala have no other choice than working in the informal economy to survive,” Ntsay added.

1.4 billion workers in vulnerable employment

“Working poverty continues to fall but – again – just like for vulnerable employment , progress is stalling,” explained Stefan Kühn, lead author of the ILO World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018.

”Vulnerable employment affects three out of four workers in developing countries. Almost 1.4 billion workers are estimated to be in vulnerable employment in 2017. Every year, an additional 17 million are expected to join them.”

In 2017, extreme working poverty remained widespread, with more than 300 million workers in emerging and developing countries having a per capita household income or consumption of less than US$1.90 per day.

Overall, progress in reducing working poverty is too slow to keep pace with the growing labour force in developing countries, where the number of people in extreme working poverty is expected to exceed 114 million in 2018, or 40 per cent of all employed people.

“Emerging countries achieved significant progress in reducing extreme working poverty. It should continue to fall, translating into a reduction in the number of extreme working poor by 10 million per year in 2018 and 2019. However, moderate working poverty, in which workers live on an income of between US$1.90 and US$3.10 per day, remains widespread, affecting 430 million workers in emerging and developing countries in 2017,” said Kühn.

“The findings of the WESO Trends 2018 report is a reminder that more efforts need to be done to reduce inequalities and to ensure better living and working conditions for people like Louisette Fanjamalala and the 1.4 billion workers facing a similar situation throughout the world,” he concluded.

Source: ILO

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New Social Compact

The Worst Horror Story – Rape

Aditi Aryal

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Photo by Zach Guinta on Unsplash

Rape in all its horrendous forms is a marred and an abhorrent trace of patriarchy and misogyny. The direct victims are majorly women, but the fact that men can be –and often are– victims cannot be discounted. Devising its roots in power-play and control, today it carries a heavier weight as a statutory offence with set penalties. Despite these penalties and a massive international attention taking forms of media outrage, studies, monetary and legal aid, awareness programs, and safe shelters, rapes of women – young and old are alarmingly high in South Asia by offenders of varying age groups.

In Nepal, as reported by a national daily, 78 rape cases have on average been reported every month over a course of five years, many of the offenders being septuagenarians and octogenarians. The Indian National Crime Bureau Report (NCBR, 2016) claimed 338,954 reports were made between 2015 and 2016 as crimes against women out of which 38,947 were rapes. It also reported an increase of 82% in the incidents of rape of children. Likewise, in Pakistan, Human Rights Watch asserts of at least one rape every two hours and one gang-rape every eight. In Bangladesh, 13,003 rape cases were reported between 2001-2017 out of which 85 were rapes by law enforcement agents such as police, jail agents, and the army. These data are only the tip of the iceberg as many cases are unreported by the victim, withdrawn upon coercion, or refused to be registered as a legit case by the authority

The Dynamics

The causes of rape are far too many, and differs from case to case. The reasons that surface commonly are sexual frustration in men, poverty, mind-sets and attitudes that reflect machismo, a sense of entitlement, unawareness, and acceptance. In 2012, a report by UNICEF published that 57% men and 53% women in India thought marital rape as not rape, and a sizeable number believed that beating of wives by their husbands was not violence. In India and Bangladesh, the legislations on what constitutes a crime declares it as not rape if the person is married to the victim and if she is over 15 years of age, excepting judicial separation.

We need to remind ourselves that in the South Asian countries, men often grow up being told and shown that they are superior to women who then grow old with a sense of entitlement as they deem it fit for a woman to be available on their demand. When these men are unable to earn for the family due to unemployment or otherwise, their frustration takes the form of rape to demonstrate their ‘masculinity’ and maintain superiority over the women.

Now, this mentality also works in reverse, where a woman is told be to weaker than men and should protect herself from them if she does not wish to get raped. In most South Asian families, females have lesser liberty of movement and choices as compared to their male counterparts. This obviously arises from expected gender behavior that good women should be meek, submissive, and obedient but is also centered around the fact that the families do not want their females to be raped.

This objective of giving women the security inside the family homes is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, rapes and molestation within the family very often exist. In January 2018, a baby girl of eight months was raped in Delhi, India by a relative in her house. Little girls of varying ages have been raped right next to a family member by another family member or neighbors in several instances in Nepal and they could do nothing, not even file a complaint because this façade of a domestic protection does not concern a female’s bodily security but societal reputation.

The Aftermath

Once a person is subjected to rape, the victim becomes unchaste and impure and is thought to bring dishonour to the family. The terminology in Pakistan is kari, referring to someone who has lost virginity outside marriage and an honour killing, karokari, is subjected by the village council. The victims often commit suicide or are killed by their own families for tainting the honour. In 2002, Mukhtaran Bibi challenged this status quo by not committing suicide after a gang rape that was ordered on her by a village council but filed a case against all her rapists. Initially, they were sentenced to death but in 2005, five of them were acquitted due to lack of evidence. In 2011, the sixth offender got acquitted too. In 2017 in Multan, Pakistan, a jirgah (village council) ordered revenge rape on the sister of an offender. In all these years, nothing has changed and even today revenge rape is still being ordered on innocent girls for no fault of their own as punishment.

The victims in other countries face social stigma and have to live in fear because once someone falls victim to rape, they are prone to more rapes because the value of a person is reduced from that of a human to a commodity that is free for public use. In Haryana, India, a girl was gang-raped twice by the same set of men who were out on bail after raping her the first time six years ago. A take-home message is that the onus lies on a woman to protect herself from men who are always lurking in hunt of a prey to rape, yet again asserting that the victim befalls such fate on themselves due to their actions, or in Pakistan actions of their family members.

Rapes are justified for godforsaken reasons and victims told they were ‘asking for it’ by travelling alone at ungodly hours, dressing provocatively, being friends with men, or indulging in so called notorious activities like smoking, drinking, and partying. The way these protectionist measures are advised always revolves around victim but never around the offenders, due to the notion that men have an insatiable sexual appetite and if women portray themselves to be ‘easy’, they are raped. Ranjit Sinha, head of Indian Central Bureau of Investigation once commented that if women couldn’t prevent rapes, they should enjoy it.

In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, victims of rape are subjected to a two-finger test to determine their sexual activeness. This procedure exists despite so many pleas from within these countries and outside to get rid of it on the bases that it is flawed on so many levels as it renders women who chose to be sexually active out of consent as lecherous and dirty who have already been touched by a man. This violation of a victim’s body is backed by the government in the form of a random stranger determining of their worth. This is of course scientifically inaccurate, and extremely irrelevant in case of rape.

Equally exasperating is the fact that women should remain pious and dedicated to only choosing to be sexually active with their legally married husbands but when their husbands rape them, it is not recognised by the legislation. O. P. Chautala, an ex minister in India, once stated that girls should be married as they turn 16 so that sexual needs of women are met and they will not go elsewhere and rapes will reduce. However, even statutory age of marriage is above 16 in India, and marriage is not a way to end rape. Rather, such a statement renders women as cattle whose ownership belongs to the husband.

These instances prove time and again that the role of a woman is always reduced to pleasing her husband in bed without considerations.  In fact, marriage is a holy sacrament that can undo rape – perhaps why victims are married off to their rapists in South Asia who then continue to rape them for the rest of their lives.

Most importantly, the police and other protectors of law find ways to make money out of instances of rape. Like, in January 2018 in Kathmandu, Nepal, a woman of 22 years withdrew her report of rape after few days and it was later revealed that the police were involved facilitating monetary settlements between the accused and the complainant with a personal gain. In Bharatpur, Nepal in February 2018, police coerced a woman to withdraw her rape complaint. So many more cases have surfaced in the southern plains of Nepal where the police have been involved as middlemen.

Hindrance to Justice

The reasons behind rape are men-centric but they have been ingrained in the societies as acceptable by both men and women. Reporting of rape has been increasing in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan but the cases are not dealt with caution. The victims face injustice and have to go through denigrating treatment by the police and health officers, questioning their character and morality.

The portrayal of a victim in the media is a stereotypical one, a non-provocative, harmless, and morally upright person with no past sexual history. Any victim deviating from this stereotype probably brought it on themselves. Further, the media has been reporting on sensitive issues like rape without sensitivity like revealing the victim’s name which is illegal or slut-shaming the victims.

Lastly, even death penalties are not enough to deter people from committing rapes. In Pakistan and India, rape can be punished with death but the crime is still on the rise. After the 2012 Nirbhaya case in Delhi, India, a strong plea was made to change the judicial system and a fast-track hearing was introduced for rape because national outrage by the citizens was not deemed enough to bring a change. In Nepal, the fast-track court is in practice too, but the problem arises in procuring evidence which is substantial in these cases.

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New Social Compact

Without firm action on gender equality, women’s empowerment, world may miss development targets

MD Staff

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“This is an urgent signal for action, and the report recommends the directions to follow,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women, said on the launch of the new report, Turning promises into action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Speaking to reporters at UN Headquarters in New York, she said: “As a world, we committed through the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] to leave no one behind,” but the report reveals many areas where progress remains slow to achieve the Goals by 2030.

Even where progress is made, it may not reach the women and girls who need it most and the ones that are being left furthest behind,” explained Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Turning promises into action makes in-depth case studies in the Colombia, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, United States and Uruguay, looking at what is necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

Focusing on unpaid care work and ending violence against women, the comprehensive report examines all 17 SDGs and how deeply intertwined the different dimensions of well-being and deprivation are in impacting the lives of women and girls.

As one example, it points out that a girl born into poverty and forced into early marriage is more likely to drop out of school, give birth at an early age, suffer childbirth complications and experience violence – a scenario that encompasses all the SDGs.

Moreover, new data in 89 countries reveals that there are 4.4 million more women than men living on less than $1.90 a day – much of which is explained by the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work women face, especially during their reproductive years.

Looking beyond national averages, glaring gaps are uncovered between women and girls who, even within the same country, are living in worlds apart because of income status, race, ethnicity or location.

While the report addresses how to tackle existing structural inequalities and what is needed to move from promises to action, progress remains slow.

“It’s a problem in all countries, developed, developing, north, south, east west,” Shahrashoub Razavi, UN Women’s Chief of Research and Data, told UN News.

“We have a long way to go to achieve gender equality universally,” she added, calling it “a problem that stymies the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

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