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Re: Women an untapped economic resource

How fundamentalism cripples women

November 16 2002

Thanks to threats by contestants to boycott the Miss World competition, the stoning sentence imposed against a Nigerian woman, Amina Lawal, for the crime of having given birth to a child outside of marriage, will not be carried out. The government of Nigeria, where this year's Miss World pageant is being held, has promised the contestants it will not allow any Nigerian convicted of adultery by Islamic courts to be stoned to death.

So the beauty contest is on and the stoning is off. Islamic fundamentalist groups are angry about having the Miss World pageant in Nigeria, branding it a "parade of nudity". Well, let them be, because however ideologically unsound beauty contests might be to some (they don't bother this feminist), this represents a great victory by women over religious fundamentalism.

Meanwhile, in the United States, another lot of religious fundamentalists are doing their bit to undermine women's rights. The administration of George Bush, with the support of the Catholic right, is threatening to withdraw from a United Nations agreement on population because of wording that some in the administration believe could be construed as promoting abortion.

The 1994 UN population conference in Cairo recognised that the most effective way to curb overpopulation and poverty was to improve the status and rights of women. The conference declaration, which the US, under former president Bill Clinton, helped to write, has since been endorsed by 179 countries.

But at a development conference in Bangkok last week the American delegation announced it would no longer support the Cairo agreement unless the terms "reproductive rights" and "reproductive health services" were removed. These seemingly innocuous words are apparently code for encouraging women in the Third World to have abortions.

Similar worries prompted the US in July to withhold $34 million from the UN population fund. I am not making a moral equivalence between the US and states that want to kill women for having sex. Women in America are free and they have had access to legal abortion for 30 years, though whether this will remain now that Republicans have control of the Senate, and are keen to fill the federal courts with conservative judges, remains to be seen. But this is another example of the rigid religious convictions of a few adversely affecting the lives of women.

The Bush administration has not only managed to undermine a global consensus on population policy, but put at risk safe childbirth and family planning programs to millions of women in poor countries. Women in Afghanistan, about whose lack of rights Bush has waxed indignant (or at least post-September 11), have the highest rates of pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths in the world.

There is a very good reason why the UN, the World Bank and most aid organisations put great emphasis on raising the status of women, and it is not because they are all run by good feminists. It is because it is conventional wisdom now that this is one of the most effective ways to lift countries out of poverty. If you look around the world it is evident that almost any country in which women are badly oppressed is a poor and backward country. The exceptions are a couple of oil-rich Arab states; but as a recent UN report by Arab academics noted, these countries are richer than they are developed.

"A thriving nation will respect the rights of women, because no society can prosper while denying opportunity to half its citizens," Bush told a class of graduates this year. Yet while 170 countries have ratified the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the US has not. (The Howard Government has also long refused to sign an optional protocol to this convention).

Not clever, if the aim is a better and safer world. Cutting funding to organisations that provide advice on contraception is a particularly stupid move, considering that the countries in which there is the greatest hatred of America are also, in large part, the countries in which populations are growing the fastest.

In the Netherlands, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a young Somali-born Muslim woman, has recently had to go into hiding after speaking out about the oppression of migrant women in Amsterdam and for criticising conservative Muslim clerics for undermining the country's liberal values. She has been saying the same things that murdered "right-wing" politician Pim Fortuyn had been saying, except that she is supposed to be on the left. "If the West wants to help modernise Islam, it should invest in women, because they educate the children," she told The New York Times.

Most religious people no longer subscribe to the need to control women that is embedded in all religions. The political right isn't much interested in oppressing women either; they know women's participation is good for the economy (and there are probably as many feminists on the right as on the left these days). It's the religious right who are a danger to women - despite the fact that they may be women - and to the world.

Pamela Bone is an associate editor of The Age.
E-mail: pbone@theage.fairfax.com.au

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/11/15/1037080911452.html

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Re: Women an untapped economic resource

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