Hear Them Roar: Female Dissidents Are Rewriting the Rules in Countries Where They Can’t Even Show Their Faces

For women in Iraq, running for office is an especially risky proposition. The country’s Constitution, like those of many nations that have been racked by conflict, requires that a quarter of all parliamentary seats must go to women. Yet even as the number of female leaders and political activists has increased, so has the backlash. In February, a female candidate was shot and killed in Mosul.

Yet female activists continue to challenge Iraq’s religious conservatives. Hanaa Edwar, one of the founders of the Iraqi Women’s Network, a coalition of NGOs, recently blasted the minister of education for trying to separate boys and girls in public schools. “These ideas are imported from Iran!” she says. The minister eventually backed down. Another activist, Jenan Mubark, who became frustrated about the lack of progress around women’s rights, has pulled together a slate of 20 women, whom she hopes will be elected into other political parties. Once in Parliament, they could work together as a voting bloc. “I will continue to fight for Iraqi women and their rights,” she says.

A surprising number of women are leading political dissent in countries like Iraq and others where women’s voices are often suppressed. Women are at the forefront of Iran’s Green Movement, and are leading reformist agendas in Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, and Angola. They are especially visible in conflict zones, where they are blogging, marching in the streets, holding sit-ins, and launching petitions to secure their rights — as Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi has done with the One Million Signatures campaign, which supports changing laws that discriminate against Iranian women.

In some ways, the rise of dissidents reflects a larger trend toward greater female political participation everywhere. Globally, the percentage of women holding parliamentary seats went from 11.3 percent in 1995 to 18.8 at the end of 2009 — largely because of legislated quotas like the one in Iraq. At the same time, educational levels of girls are rising rapidly across the developing world, leading to greater economic power, particularly in developing nations: in China, 20 percent of entrepreneurs are women, and in Russia, 73 percent of businesses have a woman in senior management. And while women in conflict zones or conservative countries can be at risk for violence if they engage in dissent in public spaces, the Internet has provided a safer way for them to air their grievances.

It may also be that women have grown tired of waiting for justice. Last month the United Nations launched a review of the progress that has been made since the last major conference on women, in Beijing in 1995. While the Beijing conference set an official agenda for ensuring women’s basic health, safety, and security, it has yet to be broadly implemented. The ongoing threat of death, sexual violence, and the rollback of basic rights for women in conflict areas recently led one U.N. official to observe that “it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in war.” Afghan women activists recently had to gate-crash their own country’s conflict-resolution conference in London, since there was only one female official invited — and even though Hillary Clinton is the main global spokesperson for Afghan women’s rights. A new crop of female activists has come to realize that if they don’t fight for their own rights, no one else will.

Women in the developing world are far more prepared to take up the struggle than previous generations did. In many developing economies, there are now as many girls as boys in primary and secondary school, with particular gains in countries such as Iran, India, Egypt, and China. In some countries, the gains are a result of a communist or socialist legacy that pushed broad-based education for both men and women. Other times, it’s simply a result of the striving attitudes common in many developing nations, where there’s desperate need for more engineers and doctors, regardless of gender. As in the U.S., the percentage of women in higher education in developing nations often meets or exceeds that of men. In Brazil, Russia, and the U.A.E., women represent more than 60 percent of college graduates; in India and China, they are at 47 and 42 percent, respectively. Women also hold increasing economic power (the majority of the world’s new earned income over the next 10 years will come from women), and receive greater support from international institutions, which have come to see female economic empowerment as the fastest and most cost-effective way to develop peaceful, prosperous, and stable societies.

Quotas are antithetical to many Americans, yet the efforts of female dissidents have been helped by the increased use of such systems. Among the 46 nations that have political quota systems, women now account for 21.9 percent of elected offices, versus 15.3 percent for countries that don’t. In Rwanda, which (like many postconflict areas) uses a quota system, 56.3 percent of parliamentarians are women, the highest level worldwide. In countries like Uganda, Burundi, and Ecuador, women account for 30 percent of elected officials, the “critical mass” necessary to allow them to work together to effect change, according to Anne Marie Goetz, UNIFEM’s chief adviser for Governance, Peace and Security. “In these places, getting women into power is seen as a broader sign of democratization,” notes Pippa Norris, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School. In some cases, nations decimated by war or famine are also inclined to subscribe to what Laura Liswood, the secretary-general of the Aspen Institute’s Council of Women World Leaders, calls “the crumbling-cliff theory”: if things are going to hell anyway, why not give the outsiders a shot at fixing them?

Yet even in countries like Iran, where there are no quotas and women make up only 2.8 percent of parliamentarians, female activists are omnipresent. In the wake of last summer’s contested elections, female protesters of all ages, some fully covered in traditional clothing, others wearing tight jeans and loose head scarves, flooded the streets, in part because two of the key symbols of political opposition were female. Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a prominent academic and writer, boldly appeared in public prior to the election holding hands with her husband and calling for an end to discrimination against women. So did Fatemeh Karroubi, the wife of Mehdi Karroubi, another opposition candidate. Rahnavard in particular underscored that in Iran, women are at least as well educated and prepared for public office as men — 60 percent of all university degrees are earned by women, and as in Iraq, there is a large and wealthy female middle class. “I can say that even though their husbands are the symbolic leaders of the Green Movement, the real leaders are these two courageous women,” says Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist now in exile in London. “It is because of them that millions of women came into the streets before and after the elections.”

Alinejad herself, who blogs and uses her Facebook pages as a tool for political protest, is emblematic of a new generation of female activists worldwide who are using technology to spread their views. Smart phones and handheld digital cameras allow protest images to be beamed throughout the world, and social networking is allowing women to mobilize. “This is quite significant in parts of the Middle East, where women have restricted public life but high levels of education and income,” says Norris. As a result, the U.N., World Bank, and various NGOs are making information-technology access a key point of peace building.

The real question, of course, is how — and whether — women’s increasing political power could improve things in the world’s most difficult countries. It’s not a straightforward question: there are any number of examples (Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi) to show that female leaders aren’t necessarily more peaceable than their male counterparts. Nor is there any real proof that they lead better than men do. But they do tend to have different priorities. Academic research has shown that female politicians around the world pay more attention to issues like public health, education, and child care. Women still have a long way to go in the struggle for political parity — and U.N. figures show that without legal mandates, it won’t be achieved until the end of this century. But you can be sure that female dissenters won’t stop fighting for it.

With Maziar Bahari in London, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad, and Anita Kirpalani in New York

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