A job for women

In just a few weeks a Nigerian appeals court will hear the case of Sufiyatu Huseini, a Nigerian woman who has been sentenced to be buried to the neck in sand and then stoned to death for the crime of adultery. She landed in this situation because a fellow villager jumped her in the bushes. If she dies, the consequence of the event, a baby girl, will be orphaned.

Ms Huseini's cause is the sort where even a small amount of pressure from the West can have an effect, since the Nigerian government does seem to care somewhat about its reputation. And any number of writers and organisations across the world have indeed rallied to Ms Huseini's support. This week for example, the papers report, Italy's footballers demonstrated for Ms Huseini and donned t-shirts reading "Who Will Cast the First Stone?"

Helping cases like Ms Huseini seems to me the most important thing US women's groups can do at this point. Indeed, the spreading violence against women in the Middle East is arguably the number one feminist story on the globe, surpassing any US issues women might have. It's time, it seems to me, for the women's movement to act in the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of our first great female leaders, and engage all over the place.

So I clicked my way to the main web address for US feminism, "Now.org". NOW, as most readers know, was founded in the 1960s to fight for women's rights, political and reproductive.

Yet there was nothing on NOW's home page about Sufiyatu and her rights when I looked this week. Instead there were causes that NOW apparently deemed more pressing, to wit: "Mike Tyson must not fight in Nation's Capital" and "Oppose Judicial Nominee Charles Pickering, Sr.". "Now.org" also posted an item labeled "Stop Hate Crimes, NOW". But that item addresses potential future violence to Americans (the sort that happens in the alley behind the bar), and not the relatively certain violence awaiting Ms Huseini.

In fact, NOW's home page contained only a single international itema clickable line reading "Free Lori Berenson", the New Yorker jailed in Peru on charges of collaborating with violent rebels. Somewhere on the site a row of items on Afghanistan is offered, including an appeal by NOW president Kim Gandy for "gender parity in the government of Afghanistan". But as everyone knows, the home page is what counts when it comes to educating constituents.

NOW's executive vice president, Karen Johnson, responds that the home page frequently changes. In the past it has featured the cause of the Chinese religious group Falun Gong, and advanced the cause of religious freedom in China. NOW has also signed an amicus brief on behalf of the Korean "comfort women". On the matter of Sharia Law, NOW says it has participated in the World March of Women, a 161-country body that opposes violence against women, including, Ms Johnson says, killing women and female genital mutilation. "We need to toot our own horn more", she says. "We see sisterhood as being global". All right.

Next I went over to home page of NARAL.org, the website of the National Abortion Rights Action League. It too turned out to be disappointing. NARAL is a group that has dedicated itself to "date rape" for decades, into which class Ms Huseini's bush encounter with a persistent 60 year old might fall. Yet nothing there, either.

I mention all this not so much to hoist NARAL or NOW by their modern day petards (home pages) as to illustrate a great failure on the part of the American women's groups when it comes to women's rights in the Middle East and Africa. And especially the violations of those rights by the stricter versions of Sharia Law that are currently spreading in both regions. My colleague Richard Dowden reported in the New York Times magazine that the law as it interpreted in the area where Ms Huseini lives says pregnancy alone is sufficient evidence of adultery. In other words, women almost always pay for the crime, while men almost always get away. You can't get more anti-woman than that.

Yet US women's groups do tend to stay away from such problems. Why?

One reason is that these groups think in terms of men in the private sphere as enemies, and government as the protector. "The women's movement has organized itself around the question of violence in the private sphere and the failure of the state to protect them" says Widney Brown of Human Rights Watch, which does monitor cases like Sufiyatu Huseini's. But Nigeria "is about the state being the source of the violence." And, therefore, puzzling.

I agree with Ms Brown's analysis. In my view, the trouble with much of the traditional women's movement here in the States is that it nearly always tends to think that more government is the answer. This makes it narrow.

Another problems, notes Ms Brown, is that two classic goals of rights advocates - freedom of religion and women's rights - come into conflict in a case like Ms Huseini's. So the rights people find it hard to stake out a position.

This point is even more important. It's become a terrible taboo to condemn a practise that comes out of religion. Such a taboo that we're willing to allow the sacrifice of lives rather than violate it.

That's wrong.

Of course you don't see burkhas, or female circumcision, or the burning of widows, getting too much attention either from US feminists, who ought to be leading the charge. Here my view is exactly the same as that of the old British imperialists toward suttee (widow burning): stop it.

The biggest problem with official American feminism though is not that it is Marxist or relativist. It is its obsessive US focus. US policy matters the most; foreign policy is of relevance, but mainly only in so far as it serves national political aims (goading Republican administrations, usually). This was true during the war in Yugoslavia they only got interested when they learned of the systematic rape by Serbians. It was as if all the rest of the war the slaughter, the end of Dubrovnik didn't matter. And it's true again these days. NOW's Ms Gandy didn't merely mention gender parity in Afghanistan's government; she said we needed to implement it there "just as we need to do here in the United States".

This kind of foreign-policy-for-the-sake-of-home-policy is not ambitious enough. Women spent so many decades getting out of the home and the old village, proving to the world that they were real, thinking, adults. It's therefore sad to see their organizational representatives acting in a fashion that can only be described pejoratively--as both domestic and provincial. If footballers can fight stoning, why can't women's groups?

The email is still coming in from readers who are concerned about Sufiyatu Huseini, the Nigerian woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death for the crime of adultery. Most readers want to know where to go to help. One answer is Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org), whose press spokeswoman is Minky Worden (wordenm@hrw.org)

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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