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In Remote Iranian Province Sistan-Baluchistan, Women Make Gains at Ballot Box

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Iranian women cast their ballots for the presidential election at a polling station in Tehran on May 19. VOA
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IRAN, May 26, 2017: Iran’s sprawling southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province is notorious for insecurity, poverty, drug trafficking, and deadly clashes between security forces and militants.

More recently, however, it made headlines this month for sweeping a record number of women onto city and village councils.

Officials say the number of women elected to local councils in the Sunni-majority province, which shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, more than doubled.

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“Four hundred and fifteen women have been elected to the city councils in the province,” Governor Ali Osat Hashemi was quoted by Iranian media as saying on May 23, up from just 185.

In one village, Afzalabad, in the district of Khash, all 10 candidates on the council ballot on May 19 were women.

The numbers remain low nationally. Of the more than 287,000 candidates registered for last week’s elections, just 6 percent were women, according to official figures.

But moderates and reformists, bolstered by the rise to power of President Hassan Rohani and their success in the 2016 parliamentary elections, have aimed at ending the tight grip of conservatives on local politics.

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Rohani, a veteran politician who has risked crossing Iran’s powerful unelected establishment with calls for modest reform inside the country and on the international scene, was reelected on May 19 with 57 percent of the vote. The victory was widely seen as a blow to political and cultural hard-liners and an expression of Iranians’ desire for interaction with the world.

“Despite having university educations, [women] don’t have freedom of speech. I want to defend them,” Esmat Irandagani told the Iranian daily Shahrvand. She said she did very little campaigning and owed her victory to the women in her village who encouraged her to run “to help them” get their handicrafts more recognition.

“I was a volunteer for the Red Crescent. I also worked one year as a reporter. Now I want to do work for the women in my village,” Irandagani said, adding that men had not successfully developed the village.

Women Taking Charge

Gains on city councils follow the appointment in recent years of more women to senior posts in the region, including as governors, mayors, and prefects.

Khash Governor Mohammad Chakerzehi credited Rohani’s administration with advancing the political role of women, saying the government in Tehran’s effort to increase the number of women in decision-making positions across the province contributed to women’s success in the city-council elections.

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“One-third of women who had registered to run were elected to city councils,” Chakerzehi said. “Many of these educated women registered to run in order to strengthen the position of women in society.”

Abdol Sattar Doshoki, a Baluchi political analyst who heads the U.K.-based Center for Baluchistan Studies, says the high-level appointments have inspired women to seek a greater role in the society. “The [city-council election] has provided Baluch women, many of whom have obtained university degrees in past years, with an opportunity to show themselves and play a role in political and social life,” Doshoki explains.

Baluch make up a majority in the province, which is said to be one of Iran’s poorest.

Doshoki says he believes that the high participation of women also helps combat discrimination in the province, which is among Iran’s poorest. “Baluchi people suffer from different types of discrimination, including ethnic discrimination, religious discrimination, and also gender discrimination, which is common for [other regions] in the country,” he says.

“In places where women stood, men and women had the power to say no to gender discrimination,” Doshoki says.

Setting An Example

Afzalabad Mayor Maryam Ahmadzehi, a woman, has been held up in local media coverage as a successful example of a woman in a senior post and, presumably, a key factor encouraging men to vote for women when they step into the voting booth. Roads have been paved, new parks have been created, and the village has been connected to the electricity grid.

“The day Ahmadzehi became mayor, the village was in ruins, but things have changed significantly since then,” a local school principal told the daily Etemad in April. “We’re satisfied with our mayor, so we reached the conclusion that women can also do good work in the council.”

The principal added that since many local men are out in the field farming or on duty guarding Iran’s border, they are happy to cede “care of the village issues” to women.

One of the female candidates for the village council in Afzalabad told Etemad that Ahmadzehi was indeed a role model. “Her efforts motivated all of us to study and work,” she said.

Across the country, initial election results suggest that reformists and moderates ousted conservatives and took control of councils in at least six major cities.

In the capital, Tehran, where all 21 seats went to reformists in this month’s vote, women doubled their presence on the city council from three to six.

The hard-line election supervisor, the Guardians Council, imposes an effective ban on women running for the Iranian presidency, but parliament vets those running for city-council seats.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently accused Iran of systemic discrimination and other obstacles in the workplace, saying Iran lags in gender equality.

Local media report that there are around 150 women in managerial positions in Sistan-Baluchistan, a province of around 2.5 million people. (RFE/RL)

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  • Orpheus Alexander

    Now they are going to go down the same toilet as other countries being ruined by feminism.

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The Attention Shifts To The U.S. As It Strikes Down FGM Law

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

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FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.Image source: VOA

When a U.S. district judge last month ruled a federal ban on female genital mutilation unconstitutional, he undercut the federal government and alarmed anti-FGM activists, who hope to eradicate the practice.

The World Health Organization calls FGM, also known as female circumcision, a human rights violation of women and girls, with no health benefits.

Some 200 million women and girls around the world, mainly in Africa, have experienced FGM, the WHO says.

In his opinion, Judge Bernard Friedman called FGM “despicable,” but also “a local criminal activity” that must be addressed at the state level. In enacting a federal law, he said, Congress overstepped.

Now, local lawmakers, advocates and newspapers are calling for state bans that equal or surpass the scope of the federal law that was struck down.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, judge
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 6, 2018. (VOA)

‘Never again’

The case Friedman ruled on centers around Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician accused of performing FGM on at least 100 girls in Michigan for more than a decade.

Prosecutors have focused their case on nine girls, aged 7 to 12, from three states. The girls allegedly were subjected to FGM with the aid of Nagarwala and seven others, including the girls’ mothers.

Defense attorneys say the procedure amounted to only a “nick” on the girls performed as part of a religious ritual — not FGM. But they also argued in July that the federal law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

State Senator Rick Jones, who represents Michigan’s 24th district, told VOA by phone that he was shocked to learn about Nagarwala’s case and strongly disagrees with Friedman’s ruling.

Last year, Jones became the spokesperson for a package of bills outlawing FGM statewide. The legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Female Circumcision, FGM
The barbaric practice of genitalia mutilation has been banned in developed nations. Wikimedia

Now, Michigan has some of the toughest FGM laws in the country.

Health-care providers convicted of performing FGM face up to 15 years in prison, along with the permanent loss of their medical licenses. Parents who take their daughters to doctors to be cut can lose custody.

The 1996 federal law, meanwhile, stipulated up to five years in prison and fines for medical providers who perform FGM.

“We wanted to send a strong message around the world: Never again bring your girls to Michigan for this horrible procedure,” Jones said.

Across the U.S., 27 states have passed laws banning FGM, many of which have been written in recent years and include penalties that go beyond the federal law, which also criminalizes so-called “vacation cutting,” the practice of taking girls out of the United States to have FGM performed overseas.

News organizations are among those pushing for an expansion of state laws. Last month, the Seattle Times editorial board called for a ban in Washington, one of 23 states yet to outlaw FGM.

FGM
A doctor checks her phone as she poses for a photograph in Mumbai, India, June 8, 2016. The 50-year-old woman defends what is widely considered female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Dawoodi Bohra community in India. VOA

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said all 50 states should ban the “barbaric” practice, in light of Friedman’s ruling.

Religious ritual?

The health-care providers and families involved in the Michigan case belong to Dawoodi Bohra, a Shi’ite Muslim sect based in India with about 2 million followers worldwide.

According to a study published earlier this year, FGM, called khafd in Dawoodi Bohra communities, is widespread in the sect and involves cutting the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, without an anesthetic, when girls turn seven.

The study, commissioned by WeSpeakOut, an advocacy group focused on eradicating khafd, also found that three-quarters of Dawoodi Bohra women have experienced FGM.

The severity and nature of FGM can vary.

Health-care providers have identified four types of FGM. Khafd involves Type 1 FGM. Other types involve removing all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal opening.

Jones rejects the idea that there’s a religious basis for the procedure, however it’s performed.

FGM
FILE – A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM). VOA

“Across the world, this has been practiced by Christians, pagans, Muslims, even a small Jewish sect in Ethiopia,” he said.

“This is not about a religion,” he added. “This is about men attempting to control women’s behavior by this horrible procedure.”

The WHO identifies both short-term and permanent harms associated with the practice. Immediate concerns include severe pain, infections and, in some cases, death. Long term, women and girls subjected to FGM face a range of physiological and psychological complications that can affect menstruation, childbirth and sexual health.

The United States has been unequivocal in condemning the practice, saying “the U.S. government considers FGM/C to be a serious human rights abuse, and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse” on a fact sheet posted to the Citizenship & Immigration Services website.

Education and legislation

Friedman’s November decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for prosecutors.

Nagarwala spent seven months in 2017 in jail before 16 friends posted a $4.5 million unsecured bond, against the pleas of prosecutors, who argued Nagarwala could silence potential witnesses or even flee the country if released.

FGM
KAMELI, KENYA – AUGUST 12: A Masaai villager displays the traditional blade used to circumcise young girls August 12, 2007 in Kameli, Kenya. Maasai are a pastoral group mostly clustered in the Rift Valley. They practice circumcision on both boys and girls during puberty years as a rite of passage to adulthood. VOA

And in January, the judge dismissed charges that Nagarwala and a second doctor, Fakhruddin Attar, transported minors with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, an offense that carries a lifetime sentence.

Nagarwala still faces conspiracy and obstruction charges that could result in decades in prison.

The trial is now set to begin next April, the Detroit Free Press reported last month. However, the prosecution could appeal last month’s decision, drawing the case out further.

Also Read: Somalia Calls To Outlaw Female Genital Mutilation

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

“What we have to do is continue to fight this worldwide. This is a global problem,” Jones said.

“It is a violation of human rights,” he said. “And I’m going to continue speaking out worldwide against this horrible, horrible practice that must end.” (VOA)