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We stand for all women

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by Houzan Mahmoud

Women's freedom means freedom for all. It is time to stand together, writes Houzan Mahmoud as part of our ongoing coverage of international women's week

In a world where we are defined and "identified" on the basis of nationality, ethnicity and religion (down to the smallest of sects) the category "woman" is increasingly relegated to a second class status. In countries where political systems are based on religious diktat women have no rights to live, think, act or decide for themselves. Their lives are valued at half that of a man. Rigid religious laws show no sign of allowing happiness, prosperity or the simplest of rights for women.

In Islamic countries women are suffocated, suppressed and tied to bigoted norms and values. In this environment women grow up deprived and segregated - thinking that there is only one way to live, that no other choice exists. They are right. In these countries women have no choice but to subjugate themselves to the male members of the family and follow the orders handed to them from "God".

For many of us, what we witness in our "countries of origin" is a tragedy without end, where from an early age generations of women are told that their minds are not their own. Where their personalities are not shaped by individual will but moulded by the oppressive rules of society.

In my "country of origin", Iraqi Kurdistan, religious law does not officially hold sway but Islamic ethics and morality form the norms of everyday life. Islamic law shapes the lives of millions of women from birth to death.

We are the actual survivors of Islamic cultural norms and traditions. Not "victims" but strong activists who have survived some of the worst that religious rule has to throw at us, who have the guts and courage to speak out and be the voice of the silenced women of the region.

From Basra to Baghdad and through to Kurdistan women are being killed on a daily basis, terrorised in the name of "honour", forced into arranged marriages. More and more are choosing to be free. The price of freedom can be high, but many women are now making this choice.

Dua Khalil Aswad, the Yazidi girl who was dragged out and publicly stoned to death by male family members, a victim of religious bigotry.

Nafisa, an Afghan woman whose husband recently cut off her nose and ears.

Zohreh and Azar Kabiri-niat, the two Iranian sisters who have been sentenced to stoning to death, accused of having "illicit relations".

These women and many more in Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries are being stoned to death in public and hanged. In Uganda, Sudan and elsewhere women have been and continue to be raped in retaliation during bloody wars. Abject poverty strikes women the hardest. Why all this brutality?

Lack of economic equality, a rigid patriarchy and religious misogyny are pillars of a capitalist system that keeps us divided on the basis of gender and class. This system creates a horrendous situation for women. Cultural relativism does nothing to help, indeed stands opposed to the universal rights that were only achieved after decades of campaigning, it divides our movement. We must once again affirm that when we stand for the equality of women we stand for all women.

Religious bigotry should be countered more vocally, wherever it raises its head. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently made the case for allowing the legal recognition of some aspects of Sharia law in the UK because more than anything he fears that without such ‘liberalisation' bigoted Christian laws, values and opinion would be forced out.

Our struggle cannot be successful without the full and complete engagement of society as a whole. Our rights and freedoms, our class struggles and aspirations are universal. Women's freedom does not mean freedom for some. Our freedom does not accept the idea that a religion, culture, border or nationality excludes the most oppressed. We are all human; we all deserve to live with dignity and to enjoy unconditional freedoms.

Houzan Mahmoud is a representative abroad of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq. You can visit her personal blog here.

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