The Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) observed International Women’s Day, March 8, by screening its documentary, “Against All Odds: Women Partnering for Change in a Time of Crisis” at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. Azar Nafisi, author of the best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran, moderated a panel which included Mahnaz Afkhami, president and CEO of WLP in Iran, Asma Khader, a leading advocate of the campaign to strengthen legislation outlawing honor killing in Jordan, and Sindi Medar-Gould, chairperson of the Nigeria Coalition on the International Criminal Court.
The 25-minute documentary examined the challenges facing women worldwide, with a focus on Muslim countries. Women representing 18 countries examined ongoing projects and country-specific development strategies. The documentary underscored that while discrimination against women is widespread, each country must utilize local methods to help their countrywomen.
The film also addressed the thin line between promoting human development and women’s development. Those places where women are least empowered often are undergoing simultaneous problems such as sustained violence and economic underdevelopment. In presenting women’s rights to the community in such cases it is helpful to couple women’s development with other civil-society improvement measures.
Nafisi opened the dialogue by reasserting the need for women’s activism, citing jailed Iranian women’s activists. The panel’s question-and answer format facilitated a broad range of discussions, including questions about dealing with religious gender-oppression; women-on-women violence; and the role of men in the women’s rights movement.
In response to a question about religiously sanctioned discrimination against women, Medar-Gould advised the audience that the only way to fight against scriptural and interpretational gender-biases is to know the texts which are being quoted. Knowing the texts of other religions is sometimes just as important, Khader added, especially where minorities are concerned. Violence perpetrated against women by other women was a recurring audience theme—to which the panelists responded that the same system which educates men for patriarchy educates women as well. As important as educating men is engaging women in their environments and lifting them out of the mindset of victimization.
Each panelist commented on the importance of male support, including husbands, sons and brothers, but agreed on the need for women to organize themselves before reaching out to the male community. “Women are silent when men are in the room,” Medar-Gould noted, making the need of a definitive development plan that much more important.