Mitty Tohma, President, Women’s Federation for World Peace (WFWP) - UK, chairing the session. introduced Carolyn Handschin, President, WFWP International - Europe, who gave the first presentation on the activities of the WFWP. She first gave a brief overview of the movement for women’s rights from the time of Mary Wollstonecraft. In passing she mentioned Queen Anne who had unsuccessfully campaigned for a women’s college. She moved via domestic science to the conferences of the UN Commission on the Status of Women that emphasized the family as the cornerstone and model for human relationships. She quoted Kofi Annan who said that human rights create the space for family life and is the standard for ethical relations among people. This suggests that the grass roots and global campaigns for human rights needed to be connected.
Shasta Gohri, formerly of Oxfam but now representing the Muslim Women’s Network UK, spoke about the problems of Muslim women, being pressured and sometimes attacked by Muslim conservatives on the one hand, who wanted them to cover up and right wing extremists on the other hand, who object to women covering up. Women’s bodies had become a battleground whereas it should be a matter of personal choice. She talked about how it was better to be a Muslim woman in the UK than in most Muslim countries because of the freedom and opportunities that they have. The many achievements of Muslim women should be held up to encourage others. Shasta talked about the BigSister website she had set up as a myth buster about women in Islam which had attracted contacts from around the world.
Marcia Lewinson, Chief Executive, Women Acting in Today’s Society, stated that 25% of women in Britain experienced domestic violence. Her group provided advocacy and training.
Patricia Lalonde, Managing Director MEWA, Afghanistan Schools Rebuilding, talked about the work she had been doing since 2000 in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban the position of women in the cities had improved as they were more empowered. Democracy and women’s rights, she explained, didn’t necessarily go together. In Tunisia women were very empowered. Now with democracy we need to be sure things do not go backwards. Where will the rights of women stand after the Arab spring? In polling booths in Tunisia men and women were voting and smiling. She was worried though that the rights derived from independence might be eroded if more fundamentalist Muslim parties gained power. The rights they have could be reversed as they were in Iran.