A few weeks ago the Commission on the Status of Women convened to focus on eliminating and preventing all forms of violence against women and girls. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stood in solidarity with women globally. Ki-Moon said:
"A new movement involving millions of people is taking shape before our eyes: saying no to silence, no to stigma, no to sexual violence in conflict and yes to equality and empowerment. I am with them 100 percent."
The International Museum of Women is officially part of this new movement. The museum's founding mission is to inspire creativity, awareness and action on vital global issues facing women internationally. For the first time, however, we are taking "action" a step further in our current exhibition, Muslima: Muslim Women's Art & Voices, and have added an action campaign to accompany the exhibition, called "Speak Up! Listen Up!"
That a museum would initiate a human rights campaign alongside an art exhibition may seem unprecedented -- even for a museum founded on a revolutionary vision (to be entirely virtual). Yet we were so moved by the stories we were hearing that we felt we had to do our part.
Think about it: What other woman faces as much scrutiny or is the target of as much random violence -- from both her own community as well as others -- as the Muslim woman?
Just take a look at something as simple as the veil.
On the one hand, local and national governments in Europe have created laws to prevent Muslim women from wearing the veil based on some misguided sense of liberation. In April 2011, France enacted a national law banning the full-face veil from being worn in public. Three months later, Belgium enacted a similar law and since then comparable laws have been proposed in a number of other European countries.
Soon after the law was enacted in France, women wearing the niqab in public were arrested. Since then, hundreds of women have been fined and countless others have received warnings. Worse, of the 2000 women in France out of 65 million who wear the niqab, most have simply limited their movements to the confines of their immediate neighborhood as a means to protect themselves.
If nothing else, what these laws and the police arrests have accomplished is to make any veiled woman an outlaw and a ready target for public violence.
In August of 2012, a pregnant Polish migrant living in England, Beata Jopek, launched a biting racist attack against two young Muslim women wearing the hijab, even managing to pull the veil off of one of the women. Across the pond, in Toronto just days ago, a male jogger went out of his way to physically attack a woman simply because she was wearing the hijab.
I am not going to deny that women are forced to cover by various Muslim governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan under the Taliban, as well as parts of Somalia, Gaza and Chechnya. In some of these areas, women seen in public without proper covering are also subject to violence and arrest.
The sad truth, however, is that whether women are being banned from wearing the veil or are being forced to cover, they are being denied their basic right to self-autonomy: to express themselves through their clothes, whether that expression happens to be religious or not.
And they are being denied a right the majority of us take for granted: the simple right to walk down a public street, unharassed.
Half Value Life is Alka Sadat's award-winning documentary focusing on the violence enacted against women because of extreme laws. In this case, those laws were put into place in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
In our interview, Sadat explained that she named her documentary Half Value Life because women's lives are rarely valued completely. "In many cases," she said, women "still face threats to their lives if they step too far."
Sound familiar? Women limiting their movements and aspirations in Afghanistan, women limiting their movements and aspirations in France and other parts of Europe. The origins of laws and our understanding -- and even acceptance -- of them may differ based on what country enforces a law.
Yet how different are these laws in reality when the outcome is exactly the same: not only are women's lives diminished but women are actually becoming the target of violence under the very laws passed to protect them.
To change this, Alka Sadat says we "need a women's movement -- women helping themselves and each other to achieve their rights by reforming ... laws."
That global movement toward equality has already begun. Join it by adding your voice to the "Listen Up! Speak Up!" campaign on Causes.org or directly on the museum's website and help to create a safe world for all women and girls.
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