As I might have mentioned, I recently went to the UN for CSW57. Although I was there for just a single day, the atmosphere was dynamic, with busy women with bulging folders darting about, queuing up for sessions, with a wonderful and energising sense of collaboration across women of all nations and backgrounds. While waiting to enter, I sat (and smoked) next to the logo near the entrance (in the picture) and took photographs of countless cheerful activist women who wanted proof that they were involved in this, that they were playing a part in developing policy and shaping a better future of women across the world. A promise is a promise was the tagline for the event, and for a glorious moment, it felt promising.
But no: promises may be promises, but not all of them are kept. As Margaret Owen writes in an article on OpenDemocracy, I was seeing just one half of the picture: the half where women came together across nations, a riot of colour and optimism, of debate and determination, and not the view from the other side of the street, where dark-clad men gathered to pass judgement.
First, (via Women Living Under Muslim Laws) the post-event negotiations were described as having an ‘alarming trend‘ to preserve ‘cultural’ justifications for violence. The New York told us that an ‘unholy alliance‘ of Iran, the Vatican and Russia were quibbling over reproductive rights and the role of religion which looked likely to result in a failure to agree on global standards, a betrayal of the passion and commitment of those attendees who travelled from across the globe to the cold city streets of New York to take part in building better approaches to violence against women. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt issued a statement claiming that a strong position on violence against women would be counter to Islamic and family values.
The Vatican, still up to its usual tricks -not deterred by the fact there is no sitting Holy Father – has got into bed with some strange companions, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Malta from the Europe block (often nicknamed the Vatican in Vacation), and Sudan, to object to references to reproductive health rights. Rather than “reaffirming” the [Beijing Platform for Action], it offers instead the ambiguous but negative “recalls”. Russia, Bangladesh, Yemen, the UAR, Saudi Arabia and another six countries have yesterday formed a new block to strengthen their aim to withdraw from some of the established text on sexuality, and reproductive health services. References in the text to tradition, custom and religion never to justify violence to women has attracted many deletions and additions.
On one side of the road, the women talk about victimisation and power and patriarchy, frankly, bravely and personally: on the other the delegates drape the realities of abuse to hide them from sight, behind a language of conservatism: tradition, faith, custom, and every other glorification of the abusive status quo that can be mustered.
Yakin Ertürk, who was Rapporteur on Violence Against Women for the UN until 2009 wrote (in 2012)
Violence against women committed in the name of ‘culture’, ‘custom’, ‘tradition’ or ‘religion’ continues to be prevalent as states have formally sought to opt out of specific principles of the UN human rights conventions they are party to. Moreover, the very notion of gender equality is contested when established interpretations of culture or projections of ‘their’ culture are used to justify and excuse acts of discrimination and violence against women, thus undermining the compliance of states with their international human rights obligations.
Over 600 million women live in countries where domestic abuse is not a crime. Nothing can justify that.