Saturday, January 31, 2009

What Do Women Diavloggers Want?

Heroine: Leymah Gbowee

Leymah Gbowee
NY Times Op-Ed Columnist

A Crazy Dream

In the documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a woman whose family had endured the agony of civil war in Liberia talks about a dream she had in 2003 in which someone urged her to organize the women of her church to pray for peace.

“It was a crazy dream,” she said.

Prayer seemed like a flimsy counterweight to the forces of Charles Taylor, the tyrannical president at the time, and the brutally predatory rebels who were trying to oust him from power. The violence was excruciating. People were dying by the tens of thousands. Rape had become commonplace. Children were starving. Scenes from the film showed even small children whose limbs had been amputated.

The movie, for me, was about much more than the tragic, and then ultimately uplifting events in Liberia. It was about the power of ordinary people to intervene in their own fate.

The first thing that struck me about the film, which is playing in select theaters around the country now, was the way it captured the almost unimaginable horror that war imposes on noncombatants: the looks of terror on the faces of people fleeing gunfire in the streets; children crouching and flinching, almost paralyzed with fear by the sound of nearby explosions; homes engulfed in flames.

It’s the kind of environment that breeds feelings of helplessness. But Leymah Gbowee, the woman who had the crazy dream, would have none of that, and she should be a lesson to all of us.

The filmmakers Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker show us how Ms. Gbowee not only rallied the women at her Lutheran church to pray for peace, but organized them into a full-blown, all-women peace initiative that spread to other Christian churches — and then to women of the Muslim faith.

They wanted the madness stopped. They wanted an end to the maiming and the killing, especially the destruction of a generation of children. They wanted to eradicate the plague of rape. They wanted all the things that noncombatants crave whenever the warrior crowd — in the U.S., the Middle East, Asia, wherever — decides it’s time once again to break out the bombs and guns and let the mindless killing begin.

When the Liberian Christians reached out to “their Muslim sisters,” there was some fear on both sides that such an alliance could result in a dilution of faith. But the chaos and the killing had reached such extremes that the religious concerns were set aside in the interest of raising a powerful collective voice.

The women prayed, yes, but they also moved outside of the churches and the mosques to demonstrate, to protest, to enlist all who would listen in the cause of peace. Working with hardly any resources, save their extraordinary will and intense desire to end the conflict, the women’s initial efforts evolved into a movement, the Liberian Mass Action for Peace.

Their headquarters was an open-air fish market in the capital, Monrovia. Thousands of women responded to the call, broadcast over a Catholic radio station, to demonstrate at the market for peace. The women showed up day after day, praying, waving signs, singing, dancing, chanting and agitating for peace.

They called on the two sides in the conflict to begin peace talks and their calls coincided with international efforts to have the two sides sit down and begin to negotiate.

Nothing could stop the rallies at the market, not the fierce heat of the sun, nor drenching rainstorms, nor the publicly expressed anger of Mr. Taylor, who was embarrassed by the protests. Public support for the women grew and eventually Mr. Taylor, and soon afterward the rebel leaders, felt obliged to meet with them and hear their grievances.

The moral authority of this movement that seemed to have arisen from nowhere had become one of the significant factors pushing the warring sides to the peace table. Peace talks were eventually held in Accra, the capital of Ghana, and when it looked as if they were about to break down, Ms. Gbowee and nearly 200 of her followers staged a sit-in at the site of the talks, demanding that the two sides stay put until an agreement was reached.

A tentative peace was established, and Mr. Taylor went into exile in Nigeria. The women continued their activism. Three years ago, on Jan. 16, 2006, in an absolutely thrilling triumph for the mothers and wives and sisters and aunts and grandmothers who had worked so courageously for peace, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was sworn in as the president of Liberia — the first woman ever elected president of a country in Africa.

Liberia is hardly the world’s most stable society. But “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” reminds us of the incredible power available to the most ordinary of people if they are willing to act with courage and unwavering commitment.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Victory for a "special sorority"

President Obama is scheduled to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law today. (This is, technically, his second bill-signing, not the first. But you cannot possibly expect us to make a fuss about legislation fixing the salary of the secretary of the interior.)

“I’m so excited I can hardly stand it,” Ledbetter said recently after the bill passed the Senate.

Obama told her story over and over when he campaigned for president: How Ledbetter, now 70, spent years working as a plant supervisor at a tire factory in Alabama. How, when she neared retirement, someone slipped her a pay schedule that showed her male colleagues were making much more money than she was. A jury found her employer, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, to be really, really guilty of pay discrimination. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision led by the Bush appointees, threw out Ledbetter’s case, ruling that she should have filed her suit within 180 days of the first time Goodyear paid her less than her peers.

(Let us pause briefly to contemplate the chances of figuring out your co-workers’ salaries within the first six months on the job.)

Until the Supreme Court stepped in, courts generally presumed that the 180-day time limit began the last time an employee got a discriminatory pay check, not the first. In an attempt at bipartisan comity, the Senate decided to simply restore the status quo, rejecting House efforts to make the law tougher. Even then, only five Republican senators voted for it — four women and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is currently the most threatened of the deeply endangered species known as moderate Republicans.

Ledbetter, who was widowed in December, won’t get any restitution of her lost wages; her case can’t be retried. She’s now part of a long line of working women who went to court and changed a little bit of the world in fights that often brought them minimal personal benefit.

Another was Eulalie Cooper, a flight attendant who sued Delta Air Lines in the mid-’60s when she was fired for being married. Not only did a Louisiana judge uphold the airline industry’s bizarre rules requiring stewardesses to be young and single, Cooper was denied unemployment benefits on the grounds that by getting married she left her job “voluntarily.”

But she began a pattern of litigation that eventually ended the industry’s insistence that women needed to look like sex objects in order to properly care for passengers on airplanes. Next time you talk about US Airways Flight 1549’s spectacular landing on the Hudson River, remember that the three flight attendants who kept calm in the ditched plane were all women in their 50s and give a nod to people like Eulalie Cooper.

Patricia Lorance, an Illinois factory worker, went to court after her union and employer secretly agreed to new seniority rules that discriminated against the women who had been promoted in the post-Civil Rights Act era of the 1970s. Like Ledbetter, she lost her court fight because of a ridiculous ruling about timing, which had to be fixed by Congress.

Working at a series of lower-paying jobs after the factory closed, and then disabled by physical ailments, Lorance lost track of her case long before it finally wound its way through the Supreme Court. “But to this day, I am rather proud of myself because I was not a dumb person. I believe in just standing up and fighting for your own rights,” she said in a phone interview.

Ledbetter’s real soul sister is Lorena Weeks of Wadley, Ga. Weeks, now 80, had worked two jobs to support her orphaned siblings, then struggled with her husband to set enough money aside to assure their children would be able to go to college. A longtime telephone employee, she applied for a higher-paying job overseeing equipment at the central office. Both her union and the management said the job was unsuitable for a woman because it involved pushing 30-pound equipment on a dolly, even though Weeks regularly toted around a 34-pound typewriter at her clerical job.

Weeks v. Southern Bell helped smash employers’ old dodge of keeping women out of higher-paying positions by claiming that they required qualifications only men could fulfill. But it was a long, painful fight during which Weeks was terrified that she might lose her job entirely. “I felt like I was so alone, and yet I knew I was doing what God wanted me to do. Going back to the fact my momma had died working so hard. And I knew women worked and needed a place in the world,” she said.

It’s a good day for the feisty working women who went to court to demand their rights and the frequently underpaid lawyers who championed them. They’re strangers to one another; most of them made their stands and then returned to their ordinary lives. But they’re a special sorority all the same. And Lilly Ledbetter got to go to the inauguration and dance with the new president.

“Tell her congratulations,” said Lorena Weeks.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Iraqi Women Vie for Votes and Taste of Power

Mahdiya al-Lami, a microbiologist and candidate in the provincial election in Iraq, at her home, which doubles as her campaign office.

BAGHDAD — Amal Kibash, a candidate for the Baghdad provincial council, is running a bold and even feverish campaign by most standards. With elections coming on Saturday, she is trolling for every vote she can muster.

“You are going to vote for me, right?” she quizzed passers-by on a stroll recently through her neighborhood of Sadr City, which was until May a battleground for Shiite militias. Giant posters of her veil-framed face were draped on several buildings, some of which still bore the marks of recent fighting.

In Basra, where until a year ago banners warned women that they would be shot if they wore too much makeup or ventured out of their homes without a veil, another female candidate, Ibtihal Abdul-Rahman, put up posters of herself last month. Encouraged by security improvements throughout the country, thousands of women are running for council seats in the provincial elections.

Of the estimated 14,400 candidates, close to 4,000 are women. Some female candidates have had their posters splattered with mud, defaced with beards or torn up, but most have been spared the violence that has claimed the lives of two male candidates and a coalition leader since the start of the year. But on Wednesday, a woman working for the Iraqi Islamic Party was killed when gunmen burst into her house in Baghdad and shot her 10 times in the chest, according to an Interior Ministry official.

For many of the female candidates, the elections offer a chance to inject some much needed fresh air into councils that are plagued by deep corruption and dominated by men and big political parties that are often ultraconservative.

But even if they win, they face numerous hurdles, particularly the entrenched attitudes of most Iraqi men, who view women as either sex objects or child bearers who have no place in the rough and tumble arena of politics. “This is the mentality,” said Safia Taleb al-Suhail, a member of Parliament and the daughter of a prominent Shiite tribal leader assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in Lebanon in 1994. “We have to change it. How can we change it? By fighting.”

She is leading a group of female Parliament members who are lobbying to make sure that the same constitutional provision that mandates that 25 percent of all seats in Parliament go to women is applied to provincial councils as well. Currently, it is not.

While Iraq in the 1950s was the first Arab country to name a female minister and adopt a progressive family law, the leadership aspirations of women were mostly quashed under Mr. Hussein’s macho government. The situation became further complicated for women after 2003, with the ascendance of religious parties.

Ms. Suhail and others were instrumental in lobbying Iraq’s American administrator at the time, L. Paul Bremer III, to include the quota for women in the country’s first transitional constitution. It was preserved in the current Constitution because many felt that it was the only way to ensure the participation of women in a male-dominated culture.

When it was published in October, the law regulating the provincial elections omitted the quota for women; it remains unclear whether the omission was deliberate or just an oversight. The electoral commission has ruled that the law as written is acceptable, saying that women are ensured of adequate representation by the requirement that a woman be chosen after every three men in any winning slate.

But Ms. Suhail said that many of the candidate slates did not have enough women in them to meet that requirement, while other slates were made up of fewer than four candidates, all of whom are male.

Mahdiya Abed-Hassan al-Lami, a women’s rights advocate, and candidate in Baghdad running on the slate of a former prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, said that while she supported the quota system, it has been manipulated by the major political parties, both secular and religious, to marginalize women. Most of the women chosen for the large candidate slates are there for their family and tribal connections and loyalty to the sect or party, she said, rather than for their qualifications.

“If women are simply followers they cannot fulfill their roles properly,” said Ms. Lami, who is a teacher and a practicing Shiite. Her campaign has focused on reaching out to her network of women, particularly in some of the most destitute slums of Baghdad.

Ms. Kibash, another female candidate who is running on Mr. Jaafari’s list, is currently a member of the Sadr City municipal council, but she and other women on the council are prevented by the men from sitting on the crucial and financially important Services Committee. She said the council was mired in corruption.

Despite the recent gains in security, some women continue to face threats, while others say the whole thing is a charade and not worth the effort.

Liza Hido sat on a municipal council but was forced to quit in 2006 after receiving threatening e-mail and text messages on her cellphone.

She is running again this year but, still concerned for her safety, she is keeping her campaigning discreet, putting up no posters and making no public appearances. Instead, she restricts herself to private gatherings.

Her friend Bushra al-Obeidi, a law professor at Baghdad University, has rebuffed all efforts to persuade her to become a candidate. She feels the odds are stacked against women, starting with laws she views as discriminatory and derogatory toward women — one allows a rapist to largely escape punishment if he marries his victim. Ms. Obeidi also has little faith in the commitment to gender equality among the current political leadership, which is dominated by religious parties.

“I assure you they are against women, they are lying to us,” she said.

Ms. Suhail, the lawmaker, admitted that Iraqi women had failed so far to break into the top levels of the political power structure but said that this was no reason to give up.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Threatened Pakistan schools close

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Map showing Swat valley

Private schools in Pakistan's troubled north-western Swat district have closed to comply with a Taleban edict banning girls' education, officials say.

The edict was issued on schools in Swat by a Taleban cleric in a radio broadcast last month. A 15 January deadline was set.

Owners say the schools will not reopen until the conflict in Swat is resolved, or the Taleban revoke the ban.

The government says it will do all it can to protect education.

Security pledge

School owners in Mingora, the administrative centre of Swat district, say even if they keep the schools open, parents are unlikely to send their children in view of the Taleban threat.

"The local administration called a meeting of Mingora's school owners two days ago and promised to provide security to us if we remained open, but no-one is ready to run the risk,", Ahmad Shah, a Mingora school owner, told the BBC.

There are more than 350 privately owned schools in Swat, each with separate sections for boys and girls, according to data available from a local association of schools.

Over the past year, most of them were ordered closed by the Taleban, except 96 schools that operated in Mingora town.

They have now closed, bringing all privately administered girls' education in Swat to an end.

The Taleban have destroyed nearly 150 schools in the last year.

Minister for Information and Broadcasting Sherry Rehman said on Friday that the government would work with the provincial administration to protect education, particularly for girls, in North West Frontier Province.

She expected a resolution in the National Assembly against the attacks on schools.

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See also Swat girls' schools close in response to Taliban ban

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dubai adultery conviction upheld

Marnie Pearce and son Laith
Marnie Pearce, 40, with her eldest son, seven-year-old Laith

A British mother's conviction for adultery in Dubai has been upheld by the Emirate's Appeal Court, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has said.

The FCO said Marnie Pearce's sentence was reduced from six to three months. She was also ordered to pay a fine of 3,000 Dirhams and will be deported.

Ms Pearce, 40, from Bracknell, Berks, was convicted of adultery in November.

She claimed she was framed by her ex-husband Ihab El-Labban, who accused her of cheating on him. He denies this.

They had two children together, Ziad, four, and Laith, seven.

'Only a friend'

She insists she is innocent and said she feared losing custody of her sons.

Ms Pearce remained on bail while she attempted to overturn her conviction - it is unclear whether she will have to start her sentence immediately.

She first met her ex-husband in Oman and married him in the Seychelles in September 1999.

They moved to Dubai but the relationship eventually broke down.

In March last year she was arrested and accused of committing adultery with a British man who she insists was only a friend.

She contacted Bracknell Conservative MP Andrew MacKay, who has raised her case with Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hints of Agenda and Tone for New First Lady

WASHINGTON — She celebrated her 45th birthday in a vintage train car, amid balloons and crepe-paper streamers, and cheering crowds serenaded her by name.

She danced in front of the Lincoln Memorial to Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” with her husband and daughters clapping by her side. She assembled care packages for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, in this long, whirlwind weekend, marveled that she would soon be the public face of America’s first family.

On Inauguration Day, Michelle Obama will become the first African-American to assume the role of first lady, a woman with the power to influence the nation’s sense of identity, its fashion trends, its charitable causes and its perceptions of black women and their families. Already, the outlines of her style and public agenda have begun to emerge.

She has hired a politically seasoned team of advisers and an interior decorator committed to creating a family-friendly feel in her elegant new home. She has sketched out a vision of a White House brimming with children and ordinary Americans while suggesting she may delegate some traditional first lady duties to her staff: food tastings, china selection and the like.

She has decided to shape her public program with the help of a policy director who has raised concerns about instances of systemic employment bias against minorities and called for tougher enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, contentious issues in the workplace.

And she has highlighted the warm, informal tone that she hopes will characterize her time in the executive mansion by signing e-mail messages to supporters simply as “Michelle.”

Mrs. Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer and a former hospital executive, has made it clear that her two young daughters will be her biggest priority. The causes she has promised to promote — expanding volunteerism and supporting military families and working parents — fall squarely into the realm of platforms traditionally championed by first ladies. But the staff she has assembled is also clearly prepared to tackle a tougher issues-oriented program.

“Her experience will guide the kinds of things she does, and her personal experience is unique for a first lady,” said Paul Schmitz, a longtime friend. “She understands the needs of low-income communities. She understands the needs of women. She has balanced raising a family with a career.”

“She’ll think deeply about how to use her own bully pulpit,” said Mr. Schmitz, who heads Public Allies, a nonprofit leadership-training network for young adults. “And I think that’s the challenge. You are now the most prominent woman in America. What does that mean? What do you do?”

It is a difficult question, particularly since Mrs. Obama is still grappling with how life in the grand house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will transform her family’s existence.

She has grown accustomed to being in the spotlight — with Secret Service agents accompanying her to private lunches with her girlfriends — and has consulted with Laura Bush and former first ladies Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter. But she has no experience with the day-to-day details of life in the White House.

President Bush and his wife were old hands at White House living because they had visited often when Mr. Bush’s father, George Bush, was running the country.

Mrs. Obama visited the private residence in the White House for the first time in November after the election. She grew up in a tiny apartment and marveled recently when she and her close friend Valerie Jarrett pored over photographs of the 15 bedrooms in the presidential mansion.

“You have to pinch yourself to think that that’s home,” said Ms. Jarrett, who is also one of President-elect Barack Obama’s closest advisers.

Craig Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s brother, described the Obamas’ new reality as “mind-boggling.”

“Every time I talk to her, I’m like, ‘What are you doing now?’ ” said Mr. Robinson, who has delighted in his sister’s accounts of her days in Washington before the move to the White House. “We are such novices at this. I’m just trying to find out, How many bathrooms are in there?”

(The answer is 34, according to William Seale, a historian who has written about the White House.)

Mrs. Obama has the highest favorability ratings of any incoming first lady since 1980, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll completed Thursday. Forty-six percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of her. Seven percent had an unfavorable view.

Gossip magazines, cable networks and major newspapers vie for tiny details about her and her daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7. The designer of Mrs. Obama’s inaugural gown? (Sorry, no word yet.) Her favorite musician of all time? (Yes, Stevie Wonder.) Where in the White House is Malia likely to gather her thoughts when she has a tough school assignment? (At Lincoln’s desk where he penned the Gettysburg Address.)

Mrs. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has reached out directly to supporters via e-mail and YouTube. And she has taken care in recent months to strike the right notes, emphasizing a preference for American fashion designers and announcing plans to use “affordable brands and products” as she redecorates the White House during this recession.

She knows that life under the microscope carries its perils.

After some rhetorical stumbles during the presidential campaign, Mrs. Obama was criticized by conservative columnists who accused her of being unpatriotic and bitter toward whites. Her approval ratings have soared since she refocused her image on her role as a wife and mother, but she still comes under periodic attack from conservative bloggers and others.

“There will be some people trying to pick holes,” Mr. Robinson said. “We’re used to that.”

Mrs. Obama’s diverse team, which includes former Congressional staff members and strategists from Democratic presidential campaigns, seems equally prepared to hone her message or deflect attack.

Jackie Norris, her chief of staff, served as a senior adviser in Iowa for the presidential campaigns of Mr. Obama and former Vice President Al Gore. Melissa Winter, her deputy chief of staff, spent 18 years on Capitol Hill.

Jocelyn Frye, her policy director, is general counsel for at the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, a nonprofit that advocates for workplace equity. Camille Johnston, her communications director, worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns and served as press secretary for two cabinet officials. And her press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, worked for Mrs. Clinton when she was first lady and was deputy communications director for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

By contrast, Laura Bush’s first chief of staff came straight from the Governor’s Mansion in Texas and knew little about national or Washington politics, and her press aides have typically lacked national media experience, according to a former Bush administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

While many of Mrs. Obama’s advisers do not have White House experience and may have initial difficulties navigating its bureaucracy, the official said the staff was far more politically seasoned than Mrs. Bush’s team. “She’s trying to get the best people, pulling in the cream of the crop,” the official said of Mrs. Obama.

The new first lady will also have clear channels to the West Wing, counting close friends among the president-elect’s advisers, including Ms. Jarrett and Susan Sher, who is associate counsel. They could be key allies should she choose to weigh in on policy issues she cares about. (She has said that she plans to leave the business of governing to her husband.)

Mrs. Obama has focused publicly in recent months on her self-described role of “mom in chief,” settling her daughters at Sidwell Friends School and persuading her mother to move into the White House. She has made a point of hiring a chief of staff and a chef who regularly wrestle with the challenges faced by working mothers.

But the disciplined, no-nonsense executive also comes through.

While Mrs. Bush often hand-picked the silver, china and tablecloths for White House dinners, Mrs. Obama is more likely to focus on the broad themes of such events, delegating the details, Ms. Jarrett said. (Mr. Robinson said that while his sister typically cooked for her girls, she might be happy to delegate that for a while, too.)

She wants a home that is gracious, with 20th-century art amid the antiques, but comfortable for children. As a former community organizer, she also wants the White House to be more accessible to ordinary Americans, envisioning picnics that might include local children as well as state dinners.

“She wants it to be fun and to bring a sense of youth and style,” said Ms. Sher, Mrs. Obama’s friend.

Mrs. Obama also wants the White House to feel like home. She has spent her entire life in Chicago, aside from her years in college and law school. And when her closest friends prepared to hold a goodbye lunch in her honor, she asked only for keepsakes and personal mementos.

So her friends brought snapshots in small frames, photographs of Mrs. Obama with her family, colleagues and friends in Chicago.

Ms. Sher, who attended the lunch, said she did not know if Mrs. Obama had settled on a place for the photos in her new house. But she is not worried.

“She said there’s a lot of room,” Ms. Sher said.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Top Saudi cleric: OK for young girls to wed

Story highlights

  • Grand mufti speaks out after judge refuses to annul marriage of man, 47, to girl, 8 
  • Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh: "Shariah law has not brought injustice to women"
  • Human Rights Commission fighting child marriages

(CNN) -- The debate over the controversial practice of child marriage in Saudi Arabia was pushed back into the spotlight this week, with the kingdom's top cleric saying that it's OK for girls as young as 10 to wed.

"It is incorrect to say that it's not permitted to marry off girls who are 15 and younger," Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, the kingdom's grand mufti, said in remarks quoted Wednesday in the regional Al-Hayat newspaper. "A girl aged 10 or 12 can be married. Those who think she's too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her."

The issue of child marriage has been a hot-button topic in the deeply conservative kingdom in recent weeks.

Late last month, a Saudi judge refused to annul the marriage of an 8-year-old girl to a 47-year-old man.

The judge, Sheikh Habib Abdallah al-Habib, rejected a petition from the girl's mother, whose lawyer said the marriage was arranged by her father to settle a debt with "a close friend." The judge required the girl's husband to sign a pledge that he would not have sex with her until she reaches puberty.

Al-Sheikh was asked during a Monday lecture about parents forcing their underage daughters to marry.

"We hear a lot in the media about the marriage of underage girls," he said, according to the newspaper. "We should know that Shariah law has not brought injustice to women."

Christoph Wilcke, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, recently told CNN that his organization has heard many other cases of child marriages.

"We've been hearing about these types of cases once every four or five months because the Saudi public is now able to express this kind of anger -- especially so when girls are traded off to older men," Wilcke said.

Wilcke explained that while Saudi ministries may make decisions designed to protect children, "It is still the religious establishment that holds sway in the courts, and in many realms beyond the court."

Last month, Zuhair al-Harithi, a spokesman for the Saudi government-run Human Rights Commission, said his organization is fighting against child marriages.

"The Human Rights Commission opposes child marriages in Saudi Arabia," al-Harithi said. "Child marriages violate international agreements that have been signed by Saudi Arabia and should not be allowed." He added that his organization has been able to intervene and stop at least one child marriage from taking place.

Wajeha al-Huwaider, co-founder of the Society of Defending Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia, told CNN last month that achieving human rights in the kingdom means standing against those who want to "keep us backward and in the dark ages."

She said the marriages cause girls to "lose their sense of security and safety. Also, it destroys their feeling of being loved and nurtured. It causes them a lifetime of psychological problems and severe depression."

The Saudi Ministry of Justice has made no public comment on the issue. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön Ane Pema Chodron was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City. She attended Miss Porter's School in Connecticut and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley (Go Bears!). She taught as an elementary school teacher for many years in both New Mexico and California. Pema has two children and three grandchildren.

While in her mid-thirties, Ane Pema traveled to the French Alps and encountered Lama Chime Rinpoche, with whom she studied for several years. She became a novice nun in 1974 while studying with Lama Chime in London. His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa came to England at that time, and Ane Pema received her ordination from him.

Pema first met her root guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, (the "Vidyadhara") in 1972. Lama Chime encouraged her to work with Rinpoche, and it was with him that she ultimately made her most profound connection, studying with him from 1974 until his death in 1987. At the request of the Karmapa, she received the full bikshuni ordination in the Chinese lineage of Buddhism in 1981 in Hong Kong. She first met Ayya Khema at the first Buddhist nuns conference in Bodhgaya India in 1987, and they were close friends from that time until her death.

Ane Pema served as the director of Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado until moving in 1984 to rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to be the director of Gampo Abbey. The Vidyadhara gave her explicit instructions on running Gampo Abbey. The success of her first two books, The Wisdom of No Escape and Start Where You Are, made her something of a celebrity as a woman Buddhist teacher and as a specialist in the mahayana lojong teachings. She and Judy Lief were instructed personally by the Vidyadhara on lojong, "which is why I took off with it," she explains.

Pema has struggled with health problems in the past five years but her condition has improved and she anticipates being well enough to continue teaching programs at Gampo Abbey and in California. She plans for a simplified travel schedule with a predictable itinerary, as well as the opportunity to spend an increased amount of time in solitary retreat under the guidance of Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.

Pema is interested in helping establish Tibetan Buddhist monastacism in the West, as well in continuing her work with western Buddhists of all traditions, sharing ideas and teachings. She has written five books: The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times and The Places That Scare Youand No Time to Lose are available from Shambhala Publications. She recently completed a new book called "Practicing Peace in Times of War" that will be published by Shambhala Publications later in 2006.

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