This blog was also featured on the Independent’s website for International Women’s Day 2011.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day.  It’s a day to celebrate the progress that women around the world have made in fighting for their rights over the past century.  And it’s a day to look to the century to come, the challenges that remain for the world’s women and the obstacles that lie ahead.

Despite claims that discrimination is over, women’s rights remain a major concern in the UK.  From lower pay to sexist imagery in the media, women in British society are still not recognised as men’s equals.  But on top of this, women from the UK’s ethnic minorities face a level of discrimination which is unimaginable to most women in this country. 

At the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation we help Middle Eastern women and girls living in the UK to escape ‘honour’ based violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and domestic violence.  Since we began in 2002 we’ve worked with thousands of women and girls who have been beaten, locked up, threatened, mutilated, forced into marriage, attacked with acid, forced into suicide and even murdered.  Their families or husbands, who carry out this abuse, try to justify it by reference to culture or religion.  To them, women’s rights is not relevant to their community.  It’s something that happens outside.

Yet discriminatory attitudes come from outside of minority communities too, with many people in the UK still believing that the rights of women from ethnic minorities are somehow culturally relative.  Last week for example a receptionist in a London GP’s surgery said that she could not put up a poster advertising the help that we offer to women.  When asked why, she answered that it might offend men.  Would she have said this had the poster been for a domestic violence charity helping British women?  We don’t think so.

Despite all the international conventions which the UK has signed on to and the growing body of UK legislation on women’s human rights, our national government has also made exceptions to women’s rights on the basis of religion.  In 2007 the government introduced Muslim Arbitration Tribunals, which can resolve disputes related to family issues using Sharia law rather than UK civil law.   Under Sharia, it is extremely difficult for a woman to divorce her husband and child custody automatically reverts to the father after children reach a certain age.  A man can have several wives, a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s and sons inherit twice the share that daughters do.  All of this is provided for under UK law.

The irony is that ordinary people and politicians do these things because they don’t want to be racist or culturally insensitive, yet their actions exclude the most vulnerable women from the rights that the rest of us enjoy.  Of course women from ethnic minorities aren’t the only ones to face abuse or sexism.  Women and girls from all walks of life still experience violence and discrimination.  But women from ethnic minorities are even less equal than the rest and if we want to make progress in the UK we need to ensure not only that women are equal to men, but that we protect the rights and entitlements of all of the women who live here.

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