© BrendanODonnell@ymail.com

More than 250 people from sectors including health, housing, policing, probation, social services, education and academia, legal, local and national government, the voluntary sector and the media attended IKWRO’s international conference last Thursday in London.

The conference was opened by Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, who welcomed participants and spoke of how important it was for frontline professionals s to be aware of issues such as “honour” based violence (HBV).  He also said that immigration authorities do not always believe women who have experienced violence and called for the immigration system to be more gender sensitive.

Mr Corbyn was followed by Metropolitan Police Commander Mak Chishty, who is the current lead on HBV for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).  Commander Chishty gave a short history of the police’s work to tackle HBV, and stressed how much awareness has increased and how much the police response has improved since ACPO brought out its first HBV strategy in 2008.  He announced plans for a new strategy with six priorities including making HBV unacceptable in communities, recognising cases of HBV and intervening early, and ensuring justice for victims.

The next speaker was Dr Corrina Ter-Nedden from the German organisation Türkisch‐Deutscher Frauenverein (Papatya).  Papatya provides safe housing to women and girls who are fleeing forced marriage or honour based violence, and also runs an online counselling service for those who are worried about their safety or want to escape.  Corinna told the inspiring story of a young woman called Julia who emailed Papatya asking for help to escape a forced marriage.  Papatya advised Julia to talk to a teacher, and told her about a refuge she could go to in a nearby city.  A year later Julia emailed to say that her life was good and to thank Papatya.

After Corinna came the speaker that so many had been waiting for, Egyptian activist Nawal El Saadawi.  Nawal is a psychiatrist and the author of more than forty books.  Aged 80 years old, Nawal currently lives in Egypt and took part in the protests at Tahrir Square.

“I have been dreaming of revolution all my life,” she said.  “I wrote about it in my diary when I was a girl. I wanted to revolt against the fact that my brother had so many privileges compared to me.  I wanted to revolt against my school, which treated the rich girls differently.  When I was in Tahrir Square under my tent, with the women and the men, I was living my dream. I had been dreaming of this for over 70yrs.”

Nawal also addressed the issue of honour killing, and stressed that patriarchy is at the root of this and all other forms of violence against women and girls.  She told the story of a woman who celebrated when her own daughter was murder and explained how that woman was a slave to patriarchy.  She emphasised how important it was for women to be empowered to challenge patriarchy and to protect their daughters from honour killing and other violence.  Nawal also spoke about the links between patriarchy and capitalism.  She received a standing ovation at the end of her slot.

During the questions and answers session, an interesting debate came up on the issue of secularism.  Some members of the audience argued that by advocating secularism we are alienating Muslim women.  For these women, the emphasis is on reinterpreting Islam from a feminist perspective, rather than challenging the role of Islam in society altogether.  Nawal said that while she did not criticise what these women were doing, for her a state that is based on religion will always be discriminatory.  For her secularism is the only way to ensure equality.

In the afternoon Arvid Vormann from the German NGO WADI spoke about the work that his organisation had done to end FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan.  Arvid presented a study by WADI which found that 72.7% of women in Iraqi Kurdistan had undergone FGM.  He described WADI’s campaign to break taboos around FGM by working with communities, women’s movements, the media and politicians.  As a result of the campaign, earlier this year the Kurdish Regional Government made FGM a criminal offence.  Arvid also emphasised the importance of educational work at community level, and told the story of the village of Toutakhel, which decided to abandon FGM earlier this year.  Find out more from here.

Arvid was followed by IKWRO’s Director Diana Nammi who told the story of Banaz Mahmod, a 20 year old Iraqi Kurdish woman who was the victim of an honour killing in 2006.  Banaz was murdered on the orders of her father and uncle after she left a violent forced marriage and began a new relationship which they did not approve of.  Before her death, Banaz sought help from the police four times.  While recognising the progress that has been made since Banaz’s death, Diana called on the government to increase leadership through a national HBV strategy.  Key priorities for this strategy should be increasing awareness among frontline staff, collecting better data on HBV, getting schools to do more and changing government policy in relation to housing and immigration so that all women and girls can get protection from HBV.

The last presenter of the day was Chaz Akoshile, Joint Head of the Forced Marriage Unit.  Chaz provided general information on forced marriage, stressing that the key determinant of whether a marriage has been forced is consent.  He also provided data on cases dealt with by the FMU, which helped 1700 people at risk of forced marriage in 2010.  He emphasised the one chance rule – explaining that professionals may only have one chance to help a person who is at risk, and that they should take every complaint seriously.  He also underlined how important it is not to contact the victim’s family or disclose any details of the complaint to them, since this can often put the person at greater risk.  He encouraged participants to familiarise themselves with the government’s forced marriage guidelines, which contain colour coded sections aimed at professionals from different fields.

Overall the conference was an absolutely brilliant day.  The presenters – all experts in their field – really helped to bring the issues to life and Nawal El Saadawi’s determination and revolutionary spirit brought an incredible burst of energy to the day. Delegates sat at round tables, rather than in the usual rows, which gave more opportunities for mixing and exchanging ideas.  The conversation at lunchtime, enjoyed over some delicious Middle Eastern food, was very animated.

IKWRO would like to express our gratitude everyone who helped make our conference a success – from the speakers to the event organisers to the delegates who joined us on the day.  Thank you!  We couldn’t have done it without you!

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