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Beyond the veil
Women in islamic National Societies
Carolyn Oxlee

Women are playing an important role within National Societies in Islamic countries. The challenge ahead is to empower them to assume more leadership roles in Red Cross and Red Crescent societies throughout the region.


"Are the men coming in?" asks the woman, pulling her black burka tighter over her head as we enter her apartment. No, they stay outside. She relaxes, drops her veil and cloak, and shows female Kuwaiti Red Crescent volunteer Zahar Al-Shati inside. The family has asked for support and Zahar is assessing their living conditions to see what their needs are.

The tiny Gulf state of Kuwait is far better known for its oil wealth than for its poverty. But in any country, there are people who fall through the net. The sick, the disabled and those without official Kuwaiti nationality who cannot work are the main beneficiaries of the society's domestic programmes.

One step through the door was all it took for Zahar to know that this case was serious.Her husband cannot find work, the woman explains. The family - husband, wife and six children - all sleep together in one small room. Newspapers cover the windows to block out the intense sun. Zahar decides to put them on the beneficiary list for food, clothes and blankets.

In this Islamic country, a man would not have been able to visit the family. "Female volunteers are essential to us, particularly for social visits. Many women will not let a man into their homes if their husband is not there, or if they have no husband," says Youseef al-Merag, who heads the Kuwaiti Red Crescent's youth group.

A first lesson in health

GULSA camp for displaced people lies in the Sudanese desert, near the Eritrean border. Dust clouds blow as vehicles drive across the sand past the round mud huts. Occasionally, a man in a white djellaba rides past on a camel. Isolated mountains, rising out of the desert, resemble crouched animals. The sun beats down relentlessly, even in the cooler winter.

The small Sudanese Red Crescent clinic is packed with colour; light shines softly through the mat wall of the clinic onto an array of women in bright saris: yellows, reds, oranges and fuchsia pinks. They are attending a health education lecture, part of a two-day programme to provide women in the camp with a basic awareness of health and nutrition issues.

Red Crescent volunteer Fatma Hamid, 21, holds up posters and explains to the women the hazards of repetitive pregnancies, the risk of AIDS, and even touches on the dangers of female circumcision, which is widespread in Sudan. Fatma shows the women condoms, the pill and injectable contraceptives. For these women, of all ages, it is the first time anyone has ever told them that they can control their pregnancies. Most of them cannot read or write.

Women from the Bani Amir tribe listen with interest, rings in their noses and deep lines cut into their faces as part of a beauty practice that is now dying out. “Before, I had no idea about how to avoid getting pregnant,” says Fatma Mohammed, mother of five.

The health programme started a year ago, and has so far reached 2,800 displaced and refugee women, living in seven camps. It is part of a “Women knocking on women’s doors” programme, funded by the World Food Programme.

A segregated society

With around one billion followers, Islam is one of the world's largest religions. It demands high social and moral values of both men and women. In more conservative countries, women should dress in such a way as not to reveal their shape or beauty to any man outside their family and conversation with men unknown to them is discouraged.

However, countries that follow Islam are rich in their diversity of cultures, and of their interpretation of the religion itself. From the deserts of North Africa through the Arab oil states to the rice paddies of Asia: to generalize would be ignorant and inaccurate. Cultures, traditions, politics, economics and social behaviour all mix to paint a country's portrait.

Generally, however, Islamic countries imply a certain segregation between the sexes, and National Societies in these countries - usually Red Crescents - will naturally reflect these cultures. This restricted interaction between men and women sets the tone for their work to assist beneficiaries.

Woman to woman

In any society where men and women do not mix freely, the need for female staff to assist female beneficiaries (and likewise, men for men) is paramount if National Societies are to meet the needs of vulnerable people. In a country where women cannot open their doors to a man outside their family, or perhaps cannot receive first aid from a man, the implications are clear. Without female volunteers, the National Societies cannot reach the women - and the children they care for - who are often the vast majority of beneficiaries.

This was clearly illustrated by a recent study in Bangladesh, a male-dominated country, where women's role is generally confined to the household. Following a devastating cyclone in 1990 that killed more than 300,000 people, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society began a cyclone preparedness programme, building solid shelters and instigating a warning system to alert people. But it was soon found that most people running to the shelters were men. Women, at home with their children, refused to leave their homes without the permission of their husbands, who were often away at work.

Now, the cyclone teams include two female volunteers. Training in the community means that women now have permission to move to the shelters without their husbands. Once there, they will be looked after by the female volunteers, who are also trained in first aid - women have been known to give birth in a shelter.

It is a model that has served to develop the community-based disaster preparedness programme, launched with Federation support in 1997 in the southern region of Chittagong. Volunteers are training squads of people in at-risk communities - of the 25 people per squad, eight must be women. The programme covers protecting wells, homes, food stocks, latrines and animals from the dangers of flooding, and incorporates health education to limit the risks of post-flood disease. It also aims to empower women and raise their profile within the community.

In Iran, where women have equal rights to men in many respects but remain very segregated, female Red Crescent staff also have an essential role. First-aid training is a key activity of the Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it is always single sex. Women teach women, and men teach men. "We train girls so they can help prevent accidents at home, and learn to save lives," says Hoora Afra, who has taught first aid for 11 years and provided medical help to those injured in the Iran-Iraq war.

Women dominate the society's social services department. The social welfare centre of the Tehran Red Crescent receives about 400 people a day, seeking assistance from adopting a child to payment of medical bills. Although the department is run by a man, the social workers are all female.
"Women are more sensitive, more precise, they are more familiar with the problems faced by those coming in and can help more than men could," says counsellor Kobra Oghbaii.

In the town of Isfahan, known for its stunning blue-tiled mosques, the Iranian Red Crescent offers a wide range of services, from a pharmacy and rehabilitation centre for the disabled through to training courses from handicrafts to computer studies. Women account for 20 per cent of employees and represent the majority of workers in education, health, social work and first aid.

Unlike Iran, men and women are less segregated in Sudan. Sudan is a country of almost 600 different tribes, each with its own traditions, rules, dress and food; the attitude towards women naturally varies. A 16-year war between the Sudanese government and rebel forces in the south has left millions of people displaced. Drought in the western provinces in the mid-1980s led many people to relocate to the Khartoum area in central Sudan. These displaced people are many of the National Society's beneficiaries, along with families living in shanty towns and refugees from the neighbouring Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict.

Male and female volunteers work together in the many health programmes and clinics run by the Sudanese Red Crescent. The mainstay of women's activities, however, is the literacy and health education classes for displaced women. More than 10,000 women attended these classes in 1999, which offered them their first chance to learn to read and write, or to understand the basic issues of health for themselves and their families.

In addition, incomegeneration projects such as goat and poultry rearing, traditional handicrafts and soap-making offer 3,000 women a year the chance to earn their own living. Widows and divorcees struggling to bring up large families are the main beneficiaries of the programme, which is coordinated by an all-female network.

Healing the wounds of war

Violence has become a part of everyday life in Algeria in recent years and has left many civilians deeply traumatized. To help heal these psychological scars, the Algerian Red Crescent is running a psychological support programme for women and children in eight regions of the country.

Launched at the end of May 1999 with ICRC support, the programme is assisting 5,000 people who have been victims of violence or witnesses to it - orphans, children, young girls and women. Female volunteers play an active role in identifying those most in need, and bringing local psychologists under the Red Crescent banner to provide help.

By establishing rehabilitation centres and help groups, the programme will develop the psychosocial services of the Algerian Red Crescent, which is already active in health, social work and first-aid programmes. The ICRC is providing financial and material support, such as psychological tests, libraries and recreational material, along with a psychologist specialized in assisting traumatized women and children.

The issue of empowerment

But having women at grass-roots level alone is not enough. Bringing women into high-level management positions and onto governing bodies where they can have a say in decision-making and programme design is also essential for the development of any National Society.

"Women are more in touch with the real issues facing women in the most vulnerable category," says Bob McKerrow, the Federation's head of delegation in Bangladesh. "While men are out trying to find work, women are at home with the problems - the lack of sanitation, dirty water, not enough food for their children, no money to send their children to school."

In Sudan, the African culture has naturally led to much more integration between men and women. This is reflected in the Red Crescent, where women are well represented on ruling bodies. In Khartoum state, for example, four of the seven provincial branches have a female secretary general, and the main governing body, the council board, is headed by a woman.

"We are like any organization; we want people who are good at planning, implementing, and who are good at dealing with communities, governments and donors. Whether they are male or female doesn't make any difference," says Sudanese Red Crescent Secretary General Omar Osman.

The most senior woman in the Iranian Red Crescent is Shafigheh Rahideh, director of a syringe factory just south of the capital, Tehran. Under her leadership, the factory produces 340 million syringes a year, 40 million dental needles and 750,000 dialysis filters. The factory was her idea, to meet a need within Iran. It is spotless, efficient and highly successful, with profits used to fund the society's operations.

A Red Crescent worker since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, she might be perceived as a role model for other women. But despite her high status in a male-dominated society, she does not feel that other women should necessarily work. "If women want to leave the house, they should do so in order to achieve something, they should have a driving force," she says.

The international department of the Iranian Red Crescent is one where women play a particularly strong role. Several of the key positions are held by women, who also travel abroad to represent their society on the international scene.

The Kuwaiti National Society is one of the few Red Crescent societies where women hold positions of power. Dr Samiha Al-Fulaij is the society's secretary general. Her sister Sohal Al-Fulaij is the general manager. The head of training and the head of the social committee are also women. In all, women hold two-fifths of managerial positions, and comprise two of the nine board members.

It wasn't always so. The National Society had a separate women's committee until 1994, which organized mostly social activities and charity fairs. They had their own entrance to the building, and their own rooms. "Then in 1994 we noticed that men and women could work together and are in fact more productive when they do so," explains Sohal.

Fauzih Al-Nassar joined the Kuwaiti Red Crescent when the women's committee started in 1967 and now heads the social welfare committee. She is well placed to describe how opportunities have changed for women over the years. "Before, we had to go to the board, which was all male, and we felt we couldn't suggest activities we wanted to do. Now it is easy and we can have an input to decisions."

Staying within the culture

A bus makes its way around the busy evening streets of Tehran, taking people home from work. The front section is crowded with men. In the back rows, sit women hidden under their black veils and cloaks. To an outsider, this segregation and dress code personify life in Iran. To the women, the dress is just a uniform. "Don't look at our dress, just look at what we do," they urge.

Women are very active within the Iranian Red Crescent, but often find themselves in defined roles, such as social work and training women. As in any country, the National Society cannot go outside the boundaries of local cultures. "At the Iranian Red Crescent, we try to adapt ourselves to the culture of the women and put them into positions which are appropriate," says President Ahmad Ali Noorbala.

And while Kuwait's female volunteers work alongside the men, this is not the case in every activity. Again, there are limits: a team of volunteers, trained to erect emergency tent camps on the Iraqi border in event of a crisis, is all male. "We don't allow women to work in the desert. We have to work within the cultural and social beliefs of our country, and I just don't think the women's families would allow them to go to the desert," says Sohal Al-Fulaij.

In Bangladesh, sexual discrimination is a way of life. From the minute a girl is born, many parents are disappointed that their child is not a son. Their lives go on to be ruled by their fathers and later, their husbands. Parents who are poor will choose to send their sons to school instead of their daughters. Only 26 per cent of women are literate, compared with half the country's men.

This is reflected in the Bangladesh Red Crescent. There are no women on the society's board, and only three women in the 136-member general body that represents all 68 branches. As M Akram, the society's acting secretary general, says this is because branches do not put forward female candidates for election. "I'd like to see more women on the board, but they have to come up from the grass roots and become district branch representatives," he says. He admits it will take time. Each branch has an 11-member committee and there are few women on any of them.

While pushing for a higher status in Bangladesh does mean going against the tide, the opportunities are there for those willing to fight. Nurun Nahar was the only female delegate to attend a disaster preparedness workshop organized by the Federation for representatives from 36 branches. "I wish more women could attend this kind of workshop. But I believe that if a woman works wholeheartedly in her job and responsibilities, it's not a problem for her to rise upwards," she says.

Caught between roles

Worldwide, women's lives are governed by a need for them to care for their families and children. In western cultures, the last few decades have seen women push for equal opportunities and a resultant rise in their status in the workplace. In many other countries, the woman's role as a homemaker is still dominant - and necessary for a family's survival.

"Women here have different needs from those in the west. They just want to survive," says Purnina Chattopadhayay-Dutt, an Indian-born German Red Cross delegate who has worked in Bangladesh for two years. "What is important is that women are respected in their families and that they have the ability to make decisions," she adds.

As part of a drive to promote its new policy on gender, the Federation's first gender workshop for the Middle East and North Africa took place in Amman at the end of 1999. Participants from nine countries discussed how to implement the policy, adopted last November, and how to ensure equal opportunities for men and women as both members and beneficiaries in the region. Importantly, it provided a mapping of the participation of women in Red Cross and Red Crescent activities in the region.

"The role of women is an important element in the capacity-building process of National Societies in this region," says Karim Bensiali, director of the Federation's Middle East and North Africa department. "But the region has its specific culture which we have to bear in mind when discussing these issues," he adds.

Women's role in these societies is - as elsewhere - shaped by the role of women in their country, and the attitude of the men towards them. There are limitations as to how far they can take that role: be it for their own safety and respect, the will of their family, the need for them to care for their children. But women across the Moslem world are proving that they can play an effective role in helping National Societies to meet their goal of bringing assistance to the most vulnerable. One day, if they can take on more responsibility at higher levels, that role will be even stronger.

Carolyn Oxlee 
Carolyn Oxlee is an editorial officer at the Federation.

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