Beyond the veil
Women in islamic National Societies
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,"
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 is an editorial officer at the Federation.
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