June 3rd, 2006

Montreal Canada


Homa Arjomand

Coordinator of the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada

Chair Person of Children First Now





Speech at the 17th Annual International Conference of the Iranian Women’s Studies Foundation (IWSF)


Obstacles of the Women’s Movement for Freedom



I would like to thank The Iranian Women’s Studies Foundation for providing me this opportunity to share my thoughts and experience with respect to women’s movements. 


My aim, at first was, to open a general discussion about the obstacles that women’s rights’ movement face globally but soon I realized if I relate my discussion to the most recent global movement against “Sharia Court in Canada”   in which I was involved in it directly (as one of its hundreds leading activists); then one can easily trail various obstacles within women’s rights movement for freedom.


There are several tendencies in the up rising movement against sharia court in Canada. The conflict amongst these tendencies grew in different forms. Each tried to influence this movement. Obviously, no one can deny the fact that, these tendencies are the result of real social pressure. The complicated issues that was put forward by these tendencies, their contributing factors and conditions and the outcome, has surely been one of the kind that women’s rights movement in the west has not faced for the past several decadesTheir strengths and weaknesses yet need to be evaluated in the near future. 


Today, I am not going to discuss the external obstacles that are outside of women’s rights movement for equality;  as they are against this movement and we are in constant fight about this. Instead I would like to discuss the obstacles within the movement as I strongly believe these obstacles are exhausting the most progressive part of the movement that is to have a clear ambition.  No doubt some of these obstacles are influenced directly by those outside forces. 


One of the obstacles is that the issues of women ’s rights are considered mainly economically rather than politically, therefore the struggle for social and political changes quickly transmits to minimum achievement. Their political demands for extensive intervention in economic, political, cultural and intellectual life of society fade away. This is more visible in the West. The struggle for economic equality in society, the struggle for equal pay for equal job duty, struggle for obtaining wages for housework , struggle for social welfare and economic security, struggle for repealing laws and regulations that eliminate women in participating in full capacity in politics and administrations, struggle for homosexual rights, or even struggle for total separation of religion from state and education or obtaining rights to abortion  are all being touched or addressed by lobbying through organizations which are clearly stating in their mission statements that they are none political and none partisan with funds received from governments or parties in power. No wonder when an external anti women force or movement attacks women’s rights or children’s rights, these organizations do not challenge it at all or if they do it will surely not be a political challenge.  Therefore part of their activities will not be an awareness or attempt to mobilize the whole society around that particular political struggle. The best example I can give for this is the struggle we had against sharia court in Canada. Even some of the oppositions who were strongly against the establishment of Sharia court in Canada and eventually joined a coalition against it could not see it as a political attempt of Islamists movement towards women’s rights and secularism. The most one could hear from these activists were “the Ontario arbitration Act 1991 is a bad piece of legislation” or "this should not be considered as a political attack towards women’s right, it should be acknowledged as another Choice for Muslim women. They can go to secular court if they wished to or choose sharia court. To challenge it might hurt Muslim women". They were insisting on protecting religion’s rights!!!


This trend  will surely not concentrate on educating the grassroots and mobilizing them. They are not interested in involving people and the leading activists. To them the issue can be addressed by simply writing a letter to the ministries in charge and request for an explanation. They only know one avenue very well to lobby. I personally have no problem with lobbying as one of the avenues but not the only one.


Our approach at the International Campaign against Sharia court in Canada was different. We recognized it as an attack to women’s rights, we attempt to educate  the public about the real reason behind establishment of Sharia court in Canada. We let public know that the next step of this political attack, if it is not being pushed out of Canada, will be global attack on women’s rights movement. We  provided public with many examples and a clear picture of what had happened in countries so called Islamic when political Islam gained power,  through main stream media, and use of internet and websites as well as information table which were organized by the activists and the volunteers and grew in numbers across Canada. We encourage the victims of political Islam to become the spokespersons on front line. We called for various public meeting and encouraged all defender of women’s rights to act the same.  The organizers and spokespersons of this campaign attended various meeting in communities and run workshops in this regard. Whilst meeting with the ministries in charge and potential supporters at the parties in power, we were organizing conferences and panel discussions as well as runing demonstrations nationally and internationally.

 Whilst we were relaying on grassroots and their actions, gaining the support of influential people was always part of our activities.  Of course lobbying has never been part of women’s rights activists in countries with a dictatorship government,  but the tendency of mentioned trend is to pursue people that this is the only way of struggle the example of it can be seen during so called reformist regime of Iran.



The other internal obstacle of women’s rights movement for freedom is, that the issues of women’s rights are not consider universal and therefore have no global demands.

The notion of cultural relativism and whole notion of “minority rights” which define women’s rights according to her cultural and tradition is no coincidence. This notion divides the world by two. In one part exists the progressive countries with western culture and in the other part exist the countries with backward culture and religions as if they are divided by the thick wall of China. The sad part of believing in cultural relativism is that the movement of women’s rights in the west acts very passively towards the political and social demands of women’s in those regions. And that’s not it, under the notion of cultural relativism the rights of immigrant women living in marginalized communities in the heart of west is being ignored too. Or if is not ignored, it is being validated in such away that veil being imposed on women in the east, early child bride, forced and arranged marriage, women being slashed and stoned to death for having sexual relationship outside of marriage are accepted as part of her culture and it is legitimized. Because of this notion women in the east were not able to gain the same rights as women in the west. This notion provided the best excuse for the political Islam to introduce Islamists’ feminists. You all know that for the past two decades a movement was pushed forwards by the political Islam under the name of Islamists feminists. The activists of this movement in the recent conference which was held in Spain with other Islamic groups and organizations stated that "the freedom we are after is very different than the freedom the women in the west are after” or “We can not measure the freedom in Islamic countries with the same way one measures the freedom in the West”!!!


Unfortunately we have faced with the same phenomenon in struggle against Sharia court in Canada. Some of the western organizations which were supposed to fight for universal rights of women in conjunction with women’s organizations and visible minorities were insisting to allow other religious organizations practice their rights and they called it freedom of religion. They were the defender of cultural relativism. These groups later on joined the coalition for “No faith based Arbitration” but did not sign the resolutions or declarations that was put forward by us simply because we did not identify ourselves with our nationalities, religion, or culture. These trends tried hard to ignore us but would join any group with Islamic suffix or prefix and their excuse was not to be identified as racists or worried about Islam phobia!!! The life and safety of women and children were less important than being tagged as a racists.


The other obvious obstacle for the women’s rights movement for freedom is, not having focused strategy. This movement seems to have lost its ambition. It is busy with its day to day resistant. It is busy repealing the attacks which receives from various angles.  In the West it seems that it is pleased for what it has but in so called not developed countries it seems that it is struggling for the most basic rights to survive to the next day. Obviously any movement that has no focused strategy with maxima list demands, any movement that does not understand the move of social and political forces exists in our society and their attempts, will never seek universal demands.  This movement if it is not passive it is surely not pro-active.


The women’s’ rights movement in general does not have a firm focused strategy towards the conflict of two obvious poles- American militarism and political Islam. the activists of this movement do not take any serious actions when it realizes that the rights of women in the countries or the communities so called Islamic are under constant attack. Has no plan to stop the interference of religion with state and education even though it is growing globally.


The rights of immigrants and refugees among them women are being violated. The standard of life even in the west is descending and all parties in power in the west be it liberal or right wing conservatives are trying hard to use this condition as an excuse to enforce the new policy to investigate and interfere with the private lives of individuals,  implementing the policy of censor and putting in place laws and regulations to stifle any struggle. Unions are on constant pressure and rights to strike are being limited. In these circumstances the women’s’ rights movement is not taking an active rule. And unfortunately, if it takes any stand would be in support of one of the parties on power, with respect to conflict of two obvious poles- American militarism and political Islam it either defends the American militarism or the political Islam. In general it takes no rule to demolish the root of inequality and women’s oppression. It sees men as the cause of women’s oppression and does not want to harm the system that is behind human’s exploitation, women’s oppression, repression and discrimination.


Once again in the International Campaign against sharia court in Canada one could easily see how the movement of women’s rights could not see the conflict of two poles, of political Islam verses secularism. One being anti women, anti modernism and anti secularism,  the other defending the unconditional equality of men and women and total freedom instead evaluate the establishment of Sharia court as privatization of justice system. Its opposition was towards arbitrators who were ready to empty the pockets of people. Or argued that the Ontario government really wanted to resolve the back log at the court system and reduce bureaucracy. Not being able to see the big picture, not having a clear strategy caused frustration and instability amongst its activists to obtain a firm position. Mrs. Boyd’s report is the typical example of how some were pursued by it and became totally passive.