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BACKLASH: Hard-Won Women’s Freedoms Slipping Away

August 29, 1995

EDITOR’S NOTE _ At the U.N. Women’s Conference in Beijing, feminists will have to fight some battles they thought they already had won. The meeting is likely to be dominated by debates with religious fundamentalists and conservatives over abortion and human rights.

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press Writer

LONDON (AP) _ In Bangladesh, clerics say educating girls violates religious law. Soon afterward, 1,400 girls’ schools are vandalized.

In Eastern Europe, conservatives try to roll back laws that made abortions easy to get.

In Croatia, a government panel wants women to bear more children and stay home to take care of them. One policy being considered: banning jobs for mothers with children under 3.

Around the world, there is a growing backlash against women trying to get more control over their lives and break out of traditional roles.

Religious fundamentalists want more control over women’s lifestyles and legal rights. Many conservatives oppose affirmative action for women, lesbian rights and abortion. The Vatican is campaigning against abortion, artificial contraception and divorce and has attacked what it called attempts to impose a ``Western model″ of feminist concerns on the rest of the world.

``It’s not only that feminism is not popular, it’s that the status of women is being lowered,″ said Croatian feminist Vesna Kesic, head of the activist group Be Active Be Emancipated.

Kesic and other feminists are angry that the battles they thought they had won are battles that they are going to have to fight again, and again, and again.

A declaration adopted two years ago by 171 nations at the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna said the rights of women and girls ``are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.″

A number of Muslim nations, including Iran and Sudan, want to modify that statement to say cultural differences must be respected. Human rights groups oppose that, saying countries use such phrases to restrict human rights.

The same 171 countries also agreed that ``the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life at the national, regional, and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex, are priority objectives of the international community.″

But two new yardsticks measuring the gaps in opportunities between men and women in 130 countries showed women lagging behind in every country, according to the 1995 Human Development Report for the U.N. Development Program, released this month.

While doors to education and health care have opened rapidly, the report said the doors to economic and political opportunities ``are barely ajar.″

Some of the backlash results from fear of change, said Gertrude Mongella, secretary-general of the U.N. Women’s Conference which runs from Sept. 4-15 in Beijing.

``Sometimes it’s revolutionary. That’s why sometimes there’s backlash,″ she said.

Muslim women have faced the most serious consequences.

In Algeria, guerrillas fighting to set up a Muslim theocracy have killed 371 women since 1994, according to a report this month by Algerian security services, published in the newspaper Liberte.

The militants have targeted women who hold jobs, women with a Western lifestyle and feminist activists. The Algerian government report says many of the women were under 20 and most were raped before suffering violent deaths.

Katia Bengana, 16, was one of about a dozen women killed for not covering her head with a veil.

``She was adamant. Even if she had to die, she would not wear the veil,″ her sister was quoted as telling Amnesty International.

Two Iranian women accused of corruption were stoned to death in December, the size of the stones prescribed by law ``to ensure that death comes only after much suffering,″ according to the human rights group Women Living Under Muslim Laws, based in France.

In Bangladesh, Farida Begum, 24, was convicted of adultery under Sharia, or Islamic law, and flogged 21 times after she became pregnant and her boyfriend refused to marry her. She fled to Dhaka, the capital, on July 23 and asked for help from volunteer groups.

The Islamic clerics who convicted her have no legal standing. Her ex-boyfriend, Rafique Miah, was acquitted.

At least 50 women have died in Bangladesh in recent years after being accused of violating Sharia law, according to human rights groups. Most committed suicide because they were unable to bear the humiliation of public flogging.

Fundamentalist groups also have targeted agencies that help women.

Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank was so successful pioneering small loans to help women escape poverty that more than 40 countries have copied the idea.

More than 2 million women in Bangladesh have received loans since 1976 to start businesses, but some Muslim clerics have forced husbands to divorce wives who borrowed from the bank.

This month, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, the first woman to lead a Muslim state, organized a meeting of women lawmakers from 35 Muslim countries to try to combat the growing repression of Muslim women.

``How do we face prejudice and social taboos?″ she asked.

Islam preaches equality of the sexes, Bhutto said, blaming repression on archaic traditions and ultra-orthodox groups using ignorance to rule.

Equality of the sexes which existed under communism has also disappeared.

In the former Soviet bloc, women have been the big losers in the new capitalist job market. Under communism, women had equal legal status, but in the new Russia, they make up 70 percent of the registered unemployed.

Feminists say many Eastern European men, resentful of women’s former status, are taking advantage of new social conditions to reassert their dominance.

``Even on paper, women’s rights are worse,″ said Yugoslav feminist Nadezda Cetkovic, who heads the SOS Hotline in Belgrade for women victims of male violence.

Martina Belic of the Center for Women War Victims in Zagreb said women are now the first to feel poverty.

``We are the first to lose jobs,″ she said. ``A lot of people see women only as mothers again. A lot of right-wingers ... are debating over abortion. The status of women is deteriorating. We are screaming and signing abortion petitions.″

In Croatia, a panel set up to recommend a ``population policy″ to parliament is considering banning the hiring of women with children under age 3. That would make companies unlikely to hire women of childbearing age at all, for fear they would be forced to quit if they got pregnant.

Feminists say Croatia’s government, which puts a priest or politician on TV every day to exhort women to have more babies, is trying to turn mothers into just another weapon in its ethnic struggle.

In the United States, conservatives are campaigning against abortion and affirmative action.

The Republican-controlled Congress is trying to crack down on welfare payments to teen-age girls who become pregnant. But women’s rights group say it isn’t looking at the issues of violence and coercion that caused many of the pregnancies.

Right-wing groups also don’t want women to have more control over their bodies or over marriage and divorce, said Charlotte Bunch, director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The National Organization for Women and other women’s rights groups see all of their gains in jeopardy _ and are vowing to fight the conservative backlash.

``We didn’t come this far, we didn’t work this hard, to see it all taken away so easily,″ said NOW President Patricia Ireland.

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