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Last month's long overdue hearing by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) revealed that shocking, blatant attacks on working women are going on more than three decades after passage of the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which requires most employers to treat pregnant women the same as other applicants or employees.
But to each new insult, joke and legislative attack, I say "bring it on." Each one is feeding the huge countervailing wave of take-back, push-back energy and at this point--despite everything I have just said--I am actually feeling surprisingly optimistic about the fall elections.
I am not talking about the presidential race, but the all important battle for congressional seats and shooing away from power the anti-women bloc.
Data crunched by Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., suggests this year will be a second "year of the woman," Walsh said at January's launch in the nation's capital of the Political Parity Project, a coalition of 51 women's organizations dedicated to doubling the number of women at the highest levels of U.S. government.
"This presidential election year is the first time in a generation, that women have an opportunity to gain a large number of congressional seats," Walsh said.
At the same gathering, Siobhan Bennett, president of the Women's Campaign Fund, likened this election year at the same gathering to the 1848 meeting at Seneca Falls, N.Y., that was the beginning of the women's suffrage movement.
Walsh cited three factors: Voter turnout is higher in presidential election years--weakening the power of the far right; retirements and redistricting have left open seats in at least 37 congressional districts and women typically fare better when they are not facing an incumbent; and more than 50 of the women running for these seats stand a better-than-even chance to win.
Near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, a father doused his three teenage daughters with boiling water and shot them because, he told a court, he suspected they were having sex. Two died.
He said he killed them to defend his honor.
Murder in Iraq can carry a death sentence but under laws that activists say are far too lenient for so-called "honor killings," the father was jailed for just two years. Medical examinations showed the girls were virgins.
The light sentence was a result of Article 409 of Iraq's penal code which is often used in cases of "honor killings" by men. Women's activists in Iraq, led by the only woman in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet, Minister of State for Women's Affairs Ibtihal al-Zaidi, are lobbying to change the law.
But they say they face entrenched tribal values in a country where parliament includes many men from conservative parties.
For decades Iraqi women have enjoyed more freedoms than women in many other countries in the Middle East. They are generally free from the strict enforcement of dress codes or restrictions on movement, and can join political life.
But conservative tribal norms still prevail and all too often girls or women are punished by relatives for what are perceived to be crimes of honor.
Such cases can be difficult to document. An Iraqi Human Rights ministry report said 249 women were murdered in 2010, including for reasons of "honor crimes," without giving a breakdown. Amnesty International cites the ministry as saying at least 84 women were killed in Iraq in honor killings in 2009.
Women, Business and the Law is a World Bank report that presents indicators based on laws and regulations affecting women's prospects as entrepreneurs and employees, in part drawing on laws contained in the Gender Law Library. Both resources can inform research and policy discussions on how to improve women's economic opportunities and outcomes.
The recession further undermined many efforts to develop women’s leadership, particularly in the corporate world, where diversity initiatives were often seen as an optional luxury whose budgets were the first to be slashed when financial cutbacks were imposed. “With the economic downturn, it has become okay not to focus on practices and invest in programs that support women,” says Linda Basch, president of the National Council for Research on Women.
Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), launched the Agency's new Policy on Gender Equality and Female Empowerment.
Citing its importance, Dr. Shah stated, "We know that long-term, sustainable development will only be possible when women and men enjoy equal opportunity to rise to their potential. But today, women and girls continue to face disadvantages in every sector in which we work, and in other cases, boys are falling behind. With this policy, we can ensure our values and commitments are reflected in durable, meaningful results for all."
USAID Deputy Administrator, Ambassador Donald Steinberg, Gayle Smith, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Development, and other senior White House officials participated in the launch.
In Tunisia, Salafist vigilantes have been attacking unveiled women and occupying universities that do not allow the face veil. In Egypt, only eight out of 508 newly elected parliamentarians are female, and the country’s Islamists are threatening to repeal laws making it easier for women to divorce and to gain custody of their children. The head of Libya’s transitional government has promised to bring back polygamy.
The rise of political Islam in all three countries has led some commentators to accuse the Islamists of turning the Arab Spring into an Islamist winter for women. Yet the backlash against women is not confined to Islamists. In Egypt, women who demonstrated for equal rights last year on International Women’s Day were met with ugly jeers and taunts to go home and take care of their children.
Female protesters against the secular military government were subjected to brutal beatings and “virginity tests.” Women who venture into Tahrir Square these days are often sexually harassed.
As the Egyptian anthropologist Hania Sholkamy recently noted, even the left-wing activists who first manned the barricades against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime “reject the whole narrative of gender equality as a figment of a Western imagination.”
At an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hearing Wednesday in Washington, D.C., employment and legal experts said that pregnant women and caregivers face everything from harassment and hostility on the job to terminations and decreased work hours. That’s despite a law passed 30 years ago – the Pregnancy Discrimination Act – and other measures like the Family and Medical Leave Act intended to protect workers balancing job and family obligations.
One example shared by an expert panelist at the hearing: A pregnant woman was told she couldn’t alter her uniform to fit her growing belly, but then was forced to take a leave when the uniform no longer fit. There were also tales of men who were punished for asking for time off to take care of sick or elderly relatives, because such labor was considered “women’s work.”
Sadly, stereotypes about who should provide care appear to be alive and well despite the fact that women have increasing responsibilities in the workplace and men are taking larger roles in the domestic sphere.
Low-skilled, low-wage workers are especially vulnerable since jobs like waiting tables, retail sales and other service positions often have unpredictable but inflexible schedules. That makes it harder to plan time off or deal with the kinds of small and large crises – a sudden ear infection, a fall that results in a broken hip – that crop up when you’re caring for a baby or an elderly parent.
“Culture war,” in fact, increasingly seems too vague a term for the current conversation in the country about women’s rights. That conversation is acquiring an increasingly retrograde tone, one that should cause liberals to be alarmed.
It’s hard to pinpoint where the current upsurge in dismissive rhetoric about women’s rights began. Anti-abortion sentiment has long been a staple of right-wing politics, of course. But recently, conservatives have seemed particularly fixated on Planned Parenthood. Last February, congressional Republicans sought to eliminate funding for Title X, a federal grant program that provides HIV testing, contraception, and cancer screenings (through pap smears and breast exams). Title X, Republicans claimed, was funding abortions at Planned Parenthood, which Senator Jon Kyl said did little else.
Kyl had his facts badly wrong, it turned out. Abortion represents only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services, and the organization is legally prohibited from using Title X funds to cover abortion-related expenses. This didn’t seem to bother Kyl. The Senator’s comment about Planned Parenthood’s activities “was not intended to be a factual statement,” said his spokesman. Another fact that apparently didn’t trouble him: Title X has funded the early detection, over a 20 year period, of at least 55,000 cases of cervical cancer, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Obama preserved Title X during the budget showdown, but the administration’s attitude toward abortion and contraception has been muddled. In December, the Health and Human Services secretary overturned the Food and Drug Administration’s ruling making Plan B, commonly known as “the morning-after pill,” available to all women over the counter. A seventeen-year-old girl can get the morning-after pill without a prescription; a sixteen-year-old cannot.
“Women are contributing in unprecedented ways to the military’s mission,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement heralding the change, which was detailed at a briefing Thursday. “We will continue to open as many positions as possible to women so that anyone qualified to serve can have the opportunity to do so.”
But the move still bans them from key infantry, armor and special operations units, leaving many advocates unimpressed.
Responding to an order from Congress, the Pentagon said it was tweaking the 1994 rules on the issue:
– Women will no longer be barred from jobs simply because those jobs require those holding them to be located with ground-combat units. That means women will be able to serve as tank mechanics, radio operators and in other support billets, opening up more than 13,000 jobs to women.
– Women will be permitted to serve in 800-troop combat battalions, a smaller unit – closer to the front — than the higher-level 4,000-strong brigades where they had been limited to serving in support roles further from the action. More than a thousand jobs will be open to women under this change, although many already have been serving in those jobs as temporary “attachments.”