Monthly Archives: November 2009

Boycott Burqa Barbie

by Phyllis Chesler


What will they think of next? A be-headed doll?

That’s right. I am talking about the new Burqa Barbie doll which is now on display in Florence, Italy, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Barbie doll. As my colleague over at weaselzippers wonders: Will clean-cut Ken now come (pun intended, ’tis mine) with four burqa’ed Barbie doll wives?

Ah, I am such a Grinch. After all, the Burqa Barbie is being auctioned off for the Save the Children charity.

Save the Children? Surely, you must be jesting. I would like to save the children from this as well as from every other Barbie doll. (Yes, I know Barbie has diversified and now comes in every color and profession). But naked, even Doctor Barbie is still a pagan goddess or fertility figure but one with absolutely no relationship to female biology or reality.

Barbies are always anatomically impossible: their feet are pre-shaped for high heels, their breasts are high, firm, and perky—like Playboy dolls or surgically enhanced Hollywood stars. Bikini Barbie.

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Contributed By: Lisa Thompson

Dear Friends:

Here’s yet another tragic article from the frontlines of the world’s most under-reported war: the relentless, never ending, “World War Against Women.” Thankfully there are incredibly courageous women (and some men) who resist, who provide shelter and protection, even while risking their own lives.



by Anna Badkhen, from Ms.

On a bullet-scarred side street in Baghdad’s downtown, where the statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down in April of 2003, an inconspicuous entryway tucked between a steel-shuttered shop and a rickety candy stall leads to a flight of steep concrete stairs. Rusted water pipes run precariously over and across the poorly lit top step, tripping first-time visitors. The second-floor landing bottlenecks into a dark, empty hallway. Women in black abayas hurry across the buckled floor tiles in silence and quickly disappear through an unmarked plywood door on the right.

The decrepit two-bedroom apartment behind this unassuming portal is an essential junction of what activists in Iraq and their U.S. supporters call the Underground Railroad. This railroad is a small, clandestine network of several shelters, located mostly in Baghdad, for the countless but commonly overlooked victims of the war in Iraq: women who have been raped, battered, or forced into prostitution, and women who, accused of bringing dishonor to their families by having been abused, have been rejected or even threatened with death by their relatives.

These shelters serve women who have nowhere else to turn for help. Operated despite recurring death threats and lack of government support by a team of 35 Iraqi activists who call themselves the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), the shelters offer a glint of hope for civil society.

The Underground Railroad was founded in 2004 by Baghdad-born architect-turned-feminist-organizer Yanar Mohammed, head of OWFI, along with MADRE, an international women’s rights group based in New York. It provides the only sanctuaries for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence outside the quasi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, where the local government and nongovernment organizations operate several shelters. In addition to providing temporary asylum, it helps women resettle in places where their abusers cannot find them easily. Since its inception, says MADRE policy and communications director Yifat Susskind, the railroad has helped thousands of women. Several have been transferred to Turkey and at least two now live in the United States, but most of the rescued women have remained in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein’s regime persecuted political dissidents but allowed women personal rights and freedoms; assaults on women were rare. But when violence engulfed the country, women became “the easiest targets,” says OWFI member Dalal Juma. Violence against women is now rampant and goes virtually unchecked by Iraq’s new legal system. Sexual violence is “severely under­reported,” Amnesty International wrote in March, and along with other crimes against women and girls, is usually committed with impunity.

At the downtown shelter,a teenage girl whose mother unsuccess­fully tried to sell her to a brothel in Syria, is slumped on a tattered couch watching TV. Next to her sits a widow who spent four years in jail on charges of killing her husband (who was in another country at the time); the case was eventually dismissed, but her relatives still accuse her of disgracing them and threaten to kill her. On the floor by a broken window patched with plywood, the woman’s 14-year-old daughter is painting her fingernails sparkly purple; she is hiding from her grandparents, who conspired to marry her off while her mother was in jail. Another girl, 16 years old, whose parents married her at 12 to an older man who soon abandoned her, plays with her cell phone. A couple of other women shuffle in and out of the room.

The cheap apartment is all the organization can afford; Mohammed tells me that it costs about $60,000 a year to operate a shelter this size. That includes rent, security, utilities, and food and clothes for the women staying there. With the squalor comes anonymity and the inherent promise that, at last, the women are safe. Shelter workers believe that the shelter’s inconspicuous nature protects them from religious militias, which, Amnesty International reports, routinely target women’s rights advocates. Mohammed has received e-mailed death threats; she carries a Glock pistol in her leather purse, although she admits she’s not a very good shot. The shelter locations are kept secret from angry husbands and male extended family members.

The secrecy is working: Salma Jabou, an adviser on women’s issues to Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, assured me that outside Kurdistan “there are no shelters for girls who are raped.” Although the railroad has been operating since 2004, photojournalist Mimi Chakarova and I were the first reporters to have been allowed inside one of its shelters. As a precaution, Juma took us there after dark; we wore abayas and head scarves, trying not to stand out. Our female Iraqi translator was not allowed to come along.

Women learn about the shelter through word of mouth and OWFI’s quarterly newsletter; the only people who know its location are the women who run it and a thoroughly vetted handful of male security guards armed with handguns. One of these guards lives at the shelter with his young wife, an OWFI employee. As far as the landlord is concerned, the couple is renting the apartment and the other women are their relatives, in town for a visit. Just to be on the safe side, the organization pays $350 a month for the place, which would normally cost about $150. “Money for silence,” Juma explains.

Surprisingly, OWFI makes no attempt to disguise its official headquarters in Baghdad. In March, the white metal gate of its razor wire–fortified compound was adorned with two brightly colored posters depicting a woman screaming through prison bars, emblazoned with the words “Speak out and struggle for women’s freedom and equality.”

Samira, who asked that her real name not be used because she fears for her life, sought shelter at the Underground Railroad after enduring three months of near-daily sexual abuse at the hands of her employer and his brother. At the OWFI office, Samira can talk to a psychiatric nurse, who accompanies the women on their visits to physicians and gynecologists, and she can learn how to use a computer—a skill that would, ideally, help her find a job that will allow her to survive on her own. The activists are realistic about a woman’s prospects in wartime Iraq.

“If someone wants to marry her,” Juma says, “that’s good.”

For now, Samira spends most of her evenings cleaning the shelter: her safe haven, and her chance for a future without abuse.

“If it weren’t for this shelter I would have become a prostitute,” Samira says. “Now I feel I have a family around me.”

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Veiled Saudi Women Launch A Freedom Campaign

by Phyllis Chesler

Brave Saudi women drove their cars in public in Riyadh, the capital city, to demand their right to drive. They were quickly detained, their passports were confiscated, and they were fired from their jobs. On the 19th anniversary of this event, Saudi women activists, led by prominent Saudi activist and journalist Wajeha al Huwaider, are launching the Black Ribbons Campaign. They want to move about in the world freely, without a male minder. Al Huwaider has called for the abolition of the mahram (“guardian”) law which requires women to obtain the approval of a male relative for nearly any move they make in their lives. She is also demanding that Saudi women be treated as a citizens, just like their male counterparts, and that they be allowed to travel, drive, gain custody of their children, work, study, etc., just like their male counterparts. The Saudi women will not “untie their ribbons until Saudi women enjoy their rights as adult citizens.”

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