Tag Archives: Maryam Zar

12 Friday, September 2014

‘Don’t look away’: Daughter’s birthday inspires plea

By Maryam Zar, founder of Womenfound

The author and her daughter, who just turned 13. --- Courtesy of Maryam Zar, founder of Womenfound
The author and her daughter, who just turned 13.
— Courtesy of Maryam Zar, founder of Womenfound

On the day my daughter turns 13, I am prompted to think back to when I was 13 and had only been in the States for three years. Though I spoke English, I surely still felt out of place and wondered if I would ever feel comfortable in my new homeland. I am also prompted to look around and recognize a world that does girls a disservice in so many corners and in so many ways that the work of empowering them to be able to elevate to a mere human place with base dignity rather than property to be wholly controlled over a lifetime becomes endless.

Dare I also look ahead and hope that the next generation will get closer to this milestone, and that my daughter — with her dreams of achievement and influence — will be able to affect the change along with her peers in the free world?

Today, I am the mother of a young girl who has never known a world that places limits on her. When she looks up at the sky, she sees a Milky Way that she understands as formed by science, not divine folklore. When she anticipates her period, she knows it as a physiological process, not a curse from God. When she hears music, she instinctively sings or moves to the rhythm and doesn’t see it as taboo. In fact, she sees the breadth of her opportunities as attainable options from which to choose, not limitations bounded by the heavens. Yet she lives in a time when precious few girls globally, particularly the geographic area from which we hail, are accorded the same breadth of opportunity. Indeed, few are even taught the same expanse of possibilities or even the freedom of thought to ponder them.

While I focus on the life of women and girls across the Middle East, North Africa and central Asia, I am often grateful for the privacy of my thoughts. I am aware that they are mine only, and that I am free to think them without the guilt of a culture that limits my aspirations. I’d like to think I have extended that same freedom of thought to my daughter.

At 13, she wishes to be a neurologist who also runs a theater program for kids in her hometown and travels to perform medical aid work for needy people around the world. But sometimes she laments that all this will prevent her from being a professional singer or a dancer on a great stage. Were we in a different place, I would have to scold her for the thought of wishing to dance, or sing, or to want to work outside the home — even as a physician — without first considering the life of a family, a matriarch or a husband to care for. This is troubling. I can’t look away from the sight of millions of girls around the world who will never get a chance to test their wings, because 13 will bring them the trappings of womanhood, and the first order of business will be to marry them off, not to nurture them as budding young women with endless possibilities ahead.

As we speak, one-third of the world’s girls are married before the age of 18 and one in nine are married before they reach 15. Child marriage is a scourge that reaps its destruction generations down the line. Girls who are married off as children cannot attend school. In turn, their children are less likely to survive beyond the age of 5 and if they do, they are unlikely to go to school — perpetuating a cycle that disempowers women and girls and leaves them entirely dependent on patriarchs all their lives. Uncontrolled births exacerbate the cycle of poverty, and girls in poor households are more than twice as likely to marry younger. Young mothers also experience more birthing complications that begin with obstetric fistula and end with dying during childbirth. The child born to a dead mother has its own life of misery ahead. Yet we stand by millions of child brides around the world, excusing the abuse as tradition.

As we speak, there are girls in Kenya fighting against being cut in a horrific yet prevalent tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM). In a civilized world that should repudiate such a degrading practice, we excuse it as tradition and justify it as female circumcision. It isn’t. It is the removal of operative parts of the female genitals, which serves only to prevent her from sensing. It is also dangerous, painful and humiliating. Yet, we look away.

As we speak, there are millions of girls who are being pulled out of school for a plethora of reasons too lengthy to count, and perhaps too broad to even fathom. Many are denied an education in order to spend the school day walking to fetch water or hiking to fetch firewood. Many will get assaulted, abused or raped along the way. If the rape results in a pregnancy, that girl’s life is changed forever. She will have to bear that child, but will remain ostracized from the community as though the rape were somehow her fault, or begotten of her dishonorable conduct. One young girl was maimed with a fistula following a violent rape, and spent the next decade ostracized because of the stench emanating from the tear between her vagina and bladder.

These are the consequences of girls being tasked with the hard work of domestic labor, while boys are given the benefit of schooling. Many girls will be taken out of school to care for younger brothers or sisters, begotten of a mother who had no education and even less control over her own body or the right to procreate. The cycle only repeats, with the tragedy that many young girls who become pregnant cannot even define how it happened. A divine being is said to have wanted it, meant it to be, etched it as destiny, cast it as a curse, delivered it as a blessing — anything but self-determination and the right to have agency over their female bodies. These are not traditions. These are not cultural dictates that can’t be questioned or should be legitimized. These are systemic methods of keeping an entire gender subservient through abuse. Don’t look away.

The author and her daughter, who just turned 13. --- Courtesy of Maryam Zar, founder Womenfound
‘Today, I am the mother of a young girl who has never known a world that places limits on her.’
— Courtesy of Maryam Zar, founder Womenfound

As I raise my daughter to be a citizen of the world — a person who believes she can be part of the change she wishes to see, a child who deals in kindness not fear, in inspiration not predetermination — I wish that I could recognize a world where more communities question age-old traditions of caste and place in order to shunt off expectations and embrace the possibilities that could change some of our thorniest global issues. Women can be a colossal part of the solution to a world replete with poverty, rampant population growth and increased violence as a means to an elusive end. Women have the power to affect change — but they need a chance, and that chance can only come with education. An entire gender held down with illiteracy and lack of self-determination is bound to exacerbate a world that presides now over food insecurity, lack of access to clean water and inadequate maternal care resulting in death or worse.

So today, as I wish my daughter a happy birthday, while I still can’t tell her what the world beyond her bubble looks like, I can inspire her to embrace the possibilities. If I succeed, I will raise a confident global citizen who is tasked with not only building a comfortable life for herself and her family, but with helping bring about a better lot for her gender around the globe. Happy birthday to the girl who made everything fall into place for her mother the moment she was born.

This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post on Sept. 3, 2014 and was reprinted with permission from the author.

Maryam Zar is the founder of Womenfound, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of women in underdeveloped parts of the world, as well as raising money for charities and foundations that help them. The mother of three is also a former correspondent in Iran. You can follow her on Twitter.

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24 Thursday, April 2014

Iraqi law would strip women, girls of basic human rights

By Maryam Zar and Zainab Zeb Khan

Jaafari law is nothing new in the Muslim world. It is a form of jurisprudence named after the 6th Imam of the Shiite sect, and bases its provisions on the concepts of “zaman”—time—and “makan”—place. The basic idea thousands of years ago was that depending on any Muslim’s particular time and place or circumstance, the law would bend and conform to suit them.


A 15-year-old girl is married in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003. Jaafari law would make it legal for girls as young as 9 to be brides. --- Stephanie Sinclair/VII
A 15-year-old girl is married in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003. Jaafari law would make it legal for girls as young as 9 to be brides.
— Stephanie Sinclair/VII

Here and now, however, it would be nice if Islamic jurisprudence could follow its own lead and recognize that it is no longer the time and the place for 9-year-olds to wed, women to be raped over the course of a lifetime inside a marriage, and an entire gender to be held behind the confines of home walls until and unless a male guardian assents to their exit, and accompanies them. Those times have passed. Today, civilization, indeed codified human rights, demands that women have a right to self-determination, access to a basic education and agency over their own bodies.

Not so, say the new rulers of Iraq, who as members of parliament are proposing a new draft law to revert from decades of codified gains for women and girls to a centuries-old Jaafari text that would have women marry before they menstruate, eliminate the need for consensual sex within a marriage, restrict the movements of women and girls without male consent, have women inherit half of what a man would inherit in estate issues and pass custody rights of any child over the age of 2 to their father.

To date, there are three petitions against this law, both in English and in Arabic, that have gathered nearly 500,000 signatures worldwide. To be sure, in a world of 7 billion people and rampant population growth—largely because of uncontrolled births in parts of the world where girls are married young and have no education or access to birth control—a half a million signatures isn’t a majority. But surely, it should send a message that the time for child brides shuffling unsuspectingly into a lifetime of abuse with no representation or self-determination has passed, and that today free people everywhere demand human rights for women and girls. If the unsuspecting women who will suffer at the hands of this law were able to read or write, or even have access to unfettered news, they would likely sign on as well. But they do not, and in fact, this law seeks to exert the control and dominion of the patriarchy over women and girls to squelch any chance of an education or an autonomous life for an entire gender to have determination over their own lives and bodies.

So after generations of gains for Iraqi women, who before the U.S.-led invasion could go to colleges and universities hoping for lives that would merge the traditions of home life with the benefits of modernity, Iraq’s women must silently stay within the confines of their homes now hoping the newly installed patriarchy doesn’t yank their rights. The proposed Jaafari law stipulates that Iraqi Shiites would refer to Islamic Sharia Law for personal status issues, including marriage, divorce and inheritance. The law also outlines the consequences, repercussions and punishment that will be implemented against women and girls who do not follow the principles of these laws. The punishments are no less dire than the loss of life and limb. Transgressions for violating Jaafari law can lead to honor killings and physical punishments that would shock even those who argue that traditions are better left alone.

In the name of Tradition, a set of irrational arguments hinged on old notions of personal freedom and the teachings of religion (the premise of Jaafari jurisprudence) impose a damning set of rules upon the would-be victims: women and girls. The proposed Jaafari law would make legal the practice of child sexual abuse, marital rape and false imprisonment. Girls would be deemed as eligible for marriage at the age of 9, with consent in the hands of either fathers or grandfathers. The mothers, who would presumably know what kind of horror awaits their daughters, would have no say in the marriage.

Women would be vulnerable to heightened domestic violence through the elimination of consent for sex within the marriage, allowing what is effectively marital rape. In addition, this law will condone sanctioned pathways of brutal punishment including stoning, mutilation and unlawful imprisonment. Polygamy is also an option under Jaafari law, which provides for the specific manner in which multiple wives can be handled and even disciplined. The law would also strictly forbid marriage to a non-Muslim. In a country like Iraq, where multiple ethnicities live within the borders of one nation and deep sectarian divides separate religious minorities from majorities, this part of the law is a recipe for disaster among youth who dare to find love across religious divides.

Accompanying tragedies are sure to include heightened incidents of maternal deaths among young girls giving birth, infant mortality among families too large to responsibly care for, obstetric fistula, infanticide and much, much more. Women and girls will become further susceptible to trafficking, and child brides will soon be sold or traded like cattle to settle disputes or bartered for goods. With women effectively incapacitated from any kind of financial autonomy, poverty among women will only grow, and inheritance laws will leave them without the faculties to live through old age or to care for their children in the case of a husband’s death.

It is baffling that a school of thought with its origins centuries back is being revived for people who are desperately trying to join the modern world. No wonder there is an increasing global howl against it. To realize that this law is being imposed on a society that has existed under a secular legal code for decades, where the marriage age for girls has been 18 and consent has been a cornerstone for marital intimacy, is to cringe at the stakes for Iraqi women and girls. They are like you and I, hopeful for the future, ready to take on the world and join a modern era of technology and personal liberty. But the ideology that threatens to now govern Iraq would yank them back in time and take them to a day when little girls were brides and women were helpless inside and outside the home.

Today, this world is not the time or the place for this law, and we must speak out to stop it.

Currently, we need your support to stop the passage of this law in Iraq. A coalition of  global organizations and human rights activists have aligned and launched petitions to take action,  including two in English at Change.org and WalkFree.org and another in Arabic here.

To support us in opposing this law, please sign the petitions and share broadly with the hashtag #No2JaafariLaw.

Maryam Zar, J.D.
Founder: Womenfound
Blogger: Huffington Post
Editor: Rahavard English edition
Director: Communications at UNW-USNC-LA Chapter
Lecturer, media personality and advocate for global women’s rights.

Zainab Zeb Khan
Artist, Activist, Humanitarian
Director: UNA-USA Chicago Chapter

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