Women to watch in 2016

Irum Khan lists some of the women around the world that made strides last
year, while looking ahead to what we might expect in the coming year.

By: /
7 January, 2016
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom addresses the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), April 27, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Irum Khan
By: Irum Khan
Indian journalist

“She was going to beat [Obama] — she was favoured to win — and she got schlonged. She lost.”

This was Donald Trump, Republican presidential hopeful, in remarks capping off 2015. Without filter, he attacked opponent Hillary Clinton just last month.  Next he put sexism to shame by mocking Clinton’s bathroom break.

What was especially striking was that after the conversation, Trump’s female spokesperson, Katrina Pierson, likened his remarks to a routine one-on-one kitchen-table conversation.

Could such reductive dialogue about women affect the ability of a female leader to be elected?

In moments like these, the fallacy of equality in the U.S. is overturned. Even a United Nations’ group noted: “Some of the candidates for the presidency in the upcoming elections have included unprecedented hostile stereotyping of women; when there are increasingly restrictive legislative measures in some states and violent attacks to prevent women’s access to exercise their reproductive rights, and when there is an increase in the rate of women living in poverty.”

Trump may be an exception, and that was the United States. An overview of events in 2015 would give a fair judgment on women’s advancements across the globe. In the fight for women’s dignity, 2015 was a game changer of sorts, and pinpointing individual successes may help preview what’s to come in 2016.

Women in some nations got their first taste of liberty, meanwhile the West was slammed when numbers on equality were called out aloud.

Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, emerged as a sort of redeemer for the West with his historic decision to appoint 15 women to the cabinet of 31. However, in Canada that is not enough. There remains much work to be done on justice for the missing and murdered indigenous women there. And Canadian women continue to remain underrepresented in a number of disciplines, including mathematics, computer science, architecture and engineering. In 2015, two eminent scientists, Judy Illes and Catherine Anderson, resigned from the selection committee of Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame, protesting the lack of recognition to women’s contribution to the sciences.

Trading Canada with any other nation will not likely change the narration of this story. But credit should be given where due.

Going towards South Central Asia, Afghanistan shone last year. In an unprecedented move, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani nominated Anisa Rasouli as the first female judge to the Supreme Court. Alas, she fell short of nine seats to reach the number needed to be elected to parliament (97). Yet, for her fight against conservatism, this steely Afghan woman deserves a huge applause.

Not far from Afghanistan, the veiled women of Saudi Arabia tasted the joy of freedom by claiming their right to the ballot. The historic municipal elections that gave Saudi women voting and competing rights saw 979 women running for 2,100 councils. Of these, 17 won.

The first and significant step for Saudi women, I put my bet on this election as a beginning of overhaul in gender-guided laws governing the state, conceding that years of radicalism will demand women with valor wings and fierce determination.

Not far from Asia, Africa got some splashing news for women. Ameenah Gurib, the first female president of Mauritius, and the third on the African continent, made an impactful debut. Her scientific vision made the world take note of her. Her leadership manifested itself in the commendable Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Africa (AESA), launched to boost research in sciences. Women like Gurib, with little political background but a broad scientific mindset, should exhilarate global politics in 2016.

Patricia Scotland of Dominica realized a new feat with her election as secretary-general of the Commonwealth – the first woman to hold the post. Admittedly, apart from organizing the Commonwealth Games, the functionality of this 53-country club is speculative. But a woman leading 53 countries, in itself, is a great feat.

Just as we applaud women for their determination, two women from neighboring countries deserve a mention in this piece for sticking it to their respective states.

Sabeen Mahmud of Pakistan became a target of the state when she provided a platform for the silenced voices of Balochistan. Her cultural hub, T2F, will immoratalize her battle against supreme power. Mahmud went down fighting a warrior’s combat, and with her death on April 24 her voice was silenced, but her cause reverberates aloud.

Teesta Setalvad of India is also fighting a lonely battle for justice for the victims of communal riots in Gujarat. Her run-in with the accused has made Narendra Modi, the former chief minister of the state and the current prime minister of the country, her formidable opponent. She backs her accusation with evidence. The task is onerous when the adversary is mighty. She has been trapped into charges of corruption seen as diminutive but manipulative enough to quiver her resolve.

Will women like Teesta fall apart or combat despotism with greater strength? 2016 promises thrill.

Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka is another leader who challenged the immunity of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers charged for sexual assaults. Her demand — internal tribunals for trying UN staff — could raise even more voices against excesses in uniform.

Catherine Murphy of the United Kingdom has been commended for compelling Amnesty International to switch sides in favor of legitimizing sex work. Her statement – “Sex work is important to make ends meet” – should elicit rationalism while forming laws in prostitution.

MSF International President Joanne Liu’s courage to call a spade a spade and bring President Barack Obama to apologize for the Afghan hospital attack was an admirable feat. Liu’s likening this attack to a war crime was unprecedented.

Danish politician Margrethe Vestager’s encounter with the corporate world is no lost story of 2015. The plucky woman created ripples by challenging Google’s and Gazprom’s market dominance. Interrogating the legitimacy of the European government’s subsidy funding and taking on the mighty capitalists needed Vestager’s spine of steel.

The fiery U.S. attorney-general Loretta Lynch; Shukriya Barakzai, the badass Afghan politician fighting for women’s rights; Theresa Dankovich, the scientist from Pittsburgh; Rohingya activist Wai Wai of Myanmar; journalist Chai Jing of China, Khadeja Ismayilova, the journalist from Azerbaijan; and Alice Bowman of the U.S. are just a few of the many names that brought pride to the cause in 2015.

This piece cannot go without a mention of Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström who criticized Saudi Arabia’s gender policy and policy of subjugation in Swedish parliament. Wallström’s statement exposed the hypocrisy nations follow when given a choice between morality and commerce. Humiliated by a woman, Saudi Arabia removed its ambassador from Stockholm and cut business ties with Sweden.

Ascertained it is, the year 2016 belongs to courageous women like these.

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