Noushin Arefadib is a 29-year-old Iranian Australian who works for Centre for Social Research (CSR), a Delhi-based NGO seeking to eradicate female foeticide, facilitate social justice and empower women through their Gender Training Institute (GTI). It was founded in 1983 and continues to expand its remit, working on women's rights issues in India and the rest of South Asia, making steady progress towards improving the lives of women in the region.
Arefadib was born in Iran, but left aged eight to travel around the world with her mother for four years, spending time in Kenya, Japan, Cyprus and the United States, eventually settling in Western Australia. She secured a degree in Psychology and Gender Studies, a Masters in Human Rights Education and studied at the United Nations University in Tokyo, before moving to India to take up her current role. Her passion for women's human rights is clear: the main focus of her life is supporting female refugees and asylum seekers, and fighting for the sexual and reproductive rights of women.
As a refugee and woman of colour, her move away from Iran meant that she quickly learned to defend herself by being outspoken and opinionated; skills she has taken into her adult life and which are central to her work. In India, she has expanded her understanding of women's issues at an international level, and brought with her a wealth of knowledge that can help the region.
Here, she talks about the nature of the work carried out by CSR, and her broader view of feminism around the world.
Tell me about some of the work you've been doing for CSR.
I started by helping to build training modules and manuals for those working with the Delhi police and border patrol guards on issues pertaining to gender mainstreaming and sensitivity. The training also focused on building awareness around existing national, regional and international laws and treaties relating to the trafficking of women and children, prenatal sex selection (also known as female foeticide), workplace sexual harassment, and domestic violence.
The purpose is to educate law enforcement agents about the rights of women; to breakdown cultural stereotypes about women's roles in society; and to deter and warn against corrupt acts, such as bribery, which, unfortunately, is rife in India. I have also been involved with raising awareness around the very present and growing issue of prenatal sex selection, which is the murder of the girl child when a family discovers, through a prenatal ultrasound scan, that the mother is to give birth to a girl. This is a very vivid problem all across India, particularly in bigger cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, where access to an ultrasound scan is more readily available. One of the biggest ways that India has been hit is through the exponential decline of females across the country. The male to female ratio has become so bad that the kidnapping of young girls across state borders is fast on the increase, as families struggle to find wives for their sons.
Prenatal sex selection is officially against the law in India, yet bribery and lack of any real law enforcement or monitoring of this issue means that, for those with the right amount of money, anything is possible.
Why are Indian women treated so poorly and how can the situation be reversed?
Some of India's long standing cultural beliefs and practices are the main source of the everyday violence against women you see in this country, and the many ways in which it is manifested.
Some of these practices include the dowry, giving the groom and the groom's family money and goods in exchange for marrying a daughter, which has resulted in ongoing and increasing 'dowry deaths', which is the murder -- often by burning -- of the bride for failing to make an "adequate" dowry payment to the groom and his family; female foeticide, which I mentioned earlier; and Sati, which is when a recently widowed woman is expected to immolate herself on the structure upon which her husband's dead body rests.
All of these practices are not only long-standing, but also have a deeply embedded cultural and historical significance attached to them, and although these practices have been formally banned by the government, there has been little to no efforts made to implement existing laws to ensure the protection of women from acts of violence.
I think there are a number of ways the situation could be improved. Firstly, I think the government must publicly acknowledge that such primitive practices still take place across India and change its policies, practices, and budget allocations to reflect that eradication of such practices are its number one priority.
If the government prioritised such efforts, we would see public education campaigns that slowly but surely start to change people's perspective about what is a good and valuable culture, and what is obsolete and detrimental to the moral, economic, and social fabric of Indian society. We would see budget increases for the implementation of Acts and in support of NGOs who work tirelessly with local communities to shift perspectives and change the status quo through education; we would see that law enforcement agents and medical professionals who facilitate the countless deaths of women and girls each year, are being educated by their trainers about such issues; and we will see actual penalties for anyone who adheres to bribes to facilitate such murders.
It is a long road to healing, but when the very people who are meant to be leading the nation simply look the other way, or worst yet, support such traditional practices, at least covertly, by not taking any action, then there is little hope for the future of the women in this country.
It sounds as though the work you do takes time to make a difference. Is that something you're conscious of?
Yes, definitely. To be honest, I think change is always a gradual process and even when one change is made, there are still other issues in that same basket that need to be addressed. I don't think any social change can just happen overnight. I think even when things look like they have improved, it's not enough for us to just walk away and say: 'oh we won! Lets move on to something else!'
For example, the practices I mentioned earlier used to be perfectly legal, and the first step was to make sure they were officially deemed illegal by appropriate legislations. But did this mean that 'change' in the way we like to see it was achieved? No. Because there is still so much work to be done.
How important is the work of CSR?
CSR has been around since 1983, and I think the main reason why they are still around today, despite the shriveling amount of funding and the obstacles hit along the way, is because our work is relevant. It was relevant then and it is relevant today. I think one of the primary reasons as to why CSR's work is so important is because they work at a community and grassroots level. What this means is that the community -- the very recipients of the service and those whom CSR advocates on behalf of -- are continuously consulted with and the messages that are brought forth to government officials, law makers, law enforcers, and other agents of change, are their messages.
CSR also involves women who have been victims of violence themselves to be a part of the organization and to be empowered through becoming agents of change.
What things should the UK government be doing to help women?
The context of the EU -- or the 'developed' world -- is a little bit different in some ways to India, but also very similar. I think that governments play a huge role in ensuring that women are protected by tightening up their violence against women policies and legislations, and actually putting in mechanisms that measure and monitor their effectiveness and implementation. This does not only include Acts which pertain to domestic violence, but also the very real issues of sex trafficking, rape, assault, workplace and public sexual harassment.
I think governments should also stop meddling with women's vaginas and allow women to make independent decisions about birth control, access to safe abortions, and sexual health services and measures.
Governments, including the UK government, should better fund research relating to women and the issues I've mentioned, NGOs that work with such issues, and programs that aim to eradicate violence against women and help to empower victims.
I'm not only making these suggestions because I'm a feminist, but also because I have done the math and know that violence against women actually costs governments across the world billions of dollars in health care, loss of productivity and contribution, mental illness, legal proceedings, and much, much more. Violence against women is actually violence against an entire nation because the results don't just stop at the woman who is the immediate victim, but they snowball to all of us, irrespective of our gender or social standing.
What are the biggest problems facing women today?
There are many issues that are absolutely global and do not discriminate according to geography, religion, or anything else. This common theme, in my opinion, is the persistent sexualisation and objectification of women across the globe. Sadly, a woman's value often rests on her perceived sexuality and her function as an object for sexual gratification, be it visually, physically, or psychologically. As such, her contribution to society on any other level becomes diminished, undervalued, overlooked, and downplayed. The saddest part about this is perhaps the fact that many women, particularly young girls, have now internalized this notion and play the expected role of sexual object: it's now the unseen or accepted status quo.
On a more regional level, I think the issues faced by women in South and Central Asia are rather unique in that they stem from longstanding cultural and religious practices and beliefs that, again, devalue the girl child and women. Cultural and religious beliefs that preach that a woman's worth is half that of a man's; that her birth is a burden on her family; that her central purpose in life is to breed boys, provide sexual gratification and maintain a home for her husband and extended family, and remain silent and unseen throughout this process. Although I have no doubt that this way of thinking also exists in other parts of the world, here it is incredibly overt and cannot be denied on any level.
Such ideologies and practices lead to the demise of women at all levels of life. You start to see an increase in acts of violence towards women, such as acid attacks, dowry deaths, honor killings, infanticide, foeticide, and rape; you start to see women's lack of access to legal and structural support; you start to see girls being denied access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, eduction, land, and freedom of movement.
Another very big issue facing women today is a lack of support from their national governments, and also from international government and multilaterals such as the United Nations. While many women in this and other parts of the world suffer and die in silence, with no one being non the wiser about their deaths, governments and multilaterals continue with their affairs without raising much of a noise about why this is okay and why this continues to happen in the 21st century.
Government heads and officials preach democracy and human rights, yet many are not prepared to advocate what they preach and in the end it is generally women who get forgotten about. A prime example of this is the fact that the United Nations does not consider gender as a factor in a woman's application for refugee status, despite acknowledging that gender based and gender specific violence is a prime cause of death amongst women in many countries.
Feminism often seems fractured and lacking in cohesion, would you agree with that?
I have always considered myself to be a feminist, but to this day have never associated myself with any one particular school of feminist thought over another. This is perhaps because I don't want to categorise myself and argue one belief system over the other because it defeats the purpose of feminism. Why argue with one another when ultimately we all share a common goal of equal rights for all women?
Despite the fact that at times it appears the feminist movement is divided, all around me I see amazing, inspiring and determined women who work together towards a common goal and I see these women achieving big goals and small goals together and that makes me feel that it's not as bad as some would have you believe. It really is a different view from the inside.
As far as the future of feminism goes, I have the sense that while many women in the East continue to fight for their rights and continue the movement and share in each others struggles, many in the West, at least in Australia where I grew up, feel that there is really nothing worth fighting for. You see more and more young girls disassociate themselves with the word or concept of feminism, perhaps because it irrationally renders them a 'man hater' in society. Unfortunately, the word feminism is not 'sexy' or 'hip' and many have not only accepted things as they are, but have internalised them and in fact contribute to the problem by becoming exactly that which society demands of them.
What's been feminism's biggest achievement?
The right to choose. The right to choose whether you want to stay at home and dedicate all your energy to raising your family (and not be made to feel guilty about it), the right to choose if you want to make your career your number one priority and never have children (and not be made to feel guilty about it), the right to choose if you want to have an abortion because although you want children in the future, now is not the right time (without being made to feel guilty about it), the right to choose if you want to save yourself for marriage or have multiple sexual partners forever (without being made to feel guilty about it), the right to choose if you want to get married or never marry (without being made to feel guilty about it).
Feminism is about giving women the freedom to choose what path is right for them as an individual, without having to answer to governments, society, or religious leaders. That's what's so beautiful about it. If men can choose between A or B, then why can't women? It seems the rules are so different for women. Feminism is smart enough to ask questions and not go along with the status quo. Feminism is smart enough to make an informed decision, facilitated by this beautiful thing called choice.
Women are underrepresented in Westminster. What's the best way of tackling that issue and getting more women directly involved in mainstream politics here in the UK?
The issue of getting more women involved in politics is multifaceted. Believe me when I tell you that many women are involved in politics, they're just not involved as much as men in diplomacy and "mainstream" politics, as you put it. Women do a lot of the ground work, the activism, the grassroots stuff that push for the policies to be changed and the politicians to take notice. I think this is just as important as engaging in mainstream politics, if not more important, because it is on the ground, it is connected to the people, and it's where the real change happens.
This is a really big issue for discussion and an entire article could be dedicated to this subject, but just a few things to note are that mainstream politics is not very welcoming of women -- it is an extremely male dominated environment where a woman's gender is actually brought into the spotlight and makes it even harder for women to be taken seriously. Look at Julia Gillard in Australia: there are more headlines about her outfits and her hair styles than there are about her policies and politics! Do you think her wardrobe would be such a huge issue if she were a man?
Sadly some of the women who do manage to break into mainstream politics find that they have to "assimilate" and internalize if you like, the patriarchal way of doing politics if they ever want to be taken seriously and continue their careers as politicians.
What role do you feel men can play in all this?
Men can play a significant role, and this is not just in large-scale political arenas, but in the seemingly little things that actually make a huge difference.
Fathers rolemodelling appropriate and respectful behaviours towards women; men publicly discouraging the objectification and sexualisation of women not only in the media but amongst each other; taking a clear and public stance against any form of violence against or discrimination towards women. It's the everyday behaviours of people that eventually changes social policies at government level. If at a grassroots level men remain complacent about such things, social policy is bound to reflect this, but if men stand with women, as their allies and demand nothing less than equality, that's when politicians start to take notice and that's when change becomes apparent.
There is a radical school of thought amongst some feminists that suggests men are responsible for the secondary condition of women across the world and, as such, they cannot be feminists or a significant part of the solution, but I would strongly disagree as I believe that alienating half the world's population will never lead to a sustainable solution. I am a strong believer in strength in numbers and have had the good fortune of meeting many men who were strong allies of women and considered themselves feminists because they believed in equal rights. As I said earlier, feminism, for me, is about equality and the right to choose freely. One does not need to be a woman to have the capacity to empathise with our cause and our struggle.
Visit www.csrindia.org to find out more about Centre for Social Research's work
This article was also posted on Left Foot Forward