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2003 — Tough Year for Women Leaders

Why are women leaders in today’s world disparaged, degraded and threatened instead of encouraged and cherished?

December 10, 2003

Why are women leaders in today's world disparaged, degraded and threatened instead of encouraged and cherished?

We can start with Sweden's Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, who was murdered days before a key September 2003 referendum on the euro, while shopping in a Stockholm department store.

There is also Dr. Annalena Tonelli, the Italian humanitarian worker who ran a tuberculosis hospital for years. She was murdered in October 2003 in Somalia.

And then there is Bettina Goislard, a 29-year-old French woman, who was shot and killed in November 2003.

She was working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Afghanistan. And let’s not forget Zully Ester Codina Pérez.

In November 2003, this Colombian journalist — the host of a weekly radio opinion program called “Entérese” — was shot four times and killed by two assassins riding a motorcycle.

However, not all the women on the list are murder victims. Some were just harassed and repressed, like Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s pro-democracy forces and a Nobel Peace laureate.

She was taken into detention in May 2003 — and remains there. Radhia Nasraoui, a Tunisian lawyer, may well die from a hunger strike she has been waging since October 15, 2003, to draw attention to human rights abuses in her country.

Also on the list is Dr. Akila Al Hashimi, a career diplomat in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry.

She was shot during an ambush outside her Baghdad home in late September 2003. She died five days later. The assassination of Dr. Al Hashimi was a setback to the cause of democracy in Iraq.

She had been one of only three women on the 25-member Governing Council appointed by Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer.

Even though half of Iraq's population is female, it is apparently impossible to appoint more women to the Governing Council — unlike, say, the task of trying to set up a functioning democracy in Iraq by June 2004, which is only near-impossible.

To his credit, in mid-November 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush did meet with leaders of a delegation of 17 Iraqi women in the White House.

In November 2003, some of the same women sat down with U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton from New York when she traveled with Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Senator Clinton is, herself, no stranger to death threats.

These Iraqi women have drawn up a list of demands for the Iraqi Governing Council to consider.

They call for safety in the streets, a minimum of ten women members on the Council, female representation throughout the reconstruction process — and accountability for the Council itself.

As it stands, the fact that women put up with overwhelming and life-threatening obstacles is not considered news.

But what happens if a woman gets taken captive and is severely injured, but manages to survive — as happened to U.S. Private Jessica Lynch while serving in Iraq?

Apparently, she then somehow deserves U.S. national television exposure, along with an invitation to christen a cruise ship.

Meanwhile, news of all of these brave women is elbowed aside at the newspaper stands, replaced by the latest word on — Paris Hilton.

No, that is not the name of a hotel in the French capital, but an American socialite gracing more than just U.S. TV screens. Short of such dalliances, international women leaders simply cannot generate the same kind of attention required for inane U.S. media audiences.

All of which leads to the big question: What is it about strong women that makes some men want to kill them?

And why is it that the popular media only take note of serious women striving to make the world a better place when they are harassed, violated or murdered?

And yet, all over the world women work daily in the pursuit of peace, justice and democracy.

What these women and others like them deserve is encouragement, inclusion, applause — and protection. They don’t need to be marginalized or murdered.

Today, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist. The Prize Committee made special mention of Ms. Ebadi’s work on behalf of the rights of women and children.

She has received death threats — but, fortunately, is still alive.

Let’s hope that as part of her prize the Nobel Committee is smart enough to issue her a flak jacket and a bodyguard. If 2003 is any indication, she may need both.