A Lebanese friend has just returned from Cairo, where she went to university four decades ago. "It was so sad," she said. "Every woman I saw was veiled, even on Huda Shaarawi street." The great Egyptian feminist was reputedly the first Arab woman to remove her veil, and my friend can't help wondering what Shaarawi would make of all the women who are putting it back on, nearly 60 years after her death.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, an equally baleful development has just been reported. On Monday the Governor of the American state of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, signed a bill banning abortion even in cases of incest or rape. The sole exception is if a woman's life is at risk, and doctors could find themselves in prison for up to five years for performing a termination in any other circumstance.
Excuse me if, after all that, I manage to raise only two cheers on International Women's Day. I know it should be a cue for celebration, and I don't deny we've made progress since my grandmother's day. Women didn't have the vote when she was born, and all three of her daughters left school at 14 - two of them, including my mother, to go into domestic service.
I'm delighted that some of us have so much more independence these days, but I'm also worried by mounting evidence that patriarchy is striking back. In Iraq, religious parties are trying to reimpose the veil on women who have not worn it for decades, while the Taliban - supposedly driven out of Afghanistan in 2001 but increasingly in evidence again - are murdering women teachers in an attempt to curtail girls' education.
The battle to regain control of women's bodies has been opened in the US, where the abortion ban in South Dakota is merely the first shot in a campaign to overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling which established that state governments do not have the power to prohibit abortion. Similar legislative proposals are being drawn up in Mississippi, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
I've been expecting this development since the 2004 Congressional elections, when the Republicans fielded a number of evangelical Christian candidates who campaigned on an anti-abortion platform, including one or two who actually advocated the death penalty for performing terminations. Nor is it any accident that it's happening now, at a moment when recent appointments to the Supreme Court by President Bush are widely feared to have tipped the balance against Roe v Wade.
It's ironic that this atmosphere of anti-woman conservatism, most of it religiously inspired, is as visible in Christian North America as it is in the Middle East. According to Human Rights Watch, in a report published yesterday, rape victims in Mexico are being intimidated by public prosecutors and health workers when they seek legal terminations. As a result, many are resorting to dangerous backstreet abortions, while girls who have been raped by their fathers often have no choice but to carry the pregnancy to term.
Victims of rape and domestic violence are just as badly treated in Libya, where the indefinite detention of women and girls who have committed no crime in "social rehabilitation" facilities was exposed last month; some are locked up because they are accused of staining their families' honour, while others have fled from violent stepfathers or incest.
Across the world, the statistics on violence against women are horrifying. According to the UN, at least one in every three women will be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime; the organisation describes violence against women as "a universal problem of epidemic proportions" and "perhaps the most pervasive human rights violation that we know today". The British Government suggests that domestic violence is the largest cause of morbidity worldwide in women aged 19-44, causing more deaths and ill health than war, cancer or traffic accidents.
The economic cost is huge. Three years ago, a report put the price of domestic violence in the US at more than $5.8bn (£3.3bn) a year, with productivity losses accounting for nearly $2bn. In this country, the Home Office estimate is even higher, at £23bn, and the Government says it accounts for 16 per cent of all violent crime. Domestic violence claims the lives of two women each week - the comparable figure for men is 30 a year - and it has more repeat victims than any other crime. On average there will have been 35 assaults before a victim calls the police.
Most people are aware by now that fewer than 6 per cent of rapes reported to the police in this country results in a conviction. The latest attempt to do something about this scandalous state of affairs was announced yesterday, in the shape of a half-million-pound education programme in men's magazines and on condom machines, warning young men that they must ensure that a woman has consented to sex, even if she is drunk.
I'm not sure who all these men are who don't understand that having sex with a drunken woman may constitute rape, but it certainly doesn't make me feel like celebrating the lot of womankind. There's nothing wrong with having a day on which we look at what's happening to women around the world, but I just wish the balance-sheet wasn't so one-sided.Reuse content