It wasn’t long ago that the women of Afghanistan were prisoners in their own country. With the iron fist of the Taliban weighing down heavily upon them, Afghani women were revoked of their human rights, including forced dress codes (burqas) and forced marriages (many before the age of 16), untreated illnesses, immobility, unemployment, and a lack of representation in the country’s education system.
When the fist was lifted in 2001 and the Taliban were bombed out from under their dictatorship, a ray of hope shone for a brighter, healthier future for the women of Afghanistan. Walking, breathing “corpses” would no longer make up a significant fraction of the population. Women, with so much to offer intellectually, socially, politically, and economically, would now be one step closer to the public domain where they could ideally be contributing and productive members of society.
But the vision was a short-lived one, deflected by one stronghold after another. With an international, ongoing war (post “official” Taliban ruling), the women of Afghanistan remain some of the most vulnerable survivors, historically raped of their freedoms and presently of their right to say “no” to forced sexual advances in marriage.
For those who have supported the war, arguing that it has lead to a better, more secure life for Afghani women, there is a global debate – front and centre – questioning whether international missions in Afghanistan have truly succeeded, by any measure, in bringing about gender equality.
Canadian newspapers have been infiltrated with front-page coverage on the subject, but one article in particular, “Plight of Afghan women prompts fresh debate over war” (The Globe and Mail, April 18, 2009), left an indelible impression on me. The author relays a vivid image of angry men on the streets of Kabul emotionally and physically slandering protestors who dared to decry the Afghan government’s endorsement of the family-law bill that legalizes marital rape. The law stipulates that a married Shia man (Shias make up approximately 20 percent of the population) has “the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night,” granting exceptions only if the woman is ill or could be harmed by intercourse.
In the article, Farah Mohamed, a Canadian Muslim woman, openly asserts her disbelief in such a ruling. “I grew up…in a Muslim home where respect and the advancement of women are normal…how can you think in this day and age that a man can have that kind of control over a woman and her body?” Akin to my sentiments, Mohamed sees this as an overarching issue of human rights, one that affects every citizen, woman or man. “My male Muslim friends are equally outraged and horrified,” she states.
For Mohamed, her friends, and others like them, there remains an internal struggle about where to go from here. Do we stay in Afghanistan trying to repair damages that may seem irreparable, picking up the pieces of lives that have been tarnished by war, terror, and inhumanities? If we walk away, what will become of Afghanistan’s female population? Have the bouts of freedom women have encountered over the last several years sufficed in giving them the resolve to stand up for themselves in times of peril?
Entering was the easy part. To leave in the midst of this human-inspired mess is not a viable option. Then again, when has war, rape, and rubble ever been a recipe for success in the page turners of history? Mohamed believes that the path to change is primarily through mentoring and educational programming, rather than shifting military regimes. Judy Rebick, former head of Canada’s National Action Committee on the Status of Women, perhaps captures the debate, in its entirety, with this statement. “Never have women achieved equality by somebody coming in and giving it to them. We can’t bomb our way into equality.”
So where do we go…and where do we not go? We must re-enter Afghanistan – emotionally speaking – with a new mentality and a gentler, more humanistic approach, void of threats and violence. Since the 1970’s, groups such as RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) have been peacefully organizing against the Taliban and working tirelessly for women’s rights in their country. Let us follow their lead or, better yet, let us support and encourage them in their worthy efforts, both on the ground and remotely.
Though, since this law incited an international outpouring of criticism, the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has publicly called it into review for amendments, this is not the end in a long and arduous list of human rights violations. As we well know, history has a way of repeating itself. For real and lasting change, let’s turn it on its head.