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The continuing plight of women in Afghanistan

Commentary by O.S. on abuse through false interpretations of Islam
Sunday 24 August 2008

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Slow progress for women since 2001

It has been almost seven years since the fall of the Taliban and the burqa in Afghanistan. Though I see the glitzy colors of burqa even in our capital, Kabul, I rarely see any good piece about Afghan women and the burqa, in the Western press.

Some women in the West loved to have burqas in their personal collection; some even wore it and showed it during the Taliban rule to draw the attention of the world to the plight of the Afghan women. Some used it in artistic performances. The burqa for years was the sole identity of Afghan women. Western feminists convinced the world that the Taliban should be fought to free Afghan women.

Seven years have now passed without much change in the life and identity of the Afghan women. More women resort to self-immolation. Crimes against women are in the rise. Girls of twelve are being raped
and women in Keshendeh still run their life as their great grand mothers did centuries ago.

The burqa is not a problem for me and I see it as a personal matter, as long as women choose to wear it freely and without social or familial coercion. Women should be given the chance to love it or hate it. It is up to them.

However, long ago science proved that every action has a reaction. Every force produces a counter force, and this is true with social phenomena as well. People cannot change things by force, especially when it is not to the taste of society and personal likes and dislikes.

To change the concept of burqa, a radical and fundamental change is needed in the whole structure of the society. The Taliban are gone, but the burqa still rules on women. This is not just an isolated or a traditional aspect of life in Afghanistan. The burqa is related to the position of women in Afghan society. There is no crucial difference between the Taliban burqa and the burqa that women wear in Karzai’s Afghanistan.

To understand the curse of burqa (position of women), we have to leave Kabul because Kabul alone is not Afghanistan. Once I had the chance to visit some of the remotest areas of Afghanistan (Keshendeh, and Western Nooristan). I am an Afghan and I have spent more than half my life in Afghanistan; but what I saw was shocking. I had seen such life in documentaries, but only in other countries gripped by poverty, tradition, and warped religious values. I hated myself because I had a warm jacket to protect me against the chilling cold of Afghan winter.

I don’t agree with “Islamic” views about the hejab. For me the hejab is the creation of male mentality and male dominance. For me the hejab- henceforth burqa- is the symbol of male dominance and women’s subordinate position. It has nothing to do with the "respect" of women that some Muslims and conservative Islamic scholars say.

Unfortunately for Afghan women, like almost all cultures and civilizations, men were and are the dominant rulers and decision-makers. In the Afghan context, the picture is much more disturbing and gloomy. In Afghan context, it is not just the question of sharia; we face the question of sharia in one side, and the grip of tradition in the other side. Men never want to give Afghan women the freedom and respect they themselves enjoy.

It is worth mentioning that here I am not going to discuss the problem of freedom and rights in general, as Afghan people in general are deprived of their real and meaningful human rights and freedom. Here I want to focus on women’s issues in Afghan society, a society fully under the rule of customary and Islamic laws, a society where civil laws are not considered dominant in most parts of the country, even outside its formal courts in its capital, Kabul. Informal courts with their informal laws are stronger. Women are unrepresented in these courts and mostly are the victims of their rulings.

Women as property

Customary laws consider woman the property of man- man’s honor and pride. If the honor is dishonored, the man is allowed to wipe out the scar, even by killing his fiancée, wife, sister and mother.

The definition of honor is the definition of the male mentality and his historical dominance in all aspects of life, including marital and familial relationships. He is the ultimate truth and he is the owner of his woman, whether fiancée, wife, sister and mother and even female cousins and other close female relatives. He has the “divine” and traditional duty of protecting women, not for her happiness and rights, but for his own satisfaction and rights.

He enjoys full rights over her, but she knows only one undisputed right, that is to accept the rule of the male members of her family and clan. From childhood, her mentality and domestic and traditionally-defined education (most girls are not allowed to participate in any social life outside the home) is shaped in a way to serve the man in times of sadness and happiness.

If her husband dies, she must show her grief by denouncing remarriage and personal happiness. She ust“appropriate” clothing and always revere her dead husband, no matter how horrible he might have been. However, if the husband wishes to remarry, even if his wife is alive and young, she must obey because he needs “double happiness and excitement” and she cannot denounce it. She must be happy when he brings a second wife.

Years of exclusion from social life, male-orientated domestic education, concept of honor and chastity, the “sacred and divine” duty of a wife to husband, a sister to brother, and a daughter to father form a mind-set and revered concept that is considered as a perfect womanhood, wifehood, sisterhood and motherhood has created a warped sense of self in women.

This concept cannot be challenged from within because it could give woman a different and contradictory identification which is not acceptable to a male-dominated society. Her resistance would mean her exclusion from family and society. She will be insulted, abused, defamed, and named “unchaste”, “dishonored”, “a bandit”, “unrespectable” and more.

The social structure will not support her resistance. She will lose hope and, in the absence of support and tolerance, take desperate actions, such as flight and suicide. The concept of “honor” takes its toll. If caught after running away, she must be killed to protect the “honor” of the man. If she is found dead, the cause must be kept a secret, because “honor” is at stake. In both cases, she is the loser and male-made laws and concepts are the winners.

Family disputes and feuds are not uncommon in Afghan society. Again women are the main losers of these men-directed and men-caused disputes and feuds. The needs of a man always take priority. He needs that pretty girl of his dream. If the girl’s family is not ready to say yes to the marriage, the concept of courage and bravery gives the boy the right to kidnap the girl and take her to his home.

The scenario is bleak. The girl’s family has to protect their honor. The best solution (without blood) requires that the boy’s family give a girl (probably the boy’s sister or even female cousin) in exchange, "badal". Again customary law takes the side of men and gives them “happiness” and “honor” by depriving women of their love, rights, happiness and, most importantly, honor.

"Bad" is worse than badal. Bad is a woman who has to be given to solve a blood feud. She will become the property of the family and they have the full rights to use her in whatever way they wish. There are no barriers to stop them abusing or misusing her. She must be silent as a sign of her “good and modest” family education. Resistance will bring more trouble to her and her family. Her family needs her silence to protect their social standing, otherwise they must be ready to accept another death, this time theirs- certainly a man, more precious and needed than their woman.

Traditional laws and the general mind-set of society creates a double-standard values and morals. Additionally, Islamic verses and interpretations also give rise to double-standard. In both cases, women are the victims. In both cases, men are the legislators, judges and executioners. Men love these values because they give them “property rights” over women.

If men commit adultery, the community and family will ignore it; if they drink wine, the community and family will ignore it; if they elope with a girl of their dreams, the community and family will ignore; if they misbehave in pubic, they will be ignored by the public; if they harass women in public, they will be ignored. But in the case of women, all the attitudes are reversed.

A small mistake by women means their “social death”. Family and community will scorn her and she will lose her dreams and possibilities. She has to accept these “values” and give it “value.” She cannot ignore the scourge of society and man-made laws and values, because she herself is the creation of men. She can be made and destroyed, but cannot make and cannot destroy. She is a piece of property and has different owners during her entire life. She must respect all of them, no matter who they are and how they treat her.

The structure of Afghan society and traditional values that are covered/venerated by the thick cloak of religion and customary laws, regard women as a toy in the hands of men. The patriarchal system gives women a false and predefined identity. Women cannot resist or change, but must accept and respect their lot. Social and familial pressure and priorities mold a woman’s brain. While at her father’s house, she must act according to the needs and requirements of her father and brothers. While at her husband’s home, she must act according to the needs and requirements of her husband and in-laws.

The brainwashing of women begins at birth

Throughout childhood women are considered lower than their brothers. They take less food. Parents always take the side of their sons. If there is less food, sisters must save it for their brothers. If money is tight, boys get what they need before girls.

According to Afghan traditional and Islamic concepts, daughters are not the property of the family. Sooner or later, they will marry. Their real owners are their husbands. Therefore, spending and investing on girls is meaningless. At a marriage proposal, the conditions are tough and insulting. A girl’s education and mental maturity count for nothing. They will be asked about what kind of food they can cook and how obedient and male-fearing they are. In some cases, freshness (untouched and young) and beauty are considered important than education and maturity.

That is why child-marriage is common. Actually the education and traditional-Islamic concepts and mentality itself force the family to say good bye to their daughters when they are young. It is better if they experience their first period at their husband’s home. From the day they enter their husbands’ home, they must surrender themselves fully to the wishes and rules of their husbands and in-laws.

Resistance is out of question. No one will take her side. She is alone in her odyssey. She must live for others. She is not the captain of her ship in the untamed waves of the male ocean. Her presence in the ship is for her transformation from daughterhood to wifehood, and from wifehood to motherhood. Captains will be changed, but the destination is certain— being a perfect slave in a man’s world. Poverty and unstable social conditions catalyze this painful transformation in most cases.

The Hejab will give her “honor”, “grace”, “good character”, and “purity”. She is born to wear the hejab. If a man abuses or rape her, she is to be blamed. She is also responsible for all the moral sins of men. The logic is very simple: It is the woman that seduced the man by revealing her neck, leg, hair, or face. She is responsible for her chastity and her man’s chastity. If she is covered, both will be secured and clean.

If she is raped, even by a member of her husband’s family, she must keep quite because neither the law, society, nor community will not take her side. If tortured by her family and husband, again she must keep quit, again, because the law will not take her side.

Economically she is dependent. She needs food and a shelter. The family and husband will provide these things and, in exchange, she must obey and accept the rule of father, brother, husband and the son. Opposition means more torture and more oppression and exclusion. An uncertain future threatens her and insecurity forces her to surrender. She is brainwashed to accept and respect her false and predefined identity: man’s woman.

War and conflict and the hypocrisy of jehad

During war and conflicts, again, women suffer the most. History has proved this in each and every culture and religion. She is unprotected during war. From 1992 to 2001 (but still they continue the same acts in most parts of Afghanistan), the jehadis, the Taliban and fundamentalist warlords committed uncountable crimes against Afghan women.

Sons of “Islam” and “jehad” proved that they can rape even a woman of seventy and a girl of 6 six years. They proved that they like to see a woman deliver a baby in an open street and love to look at naked-women dancing. In these things they are not “Muslims” and God-fearing, because they forced women to dance and deliver their babies to “entertain” them.

They are two-faced even in their Islamic values. They riot about cartoons of Mohammad, but they forget their own bloody actions, their own crimes, and their hypocrisy committed under the banner of Islam and jehad. Their jehad was not against “infidels”. Their jehad was against their own Muslim people and their own Muslim women.

Unfortunately women are educated and brought up in this way. To change women and give them security and full rights, the men-made definitions of social values and mores should be modified, and in mostly discarded.

Until and unless, the definitions of values are changed, brainwashed women will consider them “respectable” and “undisputed.” “Respectable” should be made “unrespectable” and the values and mores should be given new meanings and definitions, otherwise, burqa will rule, not only on Afghan women, but on most Muslim women in many parts of the world.

If a Muslim girl continues to cover her head even in French schools, it is not her fault. She is raised this way. She got her values from a male perspective. She cannot change her mind. For this change, she must be economically independent, and introduce new definitions to values that were created, nourished, divined, forced and protected by hypocritical and self-serving men for most of human history.

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