Don't jeopardise rise of Afghan women
By Ida Lichter
| October 14, 2009
Article from: The Australian
IN a nation where women are traded for animals, female literacy is 13 per cent and medieval tribalism ensures religious and male domination and domestic violence, it is not surprising that the West associates Afghanistan with women cowering terrified in their homes.
Yet such a view denies the spirit and progress that Afghan women have made since the overthrow of the Taliban. The rise of women in this beleaguered nation, in large measure through assistance provided by the US and NATO, has been extraordinary, especially in areas of the country where the Taliban insurgency has not overwhelmed the local population.
When I began researching Muslim women reformers for my book, I expected to find few in Afghanistan; in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, perhaps, but Afghanistan is generally portrayed by the Western media as a basket case for women's rights. Daily pictures of the eight-year war, itself a continuation of wars fought on Afghan soil for decades, show women in burkas, covered head to toe, shuffling along the streets; these images lead us to believe that all women in Afghanistan are subjugated and oppressed.
But Afghan women reformers have been able to insert gender-sensitive legislation into the new constitution
to ensure women's education and employment as well as participation in government and protection from violence and family bartering.
These reformers include women such as Sima Samar, sometimes called "the Salman Rushdie of Afghanistan", who was short-listed for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Even under the Taliban, when education of girls was forbidden, teachers continued with underground classes, risking fatwas and death.
Girls on the way to classes have been attacked by militants, who sprayed acid on their faces and burned down schools, but many girls have expressed a fierce determination to continue their education.
Women who achieve prominence face the open threat of murder. Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar rose to become head of Kandahar's department of crimes against women, and was assassinated by the Taliban in September last year. Assassinations can bring rewards to perpetrators. When Sitara Achakzai, a member of Kandahar's provincial council, was gunned down outside her home in April this year, her killers probably received the equivalent of $2500, offered by the Taliban to anyone who executes a council member.
The Afghan police force, a seemingly improbable vocation for Afghan women, has attracted recruits, particularly in Bamyan Province, central Afghanistan. Bamyan, where Habiba Sarabi is the first female Governor, claims the lowest level of violence and some women in this region have been allowed to drive.
Women in the Afghan diaspora who have been active in the rebuilding process include Manizha Naderi of the Women for Afghan Women organisation and Masuda Sultan, who founded the Young Afghan-World Alliance. Male supporters of gender equality are also becoming more prominent, although often branded agents of the "Christian West".
Like many other female reformers in the Islamic world, Afghan feminists contend that Muslim women should be educated and free to contribute equally at every level of society. In particular, they believe women can promote change within Islam by studying the holy texts to expose the egalitarian concepts they claim to be inherent.
Representing 40 per cent of voters, women are rapidly learning how to mobilise their democratic strength through NGOs such as the Afghan Women's Network and the Five Million Women campaign to advance gender equality. In the recent election, two women stood for president and well over 300 for municipal councils. This remarkable progress has continued despite endemic gender discrimination, widespread corruption, a drug-financed religio-political insurgency and a matrix of opportunistic tribal and religious alliances. The latter was exemplified by the family laws that sanctioned marital rape and were hurriedly passed for Afghanistan's Shia minority in February to gain government support from Shia leaders.
Afghanistan's women are major stakeholders in the political and military outcome, for violent Taliban-style Islamism is accompanied by misogyny and wherever such Islamism grows and intensifies, radical extremists demand more control over women by implementing strict Sharia law.
Conversely, the more freedoms for women, the less control by Islamists over present and future societies, because mothers who are free will not provide a role model of the submissive, fearful woman or be cowed into indoctrinating children.
The rebuilding of Afghanistan cannot take place without the advance of its women, who represent a major social, political and economic resource. Other Muslims have voiced the same aspirations for their own societies. The UN Arab Human Development Report 2005 stated that "an Arab renaissance cannot be accomplished without the rise of women in Arab countries ... Directly and indirectly, it concerns the wellbeing of the entire Arab world."
These views may be seen as part of a gradual upheaval in human rights and women's rights in parts of the Muslim world. It would be a shame to invalidate reformers' sacrifices and lose hard-won coalition gains in Afghanistan to the demoralisation that is one of the aims of terrorist tactics.
Intrepid women's rights campaigner and female Afghan politician Malalai Joya has called for the removal of NATO and US troops to allow Afghans to "liberate themselves" - a worthy goal but, sadly, unrealistic.
If foreign troops leave prematurely and militant Islamists extend control, much progress for women's rights could be squandered.
Ida Lichter is a research psychiatrist and the author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression
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