Tuesday, October 26, 2010

To the Women of Afghanistan

Women of Afghanistan, it is time to go to the barricades.

Now is the hour to claim your rights. Negotiations are under way in earnest; the Taliban are at the table, so are the warlords and bandits, tribal elders and the president. There’s not a woman in sight. Yet everyone knows you are the ones who can yank Afghanistan into the 21st century.

Even ├╝ber-economists like Jeffrey Sachs of millennium-goals fame are saying there is a direct correlation between the status of women and the economy — where one is flourishing, so is the other, where one is in the ditch so is the other. Every indicator says it’s the women who can lead Afghanistan away from the abyss. So go ahead and claim your space.

Send in the women members of Parliament, the leaders of nongovernmental organizations like the Afghan Women’s Network. Call on the commissioners at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Round up the rural women and the women journalists and the students to stand with you and alter the status of women. Together you can throw off the shackles that have bound you to second-class citizenship.

The men got away with hijacking religion for political gain. You are the ones who alerted the world to the facts: There’s scarcely a word in the Koran to support the violent and oppressive views of the Taliban or even the slightly less misogynist demands of the men seeking power at your expense today.

What’s more, it is the women of Afghanistan who have examined the past to create a better future. The Women and Children Legal Research Foundation surveyed 5,000 Afghans and found that 86 percent are against polygamy. Of the 12 reasons given for practicing polygamy; eight are illegal according to the Koran. They also did studies to show that tribal law is illegal. Even President Hamid Karzai’s government didn’t know that.

And despite the fact that the United Nations doesn’t follow its own Resolution 1325, which says women must be at the negotiating table, it’s women who know how to cobble together a peace plan. They don’t have blood on their hands. They are more interested in policy than power; they want peace rather than a piece of the turf. And women have long known that a sense of community is far more valuable than a sense of control.

You’ve been denied everything from human rights and jobs to health care and education. You refer to your illiteracy as being blind because as one woman said, “I couldn’t read so I couldn’t see what was going on.”

To be a woman in Afghanistan (and much of the world for that matter) is to be a target for religious extremists, an object of so-called cultural practices. It’s to be the child who is fed last and least; the one who is denied education. It’s to be sold as chattel, given away in a forced marriage as a child bride, and used in any manner that benefits a father and brother.

During a game of buzkashi — the traditional polo-like sport in Afghanistan that uses a dead goat as the ball — one player’s horse was injured. Rather than miss the rest of the game, the player traded his daughter for a new horse so he could finish the match.

For a very long time people from the outside world chose silence lest they be accused of interfering in someone else’s culture. Now we know that what continues to happen to the women and girls of Afghanistan — even while these peace talks take place — isn’t cultural, it’s criminal.

To murder your own daughter and call it honor; to give your blameless child to a man knowing she will be sexually assaulted; to send your girl back to her husband when she comes pleading to you with her broken arms and blackened eyes; to shroud her in garments so she will avert the eyes of men who strut about with impunity; to ask her how she was dressed (Was it modest enough?) when the rapist defiled her; to suggest that her loss of chastity is her own fault, that a man can’t help himself: These are the norms in the lives of women who are controlled by so-called religious men. It’s time to change those malignant presumptions.

Afghanistan has signed the same United Nations covenants and conventions that most of the rest of the world has signed. Although there’s no iron fist of accountability in those documents, they are by and large the politics of embarrassment. Use them to demand the rights your Constitution gives you. Tell the negotiators you won’t back down. Remind them that you’re 50 percent of the population. Be prepared to march; to go to the barricades. The women in the rest of the world are with you.

By Sally Armstrong, Canadian journalist, author of “Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan’s Women.” The New York Times

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