Musadeq Sadeq/AP Photo
I usually keep my blog topics fairly light, related to travel, my love for Italy, my various decorating screw-ups, cooking issues.......
But some stories are so disturbing that I can't not talk about them. The plight of women in Afghanistan is one of these.
For some weeks, the media -- especially in Canada, which has sent thousands of soldiers into battle in Afghanistan -- have been reporting on an Afghan law quietly signed into being last month. It gives Shiite men in the country almost total control over their wives. The law says a husband can demand sex with his wife every four days, unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse. Essentially, it legalizes rape. A woman must also have her husband's permission to travel from their home, legalizing home imprisonment.
Since then, dozens of young women in Kabul have braved crowds of bearded men calling them "dogs" and "whores" and pelting them with stones to protest the law. I think it takes extraordinary courage in a country such as Afghanistan for these women to speak out, to be seen and identified. This is a country where female teachers and students have routinely had acid thrown in their faces to warn them, and like-minded females, against education; where women who dare to stand for office, serve in the police force, or speak out against injustice are assassinated.
At last week's protests, as many as 800 men (and women -- talking about hugging their chains) joined marches in favour of the new law and against the women protestors. Opponents of the law acknowledge the legislation would only affect Shiite women in Afghanistan -- perhaps 20 per cent of the country's population of 30 million. But they fear it's a wedge issue that could easily trigger a return to Taliban-style oppression. The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, required women to wear all-covering burqas and banned them from leaving home unless accompanied by a male relative.
The Canadian government, and U.S. President Barack Obama, have joined human rights groups around the world in labeling the new law abhorrent. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has requested a review of the law, putting enforcement on hold. However, New York-based Human Rights Watch maintains that the judicial review ordered by Karzai is unlikely to be truly independent because those leading the process come from a conservative Shiite background.
Besides the obvious debates around women's rights, the situation has triggered some challenging debates about the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, questions I've certainly strugged with. In Saturday's Globe and Mail newspaper, Sandra Martin wrote a very interesting piece on the plight of women in Afghanistan and issues related to the war, particularly the Canadian government's promotion of the war as a fight to defend human rights. That's a justification that is hard to argue against.
Martin writes: "What started eight years ago as a military operation to deprive terrorists of a safe haven from which to launch attacks on the West morphed, in the eyes of many, into something much grander: an exercise in nation building and bolstering human rights.
"From smoking out al-Qaeda and routing the Taliban, the focus shifted to building schools and roads, vaccinating children and creating an effective judiciary. And with that, those with a reflexively anti-war disposition found themselves torn between their opposition to military intervention and their concern for the plight of Afghan's most vulnerable: its female population.'
Martin quotes Sally Armstrong, a Canadian author who has studied Afghanistan, as suggesting a women's movement is gaining ground in Afghanistan and from that, great things may happen. Knowledge is power, she says, but it also incites hatred and fear in oppressors. That is why the Taliban has been targeting women reformers – journalists, human-rights activists, lawyers and members of parliament – over the past 18 months.
“They kill them in a ritualistic style, murdering them in public in front of their children by shooting them in the face. That is terrorism, and these guys get away with it by claiming they are doing it in the name of God.”
I don't have answers, but I think we have a duty, at the very least, to bear witness to what is happening.