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Women in Afghanistan



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.

Comments (18)

Excellent post, Sandra, this new law is truly awful. I really hope it does not become law for real. And as you say, all human rights justification of any intervention in the country falls to pieces if such a piece of legislation is passed.

So upsetting,Sandra.

I agree with you in a country like Afghanistan, it took these women a lot of courage to protest the horrible law.

It is very irritating and wrong to commit such crimes against humanity and women rights in the name of religion.

I really appreciated reading this. I am horrified in reading how women continue to be treated in so many places in the world. Afghanistan seems to be one of the worst areas. I can't imagine ever having the courage these women had to protest the law. I am not sure what the solution is either but knowledge and awareness is always powerful.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, thank you for writing this post to raise awareness of the plight of women in Afghanistan. The new law which just past is horrible. My heart goes out to the women there and my respect and thoughts of safety go out to those who bravely speak out.


Chiocciola, such a law really would undermine any argument that the war is being fought to advance human rights. And that gives me some hope that Canada, the U.S. and other countries fighting the Taliban will pressure Karzi to back down on this.

Candi, it really is criminal how often religion is unfairly invoked to justify crimes against human rights.

Girasoli, these women are so brave! I don't think I'd have the courage, in that environment, to stand up publicly against such policies. Yet that, and global attention to their fight, can be such a powerful tool for change.

Hi Kathy, thanks for your note. It is a horrible law and a real illustration of the terrible situation for women in Afghanistan.

Brad'll Do It:

Not so long ago in the U.S., our "old South" did a great job of using the law to keep a part of the population "in its place." It was unacceptable, but it took riots, martyrs, and mayhem to finally bring it to an end. Unfortunately, there seems a strong parallel to the present Afghan women's situation.

As the line from the song goes, "when will we ever learn?"

Of all the MANY global problems and horrific injustices, the plight of women in so many parts of the world is one of the most deplorable. Offense to any woman is offense to all women! For years I have supported groups who attempt to make a difference in the treatment of women in several African nations...and more recently in Afghanistan.
No problem troubles me more than the humiliation and subjugation of women.
Sandra, I share your pain on this subject and admire your post. Mary

Sandra, a friend of my is a reporter covering the Pentagon; she has lots of interesting articles on Afghanistan: http://www.usnews.com/Topics/tag/Author/a/anna_mulrine/index.html


Brad, I think that you're right -- the only way it seems that deeply entrenched attitudes (and the laws that support them) can be changed is with protests and martyrs. Sad, but true.

Very well said, Mary -- thank you. We are all hurt by these kinds of laws and actions against women. The continued treatment of women in many parts of Africa -- slavery, forced marriages, female circumcision -- is a deep affront to human rights everywhere.

Thank you for the link, Chiocciola. Your friend has some interesting articles. What a landmine it must be, covering the Pentagon! (And I thought the Finance beat was bad!)

Thanks for writing about this Sandra. It's so hard to get my mind around stuff like this. I take my freedom too much for granted! Blessings to these women.


Annie, it can be a bit hard to get your mind around the idea that women today can still be treated like this.


Enjoyed today's topic.So much inequality everwhere, sad in this day and age. We have not come very far, have we.


I just saw this post and thank you for raising our consciousness about it. I have watched this unfolding in the world news. Although Afganistan seems far away, its issues are germaine to free (however one defines it) people and women, in particular, that need to keep this in the forefront for action. It hard a road to hoe but admiration to the women who are risking their lives to oppose this servitude. Thank you again.


Thanks for this thoughtful post, Sandra. My church sponsors a refugee woman and her children from Afghanistan...I have cried more than once hearing her story unfold. Hearing how her brother-in-law married off her 11 yr old daughter, among other horrors. I always feel so helpless, thanks for the reminder that to bear witness is to help shine a light in the face of such darkness. It certainly is the least we can do.


Hi Kendall, it IS sad, isn't it?

Menehune, thanks for stopping by. The treatment of women in so much of the world is so unjust, and Afghanistan is just one (albiet one glaring) example.

Anne, it sounds as if your church is doing something constructive to help a refugee family! As hard as it would be in Afghanistan, they must also find it a struggle here.

Sandra - a great and provocative post. I think that we forget that not everyone in the world has it like we do. Oh, we hear stories but prefer to think it doens't exist - I think at some level we believe that the stories are fake or exaggerated. The truly delporable thing is that the stories are likely just the tip of the ice berg!

A good friend of mine has been active for years in raising money to build and run schools for Afghan girls. When she started people would ask - why not schools for all kids? Hearing stories like this reminds one of why it is so important to provide some sort of education.


Jerry, that's an excellent point -- what we hear about human rights abuses is very likely only a tiny fraction of what really goes on.

It sounds as if your friend is doing very important work.

Thanks for posting this...the more people become aware of what is going on in Afghanistan the better. Things certainly aren't as good as various governments want us to believe...and it is US tax dollars being spent to support governments who still don't believe girls should be educated...We need to let our voices be heard too...about all crimes against women and children.

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