Thursday, 16 April 2009

True Courage

There are many different ways for people to show courage and fortitude against oppression – in modern Afghanistan one way if you are a woman is to stand up for your rights and to openly oppose those religious zealots who are rapidly extinguishing your personal freedoms and human rights.

In Afghanistan, this is a dangerous and brave thing to do, even more so if you are a woman especially when speaking out against the rising tide of prejudice and misogyny that is now depriving women of their rights, their dignity and fundamental freedoms even in the Afghan capital Kabul.

On Wednesday 15th April 2009 there was a demo by nearly two hundred Afghan women against a new law which imposes almost Taliban-like restrictions specifically on Shia women. Yesterday carrying banners calling for “dignity in the law” and insisting that “Islam is justice”, they marched past a University, where a leading cleric has strongly backed the new law, which sits next to Kabul's largest Shia mosque.

For their troubles the women were then subject to verbal abuse, they were stoned, they were spat upon and they were jostled. An angry male mob of men encouraged by clerics then snatched their banners, screamed abuse, tried to break through the police line and denounced the women as apostates and Christians.

Just for the record, President Karzai only last month signed this new “personal status” law signed by last month. The law is sectarian, in that it applies only to the Shia, who make up around 15 per cent of the population, it returns them to the same servile status that was imposed on all Afghan women by the Sunni Taliban during their five-year rule until 2001 – which was condemned by the then First Lady Laura Bush. Under this law, no woman is allowed to work, leave her house or receive education without permission from her husband. No wife can refuse her husband sex, which, the law states; he may demand every fourth day. This law is a charter for domestic slavery, child marriage and marital rape.

So far US President Obama has called the law abhorrent and around the world Human rights bodies have condemned the law saying that it violates a number of international agreements on the dignity of women. Under pressure from his Western masters President Karzai has now hastily ordered a review of the law after the an initial outcry, yet there appears to be no sign that he will resist the religious extremists or defend the relatively limited freedoms that women have enjoyed since the overthrow of the Taliban.

What seems to be standard behaviour is for the Clerics to trundle out a standard denunciation of these freedoms as a plot against Islam by Christians and the attempt to portray institutional misogyny as the heritage of patriotic Afghans.

In modern Afghanistan the basic statistics make grim reading and show how bad the situation is:
· 87 per cent of Afghan women are illiterate.
· 30 per cent of girls have access to education.
· 5% of girls attend secondary school
· One in three women experiences psychological, physical, or sexual violence.
· 57% of Afghan brides are under 16
· Every 30 minutes an Afghan woman dies during childbirth.
· Between 70 and 80 per cent of women face forced marriages.
· A woman in Afghanistan’s average life expectancy is 44 years.

Since 2001 there has been some progress, in 2008:

· 27 per cent of Afghan MPs were women,
· 43 per cent of voters were women in 2005,
· 100,000 women have benefited from micro-finance loans to set up businesses
· 75 per cent of Afghan women said (in 2008) that they were now better off than when they had been living under Taliban rule.

It now appears that the relatively limited opportunities that were available to women post 2001 are now being rapidly reduced with fewer women daring to go out and work, with the better educated women leaving and ongoing intimidation taking a mounting grim toll. Only this week it has been widely reported that the Taliban publicly executed a young couple who had eloped and were handed over by their parents.

Just in case you thought that this sort of thing is confined to Afghanistan, across the border in Pakistan (yet another potential failed state in this troubled region), the religious zealots are on the rise, in the Swat Valley the Pakistani Taliban are busy driving women indoors and attacking and closing down girls' schools.

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