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Women in a Gaza City suq

Women in a Gaza City suq

The opening paragraph of “Palestinian sheds light on who’s right in Middle East” by Naomi Lakritz of The Calgary Herald is full of promises; promises daring to oppose those who speak against the brutal treatment of Palestinians at the hands of Israel. Lakritz believes that by presenting this one Palestinian, Khalid Abu Toameh, an Israeli citizen, “reporter for the Jerusalem post” will forever open the eyes of the world to who’s really at fault in the Middle East. In her pathetic attempt to prove this “incendiary rhetoric about Israel” as a lie, she makes another stunning accusation: how this rhetoric is actually about hating the Jews rather than abuse of citizens, or on a humane level, of humans. Though her article does provide an insight on the other side of the story but is premature in even recognizing the ugly side of the story.

Lakritz employs an interesting technique: use of those who identify with the oppressed to prove the innocence of the oppressors. Lakritz finds much of the support for her statements in Toameh. The obvious declaration of Toameh as an Arab Muslim Palestinian, citizen of Israel, and a reporter for the Jerusalem Post is an indication of Israel’s all inclusive citizenship rules, although it is quite clear even by statements made by Toameh that Palestinian citizens of Israel are treated as third- class citizens, with no right to vote but an obligation to pay full taxes. Toameh states Palestinians are living a peaceful or lived a peaceful life under Israel’s rules and it’s only the international media, more specifically, Canadian media that is finding faults in a perfectly peaceful situation. According to Toameh those protesting against Israel’s actions are not “Arabs and not Palestinians” supporting the claim that Palestinians are perfectly satisfied with the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. From this perspective Toameh and Lakritz wish to defy thousands of those Palestinians who have been raped, murdered, forced out of their lands, have had their pristine lands occupied by Israeli settlers, have no access to education, to even the basic needs for survival. In this respect she either denies these treatments or finds them acceptable and humane. Under Israeli occupation and colonization Palestinians are denied even the basic right of food, education, and medicine, and are terrorized on a day- to-day basis through military occupation.

Lakrtiz also strongly believes that the “incendiary rhetoric” condemning Israel stems from the hatred towards Jews. It is the Jews who are the problem, Israel is just an excuse. In the “incendiary rhetoric” she points to, Jews are not stated as being the problem but Israel’s army and it’s government’ policies are stated as corrupted. The social taboo of blaming or hating Jews as a whole nation for any action is interesting. It is understandably unacceptable to blame the actions of Israel on Jews or Judaism, but it is entirely acceptable to blame the whole of the Muslim world and its religion for the actions of a handful of Muslim extremists. Attacks by Muslim extremists always create frenzy in Western Media but attacks by Jewish extremists or Christian extremists are ignored or vaguely mentioned. The generalization is so great that individual Muslims are easily prejudged as terrorists by the general public. I would like to make it clear that I do not blame Jews or their religion for the abuse of Palestinians, but what makes it acceptable to generalize one group of people but on the other hand generalizing the other population is considered social taboo?

Although I am against Israel’s policies and blame them, to a certain extent, for the situation of the Palestinian people. However, we as Muslims, especially those neighboring Israel and Palestine, fall no short of sharing this responsibility. In this respect I agree with Toameh and Lakritz. The Palestinian government has never been able to serve the interest of Palestine in full capacity and whatever destruction is upon Muslims is actually to a certain extent our own fault. Our inability to act against such abuse is witness to what we value. Muslim leaders speak out against these actions but have never actually taken a firm step, regarding political policies, against the Western powers in opposing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Our leaders seem to be sold to Western powers to keep their national interests as their top priority. One wonders if to them the life of luxury is more important rather than provision of basic rights for their citizens, or even other Muslims. It is about time Muslim leaders take strong political action, rather than resort to violence, against such atrocities.

Lakritz refuses to recognize the oppression of Palestinian people but she cannot deny it. According to Lakritz “a journalist has an innate obligation to tell that truth.” Maybe she should act on it herself by presenting both sides of the story.

Image by Flickr user Ahron de Leeuw, used under the Creative Commons License.

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Image by Rick Westhead via Toronto Star

Image by Rick Westhead via Toronto Star

Before the semester ended, a fellow classmate at York University had informed our African Studies class of a new project concerning children and technology in Africa. Similar to the Bike program where a store donates a bicycle for each child in (particular country), laptops were being given to very young children. After an hour of debate and discussion, I left the class thinking that laptops were the last thing a kid needs for a chance at a normal life. Basic needs have to be met first.

So when I came across this article on the Toronto Star website, I was immediately interested. I am one of those people that hates to hear news about wars or violence anywhere, especially Muslim countries. So I have not been keeping up with developments of any kind concerning in Iraq or Afghanistan. The little that I do hear tends to be notions of decay and lack of progress. Although I wasn’t too keen about laptops in African children’s hands, I didn’t mind, and was actually pleased, to hear about the skateboarding program.

I believe Oliver Percovich, originally from Australia, is doing the right thing by introducing skateboarding as a sport to Afghani children. In the Skateistan School in Kabul he has established, kids do not only learn the art of skateboarding, but learn about general health and language and music. Kids are also hired as skateboarding instructors and paid to teach younger kids or lower levels basic moves, thus enhancing their self-esteem and allowing them to get off the streets.

“Look at Fazillah,” Percovich says to the reporter. “I remember the first day she came here in January. She was walking through the park with a pile of sticks on her back. Her family had her quit school and she was selling chewing gum in the streets for $2 (U.S.) a day. Now she’s far more confident, and we pay her the same as she made on the street to stay in school and come here afterwards and teach skateboarding to the younger children.”

Even when I look around Toronto or Chicago, families from every sort of ethnic background are putting their children in athletic camps and team sports. At the YMCA I belong to, kids have their own gym times, classes and playground so parents are more than happy to buy them memberships and bring them along. Many spend weekends there as a way of getting in quality family bonding time.

No doubt sports have countless benefits. Team sports encourage fitness, peer interaction, leadership qualities, and discipline that comes with practicing a certain skill and working with a Coach.  Individuals who practice non-team sports often admit that they feel fresh and attentive and stress-free. Therefore, many students are encouraged to participate in various sports. However, in a country that is recovering from war and where schools are still being built and where many children must help out their families, kids often struggle to find other forms of recreation.

So far, the Canadian government has donated $15,000, “the German embassy has invested $140,000 and Denmark has contributed $125,000.” From the proceeds, a 1,750-square-metre indoor skate park with a steel-roofed building that costs $200,000 will be completed this August.

Along with spaces for language and music classes, there will be segregation along “the skate park’s concrete surface and ramps so girls can continue to skateboard after they hit puberty – when they begin to wear head-to-toe burqas.”

Unfortunately, many critics have raised concerns over Western cultural influence even though none of the students have adapted the Western skateboarding outfit of baggy jeans and none of the kids know Tony Hawk.

There have been reports that some girls have been beaten by their brothers and some of the student employees have been threatened. To be safe, Oliver and his family moved across town. He insists that his aim is not to bring Western culture to the kids. From time to time, he holds girls-only sessions to include younger children and females who may not get as much of a chance to practice their skills.

The kids just skateboard because of the physical enjoyment of the sport. “This is really fun,” says Fazillah, who has two brothers and six sisters and plans to be a doctor some day. “Why do I like coming out skateboarding?

“It’s just a great time passer.”

I look forward to hearing more about this project and I hope that all cultures will be open and accepting of new ideas before shunning them in fear.

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Image via The Toronto Star

Image via The Toronto Star

“Pride parade ‘microcosm of anti-Semitism happening globally’” headlined the Jewish Tribune last month, outlining lawyer Martin Gladstone’s and Jewish advocacy organization B’nai Brith’s concern with the “anti-Israel political advocacy going on” at the parade. The objection Gladstone and B’nai Brith raised to the inclusion of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) in Toronto’s upcoming parade embodies several leitmotifs in the North American discourse around Israel/Palestine (and regarding Muslims and Muslim-majority countries in general): the suppression of dissent and the silencing of critical perspectives in forums that traditionally challenge the status quo; the conflation of legitimate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism; and the co-optation of the language of human rights to justify colonial and imperial projects. It is this last trend which constitutes the subject-matter of this analysis.

Executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada Frank Dimant considers it

the height of irony to single out democratic Israel in this fashion [by protesting Israeli occupation of Palestine in the Pride Parade] when it is the only country in the Middle East that guarantees the fundamental freedoms of all its citizens without distinction. In stark contrast, the rights of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community in neighbouring Arab countries are routinely trampled on. Members of Canada’s LGBT community who are constantly battling discrimination should be mindful not to become part and parcel of the anti-Israel machinery that continues to churn out hateful and divisive propaganda.

Dimant’s insinuation is that protesting Israeli apartheid equals a demonstration of support for the homophobia of the Arab countries, and against the equality Israel guarantees to its LGBT community – an argument which implies that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is somehow justified by Palestinian homophobia. This logic obviously contradicts that basic, if hackneyed, (in)equation of moral arithmetic: two wrongs don’t equal a right.

Dimant’s framing of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as one between a democratic, tolerant Israel and an oppressive, intolerant Arab world resonates with a broader discourse which appropriates the language of human rights in the service of colonial and imperial ventures. As Sherene Razack trenchantly observes in her book Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics,

[Zionist positions] premised on the idea that a Jewish state must be created by force regardless of Palestinian opposition benefits from the companion notion that Palestinians are not entitled to the land by virtue of their refusal to enter modernity.1

The rights of women and sexual minorities serve as markers distinguishing modern societies from pre-modern ones in a Manichean clash between a Western culture “imagined as a homogenous composite of values including a unique commitment to democracy and human rights,” 2 and a Muslim culture characterized by a commitment to misogyny and homophobia. The wars waged to “liberate” the women of Afghanistan and Iraq represent one aspect of this “clash of civilizations”; Holland’s test requiring would-be immigrants to watch a video of two men kissing in a park to weed out illiberal applicants (primarily Muslim) represents another.

The misogyny and homophobia that do exist in the West disappear into the fault line dividing the Western and Muslim worlds in the clash of civilizations fiction. In the case of homophobia, for example: sodomy was illegal in Canada until 1969 and in some American states as recently as 2003; in November 2008, California passed Proposition 8 banning gay marriage; B’nai Brith, ostensibly championing Israel’s gay rights, is “openly aligned with anti-gay rights Christian fundamentalists such as Charles McVety, Canada’s most vocal lobbyist against same-sex marriage, and John Hagee, who claimed God sent Hurricane Katrina to stop ‘a homosexual parade.’” There is no place for these facts in a simplistically dichotomous narrative which juxtaposes the homogenously modern West against the pre-modern rest.

Before closing, it should be noted that the purpose of this piece is not to engage in a tu quoque argument that catalogues North American homophobia and measures it up against its Arab or Muslim counterpart; rather, it is to point out that while homophobia exists in both “Western” and “Muslim” societies, it is only diagnosed as a symptom of fatal pre-modernity (requiring treatment by invasion and occupation) in Muslim ones. Nor is this article an exercise in apologetics: there are grave human rights concerns in many Muslim-majority countries, and they need to be addressed. However, it does no service to the causes of justice and equality to marry the concept of human rights to racist ideologies of imperialism.

1) The contemporary rhetoric of culture clash premised on notions of human rights echoes the earlier colonial concept of terra nullius (no one’s land), which justified the European theft of land from its insufficiently modern indigenous inhabitants. For instance, Theodore Roosevelt defended the violent colonization of North America thus: “The world would probably not have gone forward at all, had it not been for the displacement or submersion of savage and barbaric peoples” (from The Winning of the West).

2) Sherene Razack. Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. pg. 88

See also:

“Modern Women as Imperialists” in Sherene Razack. Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics.

Haneen Maikey and Jason Ritchie. “Queers for Palestine: A Response to an Article in the Advocate.” http://auto_sol.tao.ca/node/3276

Huibin Amee Chew. “Occupation is Not (Women’s) Liberation. http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/6599

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For the past few months, The Future Movement– a political group operating from an Islamic School in Calgary– was campaigning in order to convince Lebanese Canadians to return to their homeland in order to cast votes in the June 7 election, according to this article.

Though The Future Movement coordinator Fauzi Salem says that the group had just been encouraging residents to vote and exercise their rights as citizens in an obviously important election, others in the local Muslim community were concerned.

One member, who didn’t want to be named, said that he felt the high-stakes election not only increased risk to those who returned to Lebanon, but that it cause unnecessary tension in the Calgarian community.

However, Salem said that there was very little danger and many Lebanese Calgarians often visit Lebanon anyway and that they were just promoting democracy.

The group was also lobbying for new rules for absentee voting so that in the future, Lebanese Canadians could vote from Canada. Salem also stressed that the group wasn’t paying for travel or accommodations and was only helping organize them.  In some cases though, they helped Canadians connect overseas with sponsors who were willing to fund their travels.

Elections took place this week and the “pro-western” coalition maintained its power.  See here for an interesting analysis of what this all means.

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It seems everywhere I turn I hear about Afghanistan in Canadian media. That’s why we’ve had to cover it so often on Muslim Lookout (here and here for instance). The Ottawa Citizen recently published an article about the recent protest by Afghani women against the proposition of a terribly oppressive law. Meanwhile, rabble.ca published an interview with female Afghani politician Malalai Joya on the same issue. Both had completely different takes.

Malalai Joya. Image via malalaijoya.com

Malalai Joya. Image via malalaijoya.com

The Ottawa Citizen article came across as not only ill-informed and ignorant of the relevant issues, but also as paternalistic and condescending. It focused only on the actions of the Afghani people and completely ignored the role of Western presence in the creation of this law. In contrast, the rabble.ca interview and approach tackled pertinent issues which are too quickly ignored by mainstream Canadian media.

From The Ottawa Citizen:

The remarkable courage of a few hundred women in Kabul, who stood up for their beliefs in the face of shouting and stoning, is a reminder that the world must not give up on the women of Afghanistan.

Had there not been an international outcry over the so-called “rape law”, those women might not have found the strength to protest the law in the streets — especially in the presence of a large, violent counter-demonstration.

Indeed, they might not have even known about the law had it not been for the international media; the government of Hamid Karzai did not make an effort to consult or inform the public.

Now let’s take a look at this line again:

Had there not been an international outcry over the so-called “rape law”, those women might not have found the strength to protest the law in the streets

Granted international attention can often provide people with an extra umph in their step, and I may even buy the argument that the news may not have reached many Afganis had international news media not picked it up. However, I have hard time believing that Afghani women needed international attention to find strength. The implication here is that this strength would have been non-existent otherwise. The threat this new law poses for Afghani women is not what is seen as their motivation to protest, but rather international attention. The sentiment seems to be that had the all beneficent Western media not paid attention this this case, Afghani women would have remained helpless and weak.

In the rabble.ca interview, regarding the protest Joya states:

Despite the threats from the fundamentalist bands that are still armed and in power, it is of course great and heartening when some women come out into the streets and oppose such laws. It shows Afghan women will not allow the laws of the Middle Ages to be applied against them and that they have the strength to stand up for their rights.

In the past few years our country’s unfortunate women have resisted their suffering through hundreds of self-immolations; I am very hopeful that Afghan women are gaining the consciousness not to burn themselves but instead to stand up and claim their rights through struggle.

Joya attributes resistance to those resisting – Afghani women. She recognizes their agency in resisting oppression. Joya also reminds us that Afghani women have been resisting, albeit through self-immolations, for some time now. However, from reading The Ottawa Citizen one would assume otherwise (emphasis mine):

The remarkable courage of a few hundred women in Kabul who stood up for their beliefs in the face of shouting and stoning, is a reminder that the world must not give up on the women of Afghanistan.

The italicized statement assumes that only those women who protested displayed courage. The courage those women who resist in a myriad of other ways was discounted. Although the resistance of these women should be applauded and appreciated this does not mean we should discount the resistance women enact in their everyday lives.

The Ottawa Citizen continues with:

The protest of Afghan women against the law is significant, because it demonstrates that the opposition to it is not mere western interference. Human rights are just that — human — and they apply in Muslim societies as anywhere else.

and

Cultural relativists argue that the NATO countries should not attempt to impose western values on Afghanistan. But the women in the streets of Kabul were not westerners.

“Not mere western interference”? It seems that The Ottawa Citizen is implying that at least part of the reason these women protested was western interference. Apparently, had the West not interfered this protest may never have occurred. Again, they make the assumption that had their not been some form of international influence these Afghani women would not have resisted in this manner. Oh, and thank you for reminding us that human rights apply in Muslim countries as well. However, this message would be handy to send to those countries that decide to invade and occupy Muslim countries as well.

The Ottawa Citizen article completely fails to acknowledge the role of American invasion and occupation in the deterioration of women’s rights in Afghanistan. In fact, they claim the opposite:

The very fact that women are calling for this law to be repealed, and are able to stand in the street to protest, is a sign that democratic progress has been made since the toppling of the Taliban.

In the rabble.ca interview with Joya we see something very different happening in Afghanistan. Joya says (emphasis mine):

This law is an inevitable outcome of the rule of the fundamentalists and in practice much more awful laws have been unofficially imposed on our people by the U.S.-backed warlords and drug-lords across Afghanistan — they have full control over our people to impose a ‘law of the jungle.’

This is far from the first time that Karzai has compromised with the fundamentalists and approved laws made by them. He has installed brutal and ignorant extremists in key posts; they were encouraged and now have enough power to pass laws of their design.

When the U.S. and its allies replaced the Taliban with the fundamentalists of the Northern Alliance in 2001, every Afghan knew that these terrorist bands were no different than the Taliban. Today, unfortunately, we can all clearly see this. The nature of the fake democracy ‘donated’ to Afghanistan by the U.S. government, which was trumpeted by mainstream Western media as an achievement, stands exposed before the world.

Afghan women have been betrayed in the past eight years under occupation. They are deeply feed up with the propaganda of the Afghan government and its international backers who invaded Afghanistan in the name of liberating women.

Therefore, we can see that in reality the Afghan women have not benefited from the occupation but rather are experiencing conditions similar to, if not worse than, those under the Taliban. As Krista wondered in her previous posts on this issue, why is this coming as such a surprise to Canadians? Why are we shocked? The intention of going into Afghanistan was never to “liberate” Afghani women. That was a pretext which made selling the invasion and occupation of a sovereign country easier to those in the West which gives women all their rights, treats women with full equality, and where women hold absolute equal power to men. This full equality is demonstrated by the equal numbers of female politicians to men in our parliament, equal numbers of female CEO’s to male CEO’s in our corporations, equal numbers of female supreme court judges to males ones, equal numbers of female media moguls to male ones, etc. Oh, wait. They don’t exist! That’s right, because female equality is non-existent in the West too. Yet, we assume we can make other societies egalitarian when ours isn’t even close to it?

Joya also states:

The Afghan government and its American guardians just say beautiful words about “liberation” of Afghan women, but in fact only some cosmetic changes are made to deceive the people of the world.

Obama called the new law “abhorrent,” but I think the U.S. government backing the fundamentalist warlords and imposing them on the Afghan people should be called “abhorrent” first.

I think the new policy of Obama will put our people and the whole region in a more dangerous situation than before. It shows clearly that the U.S. government is not interested in stability and peace in the region, and only wants a permanent military base in the region to threaten China, Iran, Russia and other Asian powers.

The Ottawa Citizen perpetuates the myth that Western invasion has somehow been beneficial for Afghani women and it is just those “barbaric” Afghani men who are hurting women. It continues to paint Muslim women as oppressed damsels in distress and Muslim men as barbarians and monsters, thus perpetuating this racist discourse. It shifts the blame away from Western forces who have backed and supported the oppressive and violent regimes, and onto those “barbaric” Muslim men, because of course only they are capable of such actions (sarcasm). Such reporting only continues to hide the complacency and agency of Western forces in the continued oppression of Afghani women and dupes Canadians into thinking that our presence in Afghanistan is somehow beneficent. The reality, as we hear from Afghani women themselves, couldn’t be further from the truth.

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Image via Sharmeen Obaid Films

Image via Sharmeen Obaid Films

Even before I watched this recent documentary, aired on CBC Newsworld’s The Passionate Eye on March 30th, by Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy I knew it was going to be hard to watch. And I was right.

The film, entitled Pakistan’s Taliban Generation, follows Obaid-Chinoy as she tries to find how strong and influential the Taliban really are in Pakistan. In recent days Pakistan has experienced a great deal of terrorist violence, including in the relatively peaceful and safe city of Lahore. In her quest Obaid-Chinoy spends most of the time in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where Pakistan’s Taliban are located.  She talks to Pashtun teenage boys and young girls, as well as Pashtun families to find out how they are dealing with the increasing power of the Taliban in their region.

Before watching the film I did not know what to expect except that I knew it would renew my own worries about the country which gives me a part of my own identity. I am of Pakistani origin and, although I identify as Punjabi, I also have some roots in the NWFP. It is a culture with which I am familiar, for better or for worse. And perhaps it is this familiarity with not only the culture of the NWFP, but also with the relatively progressive one of Punjab, the heart of South Asian Sufism, that makes me so furious at the Taliban. And the film did indeed increase that fury.

Let me make this clear. I despise the Taliban. Their interpretation of Islam offends me, their violent intimidation of other Muslims disgusts me, and their oppression of women horrifies me. However, I am also not naive enough to assume that the Taliban, as they are, occurred in a vacuum. I know they did not come about on their own, but rather had help from many outside forces, including Western ones. Obaid-Chinoy did not address this in her film. I realize that time is limited in a documentary, however I feel that it is time now to move beyond the simple vilification of the Taliban. They’re bad, we get it. But why are they so bad? It is time now that we discuss the causes and motivations of the Taliban along with their current actions. If we are truly wanting to curb their power and authority then we need to know why they are the way they are and take away their reason for being this way.

A few of these reasons, however, were highlighted in the documentary, though not explored in any detail. When speaking with some young Pashtun men Obaid-Chinoy discovered a level of resentment among many. Most were resentful of the US and NATO’s  “war on terror” tactics in  Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent months American military action has entered onto Pakistani soil, resulting in the deaths of Pakistani nationals. This increasing American military presence in Pakistan which is resulting in the deaths of Pakistani people, many of them innocent,  is increasing resentment and anger toward the US and other complicit Western nations. One way in which these young men have found to deal with their anger is to join the Taliban and fight the foreign invaders, as they seem them. Additionally, the Pakistani government’s own actions in the region have led to the displacement of many from places like Bajaur in the NWFP and this has added fuel to the fire of resentment. I’d be resentful too if I was forced to leave my home by my own government and then live in a refugee camp.The consequence of all this is an increase in Taliban recruits and thus in their power and influence. Hence, Pakistan’s Taliban generation.

Obaid-Chinoy does reveal the religious angle of the Taliban as well. She speaks with a young man whose views on women in Islam are conservative to say the least. The Taliban are infamous for their mistreatment of women. This is no secret. However, where have they learned this interpretation of Islam? Why do they believe the things they do when so many Muslims all around the world do not? What is it about the Taliban that makes them treat women the way they do? Why is it that, in one country, one can see the Taliban oppress women the way they do, and at the same time, see women in positions of power in government, medicine, law, and such? I wish the documentary had delved into this issue further.

Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary did not further investigate these causes. The focus appeared to be on the detrimental and devastating consequences of Taliban rule and power in the region. Instead of focusing on what has caused the Taliban to grow and why they exist, there was more of a focus on what this growth has meant for innocent Pakistanis caught in this political turmoil. Although, I do feel that the actions of the Taliban need to be challenged and the Taliban’s criminal actions do need to be exposed, again, if the focus in this documentary was to examine the rise of the Taliban, I felt this documentary just missed the mark. It left me wanting more information. We already know the Taliban are bad. We know they mistreat women. However, too many are unaware of their creation story and the origins of their ideology. Such information would have brought something new to the table in this documentary. Along with highlighting the Taliban’s actions in Pakistan (which are important as well), an in-depth look into the roots of the issue would have given the documentary an insightful edge.

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This piece was also posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

A few weeks ago, the news of a new law for Shi’a Muslims in Afghanistan was met with outrage in governments and media around the world.  This law would, among other things, force women to have sex with their husbands and obligate them to seek permission for activities outside the house. News since then has indicated that the law will be reviewed. I hope that this is a situation where the widespread condemnation will actually force a change in the law, which, from all that I’ve read, sounds incredibly violent and oppressive.

That said, I was puzzled at some of the statements coming out of Canadian media and politicians on this issue.  Focusing on the fact that the Canadian military has now been in Afghanistan for over seven years, many Canadian figures seemed to take it as a personal slight that the Afghan government had passed such an oppressive law.  The tone of many of the comments suggests that Afghanistan owes it to Canada to treat women better, and that the recent law is a sign of ingratitude.

For example, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney stated that, “Obviously our men and women (of the Canadian Forces) have been in Afghanistan to defend human rights and that includes women’s rights,” and International Trade Minister Stockwell Day argued that, “The onus is on the government of Afghanistan to live up to its responsibilities for human rights, absolutely including rights of women. . . If there’s any wavering on this point from the government of Afghanistan, this will create serious problems and be a serious disappointment for us” (emphasis mine.)   A member of parliament further asked, “How can we say that our soldiers are there to protect women’s rights when the Western-backed leader of this nation pushes through laws like this?”

What I find troubling about these statements is that they seem to assume that the situation of Afghan women is the primary reason that the Canadian forces are there, and that it is entirely the Afghan government’s fault that things are not as rosy as they should be.  No one seems to remember that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are there as part of the “war on terror,” and that women’s rights have been, at best, a side issue, and at worst, an issue raised only to drum up support for the mission.  The mere presence of Canadian forces in Afghanistan, surprisingly enough, is not going to magically result in improved conditions for Afghan women.  From the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, there have been various instances of leaders in some parts of the country being supported by the allied forces in their efforts to get rid of the Taliban, with little attention given to their own misogynistic policies (see here for one example.)

As James Laxer of Rabble.ca writes,

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is adept at playing to different audiences. In the West, he is an eloquent supporter of human rights and women’s rights in particular; at home, he governs under a constitution based on Sharia Law and reaches out for the political support of misogynist constituencies. As sometimes happens, Karzai’s initiatives at home can cause trouble abroad. American, Canadian and European officials have roundly condemned the reported law. And Karzai will doubtless bow theatrically to acknowledge their expressed concerns at the same time as he does next to nothing to broaden the rights of women in Afghanistan. […]

Let us suppose the Canadian government had actually cared about the rights of women and the education of girls. Instead of entering the lists in a protracted civil war, had Canada invested ten billion dollars to provide schools for girls in parts of the world where the schools would be welcomed, we would have made an enormous contribution. This would have been the most important international development project ever undertaken by Canada.

Instead, we are paying in blood and treasure for a relationship with a regime that is no better than Taliban-lite.

In other words, it should be no surprise that the government there (even a Western-backed, non-Taliban one) doesn’t have women at the top of its priority list, or that Canada hasn’t exactly demonstrated that women are its main concern either.  Interestingly, this article even suggests that many people within the Canadian government and foreign service saw this law coming and remained surprisingly silent about it for quite a while before it was formally passed.

Afghan-Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira also writes that, while this law is obviously problematic, legal constraints represent only a small part of the challenges that many Afghan women face:

This week more than 100 Afghan women from 34 provinces met in Kabul to discuss the situation of women in the country; they highlighted insecurity as the biggest impediment to their freedom and equality. Most women fear to leave their homes, to attend school or go to work – not because of their husbands, but because they don’t feel safe. Their rights to education, freedom of movement and action are guaranteed in the Afghan constitution, but the gap between words and reality is too huge to be bridged simply by revising a few clauses in a legal document. Sure, we must fight to protect the legal rights of women. But we must also seek ways to bring about change so that legislation is relevant to the lives of women and men in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans cannot read and write; an even greater majority don’t go to the courts to resolve family and marriage problems. The few who are educated who might seek legal help are sceptical about the rule of law because of the corruption and lack of trust in the Afghan government and the judicial system.

As Pazira says, “spare me the hysteria.”  It’s all well and good to criticise this law, but let’s not pretend that we’re surprised that sexism still exists even without the Taliban, or that we really believe that Western forces in the country are there for the sake of Afghan women.

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