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Posts Tagged ‘Afghan women’

This piece is also posted at Muslimah Media Watch.

I know I just talked about this last week, but all these questions about Canada’s involvement with the rights of Afghan women have remained a major news story, so I thought it was worth doing a follow-up.  There are still quite a few articles out there about how the new law that came out a couple weeks ago is making everyone question Canada’s mission in Afghanistan (yeah, I know: Canada’s military has been there how long and people are only asking these questions now??)

This article by Sandra Martin,  printed this past weekend in the Globe and Mail, is pretty typical of a lot of the issues that are being mentioned.  Like many of the media perspectives I discussed last week, it talks about the Afghan government’s support of the new law as “the ultimate betrayal,” as if it is a move deliberately and primarily intended to offend the Canadian mission in the country.  (Interestingly, the specific language around “betrayal” is always talked about in terms of a betrayal of Canadian expectations, and not of Afghan women.)

The article further exposes some of the other assumptions that are being made in many of the discussion about this issue within Western media.  Its constant use of “us” and “our” – in reference to Canada and Canadians, and in particular to the Canadian military – creates a rigid division, assuming that all Canadians are similar and united, and fundamentally different from Afghans.  When she says that Margaret Atwood “continues to question why we were there in the first place” and “doesn’t feel we can just pack up our kit bags,” Martin implies that all of “us” are somehow in Afghanistan, and so closely linked with the Canadian military that its kit bags are “ours” as well.  She also writes that although it used to be “that intractable problem over there, Afghanistan is now a seething issue on our streets, around dinner tables and in meeting rooms in Canada.”  She seems to assume here that it is only since Canada’s role in the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 that Afghanistan has been an issue for Canadians.

I know it might seem overly nitpicky to get all concerned about a pronoun, but the use of “we” and “our” is always worth questioning.  It is often an exclusive term (if “we” did not care about Afghanistan prior to 2001, then this “we” doesn’t really include Afghan-Canadians; if “we” are fighting in Afghanistan, then the “we” also pushes aside many Canadians who disagree with the Afghan mission.)  It is also a term that tends to create a moral binary as well, placing “us” on the side that is morally superior and more modern and progressive than the Afghan “them.”

Martin also seems to assume that military intervention is the only way to support Afghan women.  She writes that, throughout the course of Canada’s military involvement in the country, “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.”  Even if we ignore the overly patronising tone of “a reflexively anti-war disposition” (as if being anti-war is just a reflex, and not a result of some critical reflection), the statement is bizarre also because of its suggestion that opposing military intervention and supporting Afghanistan’s female population are mutually exclusive positions.  In fact, many people who were initially opposed to the military intervention opposed it precisely because they felt that such an intervention would hurt Afghanistan’s female population.  Moreover, many of these people were also people who were concerned about Afghanistan’s female population even before 2001, a possibility this article seems to deny altogether.

On the other hand, Martin does bring in some quotes that give some nuance to the debate.  For example, she begins by quoting Farah Mohamed, a Muslim woman who tells us that “I grew up in Canada in a Muslim home where respect and the advancement of women are normal and I was horrified by this law.”  It was nice to see an affirmation, especially right at the beginning of the article, of the possibility of being a Muslim woman who grew up in a household that would teach her to be horrified by this law.

Martin also writes that:

Some people think there are better ways of improving the lot of women than pouring in guns and soldiers.

“How has the war helped women in Afghanistan? It hasn’t,” Judy Rebick, former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, says. Instead, she argues, life is worse for women since the occupation. “Never have women achieved equality by somebody coming in and giving it to them. We can’t bomb our way into equality.”

Rather than sending in troops to intervene in a society “that doesn’t want them,” she thinks countries such as Canada should have supported existing groups like RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which has been organizing non-violently against the Taliban and struggling to establish women’s rights since 1977. “We should never have gone into Afghanistan in the first place, and we should leave.”

I’m glad that she included this quote, and that she mentioned that there have been women active in women’s rights issues since 1977 (although she could have mentioned that these struggles go back even further.)  Although much of the article made me cringe, and overall did little to really challenge the idea of Canada as a benevolent power bringing nothing but good to those poor Afghans, she did bring in more complexity than some other articles have on this issue.

And I know this is petty, but I have to mention Martin’s token headscarf reference, where she reflects on some of the media coverage about Afghan women protesting the law, and writes that “seeing them march with their faces uncovered and their veils pulled back to show some hair was a hopeful sign that women are feeling strong enough to protest against an unjust law.”  Because pulling your veil back to show some hair is a true sign of liberation.  *rolling eyes*

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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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