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Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

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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gavel 2It seems there has been yet another “honour killing” in Canada. In their article “Dishonour to IslamThe Ottawa Citizen recently reported that

….Hasibullah Sadiqi shot his sister and her fiancé to death in an Ottawa parking lot….

The Crown says Sadiqi was angry with his sister because she became engaged without her father’s permission and moved in with her fiancé’s family.

May God grant them paradise and help their families through this time.

First off, the article brings up a valid point and concern.

It will be interesting to see whether the defence is able to make this case without falling into the trap of cultural relativism.

But the adherence of an accused to a misogynistic code of honour, on its own, should never be enough for a Canadian court to mete out a lighter sentence.

I will address the “misogyny” comment in a moment. But first, I too would be concerned if the court did indeed consider culture as an adequate defense. By accepting such a defense the court would be stating that killing someone on the basis of preserving family honour is a legitimate and acceptable aspect of Afghan culture and Islam. Therefore, I too hope such a defense is not accepted.

And it is unfortunate that indeed this type of idea of family honour which leads to the death of a woman is misogynistic. I will not deny this. A family’s honour does rest on the shoulders of the women of the family. However, the idea of honour itself is no more misogynistic than Canadian belief systems. To believe otherwise is to kid ourselves. Canada is still a very sexist and misogynistic society. This article makes the assumption that code of honour is wide spread paints specific immigrant cultures, namely Muslim immigrant cultures, as misogynistic, all the while claiming a moral higher ground when none can be claimed.

The article also brings up some other troublesome points about the issue of honour killings. I have always struggled with the term “honour killings.” Although I do believe that killings related to preserving family honour do occur I am uncomfortable with the speed and ease with which such crimes are linked to immigrants, especially Muslims. I am also uncomfortable with the ease with which such actions are used to demonize immigrant groups, again, especially Muslims. This article feeds into the belief that honour killings are a Muslim issue.

The Ottawa Citizen article states:

Honour killings are all too common in some Muslim countries.

….

the Crown suggests that he was motivated by a religious and cultural belief system.

If Muslim women, in particular, are subject to a different level of protection than anyone else, that would undermine Canadian multiculturalism,..

We speak out when Muslim women accused of sexual misbehaviour are stoned by mobs in Nigeria or strangled by their fathers and brothers in Jordan. We should speak out no less loudly if it happens in Ottawa.

Honour is an issue which is universal despite the fact that usually Muslim countries are blamed. It just manifests itself in different ways. To associate honour with Muslims only implies that 1) only Muslims believe in honour, and 2) that the honour that Muslims believe in is somehow pathological or criminal. In the process the idea of family honour gets demonized. When a Western, non-Muslim man gets angered at another man for looking at or hitting on “his woman”could that not be an issue of honour? There is a sense that the woman “belongs” to him and anger that another man would dare infringe upon his property and threaten his honour. Similarly, in a collectivist context, within which the family is central to one’s identity and one sense of self is tied with the collective, the honour of the family becomes one’s own honour. And family honour becomes the basis for one’s respect. Once one’s respect is lost it can be quite difficult to attain it back.  However, the loss of honour is rarely associated with murder in most Muslim countries.

This article also makes Sadiqi an ‘other,’ denying him of his Canadian-ness and all the while claiming Canada as the superior value system.

Although he came to Canada when he was quite young, the Crown suggests that he was motivated by a religious and cultural belief system.

The assumption is that although he came to Canada quite young he was not able to be Canadian. He maintained a non-Canadian belief system, one which led him to kill. Had he adhered to Canadian values he would never have killed his sister and her fiance. Because Canadians apparently don’t kill their family members. Additionally, this statement assumes that Canadians are not influenced by religious or cultural belief systems. A statement which cannot be true considering religious and cultural institutions exist all across the country.

Considering the Sadiqi family have lived in Canada for so many years, the author’s mentioning of the Taliban and Afghanistan seemed to be placed to further create a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and to otherize an Afghani-Canadian. This family isn’t really Canadian, it seemed to say. They are Afghanis.

It frightens us, because it reminds us that such violence is possible, not only on an individual level, but also on a societal one — that humans have created such things as a Nazi society, and a Taliban society.

It would also, as it happens, legitimize the very ideology Canada is fighting in Afghanistan.

There are many things wrong with these statements.

First, to equate the Taliban society with Nazi society is a huge inaccuracy. The Nazis and the Taliban are not at all similar. The Nazi ideology was one of German supremacy by the extermination of others. The Taliban society is one of an adherence to a strict, rigid and conservative interpretation of Islam. It is not about supremacy of one nation through the extermination of another. To equate the two is not only to minimize the actions of Nazi society, but grossly misrepresent those of the Taliban.

Second, we see the typical Canadian savour complex at play here. We, Canadians, did not go to Afghanistan to “save” the women of Afghanistan. That was an excuse to invade and occupy a sovereign nation. It has been the excuse to invade, occupy and colonize sovereign nations for centuries. The colonizers used this same excuse when they colonized North Africa, India, and even North America centuries ago. Someone needs to tell the colonizers its getting old. Additionally, as Krista has mentioned before, making such a statement makes this situation about us, and not about the victims of the crime. It seems that the author feels that if the defense of culture is allowed to be used in the court, then that would be an insult to Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan.

And what in the world does the Taliban or Canada fighting in Afghanistan have to do with this story? This family lived in Canada. How does Canada’s supposed efforts to “save” the women in Afghanistan have any bearing on a crime a Canadian committed in his city of Ottawa? This family left Afghanistan many years ago and most likely did not live at all or or for very long under Taliban rule. This man was raised in Canada. He is Canadian. But the author of this story again and again tries to otherize him; tries to make him less Canadian. Bringing up Canada’s occupation of Afghanistan only serves to further inflate our collective ego over a superficial, manipulative, and strategic sympathy for Afghani women.

This piece serves to otherize an immigrant Canadian who has committed a crime. Its a classic Canadian tactic which we saw with Ben Johnson.*  By placing Canada on some higher moral ground, conveniently forgetting the genocidal origins of modern day Canada, this article demonizes not only a particular Muslim culture, but all Muslim cultures. From this article it would appear that Muslim Canadians are still not viewed as real Canadians. If we were, we would not be verbally stripped of Canadian citizenship if we committed a crime. Criminal or not, Sadiqi still is a Canadian and should be written about as such.

* Ben Johnson was a Canadian sprinter in the 80’s who was disqualified from the Seoul Olympics after being tested positive for steroid use. Before the test, he had won gold in record time and Canadian cheered their Canadian hero. However, once he was tested positive the discourse in the media switched to referring to him as a Jamaican – not Canadian. See here for a racial analysis.

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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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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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Ahmadzai. Image via Toronto Star

Ahmadzai. Image via Toronto Star

It seems that when writing about Muslims in media, authors often not only show an ignorance of Muslims and Islam, but also of the countries they travel too. Recently the Toronto Star reported on the case of Sabra Ahmadzai, a young Afghani woman whose Indian husband, an Indian soldier stationed in Afghanistan, has left her and returned to India, to his first wife. A first wife she knew nothing about. She now has followed him to India to get a divorce but is facing obstacles.

The Star reports:

Two years ago, Ahmadzai married an Indian army doctor who was assigned to a Kabul military hospital. Twenty days after the marriage, he returned to India, vowing to come back for her. But after leaving, he informed Ahmadzai he had a wife and children back home and was never going to return.

She decided to go to India and file a criminal complaint against him.

In India she has created quite the stir with her story being featured on TV and in newspapers and supporters blocking traffic for hours.

The story of a woman following a man to another country to get justice is impressive in itself regardless of their nationalities or religions. Although we do not know the situation of her husband, Maj. Chandrashekhar Pant, it seems in this case, a man in a position of power took advantage of a young woman he knew he could walk away from. Whether clueless or sexist, or both, he underestimated the agency and courage of this young woman, as well as the attention and outrage this incident would create in his own country. And this is why I was so disappointed in the manner The Toronto Star reported the story.

South Asia Bureau correspondent Rick Westhead seems to not understand the region of the world on which he is responsible to report. In describing India he says:

This is a very conservative country, slow to change. Dowry, female bondage and forced prostitution are common in some parts of India, especially rural areas.

Can someone say generalizations? He states that such practices are common without any evidence and we, as readers, are expected to take his word for it. Slow to change? Ask any ex-pat Indian about their visits to India and one of the first things they will tell you is how amazed they are at how much the country has changed. Dowry is a complex issue. Although the concept of dowry can be quite problematic, when the pressures to provide more than a family can afford lead to financial troubles, there are many times when it can work. Along with dowry he mentions female bondage, though he does not define the concept. What does he mean by female bondage? If he means slavery of any sort then he need not go all the way to India to find it. Canada and the US have their own female slaves, being illegally trafficked into the country from around the world and working in the Canadian and American sex industries. Its not so uncommon here either. As for forced prostitution, my understanding is that the majority of prostitution is forced. There may be some, very few, women who truly chose to be prostitutes (this is very rare), but for the most part, wherever in the world one goes, women will not chose prostitution. Economics and societal conditions force women into prostitution, including here in Canada.

He continues:

But a growing middle class is rethinking traditional attitudes.

He seems a little late. Cultures are always changing. This statement makes it seems as if Indian culture was static until now. Not to mention implying that female bondage and forced prostitution are traditional Indian attitudes! Being South Asian myself I missed that part of my traditional culture. I’ve always been told that our traditions teach us to respect women, not place them in bondage or force them into prostitution. No culture has female bondage and prostitution as part of their traditions.

Indian culture is painted as problematic in this piece. No doubt there are elements in Indian culture that may be problematic, but what culture doesn’t have that? The generalizations about India and the assumptions about the cultural traditions are disturbing and paint an inaccurate and insulting picture of the country. And unnecessarily so. Ahmadzai herself appears to be a determined woman upon whose experiences Westhead should have focused.

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Sally Armstrong. Image via Guelph Mercury

Sally Armstrong. Image via Guelph Mercury

For a while now Sally Armstrong has been documenting the situation of women in Afghanistan through her books and documentary. She recently spoke at the University of Guelph fundraising breakfast and Guelph, Ontario’s Guelph Mercury covered the talk given by Armstrong  – a journalist, it seems, on a mission.

Now anytime the idea of a non-Afghani, Western/Northern person trying to save Afghani women is presented I can’t help but wonder if  long lasting solutions are being sought, and usually they are not. The micro-level problems are highlighted at the expense of another culture and/or religion while the macro-level causes of the problems are completely ignored and those who are at fault at the macro-level are rarely held accountable. Unfortunately, this is how this Guelph Mercury piece read. The Guelph Mercury reports that Armstrong is

swinging against the international political correctness that is keeping Afghan women under lock and key.

Together, Armstrong and the Guelph Mercury paint a bleak picture of the condition of women in Afghanistan.

Of the Taliban Armstrong says

“They murder them in public, in front of their children, by shooting them in the face”

Of the situation of women in Afghanistan the Guelph Mercury says:

And though there is a small but growing group of Afghan women who are working to improve conditions, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Eight years after the Taliban was brought down, women are still being kept behind walls, kept out of schools, kept in purdah and kept out of civil life, she said.

and:

Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the suicide rate is higher for women than it is for men.

About 85 per cent of the women are illiterate, a state they equate with blindness.

Though schools for girls have now opened, they receive no funding from the Afghan government

I do not doubt that situation for women in Afghanistan is dire. I do doubt however that the problem is as simplistic and black and white as is depicted by this oh-so-common narrative.

As much as I dislike the Taliban, and as much as I despise their view of women, I also recognize that even they are not the monolithic entity Western media depicts them as. To assume all Taliban members would do such horrendous things as shoot women in the face denies the possibility in our mindset and discourse that perhaps dialogue and educational  opportunities could arise with at least some of them. It also is only one step away from generalizing about all Afghani, and even all Muslim, men. Additionally, the men who make up the Afghani Taliban are Afghani men. The men who make up the Taliban are their men. They are the brothers, fathers, sons, cousins, etc. of the same women so many here in the West want to “save.” How will painting these men as monsters actually help Afghani women? By simply criticizing their actions with one sweep of the criticism brush we are not helping Afghani women at all and further alienates the men in their lives. We are not recognizing the relationships, as well as possible dependencies, Afghani women have with Afghani men. We are refusing to recognize that Afghani women may have male allies in their midst.

A better way would be a less patronizing and more nuanced way. Understanding not only their cultural and religious context as well as how they ended up as they are – a.k.a. colonization – would be necessary. The British (who condescendingly created Afghanistan’s borders) forcing opposing ethnic groups to live in one country resulting in years of civil war and the subsequent devastation of the economy and education of the country, the imperialistic invasions by Russia and the US, and now the US’s “war on terror”, have all had devastating effects on Afghanistan and its people. They have created situations and realities that make resources that we take for granted, and based on the exploitation of which we make our judgements, very difficult to attain in Afghanistan. As a result of such devastation the women have suffered most, as is what usually happens.

If women in the West do want to help Afghani women they would be better off questioning the tactics and purpose of their governments’ current “war on terror”, one of the effects of which has been the further radicalization of many young Muslim men who have felt targeted and victimized by this war. A war in which we too, as Canadians, are involved. To deny the role this war has played in worsening the situation of women in Afghanistan would be the real injustice. Therefore, as mentioned earlier, understanding the effects of this war on the people of Afghanistan, including on the situations and motives of the men of Afghanistan, is necessary in changing the situation. Since you critcize international political correctness, I would say that challenging your own government’s role in the perpetuation of these dire situations for Afghani women may be the truly non-politically correct thing to do, Ms. Armstrong.

Culture and patriarchy do indeed play a role, and they should be challenged as well. However, they are being challenged and resisted by the women of Afghanistan. The Guelph Mercury says that

…though there is a small but growing group of Afghan women who are working to improve conditions, there is still a lot of work to be done.

But the work of these women should not be discounted. Organizations like RAWA have been working for Afghani women for years now. Additionally, if the country were not in a war with Western forces then there would most likely be more such groups. However, years of civil war and foreign invaders and occupiers have made this difficult.

Although Armstrong, and people like her, may have good intentions, their approach comes across as insulting. Helping is not a bad thing. But it should not be done with the assumption that there is something wrong with the people one is helping. Whether it be the assumption that the women one is helping just aren’t capable of helping themselves (instead of criticizing and trying to change the macro-level forces which may hinder) or whether it be the assumption the men of that culture are all oppressive monsters, both taint the altruism with self-righteousness and condescension. And that doesn’t help anyone. To have real change macro-level factors, which hold back entire nations, need to be challenged, questioned, and changed. Otherwise, all other solutions will be temporary as the people will still be facing macro-level oppressions.

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