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Posts Tagged ‘Muslim Women’

The Canadian government has (finally) decided to lay to rest its plans to introduce legislation that would force women who wear niqab (fabric that covers their faces) to show their faces when voting.

This comes as a relief, not so much because of the actual legislation, but because of the amazing amount of misinformation that has surrounded the discussions – both in the media and in political spheres – about this issue for the past couple years.  Chris Selley’s recent National Post blog article about this topic does a good job of exploring some of the misconceptions that arose in these discussions.

Proposing two main reasons for why the legislation was dropped, Selley first emphasises that “there is very little of a problem here to solve,” and tells us that  “According to Elections Canada, not a single elector attempted to vote with her face covered in the last federal election.”  Although, of course, the potential for someone to attempt to vote with their face covered in the future still exists on a hypothetical level, I think this point, as well as the fact that only a very tiny proportion of Canada’s population wears niqab, makes it pretty clear how much the panic around this issue has been totally blown out of proportion.

Selley’s second point is that:

either our government never had any intention of actually banning veiled voting, or it is so spectacularly inept that it couldn’t figure out how to do it. Indeed, it is very important to realize that at no point in this saga has legislation ever been proposed or enacted that would, in fact, force every voter’s unveiled face to be matched with a piece of photo identification.

Although the current legislation regarding voter identification was apparently supposed to make the requirements more stringent, one thing that it did not do was to require photo identification.  Voters must present either one piece of photo identification with their home address, or two pieces of identification that list the voter’s name, including one that also includes the voting address, or the voter can have another registered voter from the same riding vouch for them.  Note that only the first option necessitates a visual identification.  Moreover, thousands of voters vote by mail every election; none of them are asked for any photographic verification of their identity.  If Canada’s politicians are truly concerned about voter fraud (which is usually the main stated reason for wanting voters to show their faces), surely there are more effective ways to address this issue than to go after voters whose faces are covered.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand said publicly in 2007 that, according to existing legislation, there would be no point in forcing voters to show their faces, since visual identification was not a requirement; however, as Selley points out, the lack of photo requirement seemed to go right over the heads of some of Canada’s politicians:

“We just adopted this spring… a law designed to have the visual identification of voters,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper fumed. “That’s the purpose of the law,” he added, astonishingly.

Not satisfied with his boss’s gaffe, Tory MP Joe Preston—a real live member of the committee that OKed the legislation, apparently without having read it—then upped the ante. “I’d love for [Mayrand] to come here and try to explain to us what he doesn’t understand,” he said, causing numerous heads to explode in the few Canadian newsrooms that actually noticed what was going on.

(Having felt like my own head was going to explode at a few points while researching this issue for both blogging and academic purposes, part of me feels a little bit gratified that at least I’m not alone.)

Selley writes that even the proposed new legislation would not have actually changed the documentation required to prove a voter’s identity:

It would simply have required that voters show their faces whilst presenting the ID, photo or otherwise.

As I said at the time, the concern was that a veiled woman could provide photo ID but not have to show her face, rendering the photo ID pointless. And the proposed remedy was to allow a veiled woman to provide non-photo ID but force her to show her face, rendering the unveiling pointless. Pointless, that is, if the goal was actually to ensure Canadians’ unveiled faces are matched with photo ID before they vote. Unfortunately for all of us, the goal was nothing more than to capitalize on a hot-button issue.

The last sentence of this quote – that the panic around this topic was less about actual worries about voter fraud than it was about “capitaliz[ing] on a hot-button issue” – highlights, for me, the most disturbing part of this whole thing.  I followed a lot of the media hype around it in the fall, and much of it seemed to be from people worried that Muslims were taking over Canada’s political systems and forcing Elections Canada to allow them to vote with faces covered, despite a total lack of evidence that any of this was coming from Muslims, as well as the fact that the absence of a requirement of photo identification was part of the existing laws and not some concession being made to Muslim communities (who, again, had not even asked for any such concession.)  The comments on some of the news articles were even worse; women in niqab were portrayed as dangerous and untrustworthy, and as a foreign threat, despite the fact that, as voters, the women in question are necessarily Canadian citizens.

To be honest, if photo ID was required for all voters, I probably would not have a problem with everyone being required to actually show their faces in order to confirm their identities (although I would hope that this would be done in conditions that everyone would be comfortable with.)  However, considering that this is not the case, and that the hype around this issue has only served to paint Muslim Canadians as threatening and as non-Canadians, I am, like Chris Selley, “thrilled to see this ugly chapter in Canadian politics closed.”

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Originally published at Muslimah Media Watch

The Fédération des femmes du Québec (Federation of Quebec Women; abbreviated as FFQ) recently had a special assembly in order to clarify its position on whether headscarves should be permitted for people working in the public service.  (The question of “reasonable accommodation” for minority groups has been the subject of intense debate in Quebec for the past few years; see here for one overview of a major report that was produced on the subject.)

This assembly was held after the organization expressed last fall that the debate about headscarves was a challenging one for the FFQ, with its commitments to both integration and secularism.  That statement can be found in the appendix of this document (in PDF, and in French), which articulates the reflections and proposals of the FFQ’s board of directors regarding the issue.

In brief, the FFQ’s board considered the issue from three angles: secularism, discrimination against immigrant women, and a feminist analysis.  From the secularism point of view, they argued that a ban on wearing visible religious symbols is not a neutral ban, since not all religions involve symbols that religious practitioners view as obligatory, while many Muslim women wear it for precisely that reason.  While they firmly support the idea of the state itself being religiously neutral (although a place where all are free to practice their own religions), they also argued that the neutrality of the State is not guaranteed simply because religious symbols may be absent.

On the topic of discrimination against immigrant women, they talk about the high level of unemployment among immigrant women (especially, for example, among women of North Africa), about the importance of the State as a major employer, and about fears of a headscarf ban causing further alienation and unemployment for immigrant women.  (I do wish they had talked about Muslim women who aren’t immigrants…)

Last, they acknowledge feminist principles as ones that*

are based, among other things, on the necessity of respecting the rhythm, the choices, the values and the needs of the women involved while avoiding applying principles rigidly, through our own frame of reference and our own desire for autonomy and change.

The list of reflections ends with an affirmation that the organization is categorically opposed to any imposition of religious practice, including the imposition of the headscarf.

The special assembly on the issue, held May 9, supported the recommended position, and issued a press release affirming that the headscarf should neither be imposed by the religious community, nor denied by the state.  For those who speak French, FFQ’s Michèle Asselin sums up the decision nicely in this video:

So, to recap, the organization’s board of directors publishes recommendations based on series of reflections that they have had, taking into consideration issues of secularism, discrimination against immigrant women, and feminist frameworks.  At a general assembly, members of the FFQ vote to endorse the perspective taken by the board of directors, again based on those three bases of analysis.  Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Ha.  Not a chance.  Molehill, meet Kilimanjaro.

The mountain, in this case, is based in the claims being made throughout the media that the FFQ has been infiltrated by Islamists (yes, that is the actual kind of language being used.)  These claims come out of a message that Samira Laouni (a community activist and former NDP candidate whom I’ve discussed before) posted on a Muslim discussion board, related to the upcoming FFQ meeting (quoted from this article):

Hello to everyone,

I send you this information that, in my opinion, is of crucial importance.

It appears that the Federation of Quebec Women will hold, on May 9, an extraordinary assembly on the wearing of the veil in the public service.  If we are not well enough represented, it is possible that the opinion of the FFQ will join that of the Council of the Status of Women (which has said it is AGAINST the wearing of the veil in the public service), and we will see ourselves obliged to take off our scarves before entering the doors of public buildings.

What we should do?  Simply, first, become member of the FFQ (cost: five dollars, you can do it at the organisation’s headquarters.)  Second, attend this assembly to make our votes count.

Dear friends, our mobilization for this cause is very urgent and important.  If you have other questions, do not hesitate to contact me.

The ethics of joining an organization in order to influence its decisions are a different discussion, although this is not exactly the first time that such a move has been proposed–the idea of joining an organization that is about to make a decision that could potentially affect your access to jobs and services might be just a bit more understandable. Moreover, if the FFQ’s policies did allow someone to join and then be able to vote right away, the move is entirely legal.  According to this article, however, the FFQ requires someone to be a member for at least 45 days before they are able to vote, and they have only received seven new memberships in the past six weeks: hardly enough for an infiltration.  Laouni’s message was apparently posted March 18, 51 days before the meeting, so anyone who didn’t move on it within the first six days would have been ineligible to vote anyway.

Furthermore, the ultimate decision to oppose the prohibition of headscarves had already been recommended by the FFQ’s board of directors.  Even if the “Islamists” had attempted some kind of takeover, the opposition to a headscarf ban was already planned, and the ultimate decision appears to have little to do with any “Islamist” influence.  In fact, had the “Islamists” actually infiltrated the FFQ, it is unlikely that the final statement would have included such an emphatic commitment to the organization’s strong stance in favor of secularism and against religious fundamentalism.  In other words, I just really cannot understand how or why this ever became an issue.

But there are some good mountain-builders out there.  Djemila Benhabib, who seems like a Québécoise version of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, describes the FFQ decision as a result of being “strongly supported by representatives of the Canadian Islamic Congress and Muslim Presence.”  She further condemns the FFQ for “sacrificing millions of women who are fighting for their lives” for the sake of “a handful of Islamist militants.”  Her (melodramatic) statements have been quoted in many of the other articles about this issue, prompting the the FFQ to issue a response, in which they clarify that they have no connections with either of the organizations that she mentioned, and continue to stand firmly against fundamentalism and extremism.  (Just for the record, Quebec doesn’t even HAVE millions of Muslim women, let alone millions who are supposedly “fighting for their lives” against the imposition of the headscarf. *rolling eyes*)

Another article portrays one Muslim woman’s hesitation to join the FFQ (based on her unwillingness to be endorsing some of the other FFQ’s positions, as well as a feeling that a group of new Muslim members might stick out) as an example of her wanting to be more discreet in her takeover attempts, rather than a legitimate counterargument to the strategy suggested by Laouni.  The author also takes some of the most inflammatory comments posted by other Muslims on the same site as a way of indicating how scary and intolerant Muslims can be (although I would argue that any site with discussion groups on any topic runs a high risk of being taken over by people with the most offensive and extreme viewpoints, and non-Muslims sure have their share of these too.  See the comment section of any newspaper site for examples.)

Even the articles that seem more sympathetic to the FFQ’s decision are often problematic.  One journalist writes that “I would say that the Federation of Quebec Women is right, even though I don’t ignore that it was infiltrated by several Islamist apostles.”  She goes on to say that

I don’t like the veil either.  I also understand the emotions of the Muslim women who have fought against radical Islam in their own countries and who feel betrayed by the principle of tolerance.

This focus on the veil as oppressive and necessarily a sign of “radical Islam” – as something that women should be fighting against – is a common theme in many of the articles.  Whether or not they agree with the FFQ decision, most of the journalists seem to at least agree on hating headscarves.  In fact, even the FFQ decision said little about the potential that the headscarf could be a positive thing, and their repeated emphasis on rejecting the imposition of religious clothing suggested that, although they weren’t going to come out and say it directly, they remained uneasy with the idea that someone could choose to wear hijab for her own reasons.

While it seems to give a nod to other reasons for wearing hijab, and while it supports the FFQ decision, this article (in English) finishes by emphasizing the stereotype of the oppressed women who are forced to wear the scarf:

Some Muslim women say they choose to wear the hijab. During its hearings, the Bouchard-Taylor commission heard from at least one who did, and who described herself as a feminist.

Prohibiting religious symbols in the workplace would force such women to choose between giving up their religious freedom and giving up their jobs.

And what of those who, as Benhabib says, are forced to wear the hijab by their fathers or somebody else? A ban on religious symbols in the workplace might force them to give up jobs in which they come into regular contact with other Quebec women with different, “liberated” values.

How would isolating these oppressed women help them?

There’s a whole lot more out there on this issue, but you get the picture.  Women in hijab are oppressed, and any attempts to argue otherwise are a result of infiltration by Islamist forces.

Obviously.

*All documents and news articles quoted in this article were originally written in French.  All quotes are my own translations.

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I wrote a little while ago about the media coverage of the Toronto sexual assault case in which the female complainant was ordered by the presiding judge, Justice Norris Weisman, to remove her niqab while testifying.  At the time that I posted my earlier article, hearings were underway in Ontario’s Superior Court to appeal the judge’s decision requiring her to testify with her face visible.

Last week, the decision of this latest hearing was released, and made its way through Canadian media.

The ruling is far from clear-cut, and will likely result in even more hearings.  In short, as I understand it, the Superior Court Justice, Frank Marrocco, ruled that it is indeed within Weisman’s jurisdiction to ask the complainant to remove her niqab.  However, he also dismissed Weisman’s original decision, ruling that it was made without sufficient consideration of the issues involved, regarding both the complainant’s religious beliefs and the implications of her face covering for the court case.  In other words, although he does have the hypothetical authority to force her to remove her face covering, if need be, the decision that the removal of the niqab in this case was necessary may not have been the right one, and needs to be re-examined.

From my not-a-legal-scholar perspective, this decision seems to make sense.  It allows for the trial judge to step in if they truly feel that justice will be obstructed, but also emphasises the rigourous scrutiny that needs to be exercised in order to make that call.  It will be interesting to see what kinds of precedents this might set, and whether appropriate attention is actually given in practice to religious and cultural concerns, but the decision seems to respond (at least in theory) to some of the issues raised by both sides, in terms of religious freedoms as well as due process.

Not surprisingly, the articles reflect a range of perspectives.  The National Post, which has been the most anti-niqab throughout this whole story, uses the headline “Wearing veil on stand not a right: ruling,” emphasising that certain forms of religious expression through clothing do not have to be respected in all circumstances.  Others are more sympathetic towards the complainant, such as a CTV piece whose headline refers to the “Partial court victory for Muslim woman over niqab.”

The article that most disturbed me was the one published in the Globe and Mail, which starts off with:

Should a devout Muslim be allowed to testify in a Canadian criminal trial with her face concealed?

Perhaps, a court ruling has suggested.

But much hinges on how devout she really is.

It would be easy to take from this article that devoutness can be measured by someone’s commitment to covering their faces, which is somewhat off-putting for the majority of devout Muslim women, who do not niqab.  Moreover, the idea of measuring a person’s religious devotion at all is rather alarming.  Later in the article, we are told that

the judge ordered that the preliminary inquiry – on hold since the issue surfaced – convene two hearings to determine whether the woman’s beliefs are sincere, and if they are, whether testimony from a veiled witness would be admissible as evidence.

Again, allowing a court to decide the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs – particularly, although not only, in a case where those conducting the hearings likely do not share this person’s beliefs – is hugely problematic.  Moreover, it is not simply the depth of her devotion that should be considered, but also the reason for that belief and the potential impact of forcing her to remove the niqab, among other things.  It is difficult to tell whether the language around judging the complainant’s beliefs came from the verdict itself or whether it was the journalist’s interpretation of the judgement, but the idea is disturbing either way.

Interestingly, the Globe article identified the woman as “a Canadian-born mother in her early 30s,” which is more biographical detail than has been provided up to this point.  The phrase “Canadian-born” (rather than simply “Canadian”) is fairly often used to indicate a perception that someone is not a “real” Canadian; whether or not the journalist used it intentionally in this case, there is definitely a difference between the phrase that was used and “a Canadian mother in her early 30s.”  At the same time, the idea that she is Canadian may come as a surprise to those who, upon reading of this case, have repeatedly expressed fears that Muslims (whom they assume to be immigrants) are coming here for the purposes of challenging Canada’s laws and political systems and should all be sent home.  The people reacting in those ways almost certainly do not consider that “home” could be Canada itself, as appears to be the situation for the complainant here.

It seems this case will continue to develop, and will continue to make the news as further decisions are made.  We’ll keep you posted, inshallah.

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Shahina Siddiqui’s article “True Muslim society protects women,” published this past weekend in the Winnipeg Free Press, presents one woman’s response to some of the sexism and misogyny within Muslim communities that has been in the media recently.  Siddiqui condemns the murder of an Afghan women’s rights activist, the flogging of a young women in Pakistan, and other crimes committed by Muslims against Muslim women.  She does so from her point of view as a Muslim woman, and argues passionately that these acts violate some of the most central principles of Islam.

It’s nice to see something hit the mainstream media that takes this perspective, condemning the violence without condemning Islam itself.  In fact, Siddiqui argues that it because of Islam’s teachings on gender issues that Muslims should be condemning this violence.  She reminds us of the pre-Islamic practice of female infanticide, a practice now symbolic of the jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic era or ignorance and oppression.  Islam, she argues, “came to abolish” such practices; the prevalence of violence against women in Muslim communities should therefore be seen as profoundly un-Islamic, and as a source of shame for those who not only allow but even encourage such acts.

Siddiqui’s words are important, better quoted than summarised:

The history of Islam attests to the fact that when injustices and evil doings started to infest Muslim societies, it was the scholars, the keepers of wisdom, the guardians and trustees of shariah, that came out in droves to condemn, recapture and reform societies. They became mentors, role models and activists. Many were killed, imprisoned and exiled, but they persevered and brought about the cleansing that was necessary for social justice to prevail. Where are these holistic reformers today?

We know there are brave souls that have spoken up, like the imam who brought justice to Mukhtar Mai — a Pakistani victim of gang rape — or the hundreds who marched on the streets of Pakistan against the flogging in Swat. However, these will remain isolated events unless they can get leadership and support from people of knowledge who personify what they teach.

Unfortunately, today most Muslims, and especially women, are ill informed or have very rudimentary knowledge of their faith and can easily fall prey to spiritual parasites. These parasites need to be fumigated and our scholars alone can clean up this mess by challenging these warped understandings and interpretations. They must challenge these spiritual oppressors to public debates and defeat them in the public square to help release the hold these oppressors have on the innocent populace. Our sisters must believe that they are entitled to the same human rights as men. They must rise on the shoulders of our scholars, since there is nothing more empowering than the knowledge that one is in the right and that one’s oppressors are ignorant and despised by Allah. “And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women” (Qur’an 2:228).

I found the following paragraph the most powerful:

The decline of Muslim societies is closely connected to the decline of the rights, status and security of women. When our mothers are mistreated and we rationalize it, we give rise to a generation of traumatized children. When our sisters are unsafe at the hands of their brothers and the law looks the other way, we give rise to a warped pathology of gender apartheid. When our women are abused by their husbands and no one speaks up, we foster resentment against the faith.

As Siddiqui points out, Muslims who ignore women’s issues do so to the detriment of the entire community.  Even in communities where women are not being killed or flogged, daily abuse  is leaving us in its wake “traumatized children,” “gender apartheid” and “resentment against the faith.”  And yet, Islam calls us to read, to gain knowledge, and to challenge systems of oppression.

While I loved seeing this article, and I agree with many of Siddiqui’s comments, I do wonder if she paints too rosy a picture of Islam’s history.  Even if Islam came with a message of gender equality, I would argue that there have been people from the beginning who have resisted that message, or who implemented it only partially, or who even twisted the concept of equality and respect of women in order to justify ideas that did the opposite.  When Siddiqui claims that “these [contemporary] criminal behaviours are being cloaked in religious terms,” I’m not sure this only a recent phenomenon.

Further, I’m not sure we can count on knowledge and scholars for the answers.  Of course, knowledge is necessary, for many of the reasons Siddiqui highlights, but I’m wary of assuming that it will automatically result in a more equitable society.  There are a lot of scholars out there who support various forms of abuse towards women, and maybe I’m just being cynical, but I would argue that this is a more widespread problem than just a few “spiritual parasites” here and there.  Knowledge needs to come with a heavy dose of critical reflection and willingness to ask hard questions about the way that our societies operate, and even about the ways that the “knowledge” that we currently value might be contributing to oppression.

That said, Siddiqui’s overall argument – that oppression of women violates some of the core values of Islam, that a “true Muslim society” is one in which women are treated well, and that responses to sexism, violence and misogyny can be found within Islam – is a powerful one, and one that Muslim communities need to take seriously.  It is also an important response to accusations that Islam is inherently misogynistic or that Muslim women need to be saved from Islam.

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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 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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