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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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