Sunday, October 09, 2005

Women In Afghanistan: The Hard Work Ahead

I think back to the years of the Suffrage and Equality movements in the United States and other western nations and I am continually surprised at how, in comparison, calm it actually turned out. Yes, there were protests, preachers, reverends and other notable men of the period spoke out against women, tried to prove through bizarre scientific logic or scriptures or under the guise of protecting women from other men and themselves that women could not be equal. I say "in comparison" as in comparison to the movements of women in many Islamic nations.

This article may require registration, but it was an excellent read: Women's Work.

This article should help you understand in many ways what we are up against in the reformation of the Middle East and, hopefully someday, the removal of anti-liberal, violent ideas of the Islamists. Even in a country that has had three years to move towards democracy, it is still a very difficult path because we are not just overcoming a government or system of laws, but an entire way of living that is based on the medieval concepts of honor.

In this system, women are chattel. There are no other words for it. They are owned, controlled and bartered. They're still nameless and faceless. What these women are up against is the equivalent of Joan of Arc trying to lead forces in the service of the Dauphin in the 15th century and, when she has outlived her usefullness or caused such a stir among the "traditionalist" men that she was betrayed into the hands of the enemy who then found her guilty of "heresy" because she dared to say that she had a personal relationship with God, because she wore men's clothing, because she did a man's work. For these "crimes" she was burned at the stake.

In reality, what women face in Afghanistan and all over the Islamic world is tantamount to Susan B. Anthony showing up in the French court along with Joan of Arc, wearing a pair of pants, demanding that the peasants be given the right to vote and that she be allowed to run for the position of king. I'm quite certain she would have been imprisoned as insane or burned at the stake even sooner than Joan. That is what the women of Afghanistan face, even in the "modern" Afghanistan where democracy is now en vogue.

The problem starts, of course, with failed states. In failed states where the government cannot enforce laws and the economy is so disasterous, people automatically revert back to the systems that held them together and allowed them to survive for centuries. This is typically a form of tribal fuedalism. Look at any country that is teetering on the edge or has made the complete plunge and you will see that tribal fuedalism with all it's intended compulsions where men are needed to secure the existense of the immediate tribe so the birth of a boy is celebrated above a girl, where affiliation through marriages become a contract of fialty and marrying women young and "pure" becomes a matter of, not just honor, but the survival of the tribe which is bound up in the notions of purity, virginity and honor to ensure the bloodlines of the young.

This is an Islamic state. This is Afghanistan. Aside from democratic principles, a whole new idea of a "social contract" and must be able to see that survival is not endangered by other liberal ideas of equality.

I've long thought that the difference between Western culture and Middle Eastern culture was the outgrowth of the value of women based on ideas of chivalry. Not that medieval Western culture did not have it's problems with treating women as souless Eve's ready to lead men astray and only worth their value as virgins and child bearers with a dowry, even as chivalric love was being advanced, but the idea that they should be protected and were weaker played into the notion of knightly honor meant a strong man would not stoop so low as to beat a weaker person, much less a woman.

Not that beatings didn't happen. I simply mean that the idea, the concept, eventually became more than just an idea, but had been repeated often enough that it became a part of the social structure that eventually led to the ability of women to confront inequality in public without fear of being hung or stoned in the public square for losing an imaginary honor. For sure, our ancestresses got a lot of flak and were called whores among other things, but I believe that the protection of law and the advancement of the social contract helped protect them.

Possibly other contributors were women during the pioneer period literally became their husband and father's helpmates in a struggle for survival where your nearest neighbor was a day's ride and any other help might have been further. In some respects, this may have leant to a change in men's attitudes considering the need to cooperate between the sexes to survive harsh winters on a prairie or long treks across a nation where the next bend in the road could take you face to face with hostile forces.

Maybe it was the "age of reason" where the idea of a capable man changed from simply brute strength to a man that used his mind? Maybe this was only possible through advancement of machines, scientific theory and the dessimination of printed books and pamphlets which allowed more leisure time, more time to learn and more time to associate?

Maybe because strong women continued to stand up and say that they were worth something? Because they proved that they could think "like a man"? Because women like Queen Elizabeth I or Czarina Catherine pushed men out of the way and actually ruled entire empires? There must be something said for women with power who can have your head cut off at their leisure that makes a man ever slowly change his mind about the ability of women.

I can't say exactly what thing or what mix of things, if not all of them, eventually led to women being able to campaign for equal treatment without fearing for their lives? Not that even today can a woman campaign against foul treatment by men without men accusing her of being unfeminine or something worse, but there is a unique difference since we do not have to fear public stonings or (largely) being assassinated for our views.

Whatever these things are, it has not developed the same in Middle Eastern and East Asian countries. After brief spurts of social growth and women's rights in these nations, as soon as they became failed states, every inch of advancement was quickly gone and tribal fuedalism was quickly re-instated.

Leaving that will be a long road.

Please read this article. I hope that you find it as interesting and informing about the social structure we are trying to build democracy in and inspires you to support these women even more because, in many ways, they exhibit a bravery beyond the ken of men.

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