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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Feminism

Published on Apr 16, 2009 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

Afghan Women Demonstrate in Kabul

Dangerous Times, Heroic Women


When I lived in Kabul, women simply did not rise up, take to the streets, and mount brave demonstrations. Hell no. Wealthy women wore decorous long headscarves, long coats, and gloves, and were driven around by chauffeurs in expensive European cars. Poor women wore the full burq'a and were forced to sit separately from men on public buses; they were also kicked to the back of the line in the bazaar when the male servants of wealthy families came to make their purchases. Occasionally, if a country girl or woman was out working or walking and a male non-relative chanced by, she would swiftly, shyly turn her face away and simultaneously cover it with her headscarf. This was a practiced, perhaps terrified motion.

Imagine my joy today, nearly fifty years later, when I read that Afghan women just took to the streets to protest a new law which legalizes rape within marriage, requires a husband's permission in order for his wife to be able to work, and requires wives to "dress" as their husbands desire.

The heroic women faced down an angry, dangerous mob of men who called them "whores." "Death to the enemies of Islam" chanted the men. "We want our rights," the women responded. This is not the first time Afghan women have demonstrated such extraordinary bravery. In January, 2008, when the American teacher, Cyd Mizell, was kidnapped (she has never been found), within weeks, six hundred of her Afghan female students took to the streets of Kandahar to protest this. At the time, I wrote:

"Today, (January 27th-28th), between 500-600 women, many wearing burqas, demonstrated on behalf of the still kidnapped and missing Cyd Mizell in Kandahar. Their husbands gave them permission to do so; still, for women to publicly express their views and feelings constituted an unusual event in this Taliban-infested region. The women gathered in a Kandahar wedding hall. One woman was quoted as saying that the fate of "all Afghan women is at stake" because this kidnapping shows "how dangerous it still is for those who take an active role in rebuilding Afghanistan."

So much for those who say that Afghan, Muslim girls and women do not appreciate American help. And yet, what hope is there, really, for Muslim women who live in the perilous and deadly shadow of the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

In 2009, in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of al-Qaeda, a seventy-five-year-old woman was punished with 40 lashes because she had been seen in the company of two men who were viewed as not close-enough relatives.

Also, in 2009, the Pakistani Taliban publicly lashed a 17 year-old girl essentially because she had refused to marry a Taliban soldier. These charming monsters, (look at videotaped interviews with them, they retain a dignity and a charm that is unnerving), have also been beheading girls, women, and Christians in the Swat Valley which, together with its rich lode of sapphires and other precious minerals, has just come into their possession.

Finally, in 2009, in Saudi Arabia, for the second time, a court in Unaiza upheld the marriage of an eight year old girl to a 58 year-old man. (The Saudi Authorities might intervene to make sure that he "does not have sex with her until she reaches puberty.") Now, what can that mean? When the girl first menstruates which can happen when she is only nine or ten?

Americans, both liberal and conservative, have continually talked about the importance of finding "moderate," "peaceful," pro-democracy, pro-modernity, and pro-woman Muslims and of working with them. I quite agree. But what exactly does this mean?

Left-liberal feminists believe that they should indeed make alliances–but only with those Muslims who blame America first, Islam never. If women are being stoned, veiled, or forcibly married as children against their will–that's because America's foreign and military policies ended whatever stability or progress might have evolved in the country or region. Thus, paradoxically, such western, secular feminists are often most comfortable citing Muslim women who demand their rights–but only within the confines of Islamic religious (Shari'a) law; or Muslim women who have honed their anti-Western rhetoric in the West.

Libertarian and conservative feminists believe that the Islamic religion and Muslim cultural habits are, at their very root, intrinsically hostile towards progress, democracy, freedom, and women's rights and that nothing America has done or has failed to do could ever have changed this.

Whether we choose to blame America for its heavy-handedness in the past, for having contributed to the increasing Islamification of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, or, whether we choose to continue to blame the Qu'ran, Saudi oil politics, jihadic terrorism, and indigenous barbarism for such Islamification–what, exactly, if anything, do we propose to actually do to help the women of Afghanistan and Pakistan?

I have often said that my fiery brand of feminism was forged in Afghanistan, a beautiful, treacherous country because, when I returned to America, I was a different person. I had seen and experienced Islamic gender apartheid up-close-and-personal; I had also nearly died there. Despite their relative powerlessness, some Afghan women were exceptionally kind to me.

Consider my abiding concern with women's fate in Afghanistan and in the Muslim world as an expression of my gratitude and sense of kinship.

UPDATE:

'Tis true: Some very brave Afghan women demonstrated for their rights in Kabul. However, even more Afghan women demonstrated against women's rights and they joined the male mob who cursed and stoned the heroines of Kabul. Such loyalty to the misogynist status quo is typical, not unusual, not only for Afghan or for Third World women, but for women everywhere.

Like men, women have internalized sexist views. In addition, like men, they also believe that the West is to blame for all their problems and that if their own tribe, country, or religion were only more powerful, that it would find a humane and dignified solution for women's problems.

I do not think this is true. Consider the appalling treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, which has never been conquered or colonized but which has, in fact, been funding terrorism against the West and on the Western dime-for-oil.

Still, women have supported their own face and body shrouding as a form of religious modesty or as a statement against "foreign occupation" and "racism." At the demonstrations in Kabul, some counter-protesters shouted "Death to the slaves of the Christians!" Others insisted that foreigners and foreign views were "the enemy of Afghanistan."

My book, Women's Inhumanity to Woman is just being issued next month with a new Introduction. I discuss this and other similar phenomenon there.


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