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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Gender, Psychology & Law, Afghanistan

Published on Nov 27, 2013 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for The Big Issue

Fawzia Koofi and the Stunning Bravery of Afghan Women


Although Muslim women are increasingly endangered by fundamentalist misogyny, both in Afghanistan and in other Muslim-majority countries, it is crucial to note that many such women (and men) are incredibly heroic in ways that westerners can barely comprehend or match.

Anti-Islamist Muslims and ex-Muslims risk death for expressing ideas that we in the West take for granted. Resisting tradition is considered a crime. Helping someone flee from being 'honour' murdered is a capital crime.

In 1950, 11 years before I arrived in Kabul, Maga Rahmany, a teenager, walked out alone without a male escort. True, she was wearing a burqa but her independence caused tongues to wag. When she accompanied her father, a recently released political prisoner, to the cinema, she removed her burqa in order to watch the film. Relatives threatened to beat them both up.

Finally, Maga went too far: she dared attend her all-female class at Kabul University without wearing a burqa. For this act of defiance, the government placed Maga under house arrest, where she stayed for three and a half years.

It was another five years before the government officially unveiled the women of Afghanistan, in 1958. In the 1960s and 1970s many city women did not wear the burqa, although some did. However, the Soviet infiltration and invasion led to the rise of western and Pakistani-backed mujahideen who morphed into the Taliban, Al Qaeda and into vicious warlords who attacked civilians without mercy. The persecution of women and living beings became surreal.

Go ahead and hang me in a public place. Then tell the people my crime: I was giving papers and pencils to girlsDuring these dark days, Dr Sima Samar, an Afghan Hazara, opened medical clinics. She also refused to veil her face. When the Taliban told her to close her schools for girls or face death, she replied: "Go ahead and hang me in a public place. Then tell the people my crime: I was giving papers and pencils to girls. You know where I am. I won't stop doing what I am doing." Instead of killing her, Taliban members secretly began to bring their mothers and wives to her for care. Since 2005, she has remained chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Afghan women, doing what women routinely do in the West, have been routinely threatened with death by their male relatives, sexually harassed by their male colleagues and shot at by "insurgents". Yet they continue their work.

Consider Fawzia Koofi (pictured), who is running for the presidency of Afghanistan (I'd vote for her if I could). In her book, Letters to My Daughters, she writes: "During the latest elections, there were even more threats on my life: gunmen trailing my car, roadside bombs laid along my route, warnings that I would be kidnapped."

In the summer of 2012 Hanifa Safi, the acting head of women's affairs in eastern Afghanistan, was killed by a bomb that exploded under her car. Undaunted, Najla Sediqi took her place. In December of 2012 Sediqi was shot dead on her way to work. The bravery of these women is stunning and their executions tragic and infuriating.

One by one, these brave souls, especially Afghan female police officers, have been assassinated: Malalai Kakar in Kandahar, in 2008; Islam Bibi in Helmand in 2013; "Negara" two months later, also in 2013. Please note: other women quickly took their place.

In the 21st century, against all odds, Afghan women and western humanitarians staffed shelters for battered women and rape victims; relocated girls in danger of being honour murdered; worked as teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers and police officers.

I believe that only western "boots on the ground" have allowed such humanitarian work to take place. I also believe, as the West departs, we leave behind a perpetually endangered population – endangered by their own traditions and customs, not western imperialism.


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