Thursday, April 16, 2009

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan

Three hundred women protested against the new law for Shias which would require women to 'preen' for their husbands, give sex at least every four days and ask for permission to leave the house (though they can leave without permission if the house is on fire). The counter-protest was three times bigger and included men. Nicholas Kristoff:

I'm awed by the courage of those 300 Afghan women who endured stones, jeers and threats to march through Kabul today demanding a measure of equal rights. As my colleague Dexter Filkins reports, the women were chased and insulted as "whores" by a mob of men and women three times as large. The women were protesting a new law, applying only to Shiites, that obliges women to sleep with their husbands on demand and bars them from leaving the home without their husbands' permission.

It's particularly impressive that many of the women apparently were Shiites — from the Hazara minority — because Hazaras are poorer and less likely to school their daughters. I find Kabul a pretty scary place sometimes, and I can't imagine the guts it would take to be a Hazara woman walking with a banner demanding equal rights through an enraged mob of stone-throwing, spitting fundamentalists.

Yes, it's awe-inspiring courage, indeed. I wonder how many women did NOT march because they knew what they would meet on those streets of Kabul? Then Kristoff goes on to address some tricky issues:

Unfortunately, I'm afraid Zara is wrong: She's not in the majority, at least in Afghanistan. Polls show that men and women alike in Afghanistan mostly don't believe in equal rights. Women are a bit more likely to support gender equality than men, but only a bit more. The best predictor of whether someone favors women's rights in Afghanistan isn't whether the person is a man or woman, but whether the person lives in the city or the countryside. People in the cities are far more sympathetic to equal rights — in other words, it's a sign of Kabul's progress that the demonstration happened at all. It would never have been imaginable in, say, rural Zabul or Kandahar provinces, not least because the women would never have been allowed out of their homes.

I'm enormously impressed by the courage of these women, but I do worry about a backlash. Afghans are very nationalistic, and the women today were denounced as pawns of Christians and foreigners. Remember that during the first Gulf War in 1991, Saudi women held a demonstration to demand the right to drive, and the protest attracted enormous attention. Yet in the end it so antagonized and frightened men that it probably set back and delayed the cause of women's rights in Saudi Arabia. I hope that's not the case here, because Afghanistan can't develop economically and achieve stability so long as girls are kept home and women are mostly barred from the work force.

Do you ever get the feeling that a pair of scissors somehow got landed in your gut and is now snip-snip-snipping away at your innards? I got that feeling after reading the above quote, for several reasons. One of those reasons is that Kristoff is quite right about where the backlash will come from and why. Don't you remember all those writings about how western feminists must shut up about women in other cultures, because it just makes the lives of those women more difficult, what with the history of colonialism and all?

Of course shutting up about those women will leave them without support from other countries, but that's what Nicholas Kristoff is for! (Yes, I'm bitter about that piece he once wrote about the uselessness of American feminist women.) Though it would seem to me that a white western guy writing about these things is even worse than women writing about them. After all, women can be safely ignored in the traditional cultures. But the president of the United States cannot, if he is a guy, at least.

Another reason has to do with the clash of feminism with religion. It crops up all the time, all the time, all the time, and it cropped up in the counter-demonstration to this march in Kabul, too:

Afghan Shiite counter protesters shout slogans in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday, April 15, 2009. The group of some 1,000 male and female Afghans swarmed a demonstration by 300 women Wednesday protesting against a new conservative marriage law. Some counter protesters pelted the women with small stones as police struggled to keep the two groups apart.The banner reads "The private laws are according the bases of holy religion of Islam."

So there you are. That most Afghan women don't believe in the equality of women and men is because they live in a society with none of that stuff and because their religion (or its interpretation) tells them that men are more important than women, with many more rights. Let's not forget that the Taliban is respected by many because of their religiosity.

The third reason for those scissors in my belly has to do with that you-are-damned-whatever-you-do ending to Kristoff's piece. If women protest then the menz (and traditional womenz, too) will get angry and squash them down harder. If women don't protest, then nothing, naturally, will ever change for them. And the women who do protest are partly to blame for the backlash. So what's a girl to do? Speak up or not? Protest or not? Perhaps she should ask very sweetly for a few itty-bitty rights at first. Then things would go so very smoothly. (There was a time when I really believed that, you know.)
Cabdrollery has more thoughts.