Letter from the Road #48

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Afghanistan: Changing a Culture of Violence (2)

This is the second in a series of posts about the necessity of protecting the rights of Afghan women in creating a sustainable peace.  I discuss what is involved in that process and what can be done to help.  This analysis is based on scores of interviews from two trips to Kabul and on-going communication with women’s organizations in Afghanistan.


The Rise of Women’s Empowerment
In my speeches about Afghanistan in the U.S. someone from the audience inevitably asks what I think about the high number of causalities caused by the current military engagement.  I mentioned this to Santwana Dasgupta, an Indian woman who came to work and volunteer in educational projects in Kabul and Khost provinces in 2005. She smiled and  said: “It may seem like a lot to Americans, but here in Afghanistan this is probably the lowest number of causalities they have had in 34 years.  This is actually a window of peace for Afghanistan”.

And no where is this window more evident than in the  vitality and determination of the large number of Afghan women working to lift their country into the 21st century.  Women’s rights are at the heart of a stable peace for Afghanistan. There can be no lasting peace if half the population is kept in their homes  and illiterate.

“Women aren’t the problem, we are the solution for Afghanistan.” said Suraya Perlika, director of the All Afghan Women’s Union.  In interview after interview women activists, teachers, doctors, parliamentarians and service providers  told me, things are better than they were. They are making progress.  And without that progress Afghanistan will remain a failed state, locked in poverty and subject to the demands of regional terrorists.

Despite the importance of women’s participation in the society, male leaders–both Afghan and International —  usually treat women’s rights as a side issue. “ It can wait” they say.   “We shouldn’t  let the women side-track the peace negotiations”, said an ex-Taliban to my husband Elias at an interview at the Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.

One of the main conditions Taliban leaders state as a precondition for participating in any peace  negotiations  is the rescinding of the  2005 Afghan Constitution.  And the issue most troublesome in the constitution is the legally guaranteed rights of women.

The reason usually given for limiting the rights of women is the protection of their virginity.  Zaeef, who nows lives in Kabul after a stint in Guantanamo, explained why he believes the freedoms won by Afghan women in recent years are “corrupting” them. “If you put a young adult man and woman in one room for some time, of course there will be some interactions, which is against Islam.  This is like a virus here and it will spread”.

Others claim that women’s right undermine the natural male authority.  Antique codes of honor in which women are valued based on their chastity are said to protect women.  Ironically this cultural  emphasis on sexual honor has created a violent environment in which women are systematically dishonored by abuse and health risks.

Changing a Culture of Violence
According to some security experts the countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionally those where women are marginalized. The reason there are so many Muslim terrorists has little do do with the Koran but a great deal to do with lack of robust female participation in the society and economy of many Islamic countries.

There are, of course, many reasons for the growth of Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan: decades of war, regional politics, fundamentalism, frustration at the backwardness in the Islamic world, resentment of corrupt rulers, fear of modernity and globalization, the threat of western occupation.

Norine MacDonald, an American volunteer who lives and works in Kandahar and author of the book, Global Philanthropy, suggests there may be another reason.  It may also be the larger proportion of young men who can’t afford to marry and don’t have jobs and theoretically can’t have sex or even relationships with women outside their family.  She thinks this makes the society more prone to crime or violence.

In strict Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, many young men have little hope of ever finding partners. There are about 3% more males than females because females don’t receive the same medical care. So young men in Afghanistan grow up in all-male environments. And like in gangs, prisons or militias  these communities can be particularly violent.

This culture of male dominance causes violence in the home as well. According to Mrs. Shainky Karokhail, an outspoken member of Parliament,“ One of the reasons women and girls are beaten, traded, killed for honor and are otherwise abused is because of a ‘learned docility’. They are taught from the time they are babies to accept any decree by a man and so they often do as they are instructed.”

This is not to blame women. There are practical as well as cultural reasons for women to accept abuse rather than fight back and risk being killed.  But as long as women and girls allow themselves to be beaten the abuse will continue.  When women protest, this passivity is undermined. And the women are protesting — some are even demonstrating in the streets as 200 women did last Spring against the Shia Family Law.

I was surprised to hear from several young women who had fled their homes and were now living in an orphanage with their young children that no group systematically abuses young women more cruelly than mothers-in-law. In short, women themselves absorb and transmit misogynistic values, just as men do.  This is not simply a world of bad violent men and victimized women but a realm of oppressive social customs adhered to by women and men alike.

Today there are many educational programs  led by Afghan women,  in both cities and villages, designed to discourage family violence. “ It is essential to help young women find their voices”, said Mary Akrami, director of the Afghan Women Skills Development Center.  “We can show women that femininity does not entail docility. Girls can learn to assert themselves so they can stand up for themselves”.  Of course this is a difficult matter and it is dangerous for foreign cheerleaders like myself to urge local girls to assume undue risks. But when women do stand up it is imperative that outsiders champion them.

In the following weeks I will be exploring what is happening and what can be done to help the women of Afghanistan.

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