By Margaret Wente
Apr. 05 2014
These are tough times for women in Afghanistan. As people head to the polls to choose their next leader, there are widespread fears that women’s hard-won gains may not survive the new regime. Forget those inspiring stories of little girls finally going to school. Many of the candidates vying for office want to send them back home so their fathers can marry them off at will.
“Women are not on the agenda now,” Huma Safi, a women’s activist, told The New York Times. “Every time we turn around, they’re passing another law against women.”
Now that Western forces – along with Western media – have withdrawn from Afghanistan, we don’t hear enough about girls’ and women’s struggles in the Muslim world. That’s too bad, because in many places, things are getting worse.
In Pakistan, the Council of Islamic Ideology, a powerful body that advises the government and parliament on legal issues, has made several devastating pronouncements. It ruled that under Sharia law, rape victims can’t use DNA evidence alone to prove their case; instead, they have to rely on the evidence of four witnesses. It wants the government to change the law that says a man must get the consent of his first wife before he takes a second one. It also says says the ban on child marriage (the legal age for girls is 16) is un-Islamic.
Welcome to the 12th century.
“They are regressing,” says Raheel Raza, a long-time rights activist who was born in Pakistan and now lives in Toronto. Ms. Raza is one of nine women who feature in a powerful new documentary called Honor Diaries. All are activists with roots in the Muslim world. Their aim is to call attention to the immense challenges faced by women in Muslim-majority countries, especially honour violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
Most Western feminists are curiously silent about these issues. It seems they’d rather spend their time warning about “rape culture” and denouncing the misogyny, abuse and discrimination that permeate our society (or so they claim).
“Western feminists have never to my knowledge come out to lobby when we are talking about honour killings or the rights of Muslim women,” Ms. Raza told me. “They’re probably scared of backlash.”
And not without reason. People who speak out about abuses in cultures other than their own – particularly white people – tend to get denounced as racist. But, as Ms. Raza responds: “This isn’t about brown women or white women. This is about human rights.”
Ms. Raza, who does a lot of public speaking, says, “Sometimes it’s hard for audiences to hear the harsh realities. But life is not as cozy as it was 50 years ago. We are living in a different world.”
Honour crime – committed against a woman who has brought shame to the family – exists in Sikh and Hindu cultures, as well as Muslim ones. Such crimes draw much lighter sentences, and most “honour” crimes are really cover-ups for rape, domestic abuse, inheritance disputes or punishment of female independence.
Disturbing statistics aren’t hard to find. In Egypt, for example, 90 per cent of women have had their genitals cut. More than half the population still support the practice (even though it is illegal), and certain hard-line clerics encourage it in God’s name. “Circumcision is the reason why Muslim women are virtuous, unlike Western women who run after their sexual appetite in any place with any man,” says Sheikh Yussuf Al Badri, from Al Azhar Islamic University in Cairo, in the film.
In the Palestinian territories, at least 27 women and girls are thought to have been killed in honour crimes last year, as reported in the Washington Post. One was a a young mother of six whose body was found hanging in an olive tree.
The good news is that more and more people are speaking out against them, including Muslim clerics. But the toll remains high. A draft law that would remove “honour” as a mitigating factor shows no sign of being passed by the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately, as Ms. Raza notes, Western activists would rather boycott Israel than do something to try to stop the slaughter of these young women at the hands of their own families.
Not surprisingly, these pathologies have made their way in various measures to the West. In Britain, about 4,000 women and girls have been treated for genital mutilation since 2009, according to figures obtained by the British Broadcasting Corp. Campaigners say the public doesn’t grasp how big the problem is. According to London Mayor Boris Johnson: “This is a crime basically outlawed in the early-mid 1980s and yet, unlike France, we have not had one single successful prosecution for what is unquestionably a completely barbaric crime."
In Canada, honour killings are rare but not unknown, and girls from honour cultures are frequently in conflict with their families. In Ottawa, a mother and son from Pakistan were recently convicted of threatening to kill the family’s daughter, along with her white, non-Muslim boyfriend. In St. John’s, a Saudi man who tried to choke his 30-year-old daughter (she wanted to marry a non-Muslim) was sentenced to probation, on condition that he leave the country.
But police and schools don’t always know how to respond to these disputes. And Ms. Raza often hears from young women who feel threatened by their families.
Predictably, Honor Diaries has been denounced as Islamophobic by people who see it as an attempt to smear Islam. Ms. Raza argues that it is not a film about religion, but about destructive cultural practices. Some Muslims agree. When the film was screened at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, one Iraqi man said he’d like to show it in his mosque.
Ms. Raza has no predictions about what will happen in Afghanistan. If there’s no long-term security agreement with the United States, many international aid agencies will pull out and take their money with them. Courageous female activists will be at even greater risk. And the little girls who dreamed of going to school will face a long, cold winter.