The enemy is not America - Why is international public opinion not outraged at the treatment of women in Islamic fundamentalist societies? Why is it easier for millions of people around the world to see America as the great evil, rather than the countries in which governments ignore such horrific abuses of women?
- By Pamela Bone
April 26, 2004
Osama, the first film to come out of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, is about a 12-year-old girl who must shave her head and dress like a boy so she can work to support her widowed mother and grandmother. It is not about Osama bin Laden; "Osama" is the boy's name the girl adopts.
She's not portrayed as particularly courageous. Much of the time she's just a frightened little girl crying for her mother. Unlike most of the women in this beautiful, terrible film, who are faceless, shapeless figures under billowing, pale blue burqas, we do see her face, and the fear on it.
The fear felt by the other women is shown in repeated scenes of them running from the Taliban, or falling to the ground in submission when the Taliban come, armed with batons and guns and water hoses, to break up their meetings. "Aren't you ashamed?" a man who is carrying his wife on his bicycle is scolded. "Cover your feet; a man might see," the woman, whose sandalled foot protrudes from under her burqa, is ordered.
But who fears whom most? Could it be that the men, who must forbid the merest expression of female sexuality, fear the women even more than the women fear them? Is not fear of women the basis for the punishing, the covering up, the locking away, the banning of them from public life, that reached its most extreme under the Taliban but which is still common throughout the Middle East? Advertisement Advertisement
I am sent a newsletter from a women's rights group in Pakistan, which lists items from Pakistani newspapers. The following is a recent selection (I checked the items on the newspapers' websites):
Lahore: A girl, Kauser, 17, was strangled by her elder brother because she had married of her own will. She returned home and asked her family to forgive her but her brother strangled her with a piece of cloth. - The Daily Times.
Ghotki district: Two women were killed over Karo-Kari (honour killing). One Nihar Jatoi tied his wife to a bed and electrocuted her. One Bachal axed his wife Salma to death and fled. No arrests were reported. - The News.
What chance of this woman becoming an international symbol, as has the boy who lost his arms during the invasion of Iraq?
Sargodha: A woman is in hospital after having both legs amputated because of severe injuries inflicted by her brother-in-law and mother-in-law, who clubbed her for her alleged illicit affairs. The woman, who was fighting for life, said the real reason was that her brother-in-law was trying to force her to arrange his marriage to her younger sister, but her sister had instead eloped with her paramour. - Dawn.
What chance of this woman becoming an international symbol, as has the boy who so tragically lost his arms during the invasion of Iraq?
Why is international public opinion not outraged at the treatment of women in Islamic fundamentalist societies? Why is it easier for millions of people around the world to see America as the great evil, rather than the countries in which governments ignore such horrific abuses of women?
No, the US didn't go into Iraq, or Afghanistan, to liberate women. Indeed, by the standards of the region Iraqi women were not badly oppressed - notwithstanding the hundreds who were executed by Saddam's son, Uday, for "dishonouring" their country (which meant speaking out about corruption in government). Nothing was done by Western governments to help the women of Afghanistan until Osama bin Laden became a threat. While South Africa was subjected to years of sanctions over the oppression of blacks, no sanctions are applied to countries because they condone or promote the oppression of women.
Yet if there is ever going to be a peaceful world there are few things more important than lifting the status of women. The hatreds of bin Laden and his kind will not be assuaged; but in general, fundamentalism wanes as prosperity increases. And as a United Nations report notes, a large part of the reason so many countries in the Middle East are overpopulated, economic basket cases is the repression of women.
The birth rate in Saudi Arabia is 6.1. Germany's is 1.3, Spain's 1.1. You would think EU countries would be doing everything they could to help Iraq to set an example as a decent, democratic state in the Middle East.
Thousands of women in Arab countries are legally murdered every year in the name of honour, little girls are forced into marriages with old men, women are stoned and beaten for reasons that would be unheard of in Western countries.
The freedoms of Western women, their open sexuality, are a large part of the hatred the Islamist men feel for the West. They would, if they could, spread their joyless, sex-denying, life-denying version of religion over the world. They've said, many times, this is what they want. They would, if they could, have all our daughters in burqas.
More than any others, it was American feminists who during the time of the Taliban were agitating to try to get governments to take action against Afghanistan over the treatment of women. If there's a war on, we should be clear about who is the real enemy of civilisation. Despite the reservations any liberal would feel for some policies of the present Administration (and the doubts about its competence), the enemy is not America.
The best hope not only for their own countries but for the rest of the world is in the women who are putting their lives at risk to forge a new feminism across Islamic countries, in the brave human rights activists and dissidents - and filmmakers such as Siddik Barmak, the producer of Osama - who are trying to tell the world how it is.
See it and weep; or better still, rage.
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Last modified 2006-08-06 08:28 PM