Lives of quiet desperation

Photo by Paula Lerner/Aurora Photos, via the Globe & Mail.

Photo by Paula Lerner/Aurora Photos, via the Globe & Mail.

Eight years ago when NATO forces first staged into Afghanistan, it was heartening to see our forces acting in concert with the Northern Alliance to destroy and expel the Taliban.  Perhaps I was alone in expecting this, but I thought NATO would try to thoroughly inoculate any post-Taliban Afghan social order against the strains of misogyny and casual violence inherent in Islamic radicalism.  Instead we have focused our efforts on everything but that; destroying Taliban fighters in their cross-border sanctuaries and providing a baseline of civil infrastructure to the Afghan people, all while the malignant spectre of Taliban-like philosophy moves about unhindered and unchecked.  That fatal oversight is now bearing fruit as a generation of once-hopeful Afghan women scurry back behind the veil, where their hopes and dreams of a more equitable future die stillborn.

The Globe & Mail—whom I have often chided on this blog for less than stellar reporting—is now doing yeoman work by chronicling the lives of ten ordinary Afghan women in Kandahar through its multimedia series Behind the Veil.  Reporter Jessica Leeder and photographer Paula Lerner are to be commended.  Their work is not a mere fig leaf for antiwar sentiment, nor is it unquestioningly boosterish of our sometimes flawed effort.  But what it is is heartbreaking; it should be painfully obvious to Canadians everywhere—whether ISAF supporters or not—that we are failing the women of Kandahar.  They deserve much better from us.

The day she got engaged, Sakina started out playing with her dolls in the street.
There was no indication that the 13-year-old was scheduled to meet her future husband. But then her father summoned her out of the street and planted her before a male stranger.
“I saw him and they told me I was getting married to him,” Sakina remembered in an on-camera interview with The Globe and Mail.
Next, she learned that she had been sold by her father for 600,000 afghanis, about $13,000. Although she was surprised at the abruptness of the transaction, Sakina doesn’t remember being upset.
“Among us, there is no happiness or sadness in weddings. It’s just something we do,” she said. “It is not about whether we like our husbands or not. We just get married.”
It was after the wedding that the horror began.
“My father-in-law and my mother-in-law are violent to me. My husband can’t protect me,” she said. “What can I do?”
There aren’t many options for women such as Sakina. She found herself fused to her brutish new relatives by way of an old tradition in Afghanistan, one that international aid and human-rights groups hoped would have faded by now.
In 2005, the Afghan government signed the Protocol for the Elimination of Forced and Child Marriage, a plan sponsored by the United Nations Development Program that aimed to phase out forced and child marriage by 2008. Although it was trumpeted at the time, the protocol clearly wasn’t put into effective practice. Seventy to 80 per cent of Afghan women are still subject to forced marriage, UN statistics show. And more than half of all girls who get married are like Sakina, given away before the legal age of 16, often because their families need the money.
“People are generally aware of the negative impacts of … paying bride price, despite its widespread use,” said a recent report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent organization based in Kabul. The report noted that economic concerns override worries about the impact of forced marriages on the brides, in many cases, because “… collecting bride price can be a key livelihood survival strategy for girls’ families.”

The day she got engaged, Sakina started out playing with her dolls in the street.

There was no indication that the 13-year-old was scheduled to meet her future husband. But then her father summoned her out of the street and planted her before a male stranger.

“I saw him and they told me I was getting married to him,” Sakina remembered in an on-camera interview with The Globe and Mail.

Next, she learned that she had been sold by her father for 600,000 afghanis, about $13,000. Although she was surprised at the abruptness of the transaction, Sakina doesn’t remember being upset.

“Among us, there is no happiness or sadness in weddings. It’s just something we do,” she said. “It is not about whether we like our husbands or not. We just get married.”

It was after the wedding that the horror began.

“My father-in-law and my mother-in-law are violent to me. My husband can’t protect me,” she said. “What can I do?”

There aren’t many options for women such as Sakina. She found herself fused to her brutish new relatives by way of an old tradition in Afghanistan, one that international aid and human-rights groups hoped would have faded by now.

In 2005, the Afghan government signed the Protocol for the Elimination of Forced and Child Marriage, a plan sponsored by the United Nations Development Program that aimed to phase out forced and child marriage by 2008. Although it was trumpeted at the time, the protocol clearly wasn’t put into effective practice. Seventy to 80 per cent of Afghan women are still subject to forced marriage, UN statistics show. And more than half of all girls who get married are like Sakina, given away before the legal age of 16, often because their families need the money.

“People are generally aware of the negative impacts of … paying bride price, despite its widespread use,” said a recent report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent organization based in Kabul. The report noted that economic concerns override worries about the impact of forced marriages on the brides, in many cases, because “… collecting bride price can be a key livelihood survival strategy for girls’ families.”

— Leeder, Jessica.  “‘Among us, there is no happiness or sadness in weddings. It’s just something we do’.” Globe & Mail, 22 September 2009.

Very often our news media fails us in obvious, ridiculous ways—skimping on or omitting entirely the background data that would help us contextualise the stories we see, hear and read.  I have believed for a while now that print media’s fruitless competition in immediacy with broadcast and web journalism is a fight it is ill-equipped to win; it should instead refocus itself to provide deeper stories; more background, more data, more thoughtful criticism and insight.  So I am happy to see the Globe & Mail present such a compelling and finely textured look inside the lives of these Afghan women.

Defeating the Taliban militarily is surely a key requirement for any social progress; but equally important is that which has so far been a lesser priority: a vigorous, tenacious offensive against the medieval theology, philosophy and cultural customs that sustain it.  We must make the argument to the Afghan people that equality and liberty are the birthright of every human being.  And we must put fangs in that assertion by refusing to tolerate the casual abrogation of Afghan women’s rights (that are constitutionally guaranteed, no less) by their very own government.  There can be no victory otherwise.

UPDATE: For some the last paragraph may be a bridge too far, a neo-imperialism, arguing that the Afghan people should be the arbiters of their own law and rights.  I do not disagree; in the main they should be, but when Afghan laws deliberately abrogate their own constitution, not to mention the human rights treaties this nation is a signatory to, I would argue that Canada—as a significant reconstruction and security guarantor—has a right to pressure (if not compel) the Afghan government to rectify these failings.  We are not there to turn Afghanistan into Vancouver; we are there to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for Islamic radicalism—whether its vector is the gun or the ballot box.

And there is in fact a precedent of an Allied government performing radical surgery on a nation’s culture and religion.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, the occupation government not only restructured the political landscape of Japan, but the social and religious landscape as well.  Women were granted universal suffrage and equal rights, which was clearly not a feature of the previous Shinto militarist government.  The occupation government dissolved the zaibatsu (large family combines), revised and encouraged education, and did its damndest to inculculate pacifism.  Shintoism was disestablished as the official state religion, and the Emperor was forced to defrock himself of political and religious claims to divinity on public radio.

Following that, General MacArthur also issued an appeal for “1000 missionaries” to come to Japan to prevent communism from gaining a deep toe-hold.  In actuality about 2,000 came to Japan, infused with misionary zeal.  History tells us that their effectiveness was close to zero, as the ratio of Christians in Japan is about the same today as it was before Pearl Harbor.  But it did have at least one salutary effect: the exposure of the Japanese public to many kind and decent ordinary Americans, average folk who were not soldiers or occupation authorities.  Their selfless concern for the Japanese public helped foster understanding and heal wartime wounds on both sides.  Optimistically, NGOs may be achieving the same thing today.  Whether they have a missionary’s selflessness and willingness to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of those in need remains to be seen.

The key lesson here is that the United States did not permit Japanese religion and culture to go on as it had been before; significant correctives were compelled by the occupation authorities.  In the main I am sure we would all prefer that any restructuring of Afghan culture and religion be Afghan-initiated; but if it slips backward rather than forward, we are not doing ourselves nor the Afghan people any favours by permitting such retrenchment.  To ask that the Afghan government live by its own founding legislation seems a less bad option than packing up and giving the Taliban the keys.

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