Worth Fighting For?

Can we stop terrorism before we stop cruelty toward women in the Islamic Middle East?

The rights of women are improving in Afghanistan, but some fear the return of violence toward women if the Taliban is included in a coalition government. In TIME magazine (vol. 176, No. 6 , 2010) the cover article, "Betrayed," discusses fears that Afghan women have about Taliban beliefs and practices returning in an integrated government which includes them.  The example given is Bibi Aisha, an 18 year old , who had her nose and ears sliced off because of the Taliban leadership.  Aisha ran away from abusive in-laws who beat her. This was her punishment and she was left to die, but survived to tell her story.   She was taken to a U.S. military medical unit because the local Afghan hospital would not treat her.  From there, she was taken to a shelter created and supported by a U.S. organization, Women for Afghan Women.  It has now been reported that she will come to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery.  Additionally, TIME reported that the religious council of Herat province issued an edict in May forbidding women from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative.

Taliban law forbids the education or employment of women or examination by a male doctor without the presence of a close male relative. Since women were teachers and nurses, these professions have practically disappeared. This has caused the physical, mental, and intellectual health of women under Taliban rule to deteriorate.  Burqas became required clothing under Taliban rule.  A burqa covers the entire body of a woman in tent like fashion, with only a small fenced window with which to see.  Women not wearing burqas or unaccompanied by a male relative outside the home were beaten in public with sticks.  Women, by law, were only allowed to read the Qur’an and windows had to be blackened so no one could see into houses.  We now hear in the news that a woman is to be stoned to death for adultery in Iran. This is also a Taliban law.  With international publicity, the stoning has been suspended, but it can be reinstated at any time.  We see from this that open international dialogue is having an effect.

On the progressive side, female talk show host, Mozhdah Jamalzadah, is an example of how things are changing in Afghanistan.  She has her own TV show and fears she may lose it if the Taliban are included in a coalition government. The constitution of Afghanistan now guarantees equal rights for women and it is said that this is non-negotiable.  However, the constitution also cannot contradict Islamic law (Shari’a), which is yet to be defined in the constitution. The Taliban has the most restrictive interpretation of Islamic law. There are fears that with sufficient votes, the laws and practices will return to Taliban restrictions when the U.S. leaves Afghanistan and the Taliban joins the coalition government.

Women for Afghan Women have shelters in Afghanistan for abused women.  The Taliban wants them declared as brothels and eliminated. Women for Afghan Women also have counseling centers to help end violence against women.  Their fate is in questionable hands if the U.S. removes troops from Afghanistan.  There are 15 million women in Afghanistan.  Some have already started wearing burqas again, fearing the influence of the Taliban on a coalition government when US troops leave Afghanistan.

So, are the difficulties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, at least in part, about women’s rights?  If they are, does this not represent larger moral issues?  How do we allow slavery of one group by another in the 21st Century?  “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Lord Acton, 1887).  As was seen in the Zimbardo Prison Experiment, one group having absolute power over another and thinking of them in derogatory terms leads even “normal” people to become extremely cruel toward the “undervalued” group.  We also know that when a group with cruel beliefs about another group, as in Rwanda, is isolated and does not have the oversight of a larger society or organization, there is the high probability of abuse of power and violence.

The psychology research is clear that being exposed to violence against women in the home can contribute to children growing up to be heartlessly and criminally violent as adults. The Taliban, as a sub-culture, is cruel and demeaning toward women.   It would be logical that a societal sub-culture, such as the Taliban, would raise children that are violent toward others.  Can we really stop terrorism before we stop cruelty toward women in the Islamic Middle East?

The role of oil, the opium trade, and emeralds in the conflicts in Afghanistan and other places in the Middle East cannot be ignored.  Whoever controls the country controls the resources.  So the conflicts are about power, ideology, resources and who controls them.  Nothing new there.  Young Taliban recruits are told that if they allow women to be educated and have freedom, the Afghan men will lose their power.  Therefore, their position of control depends on the control of women by any means necessary.  TV and radio are also banned, so no one gets new ideas.

So the question is: What do we want to do about it?  Did Nazism end without violence?  How long do we wait before we stand up to a cruel sub-culture that enslaves part of its group? Is it not high time to call cruelty what it is and to label it unacceptable?  If cruelty and enslavement of women is culturally acceptable by one group, the larger society must say:  “No, this is not acceptable.” Many are afraid in our societies to take this stand because women's inequality in the islamic Middle East is presented as part of a religion -- and it is considered politically incorrect to criticize someone’s religion. But what if a religion sanctions and engenders  cruelty? When will the honest conversation begin?