Thursday, 23 May 2013

Questioning the obvious

A news report from Afghanistan appeared last week which probably didn't shock many people. As you can see here, a law forbidding violence against women, among other things, which had been in effect since 2009 as a presidential decree, was brought to parliament in order for it to be consolidated and to make sure that it could not be reversed by any future presidents. Unfortunately religious-minded MPs have a lot of power in the Afghan parliament and brought the whole procedure to a halt claiming that the law was un-Islamic and thus invalid.

I'm sure most people who read this would agree that this is a poor state of affairs. The law basically aims to improve the situation for women in Afghanistan by making it illegal for a man to abuse or rape his wife, bringing the legal age of marriage for women up to 16, limiting the number of wives allowed to two and by setting up shelters for victims of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, through media perception, this is what we've come to expect from deeply Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, however, I'm sure that it created outrage amongst a wide range of people, from supporters of women's rights to those with an apparently innate hate towards Islamic culture.

I don't aim to draw any comparisons between these two groups -a shared opinion is not a shared ideology-, but I do think that it's necessary to question our own reaction and criticism of a society about which we have little individual experience or understanding. It may seem blatantly clear that it's wrong to reject a law which aims to protect women from rape, but we should first ask ourselves whether we have the right to lecture about the rights and wrongs of gender status to 'backwards' peoples.

It was not that long ago when the Western media was, from an assumed moral highground, criticizing the situation in India for the fact that a woman was allowed to be gang-raped on a bus, but made little effort to acknowledge the still pretty dire situation in our own societies. Of course what happened in India was terrible, but there is a point where commentary becomes more about cultural superiority rather than an in-depth look at the situation both abroad and at home.

In regards to the Afghan case then, can we criticize Islam or Afghan society for what happened? It was the traditionalist Islamic MPs who opposed the law, after all, and it is possible to understand how the law contradicts Islamic law. For example, there is a religious precedence for marrying off your daughter at as young as 7, and the traditionalist criticism of domestic abuse shelters is that they allow women to run away from home and commit adultery without being punished [1]. They also claimed that a man cannot be prosecuted for raping his wife according to Islamic law, which is certainly something that can be interpreted from texts: for example, a woman must not refuse sex to her husband unless she is physically incapable, and sexual crimes in Islam are confined to pre-marital sex and adultery, rape is not explicitly haram, thus a man cannot technically 'rape' his wife according to Islamic law [2]. Liberal Muslims might well contest this and they might too be right, but so is the nature of religious law, be it Islamic or Christian. The texts are often so contradictory and unclear and were written or said by different people with different ideas living hundreds of years apart.

That said, social custom is often much more important than any type of law -of course laws can be made to concrete such traditions or be interpreted to legitimize one's own power or ambitions-, but if they differ too much from the social norm, they will have little effect. And this is what has happened in Afghanistan with women's protection law, which had already been in effect since 2009. Since it does not represent the values of the social elites in many parts of Afghanistan, however, it has been ineffective. Between March 2010 and January 2011 only 155 cases (7%) were prosecuted [3]. According to the Daily Afghanistan the forces that were so against this new law are the representatives of the patriarchal and tribal culture within Afghanistan, or rather those who benefit from the patriarchal and tribal culture within Afghanistan, and who are served by specific interpretations of Islamic law and by an unmoving social hierarchical [4].

Nevertheless, if you spoke with a guy or a woman on the street you would probably not find the scathing attack on the system which you might have been expecting; even from someone who is in favour of extending women's rights. People, after all, like what they know. And women can be the strictest guardians of their own oppression. But they probably also see benefits in a social system based on order, where everyone knows their place and things supposedly have been proven to work that way. This may seem like a backwards way of thinking, but really we are only 'enlightened' in comparison to our past and probably heartless by future standards (many of which should already be present!).

So where does that leave us? It's clear that imposing a new type of behaviour onto less than willing people because we believe it to be right is not exactly the route to go down if we're trying to promote any kind of social freedom. This is the problem with globalization and the imposition of a mainly Western-style culture - a neo-imperialism which is pushing forms of consumption and production which best suit those who have nothing to do with the indigenous culture. Now, it may be true that such cultural shifts can bring with them new social freedoms, such as women's rights, but these are at best an unintended side-effect or at worst a way of developing or subduing the exploited workforce.

However, this is not what we're talking about here. When we call for more rights for women, children, workers, etc., we are not aiming to gain anything from it - we are acting in solidarity. And I think this is key.

At the same time, we don't want to be putting ourselves in a position of superiority; the idea that we're looking after lesser, underdeveloped people does not put us in good stead if we are trying to encourage equality (along with social freedom). So we must also look at our own societies. This is already pretty obvious to many people, but women's rights in the West have still not reached a point of satisfaction. It is not a movement driven from above - there are indeed token women in positions of power, but those who are pushing for full gender equality are doing so as individuals. Furthermore, feminism has become quite unpopular in large parts of society. The number of people who are willing to call themselves feminists or who even know what it means is minuscule. And of course this situation is a lot worse amongst men.

But therein lies the ethical solution. If we realise that we ourselves must still progress, and that we probably have more in common with the people of Afghanistan than we do with a fully equal, future society. So when we criticize and fight against patriarchal oppression either in our own cultures or in foreign ones, we know that we are doing it in solidarity, as part of a global movement. We are not attacking cultures, we are attacking those elite forces who, like their counterparts all over the world, will do anything to stop change which might weaken their power. We need to educate people about their own rights and powers no matter where they are from.

We may have ended up with the same opinion as we started with, but for me it is important to question not only the things we disagree with but also those we agree with. Hopefully we end up with a solid base of well thought-through ideas, leaving us ready to deal with the tirade of bullshit which we are sure to be faced with when we next decide to discuss such views in public.



  1. Great post. I tend to get deeply skeptical of more right-leaning Westerners when they 'defend' women's rights in the developing world, especially Muslim-majority countries. It gets tiring to see the same people who claim women debase themselves by dressing a certain way and are thus fair game for rapists talk about oppression of women in foreign countries they have no understanding of. The Wite Man's Burden for the 21st century, it seems.

    It gets worse when foreign invasions, indefinite occupation and the militarisation of societies are defended as good ways to protect human rights. Somehow it's perfectly normal to hear "Egypt proves that they are not 'ready for democracy'", as if democracy was something to bestowed upon Arabs by their benevolent White overlords, in mainstream Western media. Even the Western noninterventionists accept the same narrative "let the towelheads blow each other up, it's not our issue". Ignoring the inherent sociopathy and lack of empathy in such a statement, it could even make sense if it wasn't the same Western powers who were so keen on arming all these countries before occupying them,

    Unfortunately, your call for international solidarity falls on largely deaf ears in the West, both among conservatives and in what's know as the "centre-Left".