By Evan Sweeney, Senior, Northgate High School
Afghanistan, the twenty-first century: eighty-seven percent of women are illiterate. Only thirty-percent of girls have access to education. One in every three Afghan women experience some kind of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. (Integrated Regional Information Networks, 2007).
These statistics are only the beginning of a larger problem plaguing much of the Middle East: Afghanistan is just one of several Middle Eastern countries in which women are subjected to severe injustice on a daily basis. Stripped of many of their rights, women in countries such as Yemen, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have nearly nonexistent entitlement to education and basic human liberties. Suppressed and subjected to the will of a male-dominated culture and government, many find themselves without help, devoid of a voice or outlet for expression.
Nevin and Beri are two women who have seen and experienced this intolerance firsthand. Having resided in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iran respectively, the two women moved out of the region at a young age as a result of conflict and to pursue higher education. They tell of the struggles in doing something as simple as walking to a local café in Iraq or Iran as a woman: though not explicitly prohibited, such an act was considered taboo and unusual. Much of the punishment and social stigma surrounding the prohibited or atypical actions of women often falls on the shoulders of their family. As a result, honor killings of women, in which a family member murders another to restore the family’s dignity, are commonplace.
Within the family, the two women say that conflict and the government-lead suppression of the people often leads to depression and anger. This frustration and depression is sometimes then expressed through violence, often directed towards the woman from her husband. This violence and mental abuse has often lead to the women committing suicide through self-burning and other means. Consider that The Global Gender Gap report for 2011 found all five “Worst Countries to Be a Woman” to be in the Middle East and parts of Africa, and the abuse these women must face every day becomes terribly apparent. As Egyptian American journalist Mona Eltahawy describes, there exists an article in the Egyptian Criminal Code that states that no punitive damages can be obtained from a husband who beats his wife with “good intentions.” (Why Do They Hate Us? Mona Eltahawy, foreignpolicy.com).
While some countries such as Turkey and larger cities such as Kabul have become more progressive to a degree, intolerance and violence continues to be most rampant in the rural parts of countries like Afghanistan and Iran. Even in the more urban areas, the progress has a long way to go: women have still not received full rights or civil liberties in even the most progressive Arab countries. In 2011, for example, there were 207,253 reported cases of deliberate injuries to women in Turkey alone. (NY Times, Women See Worrisome Shift in Turkey, 2012). As more Iranians, Iraqis, and Afghans travel abroad to Europe and other locations, their desire for change in their own areas is inflamed. Women, too, are not the only ones feeling the pressure: even many men are discontented with current governmental policies and wish for reform.
Some women, like Asma of Afghanistan, however, are turning the tables on the preconceived notions of what life as an Afghan woman has to be. Asma, along with her father, manages an organization dedicated to using micro financing to provide loans for Afghan women as well as providing lessons in literacy and productive skills training to Afghan women and girls: the Afghan Women Educational and Vocational Training Association. As Asma states on her One Young World web page, “I honestly believe when you educate a man you educate individual, but when you educate and empower a woman you educate a family and a nation.”
Asma believes that educating women would boost Afghanistan’s failing economy, as women make up nearly half of the total Afghan population but do not have the resources necessary to become educated or work in Afghanistan’s potentially rich markets. Instead, most women are required to stay within the home, subject to a severe lack of rights and with little chance of traveling, especially abroad. Indeed, Asma’s mere presence in the United States puts both her and her family at risk (many of who
don’t know she is in America). This is the climate that exists in Afghanistan: active advocates for basic human rights risk the potential for horrible social stigma and great danger. It is for this reason that we cannot publish pictures of Asma or release further information about her background or organization.
Will things get better for women in Afghanistan? When asked this question, though she wanted to remain positive, Asma seemed doubtful. If change is to occur, she says, the Taliban must be eradicated. The problem? Even with the death of Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban is becoming stronger in many regions of Afghanistan, and some are worried that they will gain a greater foothold in Afghan society when the United States withdraws from the country in the coming years.
What, then, would Asma tell people in the West and around the world about the plight of women in her country? “You are powerful!” If anything is to change, both men and women around the world must demand reform and encourage their governments to act beyond political interests to petition Arab nations to grant greater rights to their women. They must reach out to NGOs and international organizations like the UN to bring more progressive human rights laws to the region. Islamic culture and religion can still exist, these women strongly believe, while still exhibiting tolerance and freedom towards their women. It is the literal and radical interpretations of law, both religious and political, which is damaging women, not the religion itself.
Asma firmly believes in the power of people to effect positive change. Regardless of race or religion, people must work together to solve these pressing issues, not just as a single person or government but as one world unified in the desire to see equal rights for people everywhere. They must go beyond mere statements and let their actions speak for themselves. A single voice may be loud enough to be heard by some, but 7 billion unified voices are capable of reaching the entire world. Will your voice be heard?