Fearless: Women Empowerment in the Middle East

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?

17 Comments

  • SBelch

    Powerful story, evan! I hope Asma will be able to read the wonderful things you’ve said about her. I think you do a great job at representing the plight of middle eastern women here; this is not an easy topic. So proud of you and all the other youth reporters!

    24 Oct
    Reply
    • ESweeney

      Thank you so much, Sophie! It means a lot. I just cleaned up a few small sentence structures, and I believe my story has reached it's final state.

  • Ananya Cleetus

    This article is wonderfully well-written. It captures the emotion and passion of the women and I think really opens my eyes to the quality of life and suppression in other countries. Being a girl myself, it’s horrible to imagine that things like this still go on on the same planet that I live on, but I think this article is really inspirational. I know you invested a lot of time and effort into this, and that really shows. Nice job, Nigel! :)

    24 Oct
    Reply
  • Lisa Schroeder

    Powerful story, Evan. Thanks for reminding us what still goes on in many parts of the world. We all need to petition for change. Your friend Asma sounds like an amazing woman.

    24 Oct
    Reply
  • Sarah Amick

    Evan this is great! A powerful topic, and wonderfully written. I’m starting the T-Shirts for Afghan Women project this semester at CMU, I don’t know if you remember me talking about it last year? When I present it to the group I’ll definitely want to tell them about Asma and this article.

    24 Oct
    Reply
    • ESweeney

      Thank you Sarah! I do remember you talking about it. I would love to get involved.. I'm not sure how the program works, but I would love a T-shirt for Afghan women. We have to get together sometime soon and talk about OYW and the women I met.

  • Kevin Kusic

    Great article Evan! Very eye opening! I can’t believe this type of discrimination still exists in the world today. it is very saddening when you think about it, but at the same time makes you realize how truly blessed we are to live in the United States.

    Keep up the great work and look forward to hearing more about your experience!

    24 Oct
    Reply
    • ESweeney

      Thanks for the kind words Kevin. It is a very sad issue.. people sometimes take the small things for granted. I look forward to telling you more about it.

  • Mrs. Nusskern

    Evan, Your voice and Asma’s voice has been heard loud and clear. I plan to share your article/Asma’s story with others…maybe this will change their world view. I thought of MY daughter as I read this. Wishing you all the best…I’m sure you will inspire and influence many people in your lifetime through your writing and actions.

    25 Oct
    Reply
    • ESweeney

      That means so much to me, Mrs. Nusskern. Thank you for your kind words.

  • Mrs. Klicker

    Evan, I followed the events of the conference, knowing that you were involved. What an amazing opportunity. I can’t wait to talk with you about your experience. We have been involved with supporting some micro-financing in developing countries through various mission groups. It is an empowering concept. Have you read “Three Cups of Tea”, by Greg Mortenson? He has built more than 60 schools – for boys and girls – in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and has been threatened with death for his efforts.

    26 Oct
    Reply
    • ESweeney

      Thank you Mrs. Clicker! I would love to talk with you about my experiences. I have not read Three Cups of Tea, but I've heard of it. I'm going to buy it and read it.

    • EPaljug

      I just saw the name and had to comment- I read Three Cups of Tea a while ago, and it impacted me so much - it is truly an incredible story! I was heartbroken to see the 60 Minutes special on it though... not sure what to think. I encourage you to read it anyways though!

  • Mrs. Mignella

    Evan, I really enjoyed this well written article. It’s so empowering and inspirational. What an honor to have this opportunity and share this experience with others. I have made copies of your article to share with my English and Communications classes. I am having my students write an editorial in response to your article as a class project.

    26 Oct
    Reply
    • ESweeney

      That's phenomenal; thank you so much! I would love to see their editorials.

  • Mr. Dilliott

    Evan, your article, although sad and hard to believe, was very well written. Thank you for opening more peoples’ eyes to the truth of this kind of abuse.

    26 Oct
    Reply
  • Ms. Albright

    Evan — Thank you so much for your “Fearless” piece and for attending One Young World. So appreciative of your efforts and time!

    26 Oct
    Reply

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