Saturday, April 18, 2009

Afghan Rape Law: Should we mind our own beeswax?

Ok, this start of this entry may sound like a joke. It’s not.

An agnostic Half-breed journalism student, a Caucasian catholic biologist and a Coptic Egyptian social worker were sitting in a bar. That was 15 years ago. I was the Half-breed. For reasons I no longer recall - must've have been in the news that day - the conversation spun into a discussion about arranged marriages between teenage girls to older men in the middle east.

Biologist POV: Many women in countries that permit arranged marriages are unhappily trapped in abusive relationships. It is a breach of human rights to force an arranged marriage, whether by law, faith, physical threat or social pressure. Every time we see one of these marriages on TV the young bride is bawling her eyes out, and the groom is sick old man, old enough to be her grandfather. It’s our responsibility to promote equality for women in these countries.

My POV: You can’t interpret crying at a wedding as unhappiness, I see people cry at weddings all the time and it doesn't mean they are not happy about the marriage. We know nothing of the culture beyond what we see in the news. It’s presumptuous to assume that all women share western concepts of feminism and progress. We should mind our own business until women ask for help, then we must only help in the way they have asked. We must support what they believe in, even if it disagrees with our beliefs. That’s what human rights are.

Social Worker POV : Agreed with the Biologist that women with more freedom should be more pro-active than I suggested, and believed women with freedom have a role in education women with less freedom about options. She agreed with me that western feminism is not superior, and self-determination is key. That night we also learned her parents marriage had been arranged. They were well-suited to one another, and mutually supportive. Love came later, but it came.

I included our race, religion and profession in the story because I believe these factors wove differences in the opinions of three other wise similar young women, who shared age, class, country and town.

I think there's a tendency from most Westernized folk to want to rush in when they perceive human rights abuses. But those of us who have attachments to cultures and histories that suffered from uninvited advocates who trampled our values under the mistaken belief that they knew better... well we're still living in a terrible aftermath, broken-heartedly trying to piece together the broken bits and pieces of our lives and communities. The Indian in me definately values self-determination as the most important right I have. Still, in the end, I think my social worker friend had the best answer. People have a right to make informed choices.

So, last week I was following stories on the Afghan Personal Status Law now dubbed the Rape Law in western media, which applies to Shia Muslims (about 10 to 20 per cent of Afghanistan's 30 million people) and requires - among other things - that women submit to sex with their husbands every four days. It also regulates when and why women can leave their homes.
One article I came across on the law reminded me of that long-ago conversation. A reporter interviewing young women at Kabul University arguably the most progressive institution in Afghanistan, were bewildered at the debate raging in Canada and Europe over the law. Almost unanimously women interviewed said it was not a good law but the western governments should not involve itself in their country's cultural and religious affairs.
It’s hard to stand by and watch swarms of angry men shouting epithets and hurling stones at women who are opposing the legalization of marital rape. I’m mad as hell. But I agree that foreign governments and individuals with no understanding of the culture or faith should be wary of interfering. They need the women’s permission and direction. Otherwise it’s just another kind of harm to their human rights.

Rather than doing nothing with my own anger, and rather than using my ignorance as an excuse to not get invoolved I am writing a letter to Sabrina Saqib, the member of the lower house of Afghanistan's National Assembly who helped organize the protest, to express my support. It's not much, but it's a start. ANd who knows, maybe they will find something useful I can do.


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