Sunday, July 13, 2008

Afghan women

by: sofya panova


“Women’s question” in Afghanistan provides a vivid illustration of ongoing emotional and sensitive debates on universalism versus cultural relativism, individualism versus tribalism, women’s rights versus community rights, secularism versus religious state, the nature of islamist movements versus development and the critique of orientalism. The afghan social structure is characterized by institutionalization of extremely restrictive codes of the behavior for women, the practice of strict gender segregation and ideology linking family honour to female virtue. Men (with no regards to their age) are entrusted with safeguarding family honour through their control over female members. They are backed by complex social arrangements which ensure the so-called protection and dependence of women. While most social scientists distinguish gender from sex and agree that gender roles are not biologically determined in Afghanistan there is no difference between sex and gender. In Afghanistan and much of the Muslim world, there is still a predefined stereotypical image of women with fixed idea of what is considered to be her proper behavior and appearances. Afghans are extremely serious about social codes and indicators and basically they live by them, often in denial, rather then by feelings, logic and so on. As a matter of fact a bunch of cultural prototypical patterns determine their actions and individuality. The woman position in the society with all its consequences is customarily justified by invoking Quranic prescriptions. The social role creation and adoption starts with birth (women are regarded stupid by birth (naqis-e-aql) and people still tend to celebrate the birth of a boy but not of a girl and continues through whole life experience. From the early childhood. Girls live in atmosphere of mistrust. They learn early that they are untrustworthy beings who constitute the danger for the tribe. For this reason girls have to be invisible, so work indoors for many becomes house arrest which can start in puberty. Afghan gender roles and women’s status work as property relations, where women and children tend to be assimilated into the concept of property and therefore to belong to men. Marriage is a transaction between households, an indicator of a status; it’s a way of ending feuds, compensating for blood, paying off debts, cementing alliances between families, increasing families prestige or accumulating wealth. Female is a perfect gift inalienably linked to the father by birth, but transferable for the practice of daily life – to her husband. Quite often a teenage girl on a horse in nice dress and covered in jewellery is sent to the house of the avenger. The avenger family can’t return the girl back, that would be against the code of honour, Nanawatey requires Pashtuns to protect all living creature and that includes your enemy.

The woman is a dead end for her own patriline but she can make herself useful to her husband’s patriline – by giving birth. Woman’s role is being a giver of temporal pleasure and physical producer of man’s children, in each role she earns her worth by and through men. Afghan society is strongly dominated by sexual morality derived from tribal arab values dating from the time the prophet received his instructions from Allah. From times when women were property of their fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers or guardians. The essence of the women is reduced to her hymen. It’s most important part of her body and should be treated with more caution. The look of an Afghan girl must only meet the ground, she is not to look up; her eyes should not meet the eyes of a stranger on the street. Girl education starts with sexual education, sport and intense activities or for that matter any physical exercise should not be performed because they pose a risk to hymen. Sex education is a series of warning; shame and guilt sanctions girls’ behaviour. Afghan girls are trained to suppress her own desires to empty herself of authentic wishes and fill the vacuum with the desires of others. There are girls who broke rank but they vanished into thick air. marriages and rapes are still widespread especially in rural areas. UNICEF says child marriages are a reaction to extreme poverty, where families see daughters as a burden and as second-class citizens. 57 percent of Afghan marriages involve girls under 16, up to 80 percent of marriages in the country are either forced or arranged. Most marry far older men whom they meet for the first time at their wedding. Some girls are so young that they hold onto their toys during the wedding ceremony. As I said afghan men are controlling women, which is considered necessary as women are regarded as potential source of social anarchy and disorder. Supposedly they can’t control their natural drives including sexual impulses, while men are able natural inclinations in control. “Islamic sexual culture emphasizes the female as powerful, seductive temptress who consciously or unconsciously is driven to capture the hearts and souls of men and will distract men from focusing on god”. Basically woman means sexuality. Funnily enough as a part of living in denial some women got persuaded in this. I have witnessed several times women far from being attractive (not only by my standards) were behaving as if they were sexual goddess, worth kilos of gold and were even accusing male colleagues of sexual harassment (a though which would have never crossed a sound mind of an accused man). The central concern of Islamic sexual doctrine is prostitution and illegitimate children, meaning those born from prostitutes.
Afghanistan is one of the world's most conservative countries, yet its sex trade appears to be thriving. Sex is sold most obviously at brothels full of women from China who serve both Afghans and foreigners. Far more controversial are Afghan prostitutes, who are practicing anal sex to remain virgins. Beatings, cutting off noses, ears and feet and rape are increasingly common. Unbelievably, a woman often has to prove her lack of consent in a rape case in order to avoid being punished for it. Moreover rape may be treated as adultery and punished accordingly if a settlement cannot be reached between the two families concerned. So half of the women in afghan jail are imprisoned for “moral crimes” should not be there at all and would qualify as victims rather than criminals under any interpretation of international human rights laws, including those to which Afghanistan is a signatory.
Depression, mental health problems and suicides (especially self immolation) still occur on a very widespread level. Last year, almost 500 women chose death or disfigurement to a life of despair by setting themselves on fire to escape forced marriages, slavery or sexual and other types of abuse. Anyway, if any deviation to strict code of chastity is observed in an Afghan wife, her husband takes the blame. If a bride is not virgin, it's the responsibility of the husband to kill her. Social humiliation compels Afghan men not to take any risk with their wives and prohibit them from any genuine and spontaneous action. Afghan society affects husband attitude in regard to their wife. Work, entertainment and sport for men are highly competitive and pitiful. It doesn't allow men to express themselves positively, the general attitude in men circles is linguistically sexist and promotes an atmosphere that men does not want their woman even not to be mentioned at, let alone being part of it. Men are indirectly also victims of the culture of virginity. As a result of oppressive culture, boys and men are not raised by healthy, balanced and well-educated mothers. Because of the disproportionately strong emphasis on manliness and because of physical and mental separation of sexes, men hardly have an opportunity to develop the communication skills necessary for living harmoniously within a family. Since most women are excluded from education and purposely kept ignorant when they raise children they can pass only their limited knowledge and perpetrate a vicious circle of generation to generation. Many muslim girls are brought up according to the Koran to live submissively which make it very difficult to liberate themselves when they are older. It appears that women have internalized their subordination they no longer experience it as an oppression by an external force. Oppression and overall harsh conditions make women passive in life and to be guided by a sense of fatalism. Constantly being controlled by dogma, prescriptions, stifling culture of gossip every child (both female and male) has to learn his/her social skills in the culture of shame, which centers on the concept of honour and disgrace. Surprisingly women who have managed to master the survival strategies derive a certain pride from living this way. Some, apparently educated, learned how to exploit the concept of being inaccessible sexual goddess and coming out with ways how to sell themselves expensively and worthy. Ironically, the repression of women maintained to a large extent by other women. Even educated women often have difficulty relinquishing ideas that have been installed in the since childhood. In traditional families, it is often mothers who keep their daughters under their thumbs and the mothers in law who make the lives of their in laws very hard. The culture of gossiping is overwhelming. Apparently, it seems there is a way to break this vicious circle, which requires certain imagination and self-confidence and irony. A young and good looking woman would be saved from discrimination and sexist attitude if her gender identity contrast sharply with that assigned to women and if her gender appearance as a woman in public does not coincide with social indicator. As a matter of fact, one can win a lot of respect by building own unknown to the community identity. This is not only limited to appearance, women interpersonal behavior determines their social role too. As it was pointed out, woman role indications are attributed by society, so if a woman doesn't go by those indications and attributes people would not realize her gender identity. Basically in order to be respected one has to behave less like an afghan woman.

A woman can be as influential in Afghan society as a man if she adopts social expression inconsistent with woman identity. A good friend of my husband is now an Afghan Parliamentarian, Sharifa Zormant, who used to be a daring journalist. She is representing southern Afghanistan in national assembly - a woman is representing some of the most conservative people in the world. She was traveling in the back of a truck with men, sleeping in the same room with men and lived without her husband from time to time. She did all this because she didn't express herself as typical afghan women do. She has departed from the social woman role defined as the kinds of activities that society determines to be appropriate for women. Fanaticism surrounds advocacy and adversary of sexual arrangement in Afghanistan. Perspectives into sex are fanatic which is the reason for an inaccurate explanation and failure to explain some important realities. when clergy and statesmen press for sustaining status quo by approving and praising the sexual arrangement they fail to account for sexual deviations and the depression of a grey life for most Afghans. Afghan society only appreciates woman’s body and kills her soul while claiming to do vice versa. A lot of traditional muslims are inclined to view universal values such as freedom of the individual and the equality of men and women as exclusively western values. I believe in universal human rights. There is nothing “natural” about ethnic, gender or class oppression and it’s hypocritical to trivialize and tolerate these practices. Official spokespersons for Afghan and widely Muslim women are nearly all men who in the majority of cases tend to deny, trivialize or avoid the enormous problems of Muslim girls and women.
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