Thursday, 29 October 2009

equal rights

“Mariam heard the answer in his laugh: that in the eyes of the Taliban, being a communist and the leader of the dreaded KHAD made Najibullah only slightly more contemptible than a woman” Khalad Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
I’m currently reading “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. It’s a fascinating portrayal of Afghanistan. It’s also an interesting commentary on the position of women in some societies. This in the same week as a debate class dealing with issues of feminism and women’s rights, has me thinking about the role of women in society. Right now I’m living in a country (and in what is apparently one of the most conservative cities in that country) where women are expected to play a fairly traditional role. It is virtually unthinkable for a woman to choose a career over raising a family and I think it may actually be unthinkable for her to choose a career over marriage. When a woman gets married or at least when she has kids, she will most likely stop working altogether. The majority of the Korean women my age do not go out to work. There are also other conventions, like the fact that it’s not acceptable for women to smoke on the streets and you almost never see Korean women going out without their men. Basically, women still fill an old-fashioned role as maiden, mother or crone and are expected to be okay with that. This does not mean that they don’t have education – many of them go on to higher education and do very well. They are just expected not to want to do anything with that education.

However, no matter what the social customs may suggest, women do have relatively equal rights and legal protections. Men (and other women) may not like a woman having a career instead of staying home and raising her family or going out to a bar without a male relative/boyfriend or smoking a cigarette but they can’t really do anything to stop her. So this situation is bad – and extremely frustrating to someone from a proper liberal democracy where my freedoms are guaranteed – but it’s not the worst.

The worst situations are those where the rights of women do not exist at all. Places where women are not allowed to be educated, where women cannot leave the house without a male relative to accompany them, where women can be beaten if they make eye contact with a man or dare to step outside without covering every part of their body. Places where women are married off by their families (often before the age of 16) without having any right to refuse. Places where women can’t drive cars or travel alone or choose the names, future or well-being of their children. Places where women are not permitted to have a voice, let alone to use it.

During Apartheid in South Africa, things were really horrible for black people. I’ve started to understand how little the world really knows about Apartheid being here and talking to other foreigners but it was crap. Black people couldn’t travel without the permission of the government, they couldn’t own land in areas outside the ‘homelands’, they couldn’t work where they wanted to or choose what job they wanted to do, they were not allowed to mingle with white people, inter-racial relationships and marriages were illegal, the standard of schooling offered to them in the ‘separate-but-equal’ schools was appalling and all those who rose up in any way to object to their treatment were subject to brutality, ‘disappearing’ and often murder. Oh, and they were disenfranchised.

I know all this. I lived it and I’ve lived the change and learning about it academically, emotionally and personally. But all of that – all of that horrible oppression – still seems less severe, less brutal and less of a violation than the treatment of women in countries where Shari ‘a law is practiced. This book has just highlighted again just how horrifically women are oppressed in these places.

So how is it that the entire world rose up against Apartheid, that South Africa was ostracized, sanctioned and vilified internationally, that the economy of the country was driven into recession and the only states willing to interact with the country were themselves rouge and yet these countries who openly and blatantly oppress 50% of their populations without apology or reason are treated as honoured members of the international community? How is it that these countries are given access to preferential trade and welcomed into international organizations responsible for everything from managing wealth to (sickeningly) human rights? How dare countries like the USA proclaim that they’re opposed to discrimination and that they believe in any kind of equality and still retain friendly ties (complete with money and arms) with countries like Saudi Arabia?

Watch the media coverage of Islamist attacks and successes in East Africa and all you hear is talk about how the counter-offensives of groups like the AU troops are helping to prevent terrorism. It’s as if the entire international world needs to justify the fight against these extremist hardliners with the ‘war on terror’. This is a fight to prevent violent dictators from taking over countries and implementing their proclaimed policies which would, among other things, actively seek to oppress half of the population. It’s not only ridiculous but insulting that this only makes the international news because of so-called ‘insurgents’. This is not about stopping poor little Americans from being subjected to the occasional act of terror; this is about preventing the systematic and brutal oppression of millions and millions of people. There should not need to be any other justification.

For years and years, groups like the UN have claimed moral high-ground on the basis of human rights and countries like the US and the EU group have acted on the basis of these rights. The world is rapidly approaching a point where someone, somewhere is going to have to decide if those human rights apply to everyone or if they can be actively subverted when it comes to women (provided the countries in question have oil or some other equivalent wealth). Religion was one of the justifications used by the Apartheid government in South Africa for their oppression on the basis of race. I wonder if the UN will have the courage of their convictions to act as strongly against the use of religion to justify millions of women in the case of places like the Middle East.

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