Women's Rights: Two Extremes

by Dr. Khalid Zaheer


Some days ago, I was among the many who received the following email from a Swedish priestess:

Dear Friends,

Please do not ignore this email. This is something that we as women and essentially as human beings need to support -- I don't know if this is going to help but take three minutes out of your life to do your part. The government of Afghanistan is waging a war upon women. Since the Taliban took power in 1996, women have had to wear the burqa and have been beaten and stoned in public for not having the proper attire, even if this means simply not having the mesh covering in front of their eyes. One woman was beaten to death by an angry mob of fundamentalists for accidentally exposing her arm while she was driving. Another was stoned to death for trying to leave the country with a man that was not a relative. Women are not allowed to work or even go out in public without a male relative; professional women such as professors, translators, doctors, lawyers, artists and writers have been forced out of their jobs and their windows painted so that they can never be seen by outsiders.

They must wear silent shoes so that they are never heard. Women live in fear of their lives for the slightest misbehaviour. Because they cannot work, those without male relatives or husbands are either starving to death or begging on the street, even if they hold PhDs. Depression is becoming so widespread that it has reached emergency levels. There is no way in such an extreme Islamic society to know the suicide rate with certainty, but relief workers are estimating that the suicide rate among women who cannot find proper medication and treatment for severe depression and would rather take their lives than live in such conditions, has increased significantly. There are almost no medical facilities available for women.

At one of the rare hospitals for women, a reporter found still, nearly lifeless bodies lying motionless on top of beds, wrapped in their burqa, unwilling to speak, eat, or do anything, but slowly wasting away. Others have gone mad and were seen crouched in corners, perpetually rocking or crying, most of them in fear. One doctor is considering leaving these women in front of the president's residence as a form of protest when what little medication that is left finally runs out. At this point, the term 'human rights violations' has become an understatement. Husbands have the power of life and death over their women relatives, especially their wives. An angry mob has just as much right to stone or beat a woman, often to death, for exposing an inch of flesh or offending them in the slightest way. Women enjoyed relative freedom, to work, dress generally as they wanted, and drive and appear in public alone until only 1996. The rapidity of this transition is the main reason for the depression and suicide; women who were once educators or doctors or simply used to basic human freedom are now severely restricted and treated as subhuman in the name of right-wing fundamentalist Islam. It is not their tradition or 'culture', but it is alien to them, and it is extreme even for those cultures where fundamentalism is the rule. Everyone has a right to a tolerable human existence, even if they are women in a Muslim country. If we can threaten military force in Kosovo in the name of human rights for the sake of ethnic Albanians, citizens of the world can certainly express peaceful outrage at the oppression, murder and injustice committed against women by the Taliban.


In signing this, we agree that the current treatment of women in Afghanistan is completely UNACCEPTABLE and deserves action by the United Nations and that the current situation overseas will not be tolerated. Women's Rights is not a small issue anywhere, and it is UNACCEPTABLE for women in 2000 to be treated as subhuman. Equality and human decency is a RIGHT not a freedom, whether one lives in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

(Three hundred signatories)

Even though this letter was not addressed directly to me, as a concerned Muslim, I responded in the following manner:

"Women's Rights is not a small issue anywhere, and it is UNACCEPTABLE for women in 2000 to be treated as subhuman. Equality and human decency is a RIGHT not a freedom, whether one lives in Afghanistan or elsewhere."

The above part of the statement is something I agree with almost completely. I have some reservations about the use of expression '...in 2000'. I think what is happening in Afghanistan, if it has been reported correctly, is not acceptable. As a Muslim who is interested in his religion, I can tell you that the picture that seems to be emerging from the reports received from there is very disturbing for people like me. However, what disturbs me equally is the fact that the concern for human rights activists is only one-sided. Whereas subjecting women to tortures for disclosing a small part of their body is highly disturbing, what is not easily understandable is the fact that a large number of women in the West are exposing almost all parts of their bodies to satisfy the lust of men and that too on screens viewed by millions and all of this goes unnoticed by those who are so concerned for the rights of women at long distances from their homes. I am sure that these people -- men and women -- are intelligent enough to see the direct correlation between the alarmingly increasing incidents of fornication, adultery, rapes, and divorces on the one hand and the kind of freedom men and women are being urged to exercise on their bodies on the other. Let's, therefore, be a bit more rational and adopt a middle-of-road attitude towards freedom and discipline. Indeed discipline calls for some restrictions, which if taken too far, become a burden. However, freedom too if taken beyond limits, becomes a menace which causes immense damage. Which of the two extremes is a bigger evil, to be honest, I don't know.

This was Lisbet Magnusson's rejoinder:

I agree with you in what you are saying about women exposing their bodies in public. I think that is really something which makes it more difficult for women to be respected as human beings and be treated as equals. As a Swedish woman and Lutheran priest, now living in England and working in the Church of England, I am often confronted with these things in the Western Culture in the Scandinavian countries as well as here in Britain. Many women are upset because of this and we hate seeing women's bodies exposed in magazines in ordinary shops where we buy food etc. In Sweden, there is an organisation protesting and demonstrating against it. They have struggled for years to put an end to it but it seems impossible. I suppose that it is because there is so much money involved in this 'industry', which is considered as the third in size in the world producing money. (The first one is the war industry with their production of weapon etc and the second one is the drug trade).

This was my reply:

It is indeed encouraging that there are good souls like you in the West who have not been carried away by the maddening propaganda orchestrated to promote 'complete freedom'. People out there need to be told that only restricted freedom can work in this world if it were to function properly. No worthwhile achievement can be made in any area of serious human endeavour without imposing reasonable restrictions. I am often reminded of the analogy of the traffic laws that are pretty 'restrictive' in the West and yet are so religiously followed by the same permissive society which is highly indisciplined when it comes to similar laws in the domain of man-woman relationship. No wonder that while the West has been able to avoid physical disasters to a great extent on the roads, they have been able to only exacerbate the moral disasters of fornication, adultery, rapes, divorces etc. during recent times.

Lisbet Magnusson's response was:

I know that there are many so called good souls in the West, people who have not been carried away by the maddening propaganda. However we are without power. Many women feel sick going to an ordinary shop buying food etc because of the magazines they sell. Even if we try to avoid looking at it, still they are there -- reminding us of the lack of respect for women this shows. Some stupid people mean that if we have restrictions concerning for example pornography, prostitution etc, people will continue with it in secret. However, even if they do I think restriction against such things is a sign that the society does not accept it. Have we avoided regulations in the traffic or laws against burglary for the same reasons that people will break the law in secret anyhow?

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