Afghanistan Myth Busting Series. Popular Myths About Afghan Women
In her book, “The Punishment of Virtue” Sarah Chayes wrote that, “Afghanistan is a place of too many layers to give itself up to the tactics of a rushed conformity. Afghanistan only uncovers itself with intimacy. And intimacy takes time.”
Too few Canadians have attempted to peel back the layers of Afghanistan’s complexities; and have rather, swallowed whole the portrayal we are fed by our mainstream media of a dark, dangerous and backwards country. Or, many have unquestionably accepted the propaganda of the “anti-war” movement, or more often, not noticed what it is that the pacifists fail to mention, not least of which is what will happen when the international community turns its back on Afghanistan and there is more bloodshed, not less.
This situation of manipulation and misinformation has led to the viral spread and ultimate entrenchment of some persistent myths about Afghanistan and Afghans among the Canadian public. It’s hard to know where to start in attempting to debunk these myths, but I rub up most often against those regarding Afghan women. So I’ll start there, posting one popular myth every day this week, and a response to each.
Feel free to suggest specific myths you want to see debunked in the comments section and I’ll do my best to address each, or to invite Guest Myth-Busters with relevant expertise to help.
Myth #1: Human rights are “western” and are not indigenous to Afghan culture. Western aid organizations try to impose western concepts like human rights on Afghan women, when patriarchy is the norm accepted by Afghan men and women. We should stop trying to enforce our culture on people who are fundamentally different from us and hold a different worldview.
The Truth: Since the early 20th century, Afghan women have been demanding the same basic rights that Canadian, American and European women also fought for over the last two centuries. Their movement has often been interrupted by war and by backlashes from clerics. Yet, there has long been a homegrown rights movement in Afghanistan; and its successes have been particularly notable as of late: from the quota exceeded for women in parliament, to important legal reforms to better protect women from violence, to the spread of girls’ education. All of these recent achievements have historical precedent within the Afghan context.
In 1926, the Afghan Queen Soraya addressed her countrywomen saying, “we must all contribute toward the development to our nation and this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge. So we should all attempt to acquire as much knowledge as possible in order that we may render our services to society in the manner of the women of early Islam.” More recently, the tireless rights activist Nasrine Gross, founder ofthe Roqia Centre for Rights, Studies and Education in Kabulhas explained, “It is not about the West wanting Afghanistan to Westernize, it’s about wanting Afghans to modernize.”
Yet it has never only been educated, urban women seeking to realize their rights. When Cheryl Benard interviewed hundreds of Afghan women living in refugee camps in Pakistan, when the Taliban were still in power in neighbouring Afghanistan, she found little acceptance of the poor treatment of women on the part of Afghan women. Benard writes,
"Afghan women, even those from very simple backgrounds, were embarrassed by their ignorance. Since this ignorance was statistically "normal", a fate shared by almost all women and proclaimed to be a proper part of their place in the world, we might expect them to have been accepting of it, but such was not the case. Most women regarded their inability to read, and their general lack of knowledge and education, as a painful deficit. That's interesting and noteworthy. It shows that even lifelong acculturation did not succeed in entirely stifling women's sense of themselves or their personal aspirations. Individually and collectively, women felt ashamed that they had not been schooled. They viewed it as an injustice that education had been withheld from them. As little girls, they had been told that their brothers were more valuable and more intelligent, that men were their intellectual and mental superiors. By the time they were grown, most women had studied the men around them carefully enough to know that this was not entirely the truth, that the story of men's universal brilliance and women's mental incapacity would not hold water in real life."
More recently, on January 25th, 2010, in Kabul 200 women’s organizations gathered to announce their newly signed declaration, which started as follows:
“We, women’s rights and Afghan civil society organizations participating in the abovementioned historic meeting, herewith declare the following:
1. Based on the persistent violation of the rights of women and men by the Taliban, whether when in power or after, object to any negotiation with the Taliban.
2. We desire peace and stability in Afghanistan, but we reaffirm that the Afghan Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are non-negotiable.”
Further, note the parallels in Afghanistan’s 2009 Declaration of Five Million Afghan Women Campaign, and The Declaration of Sentiments, Declaration of the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
Afghanistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has also signed, without any reservations, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Afghan women's organizations use these, and other international legal instruments, on a daily basis to insist that their rights be enshrined and protected by law. Turning rights on paper into rights in practice is no easy feat, but it is a battle well underway, and one we should pay close attention to, and support however we can.
Human rights are not western, but universal. They are something we all share, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or any other point of identity. Citizens are demanding rights in homegrown movements for social change, for development, and for political freedoms. It’s those voices whose calls to action we need to heed, not the calls to leave it well alone. Afghan women will be the first to tell you that.
And Canadian women should not forget that their own rights were never granted but were fought for in a long, drawn out battle against a culture that also believed patriarchy to be an immovable norm. We were not convinced then by the cultural argument when it was applied to us, so why on earth would be belittle the Afghans of today by suggesting that culture and tradition trump the rights and dignity that Afghan women believe themselves to be entitled to?
For more on Afghan women in history, see the fact sheet here; and watch for the upcoming fact sheet on the Afghan women’s movement.
About: This is the first in a series on popular myths about Afghanistan. For Myth #2, read The Afghan Women's Movement on International Forces, for Myth #3, read The Myth That Afghans Don't Want Us There, for Myth #4, read Guest Myth-Buster Melissa Roddy's The Persistent Afghan Pipeline Conspiracy Theory, Myth #5 is Afghanistan is Backwards and Irreparable, and Myth #6 is Afghanistan has never been conquered by outside forces.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist