Women reforming Afghanistan in their own image

An eight-year-old girl is tethered to a plough, used like a farm animal to work in the field. When asked about her work conditions her "owner" just shrugs and responds that’s the Afghan way.

At eight years old the girl's family sold her into slavery under tribal law to atone for a male family member’s crime, and unable to read or know any different lifestyle, the girl may not know she, as a person, is entitled to basic human rights.

But she would welcome it.

From afar, Afghanistan is a country where western and other military forces are engaged. People know women are not given equal rights, but may dismiss that as religious or cultural.

It is warfare on human rights, hijacked by political opportunists, disguised and sold as religious and cultural to achieve a twisted political agenda born of years of Soviet oppression and stagnation followed by years of tribal civil war.

In a land where 40 per cent of the doctors and 80 per cent of the teachers had been women, the mostly illiterate Taliban came to power from fighting in the hills, headquartered in caves, maintained rule through terrorism and warfare against the Afghan people, particularly women.

Women were not allowed out unless escorted by a male relative. They were ordered to cover up from head to toe in a burka –with only a mesh opening through which to see.

They could not go to school, work or receive medical care except from a woman — unlikely as women weren’t allowed to work or even go outside.

Today, the Taliban have been driven back into the hills by a military presence of more than 40 countries and the United Nations. They continue to fight and carry out acts of terror while a new government in Afghanistan still grapples with establishing order and an army, while the people of the country attempt to get life back on track.

Poverty, years of civil war, a decimated countryside and economy and what now amounts to a generation raised with terror and no education are obstacles that remain — along with continued terrorism.

Fundamental to the human rights issues in Afghanistan however are the tribal laws that remain the way of life at the grassroots level despite an espousement of human rights at the national level.

But what you don't realize is that Afghanistan is now home to a very strong women's movement.

That’s correct, the women’s movement.

In the face of international apathy and inequality at home, Afghan women are taking up their own cause — despite the risks. They are standing up to obtain rights in the face of terrorism and more. Women in Afghanistan are facing terrible odds, but are choosing to fight for their future.

Not that long ago school girls who dared not wear their burqa had acid sprayed in their face by bandits while en route to school. Such things are horrific by North American standards, but common place in Afghanistan.

Whether it’s terrorism or tribal law, the obstacles to establishing a 21st century lifestyle in Afghanistan are formidable.

Afghanistan today is a contradiction in terms.

Life there embraces religious piety, but encompasses brutality. Some live in mud huts, others ostentatious mansions. Shops display Hollywood-style mannequins with short hair and strapless gowns, yet women on the street wear burkas. Pop music competes with that from mosques. Popular soap operas were taken off the air, but people watch them on computers. Liquor is forbidden, yet restaurants serve wine. Afghanistan has a rich culture, yet there is violence in every home.

If many countries try to bring security and keep terrorists at bay in a primitive land while government and citizens gain a foothold and make progress in what has become a confused mass of contradictions, it’s up to them — and they are.

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