Did you ever make a friend, that just gets you? That no matter how far apart you are, that connection is there? This is my friend Kim. We first met on a semester abroad program in college, when we went to Egypt and Israel together. We’ve stayed friends ever since and I’ve love watching her live her life with purpose and with a heart and conviction for the voiceless and victimized. She and her husband adopted two little girls from China and India and have led an amazing effort to rescue girls, sold in the sex industry, from India. The Courage House has rescued it’s first few girls and promotes healing, transformation and wholeness for girls affected by trafficking and prostitution. So, of course, these questions cut straight to the heart of what is always on Kim’s mind.
What is the “normal” Muslim Afghan’s view of women and how the Taliban has treated them? Why does the Taliban have so much power over the populace?
Please keep in mind that Afghanistan is extreme in almost every way. So, how Afghan women and viewed and treated, in in no way a representation of all Muslims in other parts of the world. Also, I am not an anthropologist or any sort of expert. I write from my experience and from some of the studies and reading I’ve done.
Muslims view men and women as being created by God, and having very specific roles as part of His creation. Women and men were created for different purposes, and Afghans take that to an extreme — keeping completely out of each others’ spheres. Women are to be wives and mothers and keepers of the home, and making sure everything runs smoothly. Men are to be the workers, wage-earners, fathers and public worshipers.
The key to understanding an Afghan woman’s place in society is to understand the culture of honor and shame. We don’t really have anything to compare it to in the West. Honor is the most important thing an Afghan family can have. If your name is even slightly tainted, things will go very badly for you. Afghans live very communally and deeply value their connections with their extended families, neighborhoods and ethnic tribes. Everyone lives with this foremost in their minds — how will my actions be seen and interpreted by my neighbors and how will that affect our honor? And women are the keepers of the family honor. How a woman conducts herself (with modesty being the most important) reflects directly on the men of her family and if she falters (or is thought to have faltered) it can be a risk to her life. So women have to be guarded carefully, watched and kept out of sight, all in order to preserve the honor of the family.
The Afghan women I knew would never have described themselves as oppressed. They were happy in their roles as daughters, wives and mothers. They think of head scarves the way I think of shoes — you can never have too many and they should match your outfit! They didn’t want to be like western women — walking around mostly naked, neglecting elderly parents and children to work outside the home, valuing possessions more than family (Is it true, Mrs. Carolyn, that American families have more cars than children??). They would love to have a chance at a good education, health care and peace and security, but they don’t want to be liberated, in the ways we would think.
The families that we had the privilege to know all had love and respect for each other. All the marriages were arranged, and all had lots and lots of children. We saw playful joking around, daddies loving on their babies, wives slapping her husband’s hand when it dipped into the cooking pot and grown sons kissing their mother’s hand in respect. We also saw abuse, girls sold in marriage to much older men, and men we considered to be “good guys” refusing to let their daughters go to school. We learned you cannot take a quick glance and think you know what is going on.
The Taliban, an extreme Islamic group (and if it’s extreme for Afghanistan, then we are talking several steps over the do-not-cross line) came out of religious schools in the refugee camps in Pakistan. Most of these young men had lost their families and were growing up wild and uneducated in these camps. Many had never grown up with a mother or grandmother and those influences were lost to school masters with whips and a view of God’s wrath and judgment that was as harsh as the landscape they lived in.
The Taliban’s view is that women are completely subservient to men. That there is no public place that it is appropriate for a woman to be, that she should never be educated, never see a man that isn’t part of her family, never speak above a whisper outside, never even wear high heeled shoes because then you could hear her footsteps. Women had traditionally worn the all encompassing burqua in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t the law, and in some cities, women didn’t wear it. Under the Taliban wearing it was the law. There were some places women were needed in the workforce and had been welcomed — as doctors and teachers for women and girls. Under Taliban rule, that was forbidden and most men won’t take their women to see a male doctor they aren’t related to, so what little health care and education there was for women vanished. As a result Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of women dying in childbirth (one in eight) and one of the highest rates of illiteracy for women (near 80%).
The Afghan people first welcomed the Taliban because they had gone through a decade or more of civil war — different war lords with private armies shooting it out for control of the country and absolutely destroying everything — and the Taliban swept up from the south and put an abrupt end to the lawlessness and war. It was a welcomed relief to see war lords being held accountable for their atrocities and a semblance of justice and order came about. Afghans took a deep breath, only to realize their new rulers extracted an even worse price. The Taliban took an already conservative, poor and broken country and sent it back to the stone age.
There is so much more I could say, but good grief, this is getting long! Here are some books if you are interested in more.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini — fiction, but the stories of Miriam and Lila were the stories of my neighbors.
In the Land of Blue Burquas, by Kate McCord — written by a friend of mine, who has a great understanding of local language and customs and tells stories that will leaving you laughing and weeping. Seriously, read this book!
Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks — a good overall view of Muslim women, across the globe, some great stories, and would give an average American a better understanding of Muslim women.