It’s an unfortunate axiom of modern life that women’s rights are seriously curtailed in much of the less-developed world. In northwestern Thailand, for example, mothers sell their 12-year-old daughters into sexual slavery so they can pay to send their sons to school.
In Russia, so many husbands beat their wives, with total impunity, that an ancient Russian proverb seems apt even today. It says: “A beating man is a loving man.”
In Saudi Arabia, clerics sentenced a 75-year-old woman to 40 lashes and three months in jail for asking two men to bring her some food. Meantime, religious authorities encourage child marriage, and last month an 8-year-old girl managed to divorce her 50-year-old husband.
A list of barbarity could go on and on and reach around the globe. And in the most egregious cases, the United States and other nations express their distress and disdain. But what about the nations that the United States invaded and, to some degree, still control: Iraq and Afghanistan? In both cases, the U.S. imposed or encouraged relatively liberal new laws for women, including a constitutional provision in Iraq that awards them 25 percent of the seats in parliament.
In Afghanistan before 2001, women lived in a medieval Taliban theocracy that did not allow girls to go to school or women to leave the house without a male escort. So, after the invasion, the United States needed to do very little to give women a sense of liberation.
Still, in both Afghanistan and Iraq right now, women’s rights are facing setbacks.
Perhaps the best known of them, in Afghanistan, was President Hamid Karzai’s recent decision to sign a law requiring Shiite women to put on fancy clothes and makeup if their husbands request it – and then to have sex whenever he demands it.
Karzai, relatively unpopular now, did this at the behest of Shiite clergy whose support he needs in the elections this summer.
The Afghan government could not function without Western aid, most of it from the United States.
After absorbing a broad international rebuke, Karzai said he would try to change the law. But if he caves in to Western concerns, he knows full well that he may lose re-election in August.
While we watch Karzai squirm, Afghan women are subjected to the same brutal treatment woman face worldwide in fundamentalist religious states. So far this year, there has been a rash of acid attacks on women and girls who, the attackers believe, have somehow besmirched their honor.
Last fall, extremists in Kabul threw acid on 15 schoolgirls. One of them said she had been walking to school when a man on a motorcycle pulled up beside her, asked if she was going to school, then lifted her burqa and sprayed her face with acid.
Well-justified condemnation rained down on the Afghan government. But many Afghan men saw the attack as an inspiration. Human rights workers say acid attacks have flourished across the country in the last few months, though reporting on those episodes is imperfect. But these incidents are documented: Last month, three dozen girls were hospitalized after a man threw a bottle of poison into their classroom. There have been two more similar attacks in the last few weeks.
Afghan extremism doesn’t always target only women. In southwestern Afghanistan earlier this month, Taliban militants caught a young couple trying to elope. A firing squad killed both of them.
In Iraq, women suffer many of the same injustices – honor killings, acid attacks, summary executions. In Basra last year, while extremist Shiite militias controlled the city, reporters and human rights workers described grisly scenes of women strangled, tortured, disfigured and beheaded for purported violations of that particular sect’s interpretation of Islamic law.
With help from U.S. forces, the Iraqi military now controls Basra, and women are far less threatened – for now. But the American-mandated promotion of women in government has not taken women very far. Women do sit in the parliament, but they wield little influence. Meantime, Nawal al-Samarraie, Iraq’s minister for women’s affairs, quit her job when the central government cut her budget – to $1,500 a month for the entire Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
In the United States, women have fought for 200 years to win equal rights and have come a very long way. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women must climb a far steeper hill. Let’s hope that the accomplishments of Western women can serve as an inspiration to shorten the journey.
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