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When women have gotten the right to vote or to divorce or to inherit property or to have legal protection from rape, it’s because men have agreed to change the law of the land.  A few forward-thinking women demanded those rights—some nicely, some not so nicely.  Allied to their cause was some of the menfolk, the forward-thinking men who were as mad as hell about women’s lack of rights and about how other men treated women.  Especially since the Enlightenment, these men, sometimes at great costs to themselves, have toiled to persuade other men to get mad too.

Forward-thinking men had to do the convincing since men who don’t already think highly of women aren’t likely to pay attention to what women have to say. They only listen to other men.

In the United States, men-to-men persuading rippled through the ranks of maledom until eventually enough men joined together to bend the arc of history.

For example, would American women have gotten the vote as early as 1920 if President Woodrow Wilson hadn’t publicly declared his support for the 19th amendment?  The Senate refused to vote on the amendment, so women went into overdrive to convince the all-male voters to elect pro-suffrage Representatives and Senators.  The men came through, and in 1919, the all-male House of Representatives and the all-male Senate ratified the amendment.

When it comes to religious teachings, however, righteous anger among men over the fate of womankind is harder to identify.  In Afghanistan, men granted women the vote in 1963.  No matter.  In 2009, the government of President Hamid Karzai passed the so-called marriage-rape law.  This law gives Afghan husbands the right to force their wives to have sex with them.  It also permits them to starve their wives if they refuse to have sex at least four times a week.  President Karzai pushed this law as a nod to the country’s Shiite minority and as a nod to hardline Shia clerics whose votes he needed to be re-elected.

When, oh when, will hardline Shia clerics get mad about the abuse of their mothers and of their sisters and of their daughters?  When will they speak out against it?  Because what’s clear is that until they speak out, the abuse will continue.

And really, what man could fail to get angry upon seeing the August 9,2010, Time Magazine’s cover with its photograph of Aisha, an eighteen-year old Afghani woman whose nose was sliced off by her Taliban husband?

Photograph by Jodi Bieber

In case you’ve been absent from the news cycle recently, here’s Aisha’s story in brief.  When she was twelve, her father decided to give her, along with her four-year old sister, to the man destined to become their husband.  This gift was intended to settle the blood feud started by Aisha’s uncle when he killed one of the future husband’s relatives.

According to the August 6, 2010, edition of the International Herald Tribune, Aisha and her sister were left in the care of their would-be husband’s family during the long periods when he went into hiding.  During his absences, Aisha and her sister were forced to live with the livestock and treated like slaves.  They were also beaten as punishment for their uncle’s crime.  When Aisha reached puberty, she was married to the Taliban fighter.  And when she was old enough to take care of herself, she ran away.

“Shamed” by her flight, her husband “lost his nose”—or so goes the Pashtun saying.  He tracked her down and dragged her back to his home province.  There, “on a lonely mountainside [he] cut off her nose and both ears.”  And there, he abandoned her.  How she made her way off the mountainside she still can’t remember.  Aisha, although angry about what happened to her, refuses to reveal her family name to protect her father from scrutiny and approbation.

American aid workers took Aisha to one of only nineteen women’s shelters (all run by private charities) in Afghanistan.  Although few in numbers, these shelters are already under threat.  After a TV station in Kabul complained that they were merely fronts for prostitution, President Karzai convened a commission to investigate these complaints.  If the charges stick, then the shelters will be shut down, leaving abused women with no place to go.  The man chosen by President Karzai to head this commission is a conservative mullah.  Although no official report has yet been released, the mullah has already spoken out in favor of the prostitution claim.  The mullah’s name is Nematullah Shahrani.  It has been shared with the press and so he, unlike Aisha’s father, is open to scrutiny and approbation.  And approbation he deserves.  As does President Karzai.

Now is a good time for a disclaimer.  This post is not a “cynical ploy” to “justify [the] occupation” of Afghanistan by American troops by “exploiting gender politics,”—a complaint launched at Time Magazine’s cover story of Aisha.  However, it is a ploy to get men who aren’t already angry—well, angry.  Why?  Because the more men get angry at the status quo the more likely they’ll attain the collective strength of will required to stop other men from abusing women.

Whether the violence done to Afghani women is justified based on religion, or culture, or both, makes little difference.  Let’s face it, attempts to tease apart religion from culture in these situations usually lead to stalemates.  But the fact remains that Aisha has no nose.  Her now ten-year old sister is still a slave in her husband’s household.  The shelter that rescued her may be shut down.  Married women raped by their husbands have no legal recourse.  Intra-family honor killings continue.  The stoning of women convicted of adultery continues.

One day, a few forward-thinking Afghani mullahs will finally get angry about the treatment of women—for example, they will get angry about the stoning of purported adulteresses.  Their anger will compel them to look for resources within the Islamic tradition to develop the kinds of authoritative, legal opinions that Afghani men take seriously.  This is the key.  Islamic cleric must speak out against violence.  To speak with authority, they must find support in Islamic sources.  And if they seek support in Islamic sources, they will find it.

Indeed, we need look no further than Iran—yes, Iran of all places—for how this might work.  Let’s look at the case of stoning.  Until the ratification of the Islamic Penal Code in 1983, stoning did not exist in Iran.  However, stoning became a legal punishment when the republic of Iran came under the rule of Muslim clerics.  Since many Muslim jurists shared the opinion that stoning could be considered Islamic, this sentence was included in the set of legal options ratified by the government.

Sharia Law is based on three authoritative texts:  the Qu’ran, the sayings attributed to Mohammed (the hadith), and Mohammed’s biography.  Stoning does not appear in any Shiite hadith, but it does appears in the Sunni hadith collected by Sahih Bukhari; according to this Sunni hadith, Mohammed ordered stoning more than 34 times as punishment.  However, the Qu’ran makes no mention of this form of punishment.

Women and men all over the world protested when Iran made stoning legal.  Faced with intense and persistent international criticism, the government of Iran, unlike that of President Karzai, reconsidered its stance on stoning.  Iran also faced intense domestic criticism (Afghanistan does not).  Thanks to both external and internal pressure, Iran eventually placed a moratorium on stoning.  A few judges ignored the moratorium and handed down stoning sentences during 2006-8.  But as of June 2009, Iran’s parliament has undertaken a review of the Islamic penal code, intent on eliminating stoning as a legal form of punishment.

Like Afghanistan, Iran is a nation where Muslim clerics have a great deal of influence on daily life.  Unlike Afghanistan, Iran looked for resources within Islam to justify removing stoning from the Islamic penal code.  Because it looked for those resources, it found them.

Because Iran is majority Shiite, it could disregard the Sunni hadith.  A country like Indonesia did not have that luxury—it is predominantly Sunni.  No matter.  Indonesia’s majority-male legislators made stoning illegal (except for Aceh province).  Some of its clerics looked for Islamic resources to ban stoning and found them.  By extension, if its clerics decide to look for Islamic resources to ban all violence against women, they will find them.

Afghanistan’s Muslim clerics could follow suit.  The war on Afghani women will not end until mullahs change their minds about violence against women.  The war on women will not end until Afghani men get angry and demand the mullahs change.  The war on women will not end until more men around the world get angry and demand that Afghani men and mullahs change.

And why focus all of the attention on Afghanistan.  Women all over the world continue to be subject to violence.  So men of the world, won’t you please get mad as hell!

Reference:  Rod Nordland, International Herald Tribune, 6 August 2010, p. 5.