Thursday, 16 November 2006

Afghanistan: Battered Women

This ran on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 16 November 2006.

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Tuesday's post by my fellow AlertNet blogger, F. Brinley Bruton, reminded me of one of the most disturbing NGO seminars I've attended. It was in Kabul in the summer of 2002, and the subject was domestic violence.

The panel was a mix: an Afghan judge, an Amnesty rep and a local mullah supposedly known for his more tolerant views. It started off with a description of the suffering many women face at home from husbands (and others) who abuse them. The discussion soon turned, however, when the mullah explained his interpretation of how much, not if, the Koran allowed such things.

Then one or two men in the audience got involved to argue that the mullah's reading of the book had got it wrong, and actually much more violence against wives was permitted, in fact required in some instances. There followed a polite but absurdly grotesque debate between them about whether leaving marks on the skin was acceptable or not when you beat your wife, whether the blows should be punishingly hard or "light as a feather", and whether it was necessary to beat your wife when she wore make-up or not.

Needless to say, the NGO organiser of the event had no clue the discussion would take such a nasty turn, and the internationals in the audience sat in shock, all staring at each other with jaws agape and not knowing how to respond. Some of us tried to bring the conversation back to the suffering the women were facing, but without being able to quote scripture, we were dismissed as irrelevant by those who only debate by exchanging verses. Not one Afghan in the audience of thirty or so mostly younger people said anything against them or even one word to suggest that the very idea of using violence against your family was wrong.

The Afghan women in the audience -- mostly journalists and NGO workers -- didn't even flinch. They'd heard it all before. When afterward I expressed my horror to one female journalist that the conversation had taken such a turn, she said something along the lines of: "No, it's good they spoke so openly, so you know what it's really like here. That's the mentality we're dealing with." Given Bruton's post, it seems sadly not much has changed in four years.

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