This is not an argument about contraception, it is an argument about power

My little sister, via facebook:

As a woman in America, I have had a lot of reasons to be angry lately, and the controversy over contraception, and the unacceptable statements made by Rush Limbaugh, are only the most recent example. But the fact is, this is not an argument about contraception, it is an argument about power, and the refusal of a certain subset of the population to relinquish even a bit of it.

There is no point in reasoning with these Old White Men. Men who separate women into wives, whores and harpies. Men who hate the poor, the brown, the black. Men who are terrified of the future. Men who can never be allies, who can never see women, queer people, and people of colour as friends, colleagues, and equals. Men like Rush Limbaugh rage against the immorality – the selfishness! – of every person who does not fit the hierarchy they bought as truth, because without that system there are no excuses, no justifications, and no solace for the self-inflicted misery of their lives. They will not change, and they will not willingly relinquish their privilege, because they know that their time is over, the world is changing and we are joyfully counting the hours, waiting for them to die.

The New York Times reports on slavery in Afghanistan, actually uses the s-word.

Human rights abuses in Afghanistan are too often wrapped in euphemisms and exoticism. Think: “opium brides.” The term conjures images of dark-eyed women sensually smoking from opium pipes while sitting on silk cushions, but it actually refers to little girls who are handed over to drug lords (who subsequently rape, traffic and sometimes kill them) by their indigent families as “repayment” for poppy crop debts.  Most international media outlets are guilty of using terms like “opium bride” for people who, were they not South/Central Asian, would simply, bluntly, accurately be called victims of human trafficking. Because that’s what they are.

Given the prevalence of this double standard, I was surprised today when I read the New York Times article ‘For Punishment of Elder’s Misdeeds, Afghan Girl Pays the Price.’ In describing one of the most violent and heinous violations of women’s human rights in Afghanistan today, the NYT calls the practice of baad what it actually is: the enslavement of young girls and women for purposes of sexual exploitation and manual labor. It even used the s-word!

Read the rest of my guest post at Wronging Rights.

“Virginity is a natural stamp,” says Afghan Supreme Court member

IRIN recently published an Afghanistan article that has it all: women being treated as pieces of property (in this case, defective pieces of property), rampant ignorance of medical science, misogynist government officials and cultural practices that turn life into a miserable horror for people unlucky enough to run afoul of them.

It includes one of the worst stories I’ve heard in the past month –and that’s saying something.

Raela* was forcefully taken to a medical examiner on her wedding night after her husband accused her of losing her virginity and beat her. The examination showed she had lost her virginity long before the marriage and the 22-year-old was handed over to the judiciary for prosecution on charges of adultery.

Raela’s incarceration has devastated her family. They have to pay back almost US$10,000 to their former son-in-law, which was allegedly spent on the wedding ceremony.

“They have put their house up for sale and decided to leave this neighbourhood because they cannot live with the dishonour,” said one relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A weak, unprofessional justice sector and deeply ingrained prejudices against women are responsible for the nightmare Raela and other women face.

While virginity is not mentioned in the country’s penal system and other laws, say activists and lawyers, hundreds of women like Raela unfairly face serious formal and informal penalties for the alleged illicit loss of this cultural requirement.

Sexual intercourse outside marriage is a sin under Islamic jurisprudence and the Afghan laws largely derived from it.

“Virginity is a natural stamp,” said Mawlawi Mohammad Qasim, a member of the Supreme Court’s penal bureau. “When it is lost and the reason is proved to be illegitimate sexual relations it implies adultery, which should be punished,” he said adding that an unmarried person caught having sex outside marriage, male or female, could be sentenced to three to five years in prison while married adulterers received heavier penalties.

And Mawlawi Qasim’s beliefs aren’t out of sync with those of the society at large, nor, sadly, with the Afghan medical community.

Medical workers are often called in to prove a woman’s virginity – a requirement for women preparing for marriage.

“Virginity and adultery tests are part of our normal work,” said Del Aqa Mahboobi, a medical expert in Kabul. But there are few facilities and a shortage of female experts to undertake very intimate tests.

The tests involve an examination of the vagina to see whether a girl’s or woman’s hymen is intact, but experts say it can be torn by factors other than intercourse. When forced or coerced, according to Amnesty International, virginity tests degrade women and are a form of torture.

In what seems to be the lone ray of light in an otherwise very, very grim situation, a handful of activists are speaking out against these practices and the attitudes that perpetuate them.

Demanding that men too face the law, Sheela Samimi, an advocacy officer with the Afghan Women’s Network (AWN), said: “Can a girl ask [medical experts] to test whether her would-be husband had sex before marriage and when proved wrong would officials prosecute the man as they do a woman?”

With every female victim of adultery, she added, there was a man or men who rarely faced justice.

“Informal justice”

Back in November, I had a long, frustrating conversation with another expat about the merits of Afghanistan’s “informal justice system,” which isn’t really a system but rather a huge collection of widely varying local dispute resolution practices. The other expat romanticized these practices, peppering her speech with  jirgas and shuras and tribal elders. I asked her if she had talked to many Afghans about their experiences with “informal justice.” She said she had not, because her employer did not allow her to move beyond the most heavily garrisoned areas of Kabul.

I sighed, thinking how ridiculous it was that this woman was being paid as a researcher and expert in the rule of law, and snarkily recounted the absurd/scary experiences of several Afghan friends who had to deal with “informal justice.”  I didn’t mince words. The researcher grimaced.

But holy sh*t, folks, those stories of beatings, extortion and discrimination pale in comparison to this kernel of horror from TIME:

Abdul Wahid Zhian, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Organization of Afghanistan, a nonprofit that provides free legal assistance, had to leave his native Ghazni province a year ago after taking on two controversial runaway cases that resulted in his receiving death threats. The first case involved a father who had raped and impregnated his daughter but was acquitted of charges. In the second, two girls were raped by their father and brother. Yet the men were pardoned, in the interest of resolving an interfamily dispute, by a tribal jirga that ultimately decided that matters could be made right by executing the lawyer and the girls. (They are now in hiding.) “We have a cultural problem here that undermines the law,” says Zhian, who is now seeking asylum abroad. He remains adamant that “running away is a right, not a crime.”

I…I…I’m at a loss here.

Back in the USA: What I’ve been up to

I left Kabul mid December for an extended vacation back home in the United States. In between catching up with old friends, adding someone new and wonderful to my life, hugging my little sisters until they begged for mercy, attending an aidbloggers party in Washington, DC and a Balkan music festival in Brooklyn, giving a talk at my old school and working on a report for my job in Kabul, I’ve also tried to be a better blogger for UN Dispatch, my unfailingly patient and understanding second employer. That is to say, I’ve tried to be a blogger who doesn’t go weeks or even months between posts.

Two of my recent pieces (also linked in my RSS feed to the right):

A Taliban Reversal on Girls’ Education? Not So Fast.
Afghan education minister Farooq Wardak’s announcement that the Taliban no longer oppose girls’ education has been met with cheers internationally. Grouchy kill-joy than I am, I give a few reasons why these celebrations are premature, and perhaps even ill-advised.

Reconciling Afghanistan
In this long-than-usual analysis piece, I examine some of the challenges and dilemmas any future talks with the Taliban will pose, and argue for greater inclusion of Afghan civil society in peacemaking efforts.

Two women aid workers murdered in Helmand

Buried in the disturbing story of the police force from one district in Ghazni defecting to the Taliban en masse is this stomach-churning example of why it’s deluded to believe today’s Taliban are any less murderously or absolutely committed to the removal of women from society than their predecessors were:

In Helmand Province, the bodies of two female Afghan aid workers were found on a roadside Sunday, both having been shot to the death.

The women, one named Majabina and the other Nazaneen, ran a small vocational training center called Majooba Hejrawi, named for an Afghan poet. The center, in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, catered exclusively to women, who learned to sew, make clothing and cut hair, as well as how to prepare fruit preserves.

Majabina and Nazaneen were last seen Friday getting into a Toyota Corolla. Their bodies were found near the village of Tango Guzar, which lies between the towns of Marja and Nawa.

The article doesn’t say the Taliban killed the victims. However, given that the women worked for a small, local NGO and would necessarily have had the support of community leaders, it’s highly unlikely they were killed by anyone but Taliban agents, who would have veiwed their vocational training center as an affront to the Taliban belief that women belong at home, catering unquestioningly to men’s desires –or dead.

Someone should remind Nick Kristof of this.

Afghan women activists will fight for their place at the table

Afghanistan’s women know this will be a year of game-changing decisions in their country, and they want to be part of the decision-making process. Two recent articles highlight this.

Kathleen Parker at the Washington Post describes meeting Colonel Shafiqa Quraishi and Shukria Asil, recipients of the International Women of Courage Award:

Speaking through interpreters, the two women reiterated a dominant theme that was repeated over and over during several days of events honoring brave women around the world.

“We are not victims.”

Yes, of course, many have been victimized by brutal regimes in some cases, or by cultural forces, or by men who have hijacked religion to justify actions that would be treated as crimes in our part of the world. But these women are not seeking restitution; they are seeking empowerment.

This is a crucial distinction that underscores the courage they display in the routine machinations we call everyday life.

Female judges kiss their families goodbye in the mornings and make peace with their maker just in case they don’t return. Parents send their daughters to school despite assaults such as the acid attacks on 15 schoolgirls and teachers in 2008.

For Eurasianet, Aunohita Mojumdar writes about the emergence of a vocal and increasingly united women’s movement based in Kabul. Women activists worry they will not be meaningfully included in coming decisions of war and peace, and are gearing up to oppose their exclusion.

Women are not welcome at the negotiating table, complains Orzala Ashraf Nemat, a human rights activist and a leading member, like [Palwasha] Hassan, of the Afghan Women’s Network. “They need to be part of designing the peace and reconciliation process,” Nemat said, noting that only one female delegate was invited to January’s London Conference, a gathering that mulled the future of the Afghanistan stabilization process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].Though attendees of the London Conference and others have offered assurances that women’s rights will be upheld, Afghan women are not relaxing. “How much of the constitution is being implemented now?” asked Nemat. “Right now we don’t have a Taliban system, but an elected government, and yet there is no guarantee for women’s rights.”

Nemat is busy mobilizing women for meetings with stakeholders, domestic and international. “We would like to know the details and nitty-gritty of the [peace] process and who is going to sacrifice what [in reconciliation],” she says.

The right women need to get into the process, argues Nargis Nehan, director of Equality for Peace and Democracy, a civil society group working with women and youth. While agreeing that guns and money have played a larger and more influential role in Afghan politics to date, Nehan said she is placing her faith in the growing number of women activists coming together.

Collaborating with the Afghan Women’s Network, Nehan has been holding a series of meetings with other activists and urging Indian and Pakistani women to convene a meeting of the ‘Women’s Trialogue.’ The trialogue initiative has so far held two meetings in support of peace among the countries, and Nehan hopes the next gathering will strive to support the efforts of Afghan women, and add muscle to their civil rights demands.

Cooperation between Afghan women activists on this scale is new. Though active since 2001, the efforts of various women’s rights organizations have been scattered and sometimes competitive, says Hassan, who feels she did not get enough support from women MP during her unsuccessful confirmation process.

“We don’t see each other as complementary,” she says, attributing the weakness of the movement to the long period of disempowerment. But, as the women’s movement is now starting to come together, Hassan is preparing for a struggle. “We have to be ready for a fight,” she asserted.

And a fight is coming. In fact, it has already begun.

“That is why you are here”

AREU just released a new report on the Shia Personal Status Law (previously known in the Western press as the Shia Family Law), and it is one hell of a report –fifty one pages long and illustrative of how the international community interacts with the Afghan government and Afghan civil society. I’m making my way through it now. When I’m done, I hope I’ll have time to post something on it. Until then, here’s a telling snippet:

The Afghan organisations interviewed reported being consistently told that this was an internal issue of the Afghan state and it was outside of the role of international institutions to interfere. UNAMA was singled out for particular criticism for their inaction. Civil society had higher expectations of UNAMA’s role in speaking out on human rights, gender and political development issues. One MP remarked on UNAMA’s cumbersome bureaucracy, slow reactions and the institution perceiving itself as always having its hands tied.

Representatives from UN agencies as well as western embassies were also reportedly present in the parliamentary gallery when the bill was being discussed and did not raise the issue as a concern with their own governments at that time, to the consternation of MPs alarmed at the bill’s contents and the lack of debate. During a meeting hosted by a UN agency between Afghan women activists, MPs, UNAMA and several embassies, one Afghan woman stated, “We understand if the embassies have to work behind the scenes. But they should be working, you know? And it is UNAMA’s job to be interfering, to speak up on human rights issues. That is why you are here.”

Interesting things

The Migrant Express – Four days through Central Asia on the crowded Dushanbe to Moscow train. This tender, humane seven-part RFE_RL documentary explores the social and economic consequences of Tajiks migrating to Russia for work.


Via the CPJ Blog – Afghan journalists are finally speaking with one voice, and are calling for a full investigation into the death of New York Times journalist Sultan Munadi and compensation for Munadi’s family.


Also on the CPJ Blog – An Iraqi journalist finds refuge in Phoenix, Arizona, but struggles to find work. Eventually, his persistence pays off …he gets a job at Red Lobster.


Kevin Heller blogs about the inevitable attacks on the Goldstone Commission, and the Goldstone-bashers respond in the comments.


The slow march of justice in the former Yugoslavia continues. Four former members of the Bosnian Army have been arrested on suspicion of participating in war-time crimes against Bosnian Croats in a village in Herzegovina. Meanwhile, the ICTY trial of Radovan Karadzic is set to begin October 19th.


The author of this article about expat snobbery and ignorance in Bosnia is someone I know personally, and we were part of the same large social circle in Sarajevo. He makes some important, if painful, points about how things work in the international organizations. However, I do think he exaggerates the extent to which young expats isolate themselves and eschew discovering all that is great about Bosnia. (Older, more mercenary expats are a different story.)  Also, the line, “the foreigners lecturing Bosnia have a fair amount of trouble mustering the necessary vocabulary to order a beer at a local bar” is a tad ridiculous. That’s the first phrase every expat learns.


From the “things that make me ashamed of my country” files or, alternately, “America’s shitty domestic human rights record”: in eight states and the District of Columbia, many insurance companies consider being a victim of domestic violence a “pre-existing condition,” and thus grounds for denying coverage. Jillian Hewitt at Feministe is spot-on when she writes: “This is so ridiculous that it may make my post seem obvious or unnecessary, but I think it makes it all the more essential to talk about. This is not a controversial talking point; it does not even seem like a political one to me—this is about humanity. Or inhumanity, as it were.”

Election day in Kandahar

What I’m reading right now.

The young woman from Kandahar sat with me in the office of an independent monitoring group two days before Afghanistan’s August 20th presidential election. Halima had defied her family and threats from neighbors in the tumultuous southern region to work as an election observer and to vote. “It’s in our destiny to take our rights,” she said. “We should not be scared of anything.”

There was, unfortunately, a lot to be scared of on election day in Afghanistan’s south, as the rest of this HRW article details.