How can we ever know what Afghans want?

For starters, we can pay attention when they spell it out.

On elections and economic development:

Millions like Mubaruz Khan stayed home on Aug. 20, a sharp contrast to 2004, when Afghans jammed polling stations to give President Hamid Karzai his first term. Ominous warnings from the Taliban suppressed turnout, but some Afghans said they were also discouraged by the government’s failure to halt endemic corruption, spiraling unemployment and crumbling security.

“We want peace. We want security. We want job opportunities,” the 55-year-old Khan said Monday. “Otherwise, the democracy and the elections that they are all shouting about every day mean nothing to us.”

On women’s human rights and political inclusion:

“In the beginning we were a priority, and efforts were made to have the active participation of women in public life. Now we are no longer on the agenda of the government and international community,” said [Meshrano Jirga MP] Shinkai Karokhail. “We are not being consulted on any major decisions. We are not being consulted on talks with the Taliban. There is a fear in our heart that the politicians will compromise our rights.”

New York State bans shackling prisoners during childbirth

Earlier this summer, Human Rights Watch (one of many organizations that campaigned to end the policy of shackling pregnant inmates) wrote to the New York State Assembly:

Shackling of women in these circumstances represents a grave health risk and an unacceptable and unnecessary affront to women’s dignity. By passing NYS 1290, the New York state legislature would join a growing community of medical authorities, international bodies, and penal systems that have come out against this dangerous practice and in favor of ensuring the human rights and constitutional rights of women in state custody. We urge you to vote in favor of this important legislation.

Women who are shackled are at risk for injury during transportation to medical appointments, can suffer added pain during delivery, and may be deprived of appropriate care during examinations and delivery.[ii] Officials from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have stated that “physical restraints have interfered with the ability of physicians to safely practice medicine by reducing their ability to assess and evaluate the physical condition of the mother and the fetus … thus, overall putting the lives of women and unborn children at risk.”[iii] This risk is heightened by the fact that the pregnancies of women in custody are usually already high-risk.[iv] In addition, the humiliation brought on by the shackling is inflicted on a population with a high incidence of past sexual or physical abuse.[v] Finally, it is inflicted without a persuasive security justification: The large majority of women in prison are there on account of convictions for non-violent offenses,[vi] and those jurisdictions that have restricted the use of shackles have not reported security problems.[vii]

The Assembly, to its credit, passed legislation that bans shackling unless the woman in question is a threat to hospital staff or guards. New York Governor David Paterson signed the legislation into law this week. This change in policy is, as Michael Mechanic put it in Mother Jones, “a small, humane step for a very, very troubled American institution.”

Six states now prohibit shackling inmates during childbirth under either all of most circumstances. Forty-four more to go.

File this under “things that make me ashamed of my country”

It would have been nice of  the judge who sentenced sixteen year old Sara Kruzan  to life without parole for the crime of killing her pimp (the man who raped Kruzan and forced her into prostitution when she was just a middleschooler) to have weighed seriously not only Kruzan’s young age, but also the fact that she was also, very obviously, a victim of human trafficking.

Mindboggling.

Some thoughts on the Phoenix Liberian case

By now, most of you have heard the heartrending story of the little Liberian refugee girl who was raped by four boys, also Liberian refugees, in Phoenix, AZ.  The four boys ranged in age from 9 to 14 years old. When the girl’s parents learned what happened, they told the police to take their daughter away, that the shame she had brought on her family was too great to bear. The girl was subsequently placed in foster care.

Like I said, most of you know these details already. And if you’ve read the news stories, you also know what the knee-jerk media and public reaction to this story has been — oh, those savage Africans!

Right wing columnist Phyllis Chesler even titled her column –I’m not kidding– “Child Barbarians in Phoenix: Obama Extends their Stay,” and used what happened in Phoenix to advance her argument that people from the “Third World” are inherently criminal, violent, animalistic and unassimilable into American society.

She wrote:

Most Americans have no idea how different our culture is from cultures in the Middle East, central Asia, or Africa. If differences are acknowledged, America and the West are blamed for them. The barbarism, genocide, perpetual civil and religious wars, the cruelties of Sharia law (stoning, cross-amputations, be-heading), and the utterly tragic treatment of women, children, and the poor in the Third World– all are blamed on western imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism.

Not true–or so I have been arguing for years. Some barbarism is indigenous to a region. But even if it were true–what’s to be done now? Should we willingly welcome cannibals [Huh? -Ed], gang-rapists, child-rapists, polygamists, (dis)honor murderers to our shores?

Terrible things happen in the Third World: Children as young as five are routinely kidnapped into slavery, or forced to become suicide bombers or child-soldiers. Children see their mothers raped, their fathers tortured, their parents and other relatives brutally murdered. Male children are forced to rape their own mothers, female children are forced to sexually service men old enough to be their grandfathers. No one protects, consoles, re-educates, or “treats” them as trauma victims.

Immigrants bring both their barbarism and their traumatized histories right along with them when they come to America.

Anti-refugee blogger Ann Corcoran also weighed in. Displaying her inimitable talent for creatively combing prejudices, she wrote :

This is a heinous practice we are well aware of with followers of Islam—-blaming the rape victim.  But these Liberians are likely not Muslims, so I was interested to learn that this cultural problem was coming into the US with other refugee cultures as well.

Predictably, one of her commenters responded:

The family of the rape victim should be deported immediately. They don’t understand nor to they have the same values that we Americans have. They have no business being here. The families of the rapists should also be investigated. We shouldn’t have to allow people with these sort of views to live in this country. They don’t seem to understand what civilized people allow. We can’t have them breeding a generation of this kind of thinking in this land. I am sorry if this sounds harsh, but if they came here for a better life, that is fine, but if their values will alter our way of life, then they shouldn’t be allowed to come.

Americans also commit rape, just like Americans also murder and abuse their children and intimate partners. As has been proved time and again, foreign born residents –including refugees- are actually less likely to commit violent crimes than Americans born in this country. These are not opinions, they are facts. (See here and here.)

A climate of impunity for violence against women, much of it sexual, has existed in Liberian society for a long time, and reached unfathomable proportions during Liberia’s civil war. This is also true.

But so is the tremendous effort Liberian activists have put into ending that culture of impunity and changing social attitudes toward women and victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Like every other society, Liberian society is not culturally or attitudinally monolithic. Certain opinions are widely (though not universally) held, but extrapolating the actions or opinions of any individual or small group of individuals to the entire racial, ethnic, religious or national category that person or those individuals fall into is illogical, dangerous bigotry. It reduces people to categorical absolutes, dismisses all of life’s messiness as predestination, and encourages faulty assumptions about violence, culture, and causality.

The parents of the rape victim in Phoenix have done themselves and the rest of the Liberian refugee community in the United States no favours by abandoning their daughter and telling the press how ashamed of her they are, but they do not represent all Liberians refugees, or all Liberians. Prominent Liberians from U.S.-based activists to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have condemned the reaction of this family and expressed their support for the victim. The Liberian diaspora has recoiled in as much horror at the entire situation as everyone else.

This is not about Africans.

This is not about Liberians.

This is not about refugees.

And this is not about your agenda or my agenda when it comes to immigration.

This is about a little girl in Phoenix who had something terrible done to her, parents who betrayed their child when she needed them most, and yes, four little boys who will now be swallowed by the criminal justice system and whose lives will forever be defined by a crime they committed as juveniles.

***

The county prosecutor for Maricopa County has stated that the 14 year old boy will be tried as an adult, while the 9, 10 and 13 year olds will be tried as juveniles. Instead of receiving counseling and rehabilitation to re-enter society, these boys will spend years, possibly decades in the case of the 14 year old, in some of the worst prisons in the democratic world.

Childhood is defined legally and understood socially by a person’s age, not by his or her behaviour or capacity. Ten year olds are fully capable of drinking and smoking, but we don’t let them do those things. Fifteen year olds are certainly capable of fighting in wars –but we don’t let anyone enlist in the armed forces until she or her reaches age 18, and we view combatants below that age elsewhere in the world as victims of adult manipulation and unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

A few nights ago, I asked a lawyer friend to explain the rationale behind trying children as adults and sentencing them to hard time in adult prisons. He said that there isn’t a sound legal rationale behind it –it’s purely pandering to a lynch mob mentality for political gain, buying votes by satiating voters’ desire for retribution without the consideration of mitigating circumstances. It’s not that we view child offenders as adults when they commit terrible crimes, he explained, it’s that we stop caring that they are children.

All of that made perfect sense to me. There are many aspects of American political culture that are incredibly illiberal and backward, and our attitude toward juvenile offenders is one of these. Not until 2005, following the Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons, did it become illegal everywhere in the United States to apply the death penalty to juvenile offenders.

Even then, the court ruled 5-4, and the decision is still controversial. Think about that: it’s controversial for the United States to no longer be executing people for crimes they committed as kids. Prior to Roper, fifteen states still allowed the execution of juvenile offenders as young as 16 years old.

What is in store for the Liberian refugee children at the center of the Phoenix tragedy? For the little girl, I hope, all the medical and psychological services she needs, with or without the future involvement of her parents in her life. It is also my sincere wish that she finds the kind of unconditional love she was denied by her parents.

For the boys, life from now on will be nasty, poor, solitary, and bereft of opportunities for rehabilitation. Given where they will stand trial, convictions are all but guaranteed, and the resulting sentences will likely be lengthy, custodial ones. The conditions in Maricopa County jails violate minimum humanitarian standards. Infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio runs Maricopa like his personal, authoritarian fiefdom. I wrote about Arpaio last year. If you think I’m being dramatic and exaggerating what the Liberian boys will face in the days ahead –or you believe the boys deserve whatever is coming to them– I suggest you keep reading.

Continue reading

Odds and ends

The Afghan parliament is revising the country’s marriage law, and not in woman-friendly ways, according to AlterNet:

The Afghan parliament is expected to soon approve revisions to its marriage law that will do very little in the way of improving women’s rights. Despite recent demands that the country radically rework its policies on issues such as polygamy and a woman’s right to work, Afghanistan’s government is signaling a continued adherence to regressive traditions.

In a recent letter to Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, activists said, “slight changes in the wordings of the law, rather than changes in content,” have rendered the revisions ineffectual.

Additionally, Shinkai Kharokhel, a lawmaker involved in the legislation, told the Associated Press on July 14 that the law’s revisions do little more than uphold structural inequalities in the country. She said many Afghan women “are illiterate, and they don’t have financial security and no one will give her money … shelter, medical, food, all these expenses belong to the man, and he can hold that back.”

What is perhaps most unfortunate among the “revisions” is the Afghan government’s failure to erase a law that calls on women to engage in sex with their husbands at least every four days. Although the proposed revisions do eliminate a time frame for sexual requirements, they still allow a man to withhold financial support for his wife if she refuses to “submit to her husband’s reasonable sexual enjoyment,” Human Rights Watch has reported.

“[…] submit to her husband’s reasonable sexual enjoyment”?

That’s grim stuff. Here’s hoping MP Kharokhel and other progressive MPs make more of a dent in this law.

***

While we’re on the topic of misogyny and sexism, my landlord busted out the following gem two nights ago when I complained about sexual harassment of women on the streets of my city.

“You know the Bloodhound Gang song ‘Street Legal Whore’? Well, that describes most women your age. Take it [the harassment] as a compliment. Pretty soon you’ll be too old for it.”

Needless to say, I’m moving out at the end of the summer. I’d move out sooner, but can’t afford to.

(Oh, and that foul Bloodhound Gang song is actually titled “I’m the Least You Could Do.”)

***

I have nothing but contempt for Jeff Sessions.

Via Human Rights Now:

Yesterday the Senate passed four amendments to the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, including a provision that would allow the death penalty to apply to hate crimes.  This amendment, added by Senator Jeff Sessions, R, AL (a vocal opponent of the Act itself), adds nothing to the justice the bill seeks for victims of gender and sexuality-based hate crimes.

The point Sessions was trying to convey is something like “If you’re going to pass legislation that discourages people from committing crimes against members of groups I resent the very existence of, I’m going to bundle that legislation with a big, fat human rights violation! How’d ya like that?”

My mind, it boggles.

***

It's almost time for the Sarajevo Film Festival (pictured: posters from the 2007 SFF)

It's almost time for the Sarajevo Film Festival (pictured: posters from the 2007 SFF)

***

afghanstarMy ex-boyfriend and I are going to see Afghan Star this weekend. I’m excited. Here’s the trailer.

The ignorance of soundbite histories

Amanda at Pandagon wrote a great post about how important it is for members of our political class to understand the history of birth control before they make ignorant statements all over the press ( e.g. “feminists are pro-abortion” or “being pro-choice is racist; Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist”) and then make equally ignorant policy decisions:

Truth told, the history of birth control in the 20th century is a confusing one and hard to break into easy-to-read partisan packages.  Eugenics was a popular theory throughout the early part of the 20th century, until the Nazis put an end to that, and while Sanger was motivated primarily by her socialism and her feminism, she wasn’t above asking people with less than perfect motivations, such as the KKK, for support.  But it’s rich for modern people to act like this sort of bargain with the devil is impossible to understand, since future people will look at the fact that Pat Buchanan was allowed on MSNBC in the same dim light we use when looking at the social esteem that the KKK had in the 20s.  I’m not making excuses, but pointing out that Sanger’s footsie-playing with racist elements was about a short-sighted pragmatism instead of evil, the kind that we forgive in folks like Rachel Maddow.  In the 60s and 70s, you have the same problem.  The actual proponents of birth control and abortion rights were motivated by social justice, but more than a few racist legislators promoted birth control and abortion for seedy reasons.  Does this mean that women’s human rights should be revoked?  Or that perhaps the issue of complicity is more unnerving and complicated than most of us would like to admit?

Read the whole thing.

Uh…

Reading my daily press roundup of Afghan Parliament-related news, this jumped out at me:

“Afghanistan’s constitution recognizes equal rights for men and women, but Sobharang questioned the reliability of the country’s courts, which are composed entirely of men who have been accused of favouring husbands in divorce cases.” –Canadian Press

According to UNIFEM, there are around 60-70 female judges in Afghanistan (less than 10%of the total), mostly in local, family and juvenile courts, and they are represented by a UNIFEM-supported NGO, the Afghan Women Judges Association.

I think Canadian Press is at fault for the error here, not Soraya Sobhrang, whose statement above was likely taken out of context or fused with a Canadian Press journalist’s assumption or misinformation about the gender composition of Afghan courts. It doesn’t help Afghan women to deny their achievements –for example, denying the existence of women judges– even with so much more progress to be achieved.

More Shia Family Law stuff

I have no idea what to title these posts at this point.

Anyway, an expert (to see who, go to the comment thread) wrote the following at Registan.

Just a quick point on this law — it is certainly a bad development from a political point of view, for the reasons enumerated above.

However, purely as a law, it has been caricatured as the ‘marital rape’ law. In fact, the Dari version shows it to be basically pretty middle of the road Shi’a jurisprudence, slightly to the right of Iran, but not egregiously so.

The particular provision that has been mistranslated and misinterpreted as ‘allowing’ marital rape doesn’t do so, legally speaking: article 132 includes the following relevant provisions:
(1) The spouses are obliged to socialize with one another and their parents and family.
(2) The spouses are obliged to cooperate and collaborate for welfare of their families and children.
(3) The spouses must abstain from any actions that would cause the hatred and displeasure of one another; whenever the husband wants his wife to attend to her appearance, the wife is obliged to do so.
(4) The husband is obliged, except during period of travel, to spend the night in one place with his wife at least one night out of four, except when it is harmful to one of the spouses or one of them suffers from a venereal disease. It is the duty of the wife to tend to the husband’s inclination for sexual liaison. The husband is obliged to not postpone intimacy with his wife for more than four months without his wife’s consent.
(5) Whenever a man has more than one wife, he is obliged to spend at least one night out of four in view of section (4). The right of the wife (to intimacy) may, upon her consent, be transferred to the husband and other spouses.
(6) The husband may increase the rights (of intimacy) to more than one night, on the condition that no harm or shame comes to the other spouses.
(7) The wife is obliged to manage and perform those areas of domestic chores that the husband has specified in the marriage contract; otherwise, the wife is not obliged to perform domestic chores.

As you can see, this is not an explicit endorsement of marital rape. From a purely legal point of view, the offending language in section (4) (”It is the duty of the wife to tend to the husband’s inclination for sexual liaison”) has to be read in light of section (3)’s injunction against actions that would cause “hatred or displeasure”. And under basic jurisprudential principles the article could be interpreted so as to prohibit rape, in fact.

No question that the language about the wife’s obligation to satisfy the husband’s sexual needs is highly problematic. But the point of article 132 is to govern the mutual responsibilities of spouses (including up to four wives) in the sexual sphere.

No question this is absolutely discriminatory toward women, and deeply troubling, given Afghanistan’s current political climate, as well as the absence of a functioning judiciary, and the absolute lack of state protection for women, in particular Shi’a women.

But it is not a ‘marital rape’ law, and by casting it thus, the Western media and policy makers have actually given a sop to Mohseni and others who make a living by positioning themselves as defenders of Islam against Western interlopers. The law should never have been rammed though, but the Wolesi and Mishrano Jirgas’ foolishness, and Karzai’s weakness, are other issues.

Now, Afghan civil society and their international supporters should focus on ameliorating some of the political damage, and not try to engage in a debate on Shi’a jurisprudence.

Protests against and for the Shia Family Law

There were at least two organized demonstrations today, a large one against the law (attended by at least hundreds of Hazara university students, the MPs one would expect there, and some other civil society folks) and a smaller counterprotest by religious students in  support of the law. The third demonstration –if you can call it that– was, from the reports I’m reading, basically a mob of stone-wielding, spitting men who attacked the women demonstrating against the law. Later on, Mohseni supporters attacked the co-ed Lycee, and more clashes took place outside Mohseni’s madrassa.

The sh*tstorm continues.

More here and here.