The Beardless Heathen
Tuesday, 27 May 2003
My journalist friend who’s been helping us with the coverage of 8 March celebrations came to our office today, nearly two weeks later than we had agreed. Considering that his part of the project had in fact been completed, my only concern was that he might have been ill, but in such a case he would have let us know. So I was not really worried. My friend, however, first apologised profusely for the delay and then explained the reason for it.
He had gone to Pakistan for the wedding of his daughter who was meant to fly to Germany with her husband, but there had been complications because of an accident involving a lady relative who had been travelling to Pakistan for the wedding. While on the road, the lady had fallen asleep, with one of her arms resting on the edge of the car window, wound down. Her elbow that was sticking out of the window was then cut off by a passing truck.
A doctor among the passengers in the car managed to bandage the severed arm and stop the bleeding. The lady was rushed to a hospital where for several hours she received no treatment. Finally, she was operated on and her arm was amputated just below the shoulder joint. She has four children, including a baby. Other doctors who examined her later said the amputation had been too sharp and all of the arm and much of the forearm could have been kept, making it possible for a prosthetic hand to be fitted to it. They also said the stump had to be reopened for the tip of the broken bone to be smoothed.
The family first suggested that the marriage ceremony should be cancelled, but my friend insisted that her daughter had been through enough uncertainty and should go ahead with the wedding, though there could of course be no party. On the night of the wedding, my friend was in the hospital, sitting by his poor relative when he was called and told he was needed at the time the marriage vow was to be taken. He first thought of sending a male relative to stand in for him, but then decided that he himself had to be there, otherwise some people might think that he wanted to dissociate himself from the wedding, and that his daughter had been associated with bad omen.
In the midst of all this, my friend had been worried that by not keeping to his appointment with me, he was letting both of us down. So he had tried repeatedly to call or email me or a colleague at the office, but without success, given our communications difficulties within Kabul, let alone with international calls. I was touched and humbled by the thought that even though he had spent months preparing for her daughter’s wedding, and had been through the trauma of the car accident, he had cared so much for what was certainly not the most vital appointment in the world.
Wednesday, 28 May 2003
The best news today was that the TV production team responsible for the bi-weekly programme, Woman and Society, have offered to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to make a second bi-weekly programme for them, called Women’s Club. This is fantastic, considering that only two weeks ago the TV people were adamant that they did not even have the right resources to produce even Woman and Society properly.
The Ministry representative who had made the failed suggestion for a second programme to Afghanistan Television said with excitement that the offer had come from ATV, unsolicited by the Ministry. While it is likely that there have been agreements between the two sides at a higher level, it is also possible that the ATV people have really believed that it is a good idea to cooperate closely with the Ministry, and this may have something to do with what we at UNIFEM did to bring the two sides together.
For a start, we mediated their discussions, so it was not a case of either side trying to dictate its terms. Secondly our offers of help were seen as genuinely helpful. And thirdly, perhaps more important of all, while I was away, my colleague, Halima, had delivered to Television a whole supply of women’s newspapers, with folders and shelves for displaying them, as we had promised. I am pretty sure the speedy delivery of this gift must have impressed our friends at Afghanistan Television. It’s not that the stuff had been very precious – it did not come up even to a couple of hundred dollars – but that something that had been promised had been delivered, as promised.
Today, for the second time this week, an Iranian thought that my colleague, Halima, is Iranian. The first person, you may remember, was the Iranian gentleman at the Iranian trade fair two days ago. This time it was an Iranian lady in our office who then explained that the suggestion had been due to the fact that Halima does not wear a scarf and has straight hair. The lady then said that she had seen lots of beautiful Afghan women, but only after they had lifted their burqa’s in private, and she had wondered why they had to cover such pretty faces. The instant reply, from both Halima and myself, was: ‘precisely because they are so pretty!’
Our Iranian friend then suggested that we at UNIFEM should work hard to change the mind of the Afghan men so women could appear in public without the veil. Halima explained that it was not really a case of the Afghan men’s mind being in need of such major change. Many Afghan men, she said, did not force their female relatives to wear the burqa’ or anything like it, but life in Afghanistan had been so insecure that women themselves felt they had to cover up in public simply for protection.
I do not wish to expand this discussion and recall my conjecture about the buraq’s possible ventilating functions, but will relate to you a few anecdotes about how men’s appearance was controlled under the Taliban. These show that what went on in those strange years was not uni-genderised. You may remember that the Taliban had decreed that men should wear beards at least as long as the span of a hand. To test this, a Talib would grab a man’s beard to see if the tip of the beard would stick out from the other side of his clenched fist.
Another friend of mine at the office, a lady, pointed out that while the stipulation that women should wear the burqa’ was not a bundle of joy for many women, the mandatory beard length also made life difficult for men. A buraq’-less woman confronted by the Taliban, said my friend, could go to a shop; buy the headgear; and wear it instantly. A man with a shaved face had no choice but to wait a month or more before he could appear in public wearing the regulation beard.
A man writing in a newspaper a few weeks ago recounted his own run-ins with the Taliban because of his very thin beard – ‘a few strands that had grown very long and I had them tucked inside my shirt’. At every Taliban beard-checkpoint his face would first be touched to ensure it had not been shaved. Next, the strands of hair would be brought out of the man’s shirt and pulled hard to ensure that they had in fact grown out of his skin. Only then would he be allowed to go about his business.
Men without the right beard would either be punished or be given a permit to appear in public for one month, by the end of which they were expected to have conformed to the rules. This reminded me of the temporary license plates that used to appear on imported cars in Iran so the vehicle could be driven on public roads until the paperwork for a permanent number plate had been completed.
The other day, Ehsan also told us a story about the Taliban border guards who would check the beard of anyone entering the country. A beard-less Shia Afghan coming from Iran was given a permit by the Sunni Talib at the border which said, in beautifully sounding Pashto verse, something like this:
This heathen has come from Iran
That’s why he has no beard
He has a month to grow hair on his face
Until then, by the brothers he should be spared.
Who said the Taliban had no appreciation for art and culture?
Thursday, 29 May 2003
Today’s been full of CEDAW, the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Strictly speaking, the acronym should have been CEFDAW, but that would have sounded like the name of a washing powder or something, whereas CEDAW sounds like the name of a bird or a flower.
We gathered in a conference room for a presentation by a very nice Iranian-Canadian lady whose doctoral research centres on the convention. She took us through some general ideas about human rights, CEDAW’s history, the UN’s long and complicated procedure for coming up with such documents, and some of CEDAW’s most important, and most contentious, articles.
One of the interesting points she made was that while many people outside Europe and North America may think of CEDAW as a Western imposition, the 1979 convention in fact resulted from a 1963 UN initiative on women’s rights by 22 countries all of them, with the exception of Austria, from Asia, Africa, Latin America or the former Soviet bloc. Seven of the 22 were in fact Islamic countries, although none of them had an Islamic government at the time. The fact that most of the 22 were developing countries proved, she said, that working for women’s equality is an integral part of any meaningful effort to develop a country.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, we once again came across the mystery that is CEDAW’s ratification in March this year, while the country has had no legislature to ratify anything [see Part 21, 6-8 May 2003]. Reportedly, no one in the government, including the President, knows who signed the document that was delivered to the UN to register Afghanistan’s ratification. Not many people in Afghanistan, including government officials, know very much about CEDAW, and if they did, relatively few of the men among them would have accepted it. After all, the Afghan government’s biggest supporter, the US, has not ratified the convention, arguing that it allows abortion.
At least for the record, I said at the meeting that I was concerned about the semi-conspiratorial nature of the ‘ratification’ because it took no account of the views and wishes of the Afghan people who can be the only real guarantors of women’s rights in their country. The imposition of such an important document can undermine CEDAW’s moral credibility. It could also turn women’s rights activists into targets of the anger that could arise when the convention is studied widely.
Likely objections to CEDAW’s stipulations such as equal rights for women in property ownership, marriage and divorce and child custody can be dealt with relatively easily by referring to supporting ideas in Islamic and Afghan history and culture. But it will be much more difficult to get support for some other CEDAW ideas. One is the concept of a woman’s right over her reproductive system. Fundamentalist Christians in the US have interpreted this as a license to abortion, a view that is very likely to be shared by some Moslem authorities here. More controversial is the article that calls for an end to ‘the exploitation of prostitution of women’, with the implication that governments do not have to be concerned with ‘non-exploitative prostitution of women’, for example when prostitution is ‘voluntary’ and the prostitute has control over her income.
Afghanistan’s signing of the convention, the stage before ratification, also came in similar circumstances in 1980, by Babrak Karmal, the country’s third communist head of government in a year. Mr Karmal had come to power in 1979, after toppling Hafizullah Amin, who was later executed. Mr Amin himself had seized power in 1978, having toppled and killed Nur Mohammad Taraki, who himself had taken over the same year, having toppled and killed Dauod Khan, who had toppled his cousin, Mohammad Zahir Shah, in 1973, declaring Afghanistan a republic and himself its president.
CEDAW was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1979, the same month in which Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan – or entered it at the Afghan government’s request, depending on one’s political persuasion – becoming entangled in a bloody and costly ten-year war that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Less than a year later, in August 1980, the Afghan government signed CEDAW, certainly without taking any notice of the views of the majority of the people, many of whom were up in arms against Mr Karmal and his Soviet supporters. He may well have thought that such championing of women’s rights would give his government international credibility. Something similar seems to have happened with CEDAW’s ‘ratification’ twenty-three years later, when the country has an administration backed by the late USSR’s surviving adversary, the United States.