The silent women whose voices we never hear

I heard Robin Fox explaining that democracy is not ‘natural’ on NPR this morning. He said we think that what we’re used to is human nature, but it’s not, it’s just what we’re used to. Most people in the world are used to tribalism, he went on, and that’s what they want. They don’t care about nation or categories like ‘Arab,’ they care about family and tribe and what brings honour to them.

It’s interesting, and persuasive up to a point, but only up to a point. For one thing, there are objective benefits that tend to go with democracy and don’t tend to go with tribalism. And for a perhaps more significant and more far-reaching thing, what does Fox mean by ‘they’? He means what people always mean by ‘they’ in such contexts: he means the people who determine what ‘the tribe’ wants, and in tribes and all other hierarchical patriarchal arrangements, that means the people who have the power to do that, and that means (some of) the men. In other words Fox doesn’t actually know what everyone wants, because he can’t, because the people without power are silenced. They don’t get to sit around with the visiting anthropologist and tell him what’s what.

Natasha Walter could perhaps fill in the picture a little. She went back to Afghanistan last year, and was shocked and depressed at what she found. On her previous visit, soon after the Taliban was kicked out, she went to a ‘dirt-poor village’ and met women involved in a literacy project after years of no education and house arrest under the Taliban.

When I asked the students, who ranged from 13-year-old girls to 50-year-old widows, if they thought all women in Afghanistan wanted more freedom and equality, my translator struggled to keep up with the clamour: “Of course we do,” said one widow furiously. “Even women who are not allowed to come to this class want that. But our husbands and brothers and fathers don’t want it. The mullahs keep saying freedom is not good for us.”

On her second visit, the room was empty.

“They were threatening us, telling us not to do it any more, and we were scared. For a while we continued, but we were afraid that they might do something worse. This place is a place of Taliban. Neighbours may work for the government in the morning but at night they are the same Taliban with the same thoughts.”

All very tribal or familial – but ‘they’ are not happy about it. The women are miserable. Let’s not be too sure they don’t want those funny foreign things but would much prefer to stick with their good old families and tribes.

Human Rights Watch says that a third of districts in Afghanistan are now without girls’ schools, due to attacks on teachers and students by the Taliban and other anti-government elements; and traditional practices such as child marriage and baad, in which women are exchanged like objects in tribal disputes, still continue unchallenged. “Every day women are sacrificed for their family or tribe,” Nilab Mobarez, a 45-year-old doctor who stood recently as a vice-presidential candidate, tells me angrily. “We still do not have the judicial system to resolve this.” Women who stand up against oppressive traditions are vulnerable; the number of assassinations and threats against women working for the government and international organisations is rising.

Let’s not be too sure all those women are delighted to be sacrificed for their family or tribe. It doesn’t sound as if they are.

Walter talks to Malalai Joya.

“I have only just moved here,” Joya says. “I have to keep changing my house. I hate guns, but I have to have men with guns guarding me all the time. One day they will kill me. They kill women who struggle against them.”…”Here there is no democracy, no security, no women’s rights,” she says. “When I speak in parliament they threaten me. In May they beat me by throwing bottles of water at me and they shouted, ‘Take her and rape her.’ These men who are in power, never have they apologised for their crimes that they committed in the wars, and now, with the support of the US, they continue with their crimes in a different way. That is why there is no fundamental change in the situation of women.”

Then she makes a crucial point.

Joya talks like this to me, furiously, for more than an hour, almost weeping as she catalogues the crimes against women that still keep them in a state of fear: from Safia Ama Jan, the leading women’s rights campaigner assassinated in Kandahar earlier this year, to Nadia Anjuman, a poet murdered in Herat last year; from Amina, a married woman who was stoned to death in Badakhshan in 2005, to Sanobar, an 11-year-old girl who was raped and exchanged for a dog in a reported dispute among warlords in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan last month. She is desperate for people to take account of the silent women whose voices we never hear.

That’s just it you see – we never hear their voices because they’re not allowed to use them. They’re not quiet because they’re content, they are silenced. It’s very very important to keep that always in mind when trying to think clearly about these subjects. Fox is of course right that it’s silly to take it for granted that our way of doing things is the natural and best way, but it’s mistaken to assume that the way group or tribe X does things is the way all members of group or tribe X wants to do them – it’s mistaken to forget that whole swathes of people may be systematically prevented from ever saying or acting on what they want, and that powerful people don’t invariably treat powerless people kindly and generously.

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