His [Husband in Afghanistan.] wife is his property, whom he can abuse with impunity—to the point of killing her. And many do just that. She (and most like her) is deprived of education, medical care, gynecological attention, legal protection from battery, and no one will protest her death. The husband is a total dictator – and in tribal villages, the entire male population of the village fills that role.
The Kite runner is a nice book…but it is fiction:
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If I were unlucky enough to be born anywhere but the United States, I would put being born female, poor, and Afghan at the top of my list. Being a woman in most of the Muslim world is not lucky either, but in Saudi Arabia, being female and rich permits some relief. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the practice of Islam “lite” and coming from a moneyed family helps too; in Iran, the difference is being urban rather than a rural villager; in Pakistan, urban rather than tribal.
But in Afghanistan, aside from the small elite groups in Kabul and Herat, the life of woman is about as miserable as can be imagined. Only the genitally mutilated women of Sudan, Somalia, and village Egypt can possibly be worse.
Afghanistan is getting a good deal of attention right now because of the wonderful film, The Kite Runner, based on Khaled Hosseini’s first and widely read novel of the same name. That particular novel and its film focus on the lives of men of various classes and ethnicities, which is itself fascinating, and puts our own racial divides into perspective. Afghanistan has not yet dealt with its ethnic poisons; if one is not a Pashtun tribesman (as was the late king and the present President), one has little voice in that society and little defense from persecution.
But Hosseini’s new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, focuses on the lives of women in a most indelible way. He does not propagandize; he just tells the story of two women from different classes who attempt to survive under the Taliban and under a brute of a Pashtun husband. I am reading this and thinking of my late Iranian mother-in-law, who was born into a world not very different from today’s Afghanistan, but who was lucky enough to live through the modernization of Reza Shah Pahlavi, who began the process of turning most women’s lives around. Afghanistan has not been as lucky. Their own modernizing shahs were assassinated, and even modernizing Russian Communism was defeated by the most benighted factions, mostly Pashtun. What was the issue behind the Afghan revolt against the Russian occupation? The emancipation of women, of course.
One other film tangential to this issue is Charlie Wilson’s War, the true story of how a playboy congressman from Texas led a surprising campaign to arm the Islamic fanatic Pashtuns so that they could bring down the mighty Soviet occupation. This is a painful example of believing that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. The Islamists were not our friends, and accordingly punished us for our mistake by hosting al Qaeda and their 9/11 attack on us. The Russians have every reason for gloating.
In Hosseini’s new book, we learn what it is like to be a female whose entire existence depends upon the good will of a husband not even of her choosing. It is a case of depending only upon luck. Even a fairly decent man, with total power, can become a tyrant and even a monster. His wife is his property, whom he can abuse with impunity—to the point of killing her. And many do just that. She (and most like her) is deprived of education, medical care, gynecological attention, legal protection from battery, and no one will protest her death. The husband is a total dictator – and in tribal villages, the entire male population of the village fills that role. Where can an abused woman run?
The Pashtun code, so admired by our Cold Warriors, was the code of honor and valor. They were afraid of nothing. Admirable. However, the other part of that code is the gender code: that a woman who shows her face or any part of her body to someone other than her husband is a whore who has compromised his “honor” and must be killed.
The sad truth is that this Pashtun code has spread and has been picked up by the crazy Islamists likely being funded by Saudi money all over the world today. Honor killings go on among European Muslims (unheard of before) and the burka, the cloak of invisibility required for Afghan women, has been adopted in far too many places, including here.
A recent Bizarro cartoon shows a group of women in Afghan burkas having their picture taken by another woman. A passerby, also in a burka, offers to replace the photographer so that she can get into the picture. I laughed, and then I cried.