Nepali Times
Here And There
The bastards of war


To many of us, the case for women's equality in all walks of life has been self-evident for a long time. But it is a fight that must never cease and extolling the dividends of victory is one way to keep fighting, ceaselessly and in our own self interest as men.

Put quite simply, Afghanistan is in the state it is in today because of the vast gulf between the social position of men and women. And before we start nodding our heads and muttering good riddance to the Taleban, let's be clear: the Islamist students militia that is on the verge of extinction is soundly traditional on the question of women. Burqas and confinement to home are widespread Afghan customs, not an aberration by Taleban diktat.

The exception was Kabul, where the television cameras showed a once relatively liberated female populace clapped into irons-doctors, lawyers, scientists and civil servants forced from their jobs into maximum prisons called home.

Afghan history is a litany of crimes against women, the belittling and enslavement of half the population. And it was always done in the name of a religion that actually guarantees a form of equality by insisting on education and careers for the female of the species. The Holy Prophet's first wife, Khadija, was a successful businesswoman who funded his religious activities with the revenues of her camel caravans. He fought long and hard against the practise of polygamy, and eventually settled for a compromise-a maximum of four wives but only if all could be treated with equal dignity and each approved of new marital unions. My learned friends tell that was supposed to be a way of guaranteeing that polygamy, widespread and horrific in pre-Islamic Arab culture, would eventually disappear.

It is true that the Prophet himself married nine women in total. But the next seven after Khadija were poor widows, and by marrying them he put them under his protection and gave them a safe and sheltered existence. Before that, they begged on the street or were prostitutes-the fate of widows in all patriarchal societies even today.

Nor does Islam justify the ill treatment of women who refuse to hide behind closed doors and veils. Covering the hair and wearing loose clothing is a way of deterring rape, again something all too hideously common at the Prophet's time. He fought against it. The inference by conservative clerics that somehow women were to blame if they showed an elbow or a forelock is a latter day perversion of what Mohammed intended, again so my liberal Muslim friends assure me. The grafting of Islam onto the fiercely patriarchal society of what is now Afghanistan saw the faith assaulted and diminished by tribal custom. There's no mention of the burqa in the Qur'an.

Afghan leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries were a bloodthirsty, cynical, unaccountable collection of robber barons. They married what they believed was their allotted total of four wives, then sought concubines by the dozen. Naturally, they fathered far too many children, and sons and bastards fought over the succession to power, squandering resources and ignoring the development of any institutions save armies and treasuries. It is not a far cry from Afghanistan today. It's as if the attempted reforms of King Amanullah in the 1920's, Zahir Shah in the 60's, and the Moscow-backed Afghan regimes of the 70's never existed. Medieval robber barons, whether you call them Taleban or Northern Alliance, use the values of the countryside to accumulate wealth and power, and to ceaselessly fight against fellow warlords-today's bastard sons squabbling for a scrap from the king's table.

Nepal of course is not a Muslim state, and its laws forbid polygamy and guarantee rights to women. The reforms of King Mahendra in 1963 were a good start towards erasing patriarchy. The women's property bill should build on that. But there are still too many obstacles to the progress of women here.

Politicians and feudal landlords who marry more than one wife need to be taken to task for their behaviour is an offence to all. Denying property rights to women in any way is to deny them their humanity. Rape and sexual assault need to be addressed on a war footing. And so on. No, Nepal is not Afghanistan, but any place that condones inequality needs to change and quickly. Once men realise the economic benefits, they'll stand aside and let women, and society, flourish.

Equal rights equal development, it's that simple.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)