In Afghanistan, desperation fuels change.
Kevin Sieff’s Washington Post article details a horrific story from Kabul. Farima, 17 year old girl who dreamed of being a doctor, was trapped in a pre-Taliban promise for marriage, and leapt from her roof to kill herself rather than marry her fiance. Instead of dying, she broke her back and was crippled, surviving to hear that her fiance insisted the marriage happen nonetheless. Rather than accept the engagement, Farima decided to go to court, despite the fact that Sharia law rules these institutions.
“On her day in court, Farima’s father sat in the corner of the room. For years, he had been trying to avoid this moment. “I told my daughter not to do this. We don’t want a bad name. We don’t want our family to fall apart,” Mohammed said.”
Farima declared their marriage “would be hell.” Zabiullah, her fiance said, “She is confused. She has become so liberal.”
When Farima returned her fiance’s gifts, still wrapped in plastic, the judge, one of the few female judges in the system, nullified the engagement.
Despite her new freedom, Farima’s father and brothers would not permit her to go back to school, and she may never be able to marry. She cannot walk on her own.
This kind of leadership takes a terrible toll on the leader, demanding a steep sacrifice for every triumph.
Women under Taliban or evolving post-Taliban rule still face constrictions. There has been progress in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times:
“Severe restrictions imposed by the Taliban, on access to education, health care and work, before they were ousted from power after Sept. 11 have been lifted in government-controlled areas. Women have run for office, been named to government posts and become more involved in Afghan society; some operate their own businesses. The 2004 Constitution guaranteed equal rights. In 2009, a new law banned violence against women and set new penalties for underage and forced marriage, rape and other abuses. Many more girls are in school and maternity death rates are down.”
But especially in rural areas, roles have not significantly changed, and women and girls are intimidated, attacked with acid, refused schooling or held back, sold into marriage or prostitution to settle debts, or imprisoned when they complain about abusive husbands. (For more details, go to Human Rights Watch).
When family members and communities refuse to stand up for women oppressed, then the first leaders are inevitably the women who have been oppressed so deeply that standing up for themselves becomes worth the sacrifice. Family members and friends may ultimately stand with these reluctant leaders — or they may not.
The fight for civil rights is fought on the bodies of the oppressed.
In the struggle for fundamental civil rights, it is the people who want those rights who begin the battle, and their lives, social position and futures are at risk. In every country, women have historically put their lives on the line for fundamental rights: in the US, suffrage activists were disowned, attacked, imprisoned and abused. Women are at the heart of the Arab Spring protests, even though the consequences for them are far worse than for their male counterparts.
I have written many posts on the brave, articulate education activist, teenager Malala Yousefzai. Farima’s story has a less happy ending, despite her unexpected triumph in public court. But each girl found the courage to speak out in a system where women risk death if they ask for the most basic civil rights.
This is authentic leadership, transformational in its force, because activist leaders stand up as themselves, denying the cultural lies that are layered, cruelly and repeatedly, on their bodies, minds and spirits. There is no greater authenticity for leaders than this reluctant, brave and dangerous stance where one person rises to claim a better place in the world, one that matches their potential rather than their culture’s prejudice.
Each reluctant leader stands for thousands who could not find it in themselves to stand, or who were killed or institutionalized before they could be recognized.
This is feminist leadership, which will bring justice not only to women but to men as well.
According to the UN: “If Afghan women and girls continue to be ignored within the major decision-making processes affecting their country, the vision of a more secure, prosperous and stable Afghanistan cannot be realized.”
Michelle Batchelet, Executive Director of UN Women said: “A peaceful, just world founded on dignity and respect for each human being cannot be achieved if fifty per cent of the population is excluded. The 21st century more than ever has to strive for participation and inclusion of all.
What drives us forward? It is knowing that equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and it also so much more. Gender equality is a condition for social justice and economic progress. It is a necessary and fundamental prerequisite for democracy, peace and development for all.”
Progress begins, more often than not, with one brave girl or woman willing to risk her life, and grows one reluctant leader at a time.