Thought for the Day - Professor Mona Siddiqui - 12/12/2012

Would you ever stay with a man who hit you? I was asked once by a journalist talking about women's rights. I replied with some confidence never but wondered afterwards whether that was true? If the situation ever arose, what exactly would I do? Would I walk out with my young children or would I stay and hope to make the relationship work again for the sake of the young children?

For all that women have achieved in rights and equalities, many remain vulnerable and violence against women remains a structural problem in so many societies. Rich or poor, developed or developing why is the malaise of domestic and societal violence still so widespread? For me it is the moral question of the modern age? Yesterday on Radio 4 there were several conversations about the recent UN report called Still a Long way to Go which highlighted the plight of ordinary Afghan women who were killed trying to speak out against the levels of violence against other women. Georgette Gagnon the UN’s director for human rights for Afghanistan and one of the writers of the report talked of years of discriminatory practices. Despite the government’s constitutional commitment to improve the lives of women, violence especially domestic violence in Afghanistan is still rising even if it’s being reported more frequently.

Yes, there were some gains - girls have the right to an education and women are able to sit in parliament. There’s now criminalisation of certain practices which weren’t crimes in the past. But there seems to be a dehumanising of women which denies them moral and legal agency and makes freedom a scary word. It’s hardly surprising that women who are emotionally and physically tied in structures that at times barely allow them to breathe find the prospect of escaping even scarier.

For many women there is such a low level of protection that few speak out without fearing for their lives. In this country we know that violence against women cuts across cultures and backgrounds but in the context of Afghanistan it would be disingenuous to deny that Islam can be used precisely for oppression. Women bring honour or dishonour; that sums up their worth. It is easier to hold onto such contested Qur’anic verses as `men are the maintainers of women’ than the far more embracing verse `men and women are like garments for each other.’

It seems to me that feminism, Islamic or western is still a very revolutionary idea. It demands that womens’ rights to make choices are recognised and that these choices are upheld in the value systems of different societies. For many Muslim women, the real struggle is how they reconcile their faith, their cultural traditions and their immediate families with the overarching impetus for human dignity and self autonomy. This means at times taking risks, going against community expectations; for some it can be the biggest jihad of their lives.

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