• Shafeeq Shinji

The Quiet Struggle

I have so much affection for the Khaled Hosseini novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. The story is set in Afghanistan and runs from the pre-soviet invasion to the Afghan Civil wars, culminating in the rise and reign of the Taliban.

It follows two women named Mariam and Laila, who come from vastly different backgrounds. One is an illegitimate child or a harami (bastard in Farsi) who grew up poor and uneducated while suffering from the stigma of her birth. The other was blessed to have both parents alive and lived a privileged and educated life.

Through a series of events, they were both forced to marry the same man who turned out to be a monster. Their lives as his wives were reduced to cooking, cleaning and child-bearing, all while suffering his verbal and physical abuse. They were his prisoners.

I was glad when I arrived at the story’s end - because I was extremely affected by the book which goes to show the power of the author to write a beautifully poignant book that instills hope for a brighter future.

But after putting the book down, something else was gnawing away at the pit of my stomach. A distressing knowledge about the problems women face, not just in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which are still grim as shown in the media and this story, but in the world. And reality sinks in, that the feeling of a bright future, is an illusion at worst. At best, it will be a long and arduous journey to reach it.

After doing some research, a few facts and figures I gathered from the United Nation (UN) Women’s website unfortunately confirmed my perceptions.

Approximately 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at least once, which is alarming considering the current world female population of almost 3.7 billion according to Worldbank.org. That shockingly equates to around 1 billion women who have suffered from rape or physical abuse.

Also, 750 million women and girls were married before their 18th birthday and child marriages eventually lead to early pregnancies. It’s a tragedy because these girls end up not having an education, and they suffer from social isolation and domestic abuse.

I was horrified at the injustices of the world, and outraged at the capacity of men to commit such acts of cruelty and depravity. We have heard it before in our history lesson, of the innocents murdered in Auschwitz camp and the discrimination of Catholics in Northern Ireland, but that does not make it any less painful to hear of other people’s suffering.

On the Human’s Rights Watch website, reports show that in Burma, widespread rape and murder were perpetrated by the security forces in the ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims and non-Muslims. Many reported an infection, vaginal tears and bleeding, and post-traumatic stress disorders. The government dismissed the accusations and rarely held anyone accountable for these crimes. And in Central African Republic, rape and sexual slavery are used as a tactic of war.

While the media has been an ally in the championing for women’s rights, it has paradoxically been short-sighted and tactless in its methods. Particularly, Western media, whom I feel has complicated and exacerbated things in their attempt to bring attention to the plight of women in the Middle East.

While it is true women’s rights are severely limited in certain parts of the Middle East, - under 20% of the Saudi workforce is female, there is limited access to public and private transportation, and sexual violence victims are also punished - but this is not because of the clothing and dress codes that Middle Eastern women adorn, such as the hijab, burqa, and niqab.

Someone who shares the same sentiment is Saudi-Arabian Journalist Sabria Jawhar, who also writes for English-language news outlets. She complains that Western readers of her blog on The Huffington Post are obsessed with her veil. She calls the niqab "trivial”.

“(People) lose sight of the bigger issues like jobs and education. That's the issue of women's rights, not the meaningless things like passing legislation in France or Quebec to ban the burqa ... Non-Saudis presume to know what's best for Saudis, like Saudis should modernise and join the twenty-first century, or that Saudi women need to be free of the veil and abaya ... And by freeing Saudi women, the West really means they want us to be just like them, running around in short skirts, nightclubbing and abandoning our religion and culture.”

Still, there have been measures taken worldwide to address these acts of violence against women. As more voices are heard on these issues, I am sure the spread of awareness will help to reduce such incidents. At least 140 countries have passed laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment. Also, more data on female abuse have emerged as more than 100 countries have conducted surveys addressing the issues.

And in this era, where society is more accepting of women in powerful positions, I believe we will see change. Women like Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard and Sheikh Hasina Wajed - leaders of Germany, Australia, and Bangladesh respectively - show the world that women can rise to power and lead their countries. They might even do a better job at it with their natural inclination towards patience and cooperation.

Women can also cut it in the business world where we see names like Indra Nooyi, Oprah Winfrey and Marissa Mayer - CEOs of Pepsi, the Oprah Winfrey Network, and Yahoo! respectively - highly visible and praised for their intelligence and tenacity. These are powerful women and increasingly, the world is seeing more of these type of women. And as their prominence spreads, they represent a beacon of hope to all women that their life is worth as much as their dreams and aspirations. That they need not settle for less or accept the adversities that life hands them. They are created equal in the eyes of God and are blessed with the freedom of choice.

"...And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women..." (Al Qur’an 2:228)

This article has been edited for the online platform.

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