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Martha St Jean

Martha St Jean

Posted April 15, 2009 | 04:33 PM (EST)

American Ideals and Afghanistan's Women


I love America. I am that person who sings the words of "The Star Spangled Banner" and means it. Throughout my higher education, I encountered many students who stated that they were ashamed to be American and in moments of passionate fury claimed they would revoke their citizenship. As far as I know, not one of them ever did. There are times I have been gravely disappointed in the United States for failing to live up to various creeds and credos as well as the principles of law, justice and freedom.

Reading the New York Times article "Afghan Women Protest New Restrictive Law" today reminded me why, as a woman, I am thankful for having been born in this country. The suppression of dissent regarding human rights -- more specifically, women's rights -- around the world continues to alarm me. As society becomes increasingly globalized one would expect a natural mutation or demise of values that inhibit socioeconomic growth.

Certain ideas are continuously associated with and used to define femininity: powerlessness, marginalization and exploitation. The language may appear to be gender-neutral but it has truly become engendered. (Picture those words in your mind and what do you see?)

In certain parts of the world (even here, dear reader, at times in the United States) there appears to be no progression. From the days of American slavery where the bodies of women were sold, bartered, battered, used as cesspools and forced to submit, women have been viewed as their feminine quality versus their biological sex. This new law, which Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed, applies to women who are Shiite Muslims, excluding the majority of Muslim women who are of the Sunni sect.

These women would not be allowed to say no to sexual advances to their husbands; they would have to "dress up" if their husbands demanded it and would not be able to seek work outside the home without permission. The law is now commonly referred to as the "Rape Law." This powerlessness and the vulnerability which the law subjects women to is made even harder to refute because there is a lack of knowledge. One of my favorite sayings is biblical: "My people die for a lack of knowledge." In Afghanistan many women were not aware of the legislation, so the question becomes what happens now that is has become law.

Indian-born economist and 1998 Nobel Prize winner Amaryta Sen has stressed the importance of closing the education gap. At a conference on education in 2003, he quoted H.G Wells: "'Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.' If we continue to leave vast sections of the people of the world outside the orbit of education, we make the world not only less just, but also less secure."

I am not advocating the spread of the American hegemonic ideal or the embedding of it overseas. As we have witnessed in the Iraq War that can backfire. Instead of bringing independence there is now a penchant towards dependence. Good intentions can have unintended negative consequences. I am advocating that freedom comes through education, not coercion. I am advocating that we too educate ourselves before we attempt to become great emancipators.

We live in a microwave society; we want change to come to women and Afghanistan yesterday. Education about rights must come first. Frustration is to be expected, but in order to bring change about how women are perceived I must first understand the fundamental values that would drive such a belief system. True education is never forced. It is a natural process. Let us re-stage the debate before we decide to use this cause as another reason for a different type of invasion or a "Manifest Destiny," wearing an unrecognizable and what may be unwelcome American dress.