Religion could be an ally for peace in Afghanistan

After more than a decade in Afghanistan, Canada has declined to extend its military mission past 2014. But at the Tokyo Conference on July 8 we did make a different pledge: a financial commitment to the future of Afghanistan — its women and girls. The list of needs in that country is very long, and among all the areas in need of support, it can be hard to choose. But by focusing on women and girls, Ottawa has made a canny decision.

After more than a decade in Afghanistan, Canada has declined to extend its military mission past 2014. But at the Tokyo Conference on July 8 we did make a different pledge: a financial commitment to the future of Afghanistan — its women and girls.

The list of needs in that country is very long, and among all the areas in need of support, it can be hard to choose. But by focusing on women and girls, Ottawa has made a canny decision.

The impact of educating girls has vast ripple effects on children, families, communities, and eventually countries. It is among the most effective mechanisms of change — and this understanding is reflected in the international development community with Plan International’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign, and the 2010 creation of UN Women.

The potency of educated women is also why women and girls are the target of reactionaries, as well as reformers.

Although Afghanistan officially recognizes women’s rights, by signing documents like the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination and violence Against Women (CEDAW), in practice these rights often remain fictional.

On July 9, a video was released of a woman publicly murdered in Parwan province, allegedly for adultery. This is only the latest in a string of horrors, from the torture of Sahar Gul by her in-laws for refusing to prostitute herself, to the persistent attacks on girls’ schools.

The frequency of such incidents may lead some in Canada to conclude that nothing has changed at all for women, and is unlikely to.

So is our latest investment in Afghanistan futile?

On the contrary. From outspoken female Afghan MPs like Fawzia Koofi, to the gutsy head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission, Sima Samar, and the two million girls in school today, Afghan women are taking advantage of the new space in their country to push for women’s rights. Yet, with the end of international presence in 2014, everyone wonders if these changes will leave with the foreigners.

That is what the Taliban are cheering for. Labeling women who dare to speak up as followers of “foreign” ideas is a favorite tactic of violent misogynists (not limited to the Taliban). Calling them “un-Islamic” is another.

Religion is often used to dignify agendas that have more to do with intimidation than scripture. One need only recall the way slavery and segregation were “justified” through the use of Biblical verses to understand that although peope may claim religion supports their views “it ain’t necessarily so.” This is as true of Islam as of Christianity.

Leaving the authority of religion entirely in the hands of thugs will ensure that it continues to be a barrier to women’s rights. Enlisting the support of religious figures and principles may in fact be the reformer’s best weapon.

It’s a point that was not lost on Melinda Gates in a July 11 interview with the BBC. Speaking about the Gates’ Foundation’s commitment to women’s rights globally through the provision of contraception, she mentioned a new strategy.

While trying to understand the barriers Senegalese women faced in accessing contraception, she approached the local imams. Not only did they tell her that contraception was consistent with Quranic principles, they agreed to help her get the message out. This represents much more effective messaging than public health information alone.

Similar partners can be found in Afghanistan. Sakeena Yacoobi is an Afghan who has successfully built the Afghan Educational Institute: a network of over three hundred girls’ schools, beginning in Afghan refugee camps and branching out over several provinces. She attributes her success to the deliberate incorporation of religion into the identity of her schools.

This overcame much of the local reluctance and mistrust that might otherwise have kept girls out of the classroom. But it didn’t prevent the girls from getting a rigorous education. Funding people like her disarms the rhetoric of those who would make religion a barrier.

Investing in Afghan women and girls makes sense. Yet to ensure that progress continues when our involvement and funding ends, we need to ground those initiatives in values and frameworks that have local roots and authority. Counterintuitive though it may seem to some, religion may be an effective ally.

Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She has contributed widely to publications on Islam and the Muslim world. Eva has taught at the University of British Columbia, and the Beijing University of Science and Technology. She currently teaches at SFU.

By Eva Sajoo

Special to the Advocate

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