Honour these feminists

Afghanistan's most popular MPs is a fearless Malalai Joya

Globe and Mail, March 9, 2006

Not many people are willing to put their comfort, their safety, even their lives, on the line for their beliefs. Here are three brave women who are doing just that. Their courage, and their refusal to be silenced, are an inspiration -- and also a sobering reminder that for millions of girls and women living under religious oppression, equal rights remain a distant dream.

One of Afghanistan's most popular MPs is a fearless (some say foolhardy) 27-year-old named Malalai Joya. As an outspoken advocate for women's rights, she loathes the Taliban. But she insists on pointing out that the current government includes some unsavoury characters, too -- including powerful former warlords. "Now they have a mask of democracy," she said this week, during a speaking tour in the U.S. "But they do not believe in democracy. They do not believe in women's rights, human rights."

Ms. Joya has never known a time when Afghanistan was not at war. She grew up mostly in refugee camps. After the Taliban came to power, she slipped back into the country and conducted secret classes for women. Her friends have urged her to tread lightly and be cautious. But on the first day of parliament last December, she rose to her feet and denounced the "criminal warlords" with blood on their hands who sat beside her. She was shouted down by furious MPs, and showered with death threats.

The good news in Afghanistan is that a woman like Ms. Joya could be elected. The bad news is that out in the provinces, beyond Kabul, the miserable lot of girls and women hasn't changed much since the Taliban were overthrown. She wants the world to know that: "How can a country improve when 50 per cent of its population are silenced? It's like a bird with only one wing."

If you're a Muslim, it's dangerous to be labelled an apostate, even if you live in the West. Ask Salman Rushdie. Or ask Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American woman from Syria who has chosen to go head to head with Islamist clerics on Al-Jazeera. Two weeks ago, in Arabic, she argued, "The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions, or a clash of civilizations. . . . It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of these rights, on the other hand. It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."

"Are you a heretic?" demanded her adversary. "If you are a heretic, there is no point in rebuking you, since you have blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet, and the Koran."

After her TV appearance, according to a news report, she was denounced by an imam in Damascus who said she was harming Islam "more than it was harmed by the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed." But this forceful woman will not be silenced. Here is how she rebuked the cleric: "Brother, you can believe in stones, as long as you don't throw them at me."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was once such a devout Muslim that she demonstrated against The Satanic Verses. Born in Somalia, she emigrated to the Netherlands, where she became an advocate for immigrant Muslim women abused by their husbands and families. Eventually, she was elected to parliament. Her life changed after her colleague, filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was assassinated by a Dutch-born Muslim fanatic because of a movie the two had made that attacked Muslims' treatment of women. The brutal murder rocked the nation. Now she, too, has been branded an apostate, and lives in seclusion under armed guard.

"I have come to the conclusion that Islam can and should be reformed if Muslims want to live at peace," she says. She has spoken out passionately against sharia, and, like Salman Rushdie, has blasted the European politicians who bowed to Muslim pressure groups over the Mohammed cartoons. She, too, knows that speaking out could cost her life. "If I don't [survive], well, I've lived my life as I want to live it," she says. "So be it."

These are feminists of the most courageous kind. They have courage to speak the truth in dangerous times to those who do not want to hear it. We should honour them.