Columns

Being a girl is still a high-risk business

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, October 13, 2012    

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EVENTS certainly have a way of putting things into sharp focus. Consider the case of young Malala Yousufzai of Pakistan. As you may recall, she is the teenager who was shot on Tuesday merely because she believes girls should go to school. The next day, surgeons removed a bullet from her neck, but she is still on the danger list. And ironically, the day after that, Thursday, was observed around the world as the first International Day of the Girl Child.

Malala would be remarkable even if she were an adult, but she is even more so since she has been campaigning for the right of girls to an education since the age of 11, when most girls are just beginning to focus on the roller-coaster ride of adolescence. She lives in the Swat Valley, a place of spectacular vistas in the lower reaches of the Hindu Kush mountains in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province. The region, named after the Swat River which rises in the mountains above, is known for its lakes, Alpine meadows and peaks perpetually capped with snow. The majority of the population is from the Pashtun ethnic group, whose range straddles the border the province shares with Afghanistan.

This beautiful region popular with tourists is also a magnet for the Taliban, that fundamentalist Islamic faction which has made life unbearable in neighbouring Afghanistan. These anti-joy, anti-human monsters set up shop in the region several years ago, taking advantage of the political dominance of Muslim fanatics and of increasing friction between the local government and the national government. They were evicted in 2009, but still continue to operate in the shadows

Malala's father, who runs a girls' school, says she has defied threats for years and believes that the good work she has been doing was her best protection. That was until a man shot her and two other girls as they left school for the day. This remarkable teenager has been keeping a diary which the BBC's Urdu service has carried since 2009. Under the pen-name Gul Makai, she wrote about suffering imposed by the militants who had taken control of the Swat Valley, including ordering girls' schools to close. The Taliban says they selected her as a target because she was "promoting secularism", and they warn that they will try again to kill her if she survives.

The shooting has triggered condemnation all over the place. Pakistani officials have offered a considerable reward - 10 million rupees - for information leading to the arrest of the attackers. The army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who visited the girl in hospital, says it it is time to "stand up to fight the propagators of such barbaric mindset and their sympathisers". Schools in the region were closed in protest the day after the attack, and schoolchildren in other parts of the country prayed for Malala's recovery. There were also protests in the capital, Islamabad, as well as in Peshawar, Lahore, Multan and in the girl's home town, Mingora.

You have to ask yourself - what kind of mentality prescribes death for girls who only want one of the most basic things after food and shelter - an education?

Well, it's not much different from the mentality which manipulates children as young as eight or nine into hacking off the hands of "enemies" and operating assault rifles under the orders of warlords. It comes from the same mindset which allows people to slice off the external genitalia of girls even without benefit of anaesthetics under the rubric of "culture". It is also in keeping with "honour" killing of girls and young women who dare to express their individuality and of dousing the faces of young women with acid or cutting off their noses because they refuse to marry a man they are told to. And right at home, it is not very different from brutal rapes or the leasing of adolescent girls to well-off men for their prurient pleasure in exchange for food, clothes and school fees.

We heard the brave words of leaders around the world as they proclaimed the International Day of the Girl Child, which was declared by the United Nations 10 months ago to recognise the rights of girls and the unique challenges they face around the world. For this, its first observance, the focus is on child marriage, a heinous practice which, according to the UN's website, robs a girl of her childhood, interferes with or actually prevents her education, limits her opportunities, increases her risk to be a victim of violence and abuse, and puts her health in jeopardy.

A few years back I saw a movie called Water, made by the Indian-born Canadian director, Deepa Mehta. Set in the late 1930s, it featured a seven-year-old girl who had been married off by her family to a man who died shortly afterwards. She didn't know she had been married, and didn't know that she was now a widow. But in keeping with the hoary traditions of widowhood, her head was shaven, she was dressed in a coarse white sari and dumped in an ashram for Hindu widows to spend the rest of her days in renunciation. The ashram was situated in a rundown two-storey house where the girl led a spartan existence with 14 women sent there by their families. It ends on a somewhat hopeful note, when Mahatma Gandhi bursts on the scene.

It seems that even with our modern ideas about equality and fairness, being a girl is a perilous business, even in the most progressive countries. In those places there are still kinds of employment where the presence of women is either not welcome or is actively discouraged. Girls still face restrictions and restraints that their male siblings don't. In poor places boys are given preference over girls for education and opportunities to get ahead. Religious dogma routinely places additional burdens on young females that young males don't face. In the various incarnations of the Catholic church, women are relegated to minor functions in the rituals while having to do much of the heavy lifting in the actual running of the church.

And don't get me started about the constrictions placed upon girls and women by the fanatic Islamists like the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Unlike the Taliban, though, the Saudis - with their ultra-modern cities and every facility money can buy - send their girls to school and their young women to university, but when they graduate aren't allowed to make full use of their education and skills.

It is interesting that the resolution establishing the International Day of the Girl Child was proposed at the United Nations General Assembly by Canada's minister for the status of women, Rona Ambrose, last December 19. This is the same minister who raised a storm of protest in her own country when, a couple of weeks ago, she voted along with other cabinet ministers to support a motion by a Conservative backbencher to send the issue of when life begins to a parliamentary committee for further study.

The motion was voted down handily, but was a curious occurrence in a government led by a micro-managing prime minister, Stephen Harper. After previous unsuccessful attempts, Harper vowed not to allow the question of abortion to arise again during his term.

keeble.mack@sympatico.ca

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