Once more unto the breach, ladies, once more

Style Observer

By Sharon Leach

Sunday, December 18, 2011

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For just when we'd begun to heave that collective sigh of appreciation for the world's recognition of its reliance on women to the peace process by the bestowal of this year's Nobel Peace Prize jointly upon three women-Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, for their "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work"-along came news to put us uppity gals back in our rightful place.

Last Monday, a Saudi woman, Amina bin Abdulhalim Nassar was beheaded after being convicted of practising sorcery. For the uninitiated among us: witchcraft.

I know, right?

The chief of the religious police who arrested Nassar back in 2009 was quoted as saying she had "tricked people into believing she could treat illnesses, charging them $800 per session". Hello, that's what we here in the West call capitalism. And we will defend till the death the right of the little reader woman to make a charge about her ability to treat illnesses without her having to worry she'll lose her neck for doing so. It's called the right to freedom of expression. Just as it is a reasonable expectation to not be executed when conventional medicine fails and that little reader woman and her bushes are all that's left keeping us sane and hopeful.

But it is unfair to compare apples with oranges, I suppose. After all, this is the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia we're talking about here, the place where women driving is strictly prohibited because, among other things, "girls are the key to immorality. It will ensue if they are given unrestricted freedom because of their small- mindedness or if they face a problem", according to one enlightened Saudi gentleman who responded vehemently to a poll about whether women should be allowed to drive motor vehicles. Because, of course, every action a woman takes must invariably lead back to sex. God only knows how we don't spontaneously combust after every two steps.

A few months ago, we in this country experienced a psychical trauma from news that criminal elements appeared to be turning to this act of barbarism of murder which Saudi Arabia still has on its books under its strict interpretation of Sharia law. They've performed 73 executions already this year. That they went ahead and decapitated a woman is more than any well-thinking person - man or woman - ought to be able to stomach. It kind of puts into perspective the slight disappointment I felt over the skills of the women in the first of the national political debates last weekend. Whether these women rose to the task or not seems piddling when you think about the fact that there are women in other parts of the world who are not allowed to even articulate what they want for their lives, their children and their country.

Take the recent case of the 19-year-old woman, Gulnaz, an Afghan woman jailed for 'adultery' after she was raped by a relative but is set to be freed if she agrees to marry the man who attacked her. It was to have been the subject of a documentary film funded by the European Union - until diplomats censored it out of fear for the woman's welfare, and for their relations with the Afghan government. But the decision not to broadcast the film unintentionally led to a storm of publicity that resulted in the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, intervening in the case, and ordering Gulnaz released on condition that she and her attacker agree to mediation.

Mediation for what, though? It's absolutely ridiculous. Gulnaz was first sentenced to 12 years for adultery after she reported being raped by a cousin by marriage in an attack that left her pregnant. As the case became publicised, the sentence was reduced to three years. She has spent the past two-and-a-half years in jail, during which time she gave birth to a daughter. If that animal raped her, what kind of mediation is there? Karzai was responding to pressure, but he completely missed the point. In a recent statement, the presidential palace said Gulnaz would be released after she agreed to become the second wife of her rapist. The condition of her release is life-long punishment?

This clearly demonstrates something I've long suspected: men don't truly understand the ghastly thing rape is. It is perhaps the number one fear of all women, besides the loss of her breasts to breast cancer.

But back to Gulnaz. This case is representative of the plight of Afghan, indeed Middle Eastern, women so quickly jailed and murdered for so-called moral crimes. The fact is this: Gulnaz's case is far from unique. Roughly half of the country's 600 adult female prison inmates have been imprisoned for similar "offences".

By the way, just who gives governments - most of which, we all know, have been involved during some point in their history in shenanigans and chicanery - the right to legislate morality?

Meanwhile, Afghanistan, in a global survey compiled by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and released recently, has been deemed the world's most dangerous country in which to be born a woman, with The Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia rounding out the top five. Western women take so much of our liberties for granted. Especially with regard to moral crimes. Because, although it's our dirty little secret, we're every inch the big, fat cheaters we love to accuse our men of being. (That's the truth, and I'm not going to apologise if I'm perceived as letting down the sisterhood.)

Still, it is our right to make decisions about our sex lives, for which we can only be answerable to our God, not man. We may be taking our lives in our hands because we also know that our men, more often than not, feel it is their prerogative to be unfaithful; not ours. Notwithstanding, women - Jamaican women, in particular, and I say this as a Jamaican woman so I don't think I'm making sweeping generalisations - are skilled in the art of subterfuge.

Should we be killed for this?

As the Yuletide season presses into sight, I can't help but think of what's truly important. Freedom of expression is such a gift. The fact that there are still so many oppressed women in the world makes me feel helpless and useless. What can I do but bring their stories up? Does writing about them help anything? I'd like to think so. All of us who have a voice should speak up; the bigger one's sphere of influence, the more obligated one is to tell it on the mountain. Thank God for Angelina Jolie. She may be weird but she'll never stop documenting, among other things, the atrocities of rape of Bosnian women. If only the Kardashian girls could take a page out of that book.

Every week I get to share my most personal thoughts with you, dear readers. I'm thankful that the Observer allows me the space to do so, and I'm thankful for you who continue to spare me a moment each Sunday morning. This particular column, I am painfully aware, could get me locked up - or worse - in some country that doesn't observe the right of a woman to be heard or even express a different point of view. I'm thankful to be alive in this country, but I won't be happy until every woman in our world is able to express herself without fear and to be free. Like me.




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