The Abominable Everywoman

The following is a translation of an excellent piece by Sakhidad Hatif from his blog …و یک اشاره Desclaimer: this is a hastily done translation and I do not claim to understand everything that Hatif has to say. Further, I am known to go for the overkill when it comes to the use of both vocabulary and imagery in language. The responsibility for any shortcomings is entirely mine. Those who can read Farsi are recommended to visit Hatif’s blog for the original. I just wanted to share what I found an important read with the rest of you, and to remind Hatif (yet again) that a possible future collaboration -combining his incisive insights and my meager language skills- can present the wider world with another, less murkier picture of the situation in Afghanistan.

The Abominable Everywoman*
By Sakhidad Hatif (trans. Hamescha)

A RECENT REPORT** by Womankind Worldwide has found that the situation of women in Afghanistan has not improved five years after the fall of the Taliban.

Really, are we to believe that it was supposed to?

There is a profound detachment from reality when it comes to speaking of women in Afghanistan. In fact, there are two types of women in Afghanistan: the abstract woman, and the woman of flesh and blood that lives in many households. Women’s rights activists in Afghanistan mostly deal with the former type -the diffuse abstraction that abounds in the cultural sphere and in most people’s imaginations -and not with the woman of flesh and blood. This is why the notion of “woman” is so elusive in Afghanistan. Wherever you look, there is not a woman in sight.

Consider this statement: “Every woman is entitled to study, work, and live as she sees fit.”

Which “every woman” are we really talking about here? In reality, the only woman who is entitled to these rights is an amorphous abstraction -call her the abominable everywoman. As long as she exists as a creature of our collective conscience, her rights and liberties are sacred and defensible. No sooner than she manifests herself in the form of a concrete being of flesh and blood that nuances surface and those same rights and liberties are subjected to questioning.

In fact, the vacuous notion of “every woman” is so void of -and at odds with- reality, that Afghan women themselves do not recognize it. Ask any woman in Afghanistan whether every woman should have the right to study, work, and live freely. Most women do not really know what this “every woman” means, so it does not matter what their answers are. If the answer is no, the person does not believe such a thing exists. If the answer is yes, most likely here is what it really means: “Yes, ‘every woman’ has the right to work, study, and live freely -but I am not one of those ‘every women,’ because I do not want to study, work, and live freely.”
Ask the same question of men, and while you will get a good deal of negative -and indignant- responses, even those who agree that every woman is entitled to these rights and freedoms will, in action, allow it only for the abominable everywoman, and for not the women who happen to live under his roof.

Let’s suppose that there are those who really do believe in equal rights and opportunities for all women, including those of their own households. Question is, what rights and opportunities? What have these staunch defenders of women’s rights done to transform the patriarchal undercurrent of Afghan society? As long as these mentalities and undercurrents continue to prevail, the right to work, study and live freely will only serve to further reinforce misogynist attitudes towards women, and burden them with the double responsibilities of working both in and outside the home. In other words, it will take from women what security they enjoy now, without giving them anything in return. Under these circumstances, such things as the creation of a “Ministry for Women’s Affairs” and reserving one quarter of the seats in the National Assembly for women are not only naive but also counterproductive.

—————————–

*A play on “The Abominable Snowman,” a creature as much of the exoticism of the colonial western imagination as of the natives of Himalaya (some say the Hindu Kush) with which it was associated. One might say a fitting play given the current context.

**The report “Taking Stock: Afghan Women and Girls Five Years On” is not available on the website of Womankind Worldwide. Email me for an e-copy.

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7 Responses to The Abominable Everywoman

  1. hatif says:

    dear hamisha,

    thank you for your eloquent translation. As for the overkill you have pointed to here, it is ok. some one should always remind me that the temptation to exhaust all vocabularies’ connotations and imagery aspects(of course in Persian for me) is not always a good one. I have to change the habits of my internal eyes.
    thanks again, and yes, we can collaborate , if one day we lose our confidence in the gooness of laziness. we are terrible,each one of us in his unique way!

  2. safrang says:

    Dear Hatif,
    I was pointing to my own tendency for overkill (the same thing that you have generously called eloquence) -and not yours.

    My faith in the inherent goodness of laziness is unflinching and eternal. Still that should not prevent us from working together in the future. Just as genious, slothfulness loves company.

  3. SE says:

    Well, I wonder what are we to think of economics and the “rational” consumer thing… I will agree with this analysis only if we agree to chase all economists out of town. Also, how about the new crop of political scientists that are using the “rational agent” thing in their work?

    More distressingly, the “majority of Muslims” is as abstract a concept as this “every woman.” And what about the term “Momin”?

    There is also this thing called an “Afghan” who is a citizen of Afghanistan and behaves in certain abstract ways and certainly has no ethnic or tribal affiliations.

    So the list goes on and on and on.

    “Yes, ‘every woman’ has the right to work, study, and live freely -but I am not one of those ‘every women,’ because I do not want to study, work, and live freely.” — but isn’t that “freedom to chose” exactly what is relevant in this case?

    “In other words, it will take from women what security they enjoy now, without giving them anything in return” — that’s a very loaded sentence. What about domestic violence and the fact that at one point or another the majority of Afghan women do face physical threats within the confines of their homes? How are we to account for it?

    I know it is unfortunate that nothing seems to be improving for Afghan women, but even if it is a silly abstraction, it is still a start. It was that abstract free individual in the American constitution that ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery and civil rights movements precisely because of that dissonance. Ideals are what societies aspire to, and those are the set of rights that I think every human being is entitled to.

    I concede that the whole issue is so politicized and bastardized that it looks cheap and trite. But lets not lose sight of the substance or as Regan was in habit of saying “lets find the pony is the pile of horse manure.”

  4. hatif says:

    dear SE ,
    thanks for your helpful comments. Part of your critique points to some thing in the original writing that is “lost in translation”; things like “security the enjoy now”-for example- are not in the original,while they can raise a sense of contradiction. As for economy factor, there was a very short note on that matter in the original (a significant hint but not an adequate one), again lost in translation.
    You are right about the necessity of ideals to start. What i found arguable (in your comment) was the example of civil/human rights in American society/constituion. The difference is that the idea of civil rights was homegrown in America,while the notion of freedom for everywoman in afghanistan is just an abstract layer imported from outside, covering a concrete layer of their real contextual quests for freedom. when a,say, Western journalist says:” Afghan women don’t know much about freedom”, such a knowledge claim is validated by a basis like “everywoman should have freedom” and what is lost in the middle is the relevance of any context-bound reality (economy is one of them) in real tangible terms—substantive experience.

  5. jafar rezai says:

    سلام دوست گرامی. سپاس از حضور ونظرتان. وبلاگ یادداشتهای از غرب با مقاله انگلیسی را جع به فیض محمد کاتب هزاره ” The Father of Modern History of Afghanistan” به روز است.
    شما به خواندن آن دعوت هستید و از نظرشما استقبال می شود.

  6. SE says:

    Hatif;

    I am not sure what is the implication of your argument, but you are perhaps suggesting something along the lines argued by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. To my shame, I haven’t read much of their work. And I have every intention of rectifying this situation.

    But as a departing shot, I see that you argue the importation of ideas from outside. I see a contradiction in your statement: in conceiving Afghanistan as a “nation” with demarcated cultural, social and economic spheres you are applying an abstract Western criteria. Furthermore, this also creates the contumacious problem of defining exactly what is exactly part of this sphere and what is not. According to Mullah Omar the only thing not alien to Afghanistan is sixth century Arabian customs. To me, I will settle for nothing less than the Swiss constitution (and I am an Afghan citizen after all). Who is to settle this issue? Wasn’t the civil war exactly about this issue? The two largest ethnic groups fighting for their sense of entitlement (and thereby defining implicitly the criteria for Afghan citizenship) with other ethnic groups vying for a piece of the pie.

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