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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dialogue with Taliban Endangers Women's Rights


03/09/2009 14:38


Dialogue with Taliban endangers women's rights

The condition of women will be the testing ground for any dialogue with the Taliban. AsiaNews has gathered comments in the country on the U.S. president's idea of seeking dialogue with Taliban moderates. There is widespread fear of "going backward." The importance of Iran.

Kabul (AsiaNews) - "The evolution of this country is in the hands of women. Under the Taliban, women could not even go to school, they were forced to stay home and endure forced marriages. Conditions for women may be the main testing ground for the dialogue that the U.S. president wants to open with Taliban moderates." This is one of the comments that AsiaNews has gathered in Afghanistan after the proposal of U.S. president Barack Obama to open a dialogue with the Taliban moderates.

On March 7, Obama said that the United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan against the Islamic extremists, and said that he is willing to "explore" the possibility of a dialogue with Taliban moderates, in order to separate them from fundamentalist groups like al Qaeda.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai has commented on the news very favorably, and has said that the dialogue could be directed first of all to the "many who are afraid to return to their country, and believe that they have no other choice than to side with al Qaeda."

But local circles are perplexed, and are asking in the first place: Who are the Taliban moderates, and what did they do during the Taliban regime? One expert comments that "a few months ago, Taliban leaders, believed to be moderate, indicated the three points that for them are nonnegotiable: that all the soldiers from other countries leave; that there be no foreign interference in Afghan politics; and that sharia (Islamic law) be applied. With the exception of the armed opposition, these are the same things that the Taliban fundamentalists want. Of course, dialogue is always positive, peace can be reached only through dialogue. But the point is how this dialogue can be realized. If tomorrow Taliban moderates again impose sharia, which was enacted during their regime, I am afraid that the Calvary of the Afghan women will resume."

Yesterday, President Karzai, on the occasion of International Women's Day, denounced the fact that many in the country still consider women as "property," and said that "forced marriages, the selling of women, these are against Islam."

On March 7, Jan Bibi, a widow, set herself on fire and died in the district of Obe (western Afghanistan) in order to escape a life of hardship. As a widow, Bibi was a pariah of society, undesirable for marriage and without any opportunity to work. Women often commit suicide in the area in order to avoid abuse and forced marriage. A recent UN report says that "threats and intimidation against women in public life or who work outside the home have seen a dramatic increase" in the country.

Fear is widespread that a new Taliban regime would mean "going backward." Analysts observe that the only results of this long war and its immense cost in human lives and money may be the better conditions for women, and democracy. Democracy is still weak, to such an extent that Karzai has delayed until August the elections scheduled for April, because of the difficult situation.

The idea of dialogue is not new, Karzai has suggested it repeatedly. But the problem is also that of whether Karzai and democratic forces in the country are capable of opposing the Taliban.

Many observe that "if the U.S. military cannot win against the Taliban, how can the Afghan military do so? It cannot be as prepared as that of the U.S., even if billions have been spent to reorganize it. And the police are still plagued with widespread corruption. It is unlikely that the time is right to entrust the country to self-governance." Besides, despite the extensive resources employed by the U.S. and by other countries, Karzai controls only Kabul and the surrounding area.

Other comments are more optimistic, and say that it is necessary "to involve Iran in the process of pacification. It can play an important role. Now it has been invited to participate in the conference in June in Trieste, to discuss the Afghan situation. It will be important to see if it accepts."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Saudi Arabia Welcoming More Cultural Events

Saudi Arabia welcoming more cultural events

But activities often interrupted by men claiming to be religious police

Image: Saudi Arabian women at book fair


Saudi women visit the 4th Riyadh International Book Fair in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday

From the Associated Press - Sat., March. 7, 2009

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - When word spread that Brazil was going to be the guest of honor at the Riyadh International Book Fair, a Saudi official had to reassure the public that the Brazilians wouldn't be dancing the Samba at the 11-day event that opened recently.

The question to Abdul Aziz Al-Subeil, a senior Information Ministry official, at a news conference last week reflected the wariness with which cultural events are viewed by many here. For conservatives, book fairs, plays and movie screenings are a cause for concern because they allow for the mixing of the sexes, the playing of music and the introduction of books that they believe violate religious and moral values.

Still, despite the regular interruption of cultural activities by men who sometimes claim to belong to the religious police, there has been a marked increase in such events in the past few years.

One of the most groundbreaking was a concert held by the German Embassy last year at a government-run cultural center that broke many taboos in a country where public music is banned, public concerts are almost never heard of and the sexes are segregated even in lines at fast food outlets.

The other was the first Saudi film festival, held last year and attended by the information minister in a clear sign of official support for the event.

In a first this year, women have been given more access to the book fair, which opened Tuesday. In the past, female visitors were restricted to only two half-days. Many hoped this move would correspond with less interference by the religious police to stop what they view as excessive mixing of the sexes.

Presence of religious police

But well-known columnist Haleema Muthaffar said she was shocked when the religious police stationed five security guards, six policemen and two religious police agents between her and the men and women who attended her book signing to prevent men from coming forward to have their books signed.

She said the religious police detained three well-known Saudi writers for questioning after she tried to give one of them a signed copy of her book.

"What kind of encouragement for culture is this?" she wrote in Al-Watan newspaper.

She said culture is cordoned off "in a way that scares those who seek it and deters them from getting close to us."

Many other conservatives have made headlines recently trying to stop the kind of cultural opening supported by many Saudis. Last month alone, newspapers reported the following incidents:

  • Bearded extremists tried to stop a play in Riyadh. As music blared signaling the beginning of the show, one of the men decided to give a religious lecture on stage. The man was stopped by the stage manager, and following a brief argument, he left with his companions.
  • Bearded youths attacked dancers at the Desert Spring Festival in the southern town of Sharoura, forcing organizers to cancel the all-male traditional dance show.
  • In the western city of Jiddah, five youths tried to disrupt the screening of movies at a spring festival by urging visitors to stay away from the cinema. There are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, but recently films have been screened at auditoriums and other venues.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, has issued statements distancing itself from the incidents. The police are charged with enforcing the strict interpretation of Sunni Islam followed in the kingdom.

Columnists speak out

Columnist Hamoud Abu Taleb questioned how long such actions by conservatives can continue "since they have become increasingly violent and aggressive."

"Keeping silent about this behavior poses a great danger not only to the cultural institutions, but to society itself," he wrote in Al-Madina newspaper.

Another columnist, Ali al-Moussa, said concerns about the corrupting influence of cultural events have been overblown in Saudi Arabia. He said Brazilians should be able to dance the Samba at the book fair if they wanted.

"Haven't we danced the (Saudi traditional sword dance) at fairs in Paris, London, Moscow and Washington?" he wrote in Al-Watan newspaper. "Why should we dance in others' arenas and condemn their presence in ours?"

For those who want to enjoy shows in peace, there are piano recitals, standup comedy routines and plays performed on embassy grounds or in expatriates' residential compounds, venues that are off limits to religious police and extremists. The shows are not always open to Saudis, though.

One recent event featured Sue Ott Rowlands, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech. She performed Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner's hourlong monologue "Homebody/Kabul."

Rowlands said performing the play in Saudi Arabia "was an extraordinary experience."

Yasmin al-Tuwaijri, a Saudi epidemiologist who attended one of Rowlands' performances, said she enjoyed the show but had one concern in the back of her mind.

"I was extremely thrilled to have such an occasion, but I was nervous that somebody would come and ruin it," said the 42-year-old woman.

Picture of the Day: Saudi Arabia & Valentine's Day

A Saudi woman tries to choose a Valentine's Day te... A Saudi woman tries to choose a Valentine's Day teddy bears at a gift shop in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Friday Jan 30, 2009 . Store owners know that as Feb. 14 approaches, the feared religious police begin inspecting gift shops for items that are red or in any way suggest the holiday, which is banned in this country. Such items are legal throughout the year. It's only around Valentine's Day that they take on a contraband status. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
4:27 p.m. ET, 2/12/09

Fear of Death Stalks Pakistan Women in Swat

Pakistani activists in Lahore protest against attacks on girls schools in the country's troubled Swat Valley

March 7, 2009

Fear of death stalks Pakistan women in Swat

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP) — Terrified, locked up at home and courting death if they go out alone, women oppressed by Taliban extremists in Pakistan's Swat valley have nothing to celebrate on International Women's Day.

Nearly 100 years after the annual day was created to mark the struggle for equal rights for half the world's population, most women in Swat look blank and go silent when asked about gender rights and discrimination.

They're too frightened to speak in public. They can only leave the confines of their homes accompanied by a male relative, their bodies hidden in veils.

"How can I tell you my name, are you crazy? I was told not to give my name to anyone because the Taliban could hurt me," one girl in the ninth grade told AFP by telephone from the former ski resort.

For nearly two years, thousands of Taliban fighters have waged a terrifying campaign to enforce their repressive interpretation of Islam in Swat, transforming the region of majestic mountains and lush valleys into a war zone.

Last month, the government signed a widely criticised agreement with a pro-Taliban cleric to enforce sharia law in exchange for a ceasefire in a region where most locals say the Taliban have become the masters.

The girl's dreams of becoming a doctor are over. She worries the Taliban will stop her finishing school, regardless of her parents' support.

"My mother told me I can do anything, but my inner soul is shattered.

"Tell me if you stop women getting an education where will a sick woman go? Do you want her to go to a male doctor? I was told that education is compulsory for every man and woman in Islam but the Taliban destroyed our schools."

Militants have destroyed 191 schools in the valley, 122 of them for girls, leaving 62,000 pupils with nowhere to study, local officials say.

Huma Batool -- not her real name -- is a 42-year-old mother of two who dices with death to teach girls at a private school in the region's main town Mingora.

"We have to veil ourselves and wear shuttlecock burqas. We are not safe even at home. We fear the Taliban all the time. Life is becoming worse and worse for women in Swat," she told AFP by telephone.

Educated and financially self-sufficient, she cannot even pop to the shops without a male relative, leaving her frequently couped up at home for hours, waiting for a suitable escort to become available.

"You cannot imagine how I manage to get to school, practically every day I think about leaving the job and sitting at home."

Taliban hardliners have outlawed entertainment as un-Islamic, shut down beauty parlours and closed shops considered dens of vice rather than virtue.

"Life bores us to tears. There is no entertainment. We can't even think about cable TV, cinema, film and music. Imagine I can't even go shopping or to the bazaar as women are banned by Taliban."

Salma Javed, 35, is a nurse at a local hospital, where women -- however sick -- can only be admitted if accompanied by a male relative.

"Every woman fears she will be killed if she comes out, so even sick and pregnant women have to visit hospital with their husbands."

Salma would love to leave, but she cannot scrape together the money to set herself up in Peshawar, the teeming metropolis of Pakistan's northwest, or in the capital Islamabad barely 160 kilometres (100 miles) away.

"Now we are waiting to see what will happen after the peace deal, but let me tell you things will not change for women," she said.

The only light in Shahnaz Kousar's life is that the Taliban -- at least for now -- are allowing her to go to school in Mingora. But outside her 10th grade classroom, the daily pleasures of shopping and make-up are gone.

"We are now totally depending on Taliban.

"There's not a single shop left where I can go and buy cosmetics, all shops selling women's things are either closed or empty.

"I remember when I used to go to this market with my mother and sisters, but now it seems like a dream."

Monday, March 9, 2009

Nigerian AIDS Patients Marry Each Other

From the Associated Press - March 7, 2009

Newly-married couple Hauwa Idriss, right, and Umar Ahmed, both living with the AIDS virus, smile as they pose for a photograph shortly after their wedding in Bauchi, Nigeria, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008. Bauchi State, in Nigeria's heavily Muslim north, has recently begun playing Cupid with its HIV sufferers, encouraging them to marry by offering counseling, and cash towards their big day. The goal: to halt the spread of HIV in the non-infected population. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba) 
Newly-married couple Hauwa Idriss, right, and Umar Ahmed, both living with the AIDS virus, smile as they pose for a photograph shortly after their wedding in Bauchi, Nigeria, Saturday, Nov. 29, 2008. Bauchi State, in Nigeria's heavily Muslim north, has recently begun playing Cupid with its HIV sufferers, encouraging them to marry by offering counseling, and cash towards their big day. The goal: to halt the spread of HIV in the non-infected population. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba) (Sunday Alamba - AP)
Nigerian AIDS patients marry each other

The Associated Press
Saturday, March 7, 2009; 2:17 PM

BAUCHI, Nigeria -- With her golden dress shimmering in the sun and ornate henna tattoos covering her hands, Hauwa Idris is the picture of a radiant Nigerian bride. But her betrothal has hardly been typical: Both bride and groom are infected with the deadly AIDS virus and have been encouraged to wed by an unusual government program.

Bauchi State, in Nigeria's heavily Muslim north, has recently begun playing Cupid with its HIV sufferers, encouraging them to marry by offering counseling and cash toward their big day. The goal: to halt the spread of HIV in the non-infected population.

"We live in a polygamous society where divorce is common and condom use is low," says Yakubu Usman Abubakar, an official working with the Bauchi Action Committee on AIDS, which runs the program. "If we can stop those who have the disease spreading it to those who don't have the disease, then obviously it will come under control."

The plan had seen 93 "positive" couples married since its inception about two years ago. Idris, aged 32, and her beaming husband, 39-year-old Umar Ahmed, are couple No. 94.

"I'm very happy to see my wedding day," laughs Idris shyly. "I never expected I was going to marry because of my (HIV) status. But now I am happy and thank God that now we have a solution ... we can marry within ourselves."

Idris and Ahmed's eyes met across a crowded clinic waiting room as they queued to collect their anti-retroviral HIV therapy pills. They exchanged phone numbers and the courtship began.

Two months later, Ahmed asked Idris' parents for her hand in marriage. It was granted and a dowry of $68 agreed upon. As an incentive to carry it off, the Bauchi group contributed $225 toward the cost of the couple setting up home together, no small amount in a country where over half the population live on $1 a day.

The outreach program won't be formalized until 2009, and no budget figures exist yet. The state doesn't seek to introduce HIV-infected people, since that would entail revealing private medical data, but when officials hear of HIV lovers, they step in quickly to encourage a legal union.

Around 4 million of Nigeria's 140 million people are living with HIV _ the second largest HIV population in the world, according to Britain's foreign development agency. And although prevalence rates have dropped slightly in the past three years to around 4 percent, health experts warn the country still has a lot of work to do to bring the epidemic under control.

Bauchi is the only one of Nigeria's 36 states known to have such a program. In a society where HIV sufferers are stigmatized, these "positive marriages" provide more than just companionship.

"We have such a close bond," says Usman Ziko, 42, of his relationship with wife Hannah, 32. Money from the Bauchi plan allowed them to marry in October, after an 18-month courtship that began in the corridors of the clinic.

"It was a flamboyant affair," Hannah recalls of the wedding with a smile. "Lots of people and dancing and we snapped pictures to remember the day."

"When I first found out I was positive I thought it was the end of the world," explains Ziko. "I was depressed and became isolated from my friends. Now I have a partner who understands everything. We share our problems, remind each other to take medicine and are free with each other."

Bala Garba, a 40-year-old soldier, married Rabi Ibrahim, a 24-year-old teacher, with assistance from the plan after they met at their clinic.

"Making this marriage will make our lives easier and help us to keep the secret (of our HIV positive status)," Garba explains. "It is normal to be married in our society. This keeps people from thinking there is anything abnormal about us."

The pair have just had their first baby _ a little boy named Musa.

With assistance from the Bauchi Action Committee on AIDS, the couple received treatment and advice to help prevent Rabi from passing the virus to her baby, although the child is still too young to be tested. According to health workers, they have every chance of having a healthy child. "He is a strong boy and he's growing fast," laughs Garba, visibly delighted.

Ziko and Hannah, following strict advice and recommendations from the organization, have also conceived.

"I'm so excited to be a mother," says Hannah, now three months pregnant. "I have been eating a special diet and having medical checkups. I never imagined I could live such a normal life."

Not everyone is so encouraged, however. Some health experts have criticized the plan, saying that if HIV positive couples are encouraged to have babies, more children will end up orphaned.

According to the United Nations, Nigeria had 1.2 million AIDS orphans in 2007. While some may be adopted by relatives or find care with charitable or church organizations, many will end up on the streets begging and taking care of their siblings. Bauchi's health officials remain convinced of the plan's benefits, however.

They point out that in Nigeria, life expectancy is just 48 years in any case.

"Here you can't assume that someone with HIV will die sooner than someone else," says Abubakar, of the Bauchi program. "Especially if they are taking care of themselves, receiving good advice and proper medication."

Ziko certainly has no intention of leaving his unborn child to fend for itself.

"It's the start of a fresh, new and happy life," he beams. "I plan to live another 50 years."

Valentine's Day Across the Muslim World (2012)