Afghan women, not statues, need to be rescued

March 08, 2001|By Howard Kleinberg

MIAMI -- Cutting across seemingly every political and religious line, the world reacted with horror to the shelling and destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan by its ruling zealots, the Taliban.

Strict Muslim countries such as Iran and Pakistan even entreated the Taliban not to go through with their dismantling of statues in the name of Islam. Iran called it "un-Islamic." Pakistan lectured that "respect for other religions and for their beliefs is enjoined upon Muslims."

Appeals from nations and organizations worldwide went unheeded.

The Taliban are deeply orthodox about their Islamic beliefs, citing Muhammad's ordering the destruction of all idols after the seizure of Mecca in 630. The Koran contains multiple taboos against idolatry and idols. So does the Judeo-Christian Bible, including the second of the Ten Commandments.

People have been tearing down idols and images in the names of other religions for centuries.

That doesn't make it right, but what is happening today is not unique.

That the world has reacted with such alarm to this assault upon historic preservation, religious diversity and tolerance almost minimizes what is the largest outrage committed by this particularly rabid cult of Islam.

The transgression the Taliban have committed against religious objects pales before their worst infamy: the dehumanization of the female gender.

Ever since their takeover of most of Afghanistan in 1996, the Taliban have ruled their territories with an iron fist, imposing severe restrictions on women, and a few on men.

Columnist Ellen Goodman once referred to the denigration of Afghan women as gender genocide. The Taliban call it gender apartheid. Neither genocide nor apartheid can be accepted in today's more enlightened world, yet no one has yet figured a way to get the Taliban to release their stranglehold on Afghan women.

They are not allowed in public without the head-to-toe burka and a male relative; they cannot attend school or hold jobs. Where once 40 percent of the doctors in Afghanistan were women, they no longer are allowed to enter this profession. And male doctors are not allowed to treat women. The litany of abuse is enormous and medieval.

This is a far greater crime against civilization than the destruction of statues, however ancient and valued.

The world does not stand by speechless, but it seems to be helpless.

If 33 nations, most of them Muslim, can coalesce to bounce an invading Iraqi army from Kuwait, why can't it do the same to free a fettered gender hopelessly held prisoner in Afghanistan? An argument might be that many other Muslim nations carry severe restrictions on women. But none is as severe as this.

There remains civil war in Afghanistan; the Taliban have not yet eliminated its internal military opposition. They also are believed to harbor the terrorist Osama bin Laden. Surely, with the Russians, most Muslim states and the Western nations appalled by the Taliban, something can be done to weaken their stranglehold.

The Russians already have learned that a military incursion into Afghanistan can be a leap into quicksand. Yet, to continue to allow what is happening to women there is to look the other way, as was done to the Jews of Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

The timorous United Nations will pass a few resolutions condemning the destruction of the statues, restate some it made about the abuse of Afghan women and call for restrictions on arms and supplies sent to that country.

It is not enough. Something needs to be done immediately about what has happened to, and still is happening to, the women there.

The statues can be recast later.

Howard Kleinberg, a former editor of the Miami News, is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address is hkmiami@aol. com.)

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