When we think of the struggle for women’s rights, the rights we most often think of are the right to vote, the right to property and the right to work and equal pay. These are all phenomenally important rights, and ones that women in the West have fought hard to secure. However I would argue that the most important right of all is the right to love.
Many of the novels I’ve been most drawn to in this life – JANE EYRE, ANNA KARENINA, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, MIDDLEMARCH – have had at their heart these incredibly strong and courageous women; women who’ve battled the popular perceptions of their time and have courageously loved despite the obstacles and scorn flung their way.
Now 150 years later, it may seem as if their struggle is antiquated. But what these women fought for in the nineteenth century is exactly what so many women in the Muslim women are struggling for now.
20 years ago I spent 12 months as an idealistic, young aid worker teaching in a school and an Afghan refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan. It was one of the most eye opening experiences of my life. I had never seen a woman in a burqa before and the only thing more shocking was the fact that most women wore them. In the main, the women there were third class citizens living in a patriarchal feudal system with few rights. Yet the rights they did have were strangely the ones that Western women had fought hardest to secure, namely the right to vote, the right to work (if only in the most menial of jobs) and the right to property (a central tenet of Islam).
The one right they didn’t have was the right to love.
Here are the facts. The United Nations estimates that 50% of all Afghan girls are forced into marriage before reaching the age of 15. Pakistan is the 3rd most dangerous country for women with 1000 women and girls murdered every year in ‘honor killings’ and 150 suffering horrendous acid attacks. Most rapes go unreported and the reason is simple: unless a woman has four male witnesses it is almost certain that she will be charged with adultery or a ‘moral crime’. In Afghanistan 87% of women have experienced some form of ‘intimate violence’ – i.e. either a forced marriage or physical, sexual or psychological abuse. In many areas of Afghanistan the practice of ‘baad’ is common in which girls are given away to settle disputes between families.
This is why of all rights, the freedom to love is the one that should be most cherished and hardest fought for. For when a woman is not allowed to love whom she wants, she is in essence being told that her feelings are worthless and when you cannot act on your feelings you are no more than an emotional prisoner. Conversely if men can control whom a woman marries, they will never respect their opinions or look upon them as anything but their property.
On the other hand, if women are free to love (and free to suffer its consequences) they own the essence of who they are and all other freedoms will follow. Men, too, will look upon them as equals – for, if nothing else, in order to gain a wife they’ll have to earn their love and respect. In my opinion, this is the underlying message of all the great novels I mentioned earlier.
I am an optimist, as Frankin Roosevelt said in his fourth inaugural “the great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward”. Yet if there is one area in which Western women could stand with their Muslim counterparts, I would argue that this is it.
The progress maybe glacially slow in many parts of the Muslim world, however I believe it will come and when it does, when all women are free to love whom they want and their men accept this fact, I believe the world, in turn, will be a more tolerant and peaceful place.
On a dusty, sweltering night, Noor Khan, a beautiful, headstrong Afghan refugee, comes face-to-face with Charlie Matthews, a brash, young American aid worker. To Noor’s fury, Charlie breaks every cultural norm and pursues her. She wants nothing to do with him: her sole aim in life is to earn an overseas scholarship so she can escape the miseries of the refugee camps.
However when Noor’s brother threatens to marry her off, she is forced to seek refuge in Charlie’s home, of all places, and suddenly everything Noor believes in is put into question.
Set in the mystical and seething city of Peshawar, where no one is without an agenda and few can be trusted, Refuge is a timeless and unforgettable love story about the struggle for love and purpose in a cruel and cynical world.
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