Monday, November 12, 2012

Why do we let them?

A horrific video shot a couple of weeks ago, near Kabul, shows a Taliban fighter executing a woman with shots to the back of her head. And as he goes on with unabashed sadism, there is a whole village that watches and cheers, like a ludicrous string of puppets piling plaudits on a loathsome “achievement”. She isn’t shot once. Nine times. As if to extinguish every last iota of life – lest she be a cat with nine of them inside. Disgusting. The twenty-two year old, the woman - no, actually, girl – was accused of adultery.
Earlier this month, a young fourteen year old, Malala Yousufzai, was shot in the head for daring to demand the enforcement of her right to education.

A woman cannot live in Afghanistan without a threat to her existence, lest she fall from the high pedestal of “accepted conduct”.

I must confess I am an Afghanistan-literature-junkie. I have a whole bookshelf devoted to Afghanistan – from Jean Sasson’s For the Love of a Son, to Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul, from Gayle Tzemmach Lemmon’s The Dress Maker of Khair Khana, to Deborah Miller’s The Breadwinner, from Khaled Hosseini’s magnum opus A Thousand Splendid Sons and painful story The Kiterunner, to Siba Shaqib’s Samira and Samir. And it is the last one that jolted me most, when read in keeping with this video. Samira and Samir tells the tale of a person who was born Samira, but her father was too ashamed to father a girl, lest he fall from society’s pedestal for him. Samira is then brought up as a boy, and grows to embrace the acquired gender despite the ascribed gender. When I first read the novel, a part of me was disgusted at how Samira embraced being Samir – and how the author found the propensity for such a story to find authenticity. One part of me made me realize that there was sense in Samira’s choice of being Samir – because Samira knew nothing else. Having been brought up as a boy, to ride the horse, to fight like a soldier and to be the guardian of his family – Samira was only Samir in existence. But another part of me wondered if Samira’s mother was a really practical character – allowing her husband to sheath her daughter in the public eye with the title of a son. I did know about Afghanistan’s history – and its women’s difficulties under the Taliban. But I still didn’t find myself relating with Siba Shaqib’s plot.

Until I saw The Video, and heard of Malala's shooting.

The Video is footage from Afghanistan, shot about two months ago. It has Taliban members saying that the executioner was the woman’s husband. But there are different versions - Colonel Masjidi has said that the woman's real husband was a member of a village militia that had slain a local Taliban leader. The woman was executed in revenge on trumped up charges of adultery. Roshna Khalid, a spokeswoman for the provincial government, claimed that the woman was killed for having multiple affairs with Taliban fighters. She said that the woman's name was Najiba, and that she was in her 20s and did not have children. A third official, called Qari Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, who was a member of the provincial council, said the woman had run off with a Taliban commander, who in turn was accused of passing information to government forces. He was shot in a village before Najiba was executed by her husband.

The girl kneels in the background, in the video. She is in her chadder, it appears – the blue canvas prison that imprisons many women like her across Afghanistan, in a veil of alleged security for chastity. Random voices show a bunch of Taliban fighters speaking, most of whom seem to be walking about in the video, while a dozen villagers watch from a hill above. One of the Taliban men in the video, go onto say that the Koran prohibited adultery, and that killing the woman was as per God's order and decree. "If the issue was avenging deaths, we would beg for her amnesty. But in this case, God says, 'You should finish her.'", he appears to say. "It's the order of God, and now it is her husband's work to punish her." And then someone else says, "Give him a Kalashnikov." Armed with the borrowed assault rifle, the man identified as her husband approaches the girl from behind. Several Taliban fighters can he heard whispering, "Get closer to her." And then he shoots. Once, twice, thrice... nine times. You can tell, by the third shot, the girl is quite dead – as it jolts her body backward, leaving it flat on the ground. By the ninth shot, even the cadaverous remains are dead, so dead, that even Death has walked away in agony. The Taliban begin cheering and the villagers join in. One of the Taliban says, "Take my video, too," and can be seen smiling. The video ends – but not before the executioner shoots the girl's body four more times.

Adding to the already dismal state of affairs is a massive campaign launched by the Taliban – that education of girls is outlawed on all fronts. Arson and poison attacks are among the activity that targets those who teach girls. Young boys conduct searches of their fellow pupils and make notes in registers, doing everything in their capacity to avert a possible attack. These boys are forced to be on the frontline, stationed at the entrances of their schools, so that any possible attack would target them first before anything happens inside the school. A child is forced to be the keeper of his education. It is Hobson’s choice for many – either stay at home and struggle to find a menial job that pays pittance, or continue at school while braving the propensity for violence. A police checkpoint, student patrollers and vigilante teachers are their only defence against any prospect of violence in antagonism to the running of schools. Malala was a beacon of light among it all, a crusader, a staunch fighter in the hope of a bright light for herself, and many girls like her. But the Taliban couldn't let one ambition last while they breathed.

And then I understood Siba Shaqib’s plot, and cried because of the profoundness it exuded, because of the pain it spoke of, because of the Taliban and the thousand wrong things they did – especially to the women of Afghanistan. Which mother wouldn’t prefer that her daughter be shown to the world as being a boy, if being a girl only meant a perennial sword would hang over your head? Should you fall from the public eye because someone thought you had no honour, they would kill you. Should you go uncovered in public, they would flog you and the man of your house for letting you go thus. Should you ask to go to a doctor, you would be prohibited. Should you still try, you would be beaten. Should you still fight and go see a doctor, none would see you. Should you be married away, most times it would be to a man several times your age. Should you protest, you will be silenced and laid underground. Should you fall in love, or have the gumption to choose a husband yourself, you will be killed to protect the honour your family is entitled to. Should your husband cast an aspersion on your chastity, you could be stoned to death. Should your husband merely have a shadow of doubt on your alleged indulgence in adultery, it doesn’t matter that you are innocent, you would be shot, shot in the head in full public view. And a stadium full of men will applaud your killing.
That is how merciless they were, are, and in all likelihood, may always be.
The question is, why are we letting them?