Shabana Azmi's speech at a UN function, Kabul, Afghanistan, 8 July 2009
SILENCE IS VIOLENCE
IMAGINE A PLACE:
• Where almost half of the population lives below the poverty line.
Where adult literacy for women over 15 years of age is less than 15 percent and in many areas even less than that.
• Where one woman dies every 27 minutes due to pregnancy related complications, amounting to around 25,000 deaths per year.
• Where violence against women, both in the public and private sphere is a normal every day occurrence for many women. Many of whom are subjected to sexual violence and find that, not only are they the ones who are condemned to a lifetime of stigma and shame if this crime becomes public, but that they are further victimized in a justice system that fails them and may prosecute and convict them for the crime of the ZINA.
• Where women participating in public life are threatened, harassed, attacked and even KILLED.
This unfortunately, ladies and gentleman is the reality in Afghanistan today. We have gathered here in solidarity and sisterhood knowing that SILENCE is VIOLENCE and that together we must break this vicious cycle.
We know that violence against women and girls has the tacit approval of society, not just in Afghanistan but all over the world. In the United States for example, one out of every six American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their life time. In India, in spite of the great strides women are taking, it is also a sad fact that female foeticide is being practiced, even in big metropolitan cities cutting across class structures. More often than not, violence against women is practiced across countries due to patriarchal mindsets, often under the cover of "religion". Harmful traditional practices are often about not challenging the misconceptions that are reinforced by skewed and distorted views of religion that are allowed to propagate.
But identity is fluid and has many aspects. If you ask me who I am, I will say I am a woman, an Indian, a wife, a daughter, an actress, a Muslim and an activist etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity. Unfortunately however, there seems to be a concerted effort to compress identity in to the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, erasing all other aspects so I become a Muslim, she becomes a Christian and you become a Hindu. This construct of identity is a tool to control, to subjugate, to deny visibility to women. Fortunately there are forces of resistance that exist against this domination and are gaining strength with each passing day.
All over the world it is being recognized that the progress of a society or a country can not be measured in terms of its GDP alone. It must be measured in terms of its human development index in which empowerment of women must become the most important yardstick of progress and development.
I was very fortunate to be born to parents who were progressive and liberal. My father, the noted Urdu poet Kafi Azmi, wooed my mother, theater actress Shaukat Kaifi, 60 years ago by reciting his poem ‘Aurat’/ ‘Woman’. In an age when the women were expected to stay confined to the four walls of her home while the husband braved the world, my father wrote ….., "Jannat ek aur hai jo mard ke pehlu mein nahin, uth meri jaan mere saath hi chalna hai tujhe…," which roughly translated means, ‘There is another heaven that awaits you that is not in the arms of your man. Arise my love, come march with me…. ’
India has a long history of democracy. I believe democracy is a critical factor in the empowerment of women. I have a stake and a claim in the democratic space my country gives her citizens. I shout from the roof top when my community is victimized but also have the freedom to tell my fellow Muslims that it falls upon them to tell the world that Islam is not a monolith. It resides in more than 53 countries in the world and takes on the culture of the country in which it resides. It is moderate in some, liberal and others, intolerant and fanatic in some. The liberal moderate must stand up against the intolerant fanatic of his own faith. It is not one religion against another. Unfortunately all too often the debate descends in to a clash of civilizations theory that closes the door on sane dialogue and intervention. Deliberate distorted views of religion must be challenged or else the space that women get will continue to shrink even further.
I repeat that democracy is a critical factor in empowerment of women. Not just in terms of their vote, but in how democracy responds to women -gives public space to get messages across and their voices heard and responds to their needs.
This belief is reinforced by my own experience as a parliamentarian for six years in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament. Our participation in all aspects of political life enables us to bring attention to issues that concern us, be involved in the processes that affect us and challenge laws and policies that restrict us.
The key issue in Afghanistan is that the very space that women have negotiated for themselves is under attack.
Women not only need to be encouraged to enter public life, society also needs to welcome them and the state needs to protect them in the face of any kind of threat. Women want to be included in local, national and global dialogues and discourses - they need to be able to participate fully and on an equal footing with their male counter parts.
I was heartened when I learned that Afghanistan has 25% of parliamentary seats allocated to women. Of course this does not automatically translate into effective participation but this figure is huge. Civil society needs to support these women parliamentarians so that they get informed by the women’s agenda as a primary concern. Access to security, health, education, employment - access to equal rights must be non-negotiable. If a quarter of Parliament speaks and acts as one, let alone other male defenders of women’s rights who join them, then the results could be better than the best.
Across Asia, we women must unite and challenge ideas, theories, beliefs and indeed laws that keep our sisters in servitude. When discrimination against women is endorsed by society, or the state, then we all become partners in crime. We cannot remain silent, we must not remain silent.
India is in my view getting it right because it is placing women at the centre of development and support for the girl child. We have strong laws in place to protect women. For example, in the past rape victims were silenced into not reporting rape because the kind of proof that was demanded, the verbal assault they were subjected to, where it was assumed that the victim must have somehow ‘invited’ the rape, the shame and stigma that the girl’s family had to face, the ostracisation by society was terrifying. But because of relentless advocacy by women’s rights groups and parliamentarians things are changing. Convictions for rape are rising and there has been greater sensitization of the police on these issues. Women also have the freedom of in-camera proceedings. The onus of innocence lies on the accused and there is a seven year non-bailable imprisonment at the very least if found guilty.
In Afghanistan laws on rape and protection of rape victims needs to be similarly strengthened. I understand from Afghan activists that this process is underway. I sincerely look forward to following this process and I salute all the activists in this room who have campaigned against the sanctioning of sexual violence and for the rights of victims.
We all know well however, that laws alone can not bring about change. Legal reform does represent an important first step but what is needed is a mindset change that treats women as second class citizens.
I end with a couplet from the famous Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Bol ke lab azaad hain tere Bol Zabaan ab tak teri hain Bol yeh sutwan jism hai tera Bol ke jaan ab tak teri hai Bol ke sach zinda hai ab tak ….
Speak: your lips are free Speak: your tongue is still yours Speak: this lissome body is yours Speak: this life is yours Speak: so that the truth can prevail ….