CULTURAL DIVERSITY, Equal Rights, Islam, Online media, Women's Rights

Pushing for unanimity in women’s rights across 27 members states with some extremely varied attitudes towards women’s roles in society – whether more family focussed in Poland or entirely liberated with legalised prostitution in Germany – is extremely complex.

But the reporting of women’s rights issues in Afghanistan this weekend has made me appreciate just how united Europe is on this issue. And how important it is that we look beyond our own borders to push for the human rights of our sisters in the Middle East.

As Afghanistan’s Parliament debated ways to protect female politicians from assassination this Easter Monday, following the murder of Kandahar provincial council member Sitari Achakzai on Sunday, women attending the country’s most progressive university expressed her distaste and annoyance at the West’s ‘meddling’ in the rights of women in their country.


Afghan women want West to back off ‘rape law’

Women attending Kabul University told a Canadian journalist that the West should not involve itself in the country’s religious affairs. “We do not want total freedom. We want it to be limited and to be within Islam”, a young female student architect is reported as saying.

The student Hamida Hasani, aged 18, says that when faced with hunger and war issues of women’s rights pale into insignificance. ”If they [the West] faced what we have faced… they’d realise what is important here” she said. She then added, that the problem of women’s rights in Afghanistan belongs to Afghan women – no one else. I completely disagree with this young student’s sentiments.

How can the fundamental human rights of fifty per cent of the population not be important? And one woman’s suffering not be the problem of another’s? No matter how divided in culture and geography people may be, one person’s suffering is the concern of another. Women reading this article must not back off the ‘rape law’, a much reported new Shia law allowing men to have sex with their wives inspite of their wishes. Instead they must be cheered and united by that their efforts, which have resulted in the Afghan President scrapping the offending law.

Karzai bows to international calls to scrap Afghan ‘rape’ law

Women’s liberation is at the heart of every economy, every democracy, the fundamentals of human rights. Never is an issue more pressing or more in the interest of every other woman worldwide.

Frighteningly, the reportage of this story is limited as no other student could be found on the campus that was aware on the pending Shia family legislation or of Achakzai’s murder by Taliban gunmen.

Commenting on this, women’s rights campaigner Fauzia Kofi, who represents the Badakhshan constituency, said “Public awareness of any legislation before Parliament is very low. This new Shia law got very little attention anywhere before it appeared in the UK Guardian and became a big international story. It is still not a big domestic story.”

So, if it were not for the Guardian’s reportage this law allowing men to rape their wives would have slipped through unnoticed. What more riling and convincing reason could bloggers, journalists and commentators need to scrutinise, campaign and raise awareness the treatment of women overseas?

If you ever face similar such arguments student Hasani’s, which dissuade you from ‘interfering’ in foreign women’s rights, please bear in mind this very famous poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller.

First they came for the Communists,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Social Democrats,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Social Democrat.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew,

Then they came for me,

and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.



I gave this speech in the European Parliament last week:

 “I am very pleased indeed to have this opportunity to discuss this debate. It is only unfortunate that we are doing it on a Thursday afternoon when it is not quite as well attended as perhaps it should be.

 maryspeaking2“I do think this is an important debate in the context of the current economic climate. We have already heard discussion about culture and jobs and how culture industries and people working in culture can contribute to the economy and can really help. At the precarious times we are facing now – which we have heard already in this Parliament – it is important that we discuss these matters as fully as we can.


“I am here also because I do actually represent one of those big cities that the previous speaker mentioned. London, as you all know, is one of the cultural centres of the EU with – as we all have – enormous history and very much to offer. It is also the centre of, certainly the British, cultural industries. So I think I have a role here to speak for the people that I represent and to fight for those jobs which, when things get bad, are very often the first jobs to go. So I very much welcome what the Commission has said about the role of cultural industries, about how we want to preserve and to build on those and how there is an economic role for culture. I feel that, very often, that economic role is ignored, and we do not talk about it; we do not even think about it, and we relegate culture to second-class status. That is not acceptable, particularly when culture can be so very important in our national and regional development. I hope that one of the things to come out of this debate today – that we take back to our Member States, and the Commission and the Council take back – is that we are very concerned about how this regional development happens, how we deal with this and the role that culture can play in that.


“Also, as Mrs Pack has already said, there is the whole question of cultural diversity. I think one of the great strengths of the EU, and of the European Parliament, is that we all come together – now with 27 Member States – and are actually very different, in many ways: different backgrounds and cultures, and obviously different languages. That is just a start. Although the world is getting smaller and although people come together more, there are still these significant differences. We should be celebrating them, because those differences are at the very core of the things that we talk about. We all want to preserve our identities and how we feel about ourselves, and we need to do that.


“In this context, I think we also need to take on board that we are getting people coming into our continent. We are getting people from other parts of the world – many of whom are now in second and third generations in some of our Member States – who come from different backgrounds again. I think we also need to take on board that they come with their own culture, tradition and languages. Although we integrate them and they learn our languages, they are still there with their own separate identities. That is an issue which has not been mentioned in this debate, which I think is an important one and one that we, I hope, can integrate, particularly when we talk about issues such as multilingualism, which we have had good debates on. It is an extremely important issue, and I think one we should perhaps give more prominence to than we have done, but in the context of a Europe which is changing. We therefore need to preserve our existing cultures and our existing diversity and actually absorb the new diversity which has come, and which is continuing to come, into our continent. For all of these reasons, I welcome the support that we are giving to culture and to cultural industries, support to small and medium-enterprises, which I think – in the current economic climate – are possibly going to be the backbone of what we will be looking at. If large corporations and large enterprises are losing people, making people redundant and laying people off, it may well be up to the smaller outfits – the SMEs – to pick up this slack and to actually go out there and create employment for those who can work in this sector.


“So I hope we will all recognise just how important the role of culture is in our continent and our society and that those of us who have actually turned up for this debate will take the message back to our Member States, to the regions and to the people we represent. I know we have got a good message to say, so let us go out there and spread the word.”