American women have won their way into voting booths, corner offices, government positions and pulpits, while many of their Afghan sisters are desperate for the right to leave their houses without escorts.
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on Sept. 26, 1996, everything changed–for women and men alike.
Waheeda Jamil, a mathematics professor in Kabul, recalled hearing a shocking radio announcement the day after the Taliban took the city.
“All females should stay home.” That’s how Jamil remembered the announcement in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. “No females would be allowed to return to work or school. On the rare occasions when they would be permitted to go out in public, they would have to cover themselves from head to foot.”
Jamil, like many other women, went from an educated working woman to a virtual prisoner in her own home. Her family eventually fled to neighboring Pakistan.
American feminists are quick to champion the rights of women everywhere, but to what extent should Christians respond to the oppression Afghan women are experiencing?
“The Great Commission is for all Christians,” said Carol Ann Vaughn, director of the Christian Women’s Leadership Center at Samford University. “As a Christian I cannot ignore the conditions of men, women and children in ‘all the world.'”
Vaughn suggested that if Christians are going to help oppressed women in other countries, that they need also to defend oppressed American women as well.
“We must recognize that our own rhetoric may be part of the problem,” Vaughn said. “If one types ‘submissive women’ on an Internet search, the vast majority of the more than 1 million sites are pornographic advertisements and descriptions of women for sale. These sites surround addresses of churches and religious groups arguing for ‘the submission of women.'”
She wonders what kind of message this sends.
Ana D’Amico, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship representative to the United Nations, said Christians and Muslims alike should declare that those “bent on destroying and denying rights to Afghani women are not speaking for true believers in their own religions.”
D’Amico said women must decide for themselves the fine line between submission and oppression.
“Submission is for a woman to define and in [America] when a woman says she submits, by choice, she sometimes has no idea of what that word means in other societies where oppression of women is a way of life, quite accepted and encouraged,” she said.
So how should Afghan women live in their own cultural context?
“I have no doubt there are some women in Western countries that would be more than happy to lead the Afghani women in a revolt–to throw off their fetters and live as they choose,” said Kim Pennington, Women’s Ministry consultant for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. “While that approach may appeal to the part of us that is angered by the oppression these women live with, I am not sure that this type of approach would be a biblical response, nor would it bring the desired lasting results.”
Pennington said she sees few alternatives for women facing death for refusing to submit to authority.
“These are women who have experienced freedom in the past and who for now, as much as I am sure they despise their current conditions, see wisdom in submitting to the ruling authorities in order to protect the lives of themselves and their families,” Pennington said. “However, a cooperative, respectful spirit in a person can be contagious and cause people to win over their oppressors.”
While Pennington’s catch-more-flies-with-honey approach seems admirable, others said political action is necessary to make changes.
Lisa Sharlach, assistant professor of political science at Samford University, said people should “pressure our federal government to let women seeking asylum in the U.S. use ‘gender-based persecution’ as a reason.”
“Political asylum seekers may use racial/ethnic or religious persecution in their home country as a reason for winning asylum (in the U.S.), but they cannot use persecution on the basis of sex,” she said. Sharlach also suggested educating oneself about the rights afforded to women under international law and how the Taliban violates these rights.
D’Amico also heralded education as a weapon to fight the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Her experience working with the United Nations has also taught her that advocacy groups are indispensable for demanding higher standards from the government.
“The involvement of women and men in the struggle for women’s rights has to be a part of the overall strategy of missions,” D’Amico said. “We need to be concerned that we do not proclaim a certain kind of gospel according to our own cultural preferences. We have at times thought, throughout history, that we are taking the gospel to persons around the world when in fact we were propagating a culture.”
D’Amico recalled a conversation she had prior to the Sept. 11 attacks with a female ambassador from a Muslim country that was once part of the Soviet Republic:
“After a while she became very quiet and then said: ‘I am terribly concerned about the rise of fundamentalism in my country. I am Moslem but fundamentalists are bent on destroying, in denying rights, in excluding.’ We were rather stunned at her declaration but then we realized that we were also concerned about the rise of fundamentalism in Christianity.”
“When the tragedy of September 11 occurred I thought of our friend quite often, frankly,” D’Amico said. “On that day I sensed fear in her eyes and her expression. She was prophetic in her concern.”
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.