Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Human after all versus Humanity for All (Part I)

Commemorating International Women’s Day I would like to post this essay, written on 9 June 2005.

I wrote this while sitting in my bedroom in Kabul, Afghanistan — it goes out to all the women in Afghanistan. While most of the world was busy getting on with their lives, I saw you and learned from you.

Facing my laptop in a 18sqm room, staring at the white door with assorted winter jackets and coats hanging on a row of metal hooks, nothing came to my mind. I sat there for a few minutes staring into what my brain perceived as an empty space, just wondering what the hell am I doing in this God-forsaken place?

The image of a forlorn-looking man holding up a placard bearing the words “God has left this country” flashed before my eyes. I remember seeing this image before; somewhere in a movie I am sure.

My altruism vanished bit by bit. There is nowhere for me to go and nothing for me to do in this room of about 18sqm. Just the feeling of utter frustration seeping into my soul.

This is not what it’s supposed to be. I’m not supposed to be feeling this way.

It was my 17th month in Afghanistan. A country where nothing seems to appear normal, at least not the way we understand normal. It’s a country where I can’t seem to accurately describe who its inhabitants of about 23 millions are. It’s a country where you get in and the next thing you know, you want to get out as quickly as you can but somewhere in between there is still something holding you back.

What is it? Is it the sense of obligation as a fellow human being? Or is it because we keep telling ourselves that we can do better?

Things just seem to be getting harder each day. I find myself confined within the space of a small room; either in my office or in my temporary accommodation. It is easier for one to engage in any kind of immoral acts within the confine of one’s private space than to go for an innocent stroll out in the open air.

What an irony, isn’t it? The fact that I could not walk to the nearest grocery store because I want to buy a carton of milk frustrates the hell out of me. Nevertheless, the situation where I’m forced to live life as if I am an inmate in a small cell provides me with ample of time to think.

The many stories revealed to me — the human rights officer — sometimes haunt me, leave me feeling devastated, hopeless and angry.

Zuhal*, a young Afghan woman, was married to Tariq* for 8 years. Shortly after their marriage, Tariq left for Iran in search of a better life while leaving her behind with his family. Meantime, eight years passed and the war against the Taliban a dark past. For many, it was a time to rejoice and the time to rebuild their country. It was time for God to finally come back.

In conclusion, it was the start of many hopeful beginnings.

But not for Zuhal. Being caught by her father-in-law with her male neighbour in a room at night, she was sentenced to death by a local religious leader. The report I received indicates that she was not even alone with her neighbour while she was caught.

Instead of demanding for justice and begging for her life, her parents surrendered to humiliation without protest. In order to redeem their loss of honour, the only thing left to do was to condone and support her condemnation. She was hung to death while her alleged “partner in crime” survived with 100 lashes of the durra.

I often asked myself while reading this case over and over again, “Who the hell is this man to have such power over one person’s life?”

Someone once told me, “You are nobody unless someone makes you somebody.”

So, my thought is that this man has gained such power simply because the people have given him that power to condemn someone to death. I thought only God has that kind of power.

Unless the Afghans start to wake up and think about the values of human beings, many people will rise up like this man and continue to wantonly assert their power over innocent people like Zuhal. I say she’s innocent because after all, one of the principles of the rule of law is the presumption of innocent until proven guilty.

In Zuhal’s case, she was never arrested and charged for a crime in an open court. She was simply judged guilty, even by her own family, who had allegedly carried her outside their house, placed her on a table, tied a noose around her neck and left her to die by hanging. Zuhal’s own mother confessed that she had killed her daughter out of shame and disgrace.

A 12 year-old girl and her alleged rapist were arrested recently and charged for the crime of adultery. The girl claimed that she was drugged and raped by the man. While in detention, her father persistently seeks for her release. Having seen the case of Zuhal, the UN officer handling the case advised the prison authority not to release her for fear that she would be killed by her own family due to shame and dishonour.

Many women face similar fate because there are simply not enough qualified lawyers in Afghanistan to defend them. At such a time, I feel completely hopeless and tormented over the fate of the women in Afghanistan.

I don’t know what else to do for them.

I believe in the freedom of religion. Yes, I do. I believe that everyone has the right to practice his or her own religion. But what I truly abhor is how certain people use religion to exploit and subsequently cause the suffering of others. What I truly regret is how certain people seem to blindly believe something they perceive as the sacred teachings of a religion without searching for the truth.

In essence, I believe that all religion teaches the same values of justice, compassion and peace. I really do. But when 12 innocent civilians’ lives were taken away during a riot as a result of the people’s anger and retaliation towards the American’s alleged desecration of the Qur’an in Guantanamo Bay, I begin to question the purpose and even more the source of such outrage.

President Karzai upon finding out the looting and burning down of private and governmental properties, including a public library, condemned the act by stating that while these people were furious at the desecration of the Qur’an, two hundred more Qur’ans perished in the fire that same day.

What is the purpose of believing in a religion when human lives are not being valued, for isn’t the basis of all religion boils down to respecting each other’s lives and not desecrate what God has created?

Am I missing something here because I don’t seem to understand?

This was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 21 March 2010 under the title Humanity for All.

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