February 21, 2009
The Canberra Times

Smith’s female sacrifice

The fear of women is rife. Nowhere more so than among Islamic extremists. And the most fearful are the Taliban. So deep is that fear that Taliban hatred of women knows no limit.

Why else would they keep women locked away in their homes? Hidden under ugly shrouds when in public? Banned from receiving an education, or earning an income?

And why else would they flog them, stone them, rape them and behead them for asserting themselves, or simply being in public with a man who is not a relative? Why would they throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls to blind and disfigure them?

Such things are done out of deep hatred and fear.

These ugly truths about the treatment of women lurked like silent ghosts around diplomatic corridors this week, as the United States, NATO and Australia all tried to walk the diplomacy tightrope strung up over the Swat Valley by the Pakistani Government.When Pakistan announced last Sunday that it was calling a truce with the hateful Taliban in its North- West Frontier Province, the world gasped. Since when did allies in the war on terror do deals with women- hating extremists?

The deal is that Pakistan will allow the Taliban to introduce sharia law in the Swat Valley. Sharia is an Islamic system of justice in which women are, by law, lesser than men. Their testimony is worth half that of a man, and a raped woman needs four male witnesses or she risks being punished for adultery. Under sharia law a man can divorce any of his four wives, by simply saying so three times. It’s tough justice. But not tough enough for extremists.

The Taliban’s draconian interpretation of Sharia law subjects women to the most brutal and extreme system of justice on Earth. It rules over every aspect of their life, rendering women faceless, voiceless and utterly powerless.Already the Taliban have closed some 400 girls’ schools in the Swat Valley area, denying up to 100,000 girls an education. Those few brave schools that defied the order to shut down have been bombed, and teachers assassinated.

What hope is there when this sort of rule is not just imposed by Islamic militants, but sanctioned by the Government? What is Pakistan thinking?

Apparently, the ”sharia law for peace” deal is a way to get the Taliban in the region to lay down their weapons, and end their armed conflict that has been terrorising the once beautiful Swat Valley. Apparently, too, the right to impose their own fierce and uncompromising form of sharia law is what the Taliban demanded. Knowing it was effectively endorsing a system of justice that centres on the abuse of human rights and – most importantly – women’s rights, the Pakistani Government nevertheless capitulated.

Which certainly left Australia’s Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, in a horribly awkward position this week as he met his Pakistani counterpart in Islamabad. So what did he do? Chastise? Express Australia’s deep disappointment that the Pakistani Government has seen fit to compromise the rights and status of women? Or did he follow the Western allies’ script?

The sharia law deal may have alarmed NATO chiefs and the US and British officials, but for now Pakistan is a vital ally in the war on terror. (As well as being a confounding, duplicitous hotbed of contradiction.) So what did the Australian minister do?

He failed to point out any objection Australia might have to the oppression of women. Or how we might be appalled by laws that keep women imprisoned in their home. He said nothing about how the banning of girls’ education would be unthinkable in our nation. And he made no mention of how we abhor laws that allow women to be traded to repay a debt, or sold into marriage at the onset of puberty.Stephen Smith didn’t say any of those things. Instead he noted that ”Australia stands shoulder to shoulder with Pakistan”. As for the dreadful cost to the lives of generations of women in the Swat Valley by the implementation of such a brutal form of sharia law, Smith gritted his jaw and muttered how similar agreements in the past hadn’t worked well but, ”We hope on this occasion, it is a positive outcome.”

Eleven-year-old Pakistani girl Tuba Sahaab, doesn’t believe there can be any positive outcome from a deal like this. She’s penned an anti- Taliban poem for US President Barack Obama. Now a media star, Tuba bravely faced up on CNN and told the world that in refusing to allow girls to go to school the Taliban were ”taking us back to the Stone Age”.If only our democratically elected spokespeople could be so brave. If only Australia’s foreign minister had a fraction of young Tuba’s courage, and used his moment in the international spotlight this week to say no. No, we do not condone this. We will never condone a deal that sanctions the oppression of women. And no, we don’t believe any government has the right to compromise the lives of women in this brutal way.If only diplomacy was about courage and truth.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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