Soon after this I was nominated as missions coordinator for my local UM congregation and Afghanistan became the focus of their Global Missions Day in November. I hung a poster at the foyer of the church with a picture of the overflowing refugee camps and the caption read “Summer camping is no fun if it’s your permanent home!” Then the tv series “Seventh Heaven” had a show that focused on the harsh living conditions and violence many women encountered under the strict Sharia law imposed by the Taliban – at the end was a notice about RAWA and their pleas for women around the world to speak out because they could not. Being an American woman, I soon surfed the web and began reading about this RAWA group formed by many brave Afghani women. I also found other human rights agencies were trying to raise awareness of the plight of Afghani women. Of course, 9/11 brought everything to the forefront and now conditions are changing slowly. In Delaware, local Afghani Americans created an organization called AFDECT to help fund new schools and medical clinics for girls. Our local People to People chapter supports this group (???weblink). But it seems Afghanistan is no longer on the hearts and minds of Americans and most have forgetten we still have a strong presence of troops there and that changes are coming very slowly, even with the installation of new moderate government leaders and a new Constitution. So I was very interested to have an opportunity to see the new international film being released this year called ‘Osama’, which was made by Afghani’s specifically to ensure that the issues of women there do not get forgotten and that no regime, political or religious, similar to the Taliban will ever be allowed to take over again.
The movie is haunting and heartwrenching. It shows how desperate times and frustration often lead people to try many creative ways to change their life situation. Because so many men had been killed in the war to keep out Russia/Communism and most other men, even young boys, were then forced by the Taliban to join jihad forces or taken away to study in madrassas, many women either became widows or were separated or estranged from the men in their family.
The Taliban’s strict rules provided women no means to move outside their homes without a male escort. Women who previously held professional jobs that could have given them a means of support were no longer able to work. Many women and children were starving because there were no men around to provide for them and there were so few male relatives who could escort them for even simple trips to the market. Thus, most women relied on the meager assistance that could be given by neighbors and local merchants or zakat (mercy alms) handed out at the discretion of local mullahs at the mosque.
The film shows how the Taliban used physical force and gun power to stop crowds of women who joined together to form protest marches demanding the right to work again. And the smallest infraction reported about a woman’s ‘indiscretion’, such as laughing too loud, could lead to her imprisonment and perhaps death.
It is hard for those of us raised in the free society of America to believe how easily the Taliban could rise to power and impose such a harsh form of Shariah law. But in Afghan society that is mostly rural and already highly regards male dominance and protection of women and the final authority of local warloards; in a land that had seen so much chaos caused by wars and drug trafficking, many Afghani’s thought their only hope was in the mullahs call for a return to Islam that they assured would bring back stability, prosperity and peace. Instead, most rulers used their new found power, disguised under the cover of religion, to hold women hostage and further destroy family life, creating only more chaos and fear.
One of my favorite lines in this movie is when the grandmother tries to explain her reasons for believing what they are planning is acceptable. She states from her long life experience she has found that “men and women are equal, and suffer equally” and “boys and girls each deserve the same chance in life provided them by Allah, So she sees no problem with cutting her (?12 year old) granddaughters hair to make her appear to be a boy so that ‘he’ can then escort them to the market and mosque. The girl protests, but the mother agrees this is the only thing they can do or they will surely starve, so they proceed to cut her long hair and then shave her head. Can you imagine what you would do if you had to choose between fear and famine?
The ruse continues for awhile and the ‘boy’ is even granted a job by a local merchant who is a distant relative of the wife’s husband. But one of the mullah’s notices that Osama does not follow along with prayers as automatically as should be if he received proper training (muslim girls are not required to learn or attend prayers as strictly as boys). And as more of the Taliban become aware of this new ‘boy’, they begin to ask questions. Then they do a raid of all households to take those boys who are close to puberty to the madrassa where they receive training on the rituals of Islam regarding sexual purification before being sent out for jihad. It is after this time that the women’s plan begins to unravel. The old mullah first believes that ‘Osama’ is just underdeveloped or perhaps a eunuch. But the other boys also begin to suspect from Osama’s behaviors, as she is more easily prone to cry and not as rough and tumble as most boys. A friend recognizes her and comes to her aid many times when other youths harass her, but the mullah’s become concerned that ‘he’ must become more hardy or will never be prepared for jihad, so they dangle Osama by ropes inside a water well. After many hours of crying, the elders concede to stop the torture. At that time it becomes very evident Osama is a really a girl, because as they take the ropes off that also held her clothing tight against her body, blood from her first monthly period floods the ground at her feet.
Osama is taken to the women’s prison already overflowing and there are several scenes of quick trials and executions by firing squads or stoning (including one of a western male journalist). It is during these days in jail that Osama begins to have flashbacks to not so distant days of happy play times jumping rope. She uses these memories as a means to escape from her surroundings and thoughts of what will happen to her when her trial comes up. As it turns out she is never brought to trial as the local leaders decide to marry her off to a very old mullah. Of course, neither the girl or her mother have any say in this but she does plead not to be given to such an old man – to no avail. They travel by mule/cart to his village in the mountains hours away and there she finds that he already has three wives (Islamic law allows men to marry up to 4 women if they can be assured to provide for and treat all the women and children produced equally).
As the other women realize her fate, they begin to prepare her for her wedding night. As they wash and dress her they tell her stories about the physical, sexual and mental cruelties this man has done to each of them. They do not offer her any comfort beyond this, nor do they speak out to ask the mullah to allow her to reach a more suitable age for marriage relations when he comes to find her that evening. But neither do any of them tell him which part of the women’s chambers she is in (the old mullah locks each woman and her children in separate areas of the house each night). When he finds ‘Osama’ he tries to sweet-talk her by allowing her to select the lock for her door. When she can not select being frozen from fear because of the tales told to her earlier, he selects another larger lock and tells her he selected this because she is his most special wife now. Thankfully, the movie does not show the scenes of rape and abuse that must have followed but it ends with scenes of the old man dipping himself into a deep sauna tub to cleanse himself, while ‘Osama’ reverts to skipping rope in her mind through her tears.
Viewers are left wondering the fate of this girl and pondering how anyone could exist in such an environment.
God forgive me, one of my first comments on seeing this ending was “well, there are four women and that old guy would have to sleep at some time!” Culturally, it is not hard to see why their women were at first so easily accepted the protection of the Taliban and how so few women felt capable of speaking out strongly when they saw the first signs of things turning for the worse. From reading the RAWA sight I know there are many strong, determined women in Afghanistan who died trying to help other women be less afraid and more outspoken. And it is still hard for me as an American to believe how many woman would not rise up and prefer dying while fighting to living under such archaic and barbaric conditions. But then I began to think how many women in Afghanistan now have children from unwanted, arranged marriages and rapes like Osama’s? Children they may not have planned or wanted, but surely love and want only the best for and so want to live to make sure that happens. How many of these women would feel comfortable today speaking about how their children were conceived? I wonder how many women who went through these experiences are suffering silently so that they can have some type of a normal future – and how many now want a divorce but are still forbidden to ask under Islamic law? How many girls just entering adolescence like ‘Osama’ are now living through their dreams of childhood, hoping one day the memories of terror and torture will go away? How many young girls around Osama’s age in any country would not be fearful of men screaming wildly and towering over you with guns? I pray these women will be able to rebuild their internal and mental fortitude to go on – and that their husbands, brothers, and sons will understand and not banish them to a life of loneliness for sins committed upon them and not willingly by them.
However, I also have to ask, if Islam teaches such deep respect for women, and the Taliban were supposedly following the highest, purest form of Islam, how could they even think of marital rape or other forms of torture as a means of discipline for women? Are rape and torture sanctioned in the Quran or Hadith? Many people say that the Taliban practiced a form of Sharia that is unacceptable – but we also see this form of Sharia rising up in Nigeria and Indonesia - so is it the people making the rules or the actual rules and other principles of Islam that cause the one living by them to start to have no regard for human life?
I have heard some Muslims in America (and Canada) who want to have Sharia law imposed here. Who are actually praying that Americans will come to Islam in great numbers so that the evils in our society can finally be turned around. But I think we can all see from these recent examples that Sharia law as interpreted by men is not the answer. The answer and way to turn around any society is that every person has to come to the knowledge and acceptance that their heart and very human nature are prone to wickedness and sin. And then admit the only person we can allow to control our lives is God.
The God of the Bible is a God of love who gives each person grace to overcome trials and sin. Jesus spoke about breaking down laws that were overly restrictive and terrible extensions made by men of the laws God originally sent down. His greatest sermon outlines the Beatitudes, which clearly preaches against violence. His final words before crucifixion outlined in the Gospel of John plead for believers to maintain unity and focus on God’s love. But so far from my study of the Quran I don’t find any references to God being a God of love – merciful, but this has more of a meaning like bounteous/graciously providing, but not a God with deep down love, care and concern for each and every person that Christianity teaches is the character of God – a loving Father, ever patient and reaching out to draw us close even when we fall. Yes, God did discipline harshly at times in the Old Testament, but this was very rare and imposed only after God made many attempts to turn mankind away from their sins and when large numbers of people openly disobeyed and disclaimed God. And after every discipline (as the book of Hosea and many others clearly show) God lovingly accepted their repentance and showered more blessings on anyone who returned with a contrite heart. God acted only to cleanse and renew His chosen people because He can not be in relationship with people who remain sinful. This God of love, shown most powerfully through the love of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, is much much different than the God of ‘mercy’ in the Quran.
Without the knowledge that God is a God of love and having the love of God in our lives I don’t believe anyone can truly know how to love others. For if all people are made by God and in the image of God, then how can we do harm to another human being? As Christians, we believe that those who do not yet fully understand the Triune nature of God (non-Christians) can not fully understand God, and therefore, they can not fully understand how to love themselves, or other people.
So I can only pray after seeing the movie Osama that God will bring those who were/are Taliban and the regional ruling warlords and new government leaders to the realization of who He truly is – if they are truly seeking to know God that they will once again reach out to Him. And that the Taliban will confess that they obviously did not know enough about their religion to know what He wanted from them. I also pray that each and every Afghan woman, man and ‘Osama’ child that was affected by the Taliban and therefore questioning their religion will begin to pray with an open heart and mind, calling out to God. For then God the Father, Son and Spirit, a God with loving, relational nature, 3in1 who can not function alone or apart but only know how to love through union with each other, will answer and show them true love and how to be cleansed of all their sins. Then the future of Afghanistan will be much more peaceful and prosperous as these new believers learn from God the transforming power that Jesus, who came to reveal to each person the true loving nature of God and what true religion is, can bring to their life and their country.
I hope you can get to see the movie ‘Osama’ – if not, just pray.