In the continuous struggle against gender based oppression, the media likes to present a black and white version of a story. It is far simpler, not to mention more comforting, when we can label good and evil and pit set heroes against set villains. Yet reality is far more complicated than the two warring camps of the enlightened West and a horde of backward foreign cultures. Salim Hussaini, an Afghani man, highlighted this in an uncomfortable and important essay he wrote for Women Under Siege.
In his essay, he admits to his adherence to Afghanistan’s repressive culture against women. Hussaini describes watching his father abuse his mother, and coming to accept this as normal. He himself mimicked the behavior he witnessed, saying:
I began to beat my sisters and harass girls in the street. I restricted my sisters’ movements, how they looked, and who they spoke to. Afghan customs taught me that the honor of my family was more important than the physical and psychological well-being of my own siblings.
Yet, when his younger sister Soraya entered into an abusive marriage, something in Hussaini snapped. The treatment his sister was forced to endure, and her own submission to it, forced Hussaini to realise that gender discrimination was an inextricable but inexcusable part of Afghani culture. Working to free his sister from her marriage, Salim encountered obstacle after obstacle: not only logistically, in terms of finding money and safety but also cultural, in the form of pressure from family and community. Yet Hussaini persisted, and is now a member of the small, but growing group of male voices working against gender discrimination in Afghanistan.
What his article shows is that the Hussainis of the world are, like us, products of their societies. Hussaini’s Afghanistan is a place where monsters are not born, they are bred, and women are raised to passively accept abuse. Indeed, the more submissive a woman is, the more she is praised. The biggest obstacle to gender equality is not, as many believe, a group of misogynistic men. Rather, it the far more insidious and powerful enemy of culture and poverty.
Often, the power of repressive regimes is rooted in a lack of education, a lack of opportunity and poverty, all of which allow traditional views to remain unchallenged. It is easy to place blame on Afghan men, and slot their society as inherently backwards or misogynistic. The reality is that many of the citizens living in these societies have a strong moral compass and love their mothers and sisters equally, but have simply had a skewed education.
The fight for gender equality is a battle that has to be fought on many fronts, the least of which is men themselves. As Hussaini himself says, “Many men are blind and need to be healed.” The consistent heated rhetoric against men themselves is understandable, but misdirected. For ourselves, we should be focusing on rooting out the core causes of gender inequality, indirect though they may be, and begin the far more difficult – and far more important – work of rectifying them.