Last week, Afghan girl Mah Gul was beheaded on the instruction of family because she rejected prostitution. Fifteen-year-old Malala Yousufzai was shot in the head by Pakistani Taliban gunmen in the Swat Valley because she campaigned for women's secular education. Absence of outrage by Muslim leaders is shameful, but why are so many Western feminists silent?
In Swat, the Pakistani Taliban systematically restricted girls' education. During 2008, they destroyed about 150 private schools and converted others into madrassas, or religious seminaries. Government schools were closed down, teachers murdered, acid was thrown on to the faces of schoolgirls and several officials were beheaded.
A local Islamist leader explained: "Female education is against Islamic teachings and spreads vulgarity in society."
The attack on Malala and two companions on a school bus has shocked Pakistan, especially in view of the bloody war in Swat fought by the army in 2009 to unseat the Taliban and enforce national law. In Pakistan, more than half the adult population is illiterate and in rural Sindh and Balochistan, female literacy rates are less than 2 percent. "Honor killings," bartering of women for land and animals, domestic violence and rape are endemic.
Many intellectual feminists value cultural practice, but as Afghan women's rights activist Sima Samar asserted, this respect does not apply to traditions that oppress women and violate human rights. Some feminists have joined an unholy alliance with political Islam, disregarding the oppression of women and homosexuals in favor of overarching aims to rid the world of colonialism, neo-colonialism and capitalism.
Female politicians have not always supported women's rights. When she was prime minister, Benazir Bhutto appointed women to the High Court but made no significant changes to discriminatory laws, and assisted the Taliban. In Afghanistan, women have made great strides over the past 10 years; education was established, and 3 million girls now attend school.
International women's rights groups helped expose Afghan Taliban abuse and develop the new constitution for the transitional Afghan government; but the mainstream movement, with some exceptions such as the Feminist Majority Foundation, has not fought consistently for the rights of Afghan women.
Today, support of the international feminist movement is particularly urgent. In Tunisia, a woman who was allegedly raped is facing an "immorality" charge and possible prison sentence.
Salafist leaders in Egypt are calling for changes to the draft constitution, so that Article 2 will affirm Islamic sharia as the main source of legislation rather than the principle of state law. Moreover, article 36 prescribes gender equality only if it does not contravene sharia. Egyptian women activists are campaigning for removal of sharia references in the draft constitution, as well as extreme demands from Salafists.
Pressing for basic women's rights in Pakistan and Afghanistan is part of a regional challenge and should be a priority for Western feminists. Instead, many tolerate sexist violence in the area and subjugation of women through customary law and religious legislation mandated by the state. While they continue to ignore Islamist misogyny, feminists are dallying while their Muslim sisters burn.
Original version published in The Australian.