Deborah Orr: Do we believe in the rights of women?

Britain is happy to wring its hands over the honour killings, the rapes the trafficking, and the ritual murder
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, in welcome relief from the stories of bloodied dust or fatal want that emerge from the world beyond the West, comes a tale of warmth and humanity that lifts the heart and fills it with hope. The news from rural Pakistan, about the courageous stand of 22-year-old Tasleem Bibi, is just such a narrative.

This young woman has been destined for 17 years to become a victim of vani, a traditional method of settling "blood feuds" - made illegal in Pakistan two years ago, but still widely practised. Under the terms of the vani, it was arranged by her father that Tasleem and four other family members should be married to the family of a man he was alleged to have murdered, in order that he should avoid going to prison.

It is commonplace for women in Pakistan to be ill-treated within marriage. But girls married under vani are given even less respect than the most brutal of husbands might mete out. It is little wonder that Tasleem is reluctant to sacrifice herself in this way. But it is indicative of the status of women in Pakistan that this awful fate was planned for her by her own dad, when she was a five-year-old.

What gives the story its life-affirming twist is that Tasleem is supported in her radical actions by her four brothers. Tasleem's brother Sher Abbas Niazi declared his backing with simplicity and passion. "This vani should never have been agreed," he said. "We love her and we are against this custom."

A photograph of the five of them, Tasleem in the centre, her face and body swathed in black, with her brothers ranged behind her in Western dress, speaks volumes about the gulf between their life and their sister's. But it takes plenty of pluck for them to stick their necks out for her, all the same.

The Liberian women who on Monday spoke out on Newsnight about the appalling abuse that has been happening for years in their country had plenty of pluck as well. The women spoke of being routinely raped not by enemy forces, but by UN aid workers and peace-keepers who had violated girls as young as eight before giving them food. Little attempt is made by the UN to play down the crimes that have been perpetrated against the women of Liberia by their supposed allies. There is a seeming acceptance of rape as an essential element of even the most minor conflict - even when it is perpetrated by peace-keepers. Only the women who speak out can hope to puncture this acceptance, which is seen now all over the world.

It takes plenty of pluck too, for Marina Mohamad to make her own stand in Malaysia. This woman is not like Tasleem, a sheltered, rural girl fuelled only by her sense of natural justice, or like the Liberian women who like her have nothing left to lose. Marina has enjoyed privilege - her father was Prime Minister of Malaysia for 22 years - and education - she is a highly educated feminist and Aids campaigner. But that makes her all the more dangerous, of course.

Marina is using her column in a widely read newspaper to campaign against a new law that makes it easier for Muslim men to enter into polygamous marriages and to claim property after divorce (which they can legally achieve via text message). She suggests that in Malaysia "there is an insidious, growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women - that between Muslim and non-Muslim women". Her work is now being censored, and a report in the New Statesman suggests that the justice minister has even made veiled threats against Marina in public.

These are just a few examples that have appeared in the media over the past few days. But all over the world women are making brave stands like these every day, against oppression or contempt that most women in the West can't imagine being faced with. In this country, of course, we consider ourselves to be supportive of their battles, a beacon society that has carved a way forward for women and shown that however incomplete or imperfect it may be at the moment, the struggle for female liberation is one worth taking up.

Except that if Tasleem, the Liberian women or even, unless things get worse for her, Marina turned up in Britain and applied for asylum, their application would be unlikely to meet with success. Cherie Blair, on the eve of war with Afghanistan, may have been happy to frame her eyes with her fingers, and promise that her husband would be liberating women from the burqa. But the truth is that our adventures in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, have resulted in more and harsher oppression for women.

Likewise in Pakistan, where Tasleem awaits her fate, Britain and the US are happy to accept the mere lip service paid to women's rights, because the country is seen as the West's key ally in the 'war on terror'. President Musharraf, displaying an attitude remarkably similar to some shown by the Home Office officials who give "evidence" at the kangaroo courts set up in detention centres to deport as may people as possible, has even declared that Pakistani women "use" rape as a "money-making concern" or to back their asylum applications.

Britain (like Musharraf, who likes to advertise that he considers women's equality "a priority") is happy to wring its hands over the oppression of women - the honour killings, the rapes, the trafficking, the circumcision and the ritual murder. But it is unhappy to view such acts as a crime against humanity, because if it did so it would not be able to pack on to planes the women who reach these shores in their fear and misery, and deport them back whence they came.

One of the most ghastly aspects of the Home Office deportation mess is that the idea of dangerous foreign men roaming Britain feeds into all the most primal prejudices people harbour about the foreign nationals who come to our shores. It is a picture that has no room to display the reality of many asylum applications, which come from the people around the world who are most oppressed - women - and who have most to fear when they are sent back.

The lack of leeway given to female asylum-seeking refugees in Britain is now so great that a campaign group made up of various charities, Women for Refugee Women, is gathering a petition with a modest, unanswerable aim. "We call on the UK Government to ensure that the persecution women face, including rape, honour crimes and female genital mutilation, is taken seriously in asylum claims. We call on the Government not to make destitute, detain or deport women who are at risk of gender-related persecution." Until our Government accepts the moral logic of such a position, it is no more a believer in the rights of women than the elders in Tasleem's village.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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