“Anyone who makes claims that senior government officials have links with Daesh should bring those allegations to court, or wear the scarf,” said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani over the weekend.
The term “wear the scarf” is one of the sexist figures of speech in Afghan oral literature and culture. It is rooted in patriarchally defined roles that see women as the weaker sex and inferior creature who must remain silent. Ghani is basically saying to these accusers, “put up or shut up” — just as a woman should shut up. The phrase is used to insult a man because it hurts his masculinity by assigning him a feminine attribute.
Two days later, after a firestorm of criticism, the president’s office released a statement saying, “President Ghani made the remarks with a cultural interpretation as he pointed towards the head scarf and in no way had he any intentions to insult women.” However, this slip of the tongue, even though unintended, is quite revealing. Even an Ivy League-educated Afghan man defaults in moments of frustration to a mindset in which women are inferior. Not only does this promote the justification of societal sexism, but it causes Afghan women to wonder whether his show of concern for women is but a pretty facade.
When I updated my Facebook status condemning his remarks, the general reaction was that the president lost his temper. But is this really the point? As the president, his remarks both create the context and provide a safe climate for others to express sexist comments.
Even more troubling, JR Huntsinger argues that anger results in a more authentic explicit manifestation of implicit attitudes. Ghani’s remark is not only an insult to the 99.9 percent of women inside Afghanistan who wear the scarf, but the episode also clearly shows that the president has internalized the discriminatory view of women. What will that mean in the times when women’s interests are on the line, say in peace talks with the Taliban? If this remark shows us the “authentic” Ghani, does that mean he will betray women when the going gets tough?
The statement further read, “President Ghani extends his apology to the Afghan women in case his remarks have affected their emotions.” Making a sexist comment by the president publicly is not about hurting women’s emotions, but about their lesser role in a male-dominated society, and the lack of respect accorded them at the political and societal levels.
It is not about women’s emotions, but the president’s obligation to be respectful of those who do “wear the scarf.” Those who wear the scarf are arguably the strongest and most admirable in our entire society. I have lived with and been raised by women with scarves whose integrity, dedication, and selfless service made life possible for us during and after the war. I spent the first six years of my schooling studying on green plastic carpets without classrooms with female teachers who were not receiving a penny for years; widows who were working in the field, at home, and raising six or seven children; doctors who did not get married but served in the hospital healing war injuries. I am proud of my scarf as part of my identity, and it doesn’t make me any weaker. Women with scarves enabled me to become a Fulbright scholar, the same scholarship Ghani received.
Use of this language by the president perpetuates the lie that Afghan women are somehow inferior; I would argue Afghan women have held this country together while men have tried to destroy it. And are they rewarded for this selfless service?
On the contrary! Legal documents about children still do not mention the name of their mothers; a woman cannot get a passport without the approval of a male member of the family; and it took our parliament nine years to pass the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law a few days ago. I have never understood why Afghan men believe themselves stronger than women. After all, the everyday experience of Afghan women consists of being beaten, burned alive, smashed under cars, raped, and having acid thrown on them. Rukhshana and Farkhunda, two women whose cases got international media attention, offer a clear picture of Afghan women’s struggle. These beaten and oppressed Afghan women get up in the morning, put their scarf on, go out to work and school, and keep life running in Afghanistan.
I want to ask the president: could his masculine pride survive if he had to go through all these things every day? Is he really as strong as those who “wear the scarf”?
We do not need the sympathy of the president. We do deserve his respect and his support at all times.
Metra Mehran is a Fulbright scholar pursuing her Master’s degree in public policy in Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.