The promotion of critical thinking can seem an uphill struggle, but at least we don’t get torn limb from limb for trying.
As skeptics, we fight to uphold certain freedoms: freedom of enquiry, freedom of speech, academic freedom. The battles are worth waging to enjoy the blessings these principles bring, including knowledge and understanding, and because the alternative is darkness.
Skeptics skirmish in public debates, across the kitchen table, and in the workplace. While I think every academic should be a skeptic, I work alongside lecturers who oppose our organisation and who are hostile to science. Some of them believe in Creationism, homeopathy, or the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired history of ancient America. Such lecturers exasperate me. University managers who do not appreciate academic freedom irk me. Being a skeptic can be tiring and frustrating.
Still, we need to keep our battles in perspective. In parts of the world, debating a university speech code is the farthest thing from the concerns of millions of people. For example, the girls and women of Afghanistan would be overjoyed to have any education at all. Five years after being ousted by the United States, the Taliban still control large parts of Afghanistan. They invoke societal codes in the name of custom and religion as justification for denying women their rights, including the right to an education.
The director of education at Ghazni, Fatima Mustaq, says she has received death threats for refusing to send girls home from school. The threats are also against her husband and their eight children. During the Taliban’s rule, she and her sister secretly taught girls at their home. “They found out and raided us. We managed to persuade them that we were only teaching the Koran. But they spied and found out we were teaching algebra. So they came and beat us. Can you imagine, beating someone for teaching algebra?”
In November, gunmen came for Mohammed Halim and dragged him from his home at Ghazni while his children cried and his wife begged for mercy. The 46-year-old schoolteacher was then partly disembowelled before being torn apart with his legs and arms tied to motorbikes. His remains were put on display as a warning to others to stop educating girls. Halim was one of four teachers killed in rapid succession at Ghazni for defying a Taliban order to not teach girls.
Before they can hope to gain an education, Afghan women and girls need protection from abduction and rape by armed men, being traded to settle disputes and debts, and forced and underage marriage. By being married as young as 12, females are denied their right to education and the freedom to decide the course that they wish their lives to take. A ban on interaction between unrelated men and women greatly inhibits women’s access to the workplace, courts, and schools, because these places are segregated or exclusively male.
Afghan women get almost no protection from the state. In fact, a report issued in November by the Pentagon and the US State Department found that the police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement. Violence against Afghan women is normal. It is tolerated at the highest levels of government. Some judges disregard the law and rely on tradition to hold women responsible for being attacked, thus sanctioning brutality. The perpetrators of violence against women are rarely charged. If cases are prosecuted, the men are usually let go or punished lightly. Women who report rape risk being accused of having committed the crime of having sex outside marriage.
Violence against women by family members also is common. It ranges from forced deprivation of education to beatings, sexual violence and killings. Many acts of violence involve traditional crimes of honour, when a female is punished by her family for shaming them; perhaps she got raped. Punishment can mean being stoned or burned or beaten to death.
Glimmers of progress are visible in Afghanistan. In 2004 a new constitution was adopted which proclaimed that “the citizens of Afghanistan-whether man or woman-have equal rights before the law.” It also provides for a minimum representation of women in both houses of parliament.
In 2005 the first woman was appointed as governor of a province. Over 40 percent of women were registered as voters in 2004. Women are officially allowed to seek employment-albeit with permission from family members. One in five girls now attends primary school. Nearly all the younger women interviewed recently by Amnesty International expressed their wish for the future as simply being able to continue their education. As skeptics in New Zealand look to soldier on in 2007, we can be thankful for the freedoms we enjoy.