Seven of us dined recently at Hotel Laguna on the outside terrace, overlooking the waves. The two women in our group, aged 24, wanted it that way. They are from Afghanistan and had never seen the ocean. A surfer required a definition. Their clothing enveloped them and partially hid their faces.
They had been in the United States for only a few days and were students in a program at a local law school, which I was asked not to further identify. Both already had completed law school in Afghanistan.
They had come here to study U.S. law. In their tribal culture, that alone could make them vilified.
In our party was Army Reserve attorney Col. Tom Umberg, former deputy director of the Drug Enforcement Administration and recently returned from a long tour of duty in Afghanistan. There he had been tasked to create a system of Western laws for rooting out and prosecuting corruption. He said it would take generations.
Afghanistan, like much of the Islamic world, is tribal. Male elders, mostly illiterate, run everything. They do so ostensibly in the name of the Koran, which they are unable to read. They can act with impunity because they are elders and men and their word is law.
One of the women has her law degree in Sharia Law, wholly based upon the Koran. It took her four years of study. She wants to become a Sharia judge.
She says, “Despite some progresses in terms of women’s rights in Afghanistan, the existence of harmful traditional practices against women is one of the main human rights challenges as is violation of women’s rights based on Islamic Sharia, national and international law.”
In her quest, she wants to utilize Sharia Law because she says it affords women rights to education; protections from random beatings, as well as from being bought, sold or bartered in tribal disputes; holding outside jobs; practicing birth control if there are physical risks or hardships; divorcing under certain conditions; and bringing redress against men in court.
This would-be judge said all of the above is according to teachings under Sharia Law. Colonel Umberg confirmed as much.
Before she left Afghanistan, she challenged illiterate tribal elders in courts of Sharia Law and used the direct words of the Koran to dispute their allegations. She will do the same when she returns. In this, she is a radical Islamic feminist. She wants to bring rights to women. She knows Sharia Law is hardly perfect in terms of Western standards. As it is applied, it subjugates women in multiple ways, but it is a giant step in a tribal world.
Our conversation went on for some time before I asked the obvious question. What will happen when America leaves?
There was no direct answer except for the hope that some outside force will keep out Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who sit unmolested across the border in Pakistan waiting for the U.S. to leave. The women hope the United Nations will arrive. They hope young Afghan men will come to power who are educated and want something approaching equal rights.
I asked if they would be targets if the Taliban return. They looked furtive. Yes. Yes, they would be targets. Many bad things could happen to them. Many. They would be asked to quit. Their families and their clans could be threatened. They might even be killed as an example to women with similar ambitions. [And when I told them I wanted to write a column about them, they asked to not be individually identified.]
Before the night ended, they went down to the water and submerged their feet: women trying to take on centuries of subjugation briefly transformed into girls experiencing their first splash in the waves.
Meanwhile, here in America a presidential election washes over us in a sea of cash and men of certain reputations claim outrageous “truths” just as bare as elders in a tribal society. It is embarrassing.
Michael Ray grew up in CdM and now lives in Laguna Beach. He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.