Last night I settled down to watch Panorama, knowing that I'd find it absolutely horrendous to see its depiction of the terrible repression in Afghanistan.
Reporter Jane Corbin had been to Afghanistan and had interviewed women who had suffered terrible brutality, who showed incredible bravery in speaking out about their ordeals. My 10 year old daughter came in to the room just as 17 year old Saida was explaining how she'd been married off at the age of 9, sold by her brothers to a 60 year old man who beat her and forced her into prostitution. It took her 7 years to excape this vile creature. Anna was quite shocked by the contrast between her carefree life, reflecting on the fun we'd had altogether at a fruit picking farm, where the most taxing thing she had to do was help her daddy find a way through the maze, and the lives of these young girls her age thousands of miles away.
Then there was Zeinab, who had set herself alight after years of beatings from her husband and who saw no alternative but to return to him after she recovered.
We heard that despite the law, the majority of marriages are forced, that 80% of women face domestic violence, and, not at all coincidentally, the same proportion is illiterate, yet in this climate of oppression, courageous and inspiring women look to the future. There's the lawyer, Maria, who has armed guards outside her house after the Taleban tried to blow her up to stop her working. There's Maryam, driven out of her village after winning second prize in the Afghan version of Dragon's Den and who plans to use her winnings to build a factory and employ women - which she can only do if their husbands consent but which will show women that there's another way to live where they can have a say in their own destiny. There's the young MP, frustrated at the Government's failure to make progress on women's rights.
I was particularly moved by the 13 year old girl who was determined to continue her education and become a doctor. When asked what would happen if she was forced into marriage, she said that her husband would just have to let her continue her studies. I hope her idealism is not in vain and she gets the chance to do that.
Depressingly, there was also the only woman remaining in President Hamid Karzai's cabinet. She looked resigned and almost uncomfortable as she spouted the Party line -that cultural change doesn't happen overnight and could take decades. I suspect it'll take a good bit longer than that if men can get away with beating and raping their wives, never having to fear prosecution because they'll likely be able to bribe their way out of it. Presumably the Minister's willingness to comply was the reason she was the sole woman in office.
We also heard that President Karzai's wife is herself a doctor, who could show an example to other women - remember these powerful images of Mousavi's wife in Iran and how that turned the election - but who is not allowed by her husband to appear in public.
I think what made me most uncomfortable, though, was the fact that they were showing the footage of women's situation to the mother of a soldier who died there. At the end, Jane Corbin asked her more than once whether she thought her son had died in vain given the treatment of women in Afghanistan. It looked like they were pushing her to say that he had, which I felt was a bit insensitive and unfair.
I think what the programme showed was that the Afghan Government, despite having the benefit of thousands of international forces to help them, is only able to pay lip service to the laws guaranteeing equality and fairness to all. It's surely time for President Obama and Gordon Brown to put more pressure on whoever the President is after the elections to put its words into actions and stop the terrible abuses faced by most Afghan women.