Talking Human Rights at 37,000 Feet

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For the first hour or two after take-off on an over-the-ocean flight, my spirits are bouyant. I enjoy talking to my seat-mate. Yesterday (which stretched an additional 7 hours), my good luck had me seated next to an Irish lawyer employed by the European Union Institute in Florence, Italy–a university funded by the countries in the EU. She’s spent time in Pakistan studying women’s rights in the northwest province, next to Afghanistan, an area which has become more and more conservative.

     She’s also been to Kabul: “I was amazed to find a women in a burka arguing with a vegetable seller,” she said. “Completely covered in her black head-to-toe burka, she shouted at him in public.” There went some notions about the invisibility of Afghani women. In fact, like the women during the era of the Shah in Iran, women in pre-Taliban Afghanistan were much more visible and vocal in the political arena. Not to mention in education. “Yes, young women went to university,” said my seat mate, “but they were escorted to and from classes by family body guards.”

     We’d been discussing the threats to women’s rights in the U.S. from rising conservative factions: threats to the rights to birth control, to abortion. And by extension the vociferous resistance to marriage being defined more broadly to include same-sex partners. I commented that the current arch-conservative Saint Paul Catholic bishop has urged local parish priests to argue against “same sex unions” among their parishioners. But many parishioners and priests resist this directive: “We have brothers, sisters, friends who are committed partners,” said letters written to the StarTribune. “Why should they not have the same legal status as a marriage of one man and one woman?”

     My Irish seat-mate noted that in Ireland, the government told the Catholic Church that this same issue was outside church control. “Yet, abortion is illegal in Ireland except to save the life of a mother,” she said. “Even in the case of conception after a rape, an abortion is illegal.”

     Next we found ourselves talking about Pakistan: There was a brutal beating and gang rape of a trans-gender young man by police, my seat mate related. This was in Lahore. A local businessman was so incensed that he funded a court case which went up to the Pakistani Supreme Court. This case, asking for explicit recognition of trans-gendered persons as a “Third Gender” was won.

     The “hijra” or transgender men live in self-contained communities but are far from isolated from the rest of society. In fact, they are frequently asked to perform at weddings. Beautifully made up, they dance as women, which is very much enjoyed by the wedding guests. “Remember,” said my seat made, “the genders are segregated in Pakistan. I’ve seen this only from the point of view of women who tease and laugh at the hijra dancers. How the men on their side of the room react, I can only guess is different.”

     In my private, home-style opinion, there are times when I’d just as soon not be part of my husband’s male gatherings. Hours of conversation about baseball, football? With short incisions about male grief and loneliness, judgments about women in their lives? Better these good-hearted men be left to themselves, to the freedom of brotherhood sympathy, just as I enjoy my all-women sisterly discussions.

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