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Trading Afghan Women's Rights for Political Power

New Afghan Law Comes as No Surprise: Women’s Rights Have Always Been Traded for Political Power

The proposed new Afghan law requiring (among other things), women to have sex with their husbands on demand and not leave home unescorted, has shocked the West. But for women in Afghanistan whose rights have always been bargaining chips to be given or taken away for political gain, it comes as no surprise. Despite the rhetoric from the Bush Administration in 2001 that “to fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women (Laura Bush),” Bush’s own military strategy set the stage for the new Taliban-like law today. In hiring the fundamentalist warlords of the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban, the US knowingly sacrificed women’s rights for political gain.

The Northern Alliance warlords were notorious misogynists, criticized harshly by women’s rights groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). In statement made days after the fall of the Taliban, RAWA urgently declared that “[t]he people of the world need to know that in terms of widespread raping of girls and women from ages seven to seventy, the track record of the Taliban can in no way stand up against that of [the] … Northern Alliance.” It was a warning that went ignored to the detriment of all Afghan people, but especially women, who time and again have been promised liberation by (mostly male) warlords, foreign and domestic.

A Brief History of “Saving” Afghan Women

In 1979 the USSR invaded its Southern neighbor in part, it was said, to free women from the tyranny of Afghan fundamentalists. To that end, the Soviets even instituted some reformist laws during their brutal decade-long occupation granting city-dwelling women greater access to employment and education than before.

In response to the occupation and its reforms, extremist “Mujahadeen” leaders, taking advantage of the popular sentiment against the Soviet occupation, and of the billions of dollars of weapons and training from the US, waged a fierce war, again partly to “save” Afghan women from the “Godless communists.” After the Soviets left, these fundamentalist warlords turned their weapons on their own people, particularly women. According to Amnesty International, rape was “condoned … as a means of terrorizing conquered populations and of rewarding soldiers.”

When the Taliban emerged in the mid-90s, sponsored by Afghanistan’s southern neighbor, Pakistan, they quickly swept into power, taking over the majority of the country. As expected, part of their mission was to “save” Afghan women from the violence of the Mujahadeen. They “fulfilled” their promise by being much better at enforcing many of the same harsh anti-woman edicts that were instigated by their Mujahadeen predecessors.

Enter Bush in October 2001, fresh from the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ready to wage a “war on terror” to, (you guessed it) “save” Afghan women from the medieval-minded Taliban.

This pattern continues to the present with the Obama Administration making the same claims. At the March 2009 International Conference on Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that “women’s rights are a central part of American foreign policy.”

Women’s Rights Systematically Eroded During US Occupation

Every step of the way, instead of being liberated, Afghan women have suffered: from the devastation of war and foreign occupation, to nation-wide oppression by indigenous and regionally imported fundamentalists. The past seven years have been no different since the launch of the US war in October 2001. Granted, at first many women were encouraged to start reentering civil society. But any progress made on the rights of women and girls was mostly on paper and has since been dramatically eroded. This regression began when the Northern Alliance warlords were rewarded for their role in the war with top posts in the new government in 2001/02. With their political power, these warlords began strengthening their militias, and repeating their crimes against women. In 2002 then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally met the notorious warlord of Western Afghanistan Ismail Khan, referring to him in the press as “an appealing man.” Khan preserved Taliban-style edicts against women from 2002-2005 in Herat, arresting women for driving cars, appearing outdoors without a burqa, and speaking to journalists. Under his rule, local police even ordered hospital “chastity tests” on unescorted women.

Also in 2002 the US-backed then-interim president Hamid Karzai appointed a fundamentalist chief-justice, Faisal Ahmad Shinwari, who began interpreting Islamic law in a Taliban-like manner. Shinwari moved to reinstate the Taliban’s infamous Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice under a new name: the Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs. As a result women were systematically denied justice, particularly when it involved so-called “honor” crimes, as documented by Amnesty International in a 2003 report, “No-one listens to us and no-one treats us as human beings.” More recently, there have been reports of women being imprisoned for being victims of rape. The Independent (UK) reported in August 2008 of rape victims serving 20 year sentences for the “crime” of “illegal sexual relations.”

In 2004 while women were buoyed by the declaration of their equality to men in the new Afghan Constitution, at the last moment their joy was marred by the inclusion of an all-encompassing clause that made all laws of the land subordinate to Sharia law. This clause was an obvious gesture to the fundamentalist power structure that was reinforced, not weakened, by the US intervention. A Human Rights Watch report “Women Under Attack for Asserting Rights,” detailed the constant intimidation facing women’s democratic participation by both the anti-government Taliban and the warlords.

While a token minority of women is allowed to serve in Parliament due to quotas, those who have spoken out about the domination of fundamentalists have learned the hard way that democratic representation is just a façade. Malalai Joya, the popular young representative from Farah province, is the only MP who has dared to openly criticize the warlords. She has survived 4 assassination attempts, been publicly threatened with rape, and ultimately kicked out of Parliament for her views. Afghans across the country demonstrated against her suspension.

Violence against women and girls has surged as fundamentalism has spread. Sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, and forced marriages to women and young girls, were denounced publicly in 2005 by the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences. Last December, the UN Population Fund conducted a survey that concluded that 1 in 4 Afghan women face sexual violence. The violence has led to unprecedented numbers of women, particularly in the Western province of Herat, to literally burn themselves to death. Doctors had never before witnessed such large numbers of self-immolation by women.

Even though after the fall of the Taliban government, many girls across the country began attending school, over the past several years a majority of schools have been systematically burned down or shut down out of fear of being burned down. In the south of Afghanistan, over 600 schools were shut down in the first few months of 2009. In recent months a group of girls in Kandahar was attacked by Taliban with battery acid on their way to school. According to UNICEF, fifty percent of Afghan children do not attend school.

All Afghans, including women, suffer from grinding poverty. While Afghanistan has been impoverished for decades now, over the last 7 years the situation has worsened to the point where 1 in 3 Afghans now suffer from severe poverty, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. The poverty is marked by a severe lack of adequate healthcare, particularly for women. Afghanistan suffers from one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (1 in 55), second only to Sierra Leone.

Trading Women’s Rights for Political Power

Most of these widely reported heinous abuses and overall oppression of Afghan women during the US/NATO occupation have failed to incite outrage from the West. It is no wonder then that President Hamid Karzai seemed taken aback by the righteous shock aimed at him by Western leaders for signing the new law reviving Taliban-like edicts against women. Karzai is simply continuing to implement a policy set down for him by his guides in Washington: appease misogynist fundamentalists to obtain “stability.” In 2002 then-US-Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad declared: “The question really is how to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitates difficult compromises, and the requirements of justice, which requires accountability.”

Karzai has clearly forsaken justice, but along the way has lost the peace as well. He has earned the ire of his people for subjugating their interests to those of the warlords’. Recently he has also fallen out of favor with his US/NATO benefactors, whose bombs have exacted a terrible civilian toll that he has publicly criticized. Thus, he has turned to his only power-base, the mostly Shia warlords in Parliament, in exchange for their support in this summer’s election. It is for these men that the new “family law” circumscribing women’s rights was quickly pushed through Parliament and signed.

Karzai’s actions are a direct result of the past seven years of Western policy. He is only doing what many others have done before him: trading Afghan women’s rights for political gain. For those of us who have seen this dirty game played many times over, it comes as no surprise.

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