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

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 facade. 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

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