Afghan Women Have Already Been Abandoned

I know Bibi Aisha, the young Afghan woman pictured on the August 9 cover of Time,
and I rejoice that her mutilated nose and ears are going to be
surgically repaired. But the logic of those who use Aisha's story to
convince us that the US military must stay in Afghanistan escapes me.
Even Aisha has already left for America.

I realize that last remark has no logical basis, but then neither does the Time cover
line "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan" beside a shocking photo
depicting what happened (to this woman) after we had already stayed for
eight years. I heard Aisha's story from her a few weeks before the image
of her face was displayed all over the world. She told me that her
father-in-law caught up with her after she ran away, and took a knife to
her on his own; village elders later approved, but the Taliban didn't
figure at all in this account. The Time story, however,
attributes Aisha's mutilation to a husband under orders of a Talib
commander, thereby transforming a personal story, similar to those of
countless women in Afghanistan today, into a portent of things to come
for all women if the Taliban return to power. Profoundly traumatized,
Aisha might well muddle her story, but what excuses reporters who seem
to inflate the role of the Taliban with every repetition of the case?
Some reports have Aisha "sentenced" by a whole Taliban "jirga."

The Taliban do terrible things. Yet the problem with demonizing them
is that it diverts attention away from other, equally unpleasant and
threatening facts. Let's not make the common mistake of thinking that
the devil we see is the only one.

Consider the creeping Talibanization of Afghan life under the Karzai
government. Restrictions on women's freedom of movement, access to work
and rights within the family have steadily tightened as the result of a
confluence of factors, including the neglect of legal and judicial
reform and the obligations of international human rights conventions;
legislation typified by the infamous Shia Personal Status Law (SPSL),
gazetted in 2009 by President Karzai himself despite women's protests
and international furor; intimidation; and violence. Women legislators
told the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) last year that
they have come to fear the fundamentalist warlords who control the
Parliament. One said, "Most of the time women don't dare even say a word
about sensitive Islamic issues, because they are afraid of being
labeled as blasphemous." (Blasphemy is a capital offense.) Women
journalists also told UNAMA that they "refrain from criticizing warlords
and other power brokers, or covering topics that are deemed contentious
such as women's rights." A series of assassinations of prominent women,
beginning in 2005, have driven many women from work and public life.
Women working in women's organizations in Kabul regularly receive
threatening letters and, recently, high-tech videos on their mobile
phones showing women being raped.

The Taliban claim responsibility for some, but not all, of the
assassinations and threats, while most members of the Karzai government
maintain a complicit silence. These developments have sent into reverse
what little progress women in the cities had made since 2001, while most
women in the countryside have seen no progress at all, and untold
thousands have been harmed and displaced by warfare. All this has taken
place on Karzai's watch and much of it with his connivance. Our
government complains that the Karzai administration is corrupt, but the
greater problem-never mentioned-is that it is fundamentalist. The
cabinet, courts and Parliament are all largely controlled by men who
differ from the Taliban chiefly in their choice of turbans.

If our government were truly concerned about the lives of women in
Afghanistan, it would have invited women to the table to take part in
decision-making about the future of their country, beginning with the
Bonn conference in 2001. Instead, they have been consistently left out.

Our long history of woeful policies has put us and Afghan women in a
double bind. If we leave, the Taliban may seize power or allow
themselves to be bought in exchange for a substantial share of the
government, to the detriment of women. But if we stay, the Taliban may
simply continue to creep into power, or they may allow themselves to be
bought (or "reconciled") in exchange for bribes and a substantial share
of the government, all to the detriment of women, while we go on
fighting to preserve that same government. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton's assurance that "reconciled" Taliban will agree to observe
women's rights under the Constitution is either cynical or naive in the
extreme. And the US pretense that somehow women's rights will be
preserved if only we stay long enough to shore up the Karzai regime and
the ragtag Afghan National Army is at best a delusion. Yet the specter
of the demon Taliban somehow makes it seem plausible.

Before feminists and the antiwar left come to blows, we might do well
to consider that every Afghan woman or girl who still goes to work or
school does so with the support of a progressive husband or father.
Several husbands of prominent working women have been killed for not
keeping their wives at home, and many are threatened. What's taking
place in Afghanistan is commonly depicted, as it is on the Time
cover, as a battle of the forces of freedom, democracy and women's
rights (that is, the United States and the Karzai government) against
the demon Taliban. But the real struggle is between progressive Afghan
women and men, many of them young, and a phalanx of regressive forces.
For the United States, the problem is this: the regressive forces
militating against women's rights and a democratic future for
Afghanistan are headed by the demon Taliban, to be sure, but they also
include the fundamentalist (and fundamentally misogynist) Karzai
government, and us.

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