Afghan Women Face the Future

This is a personal story, and it's hard to tell because nobody knows how it will end. I first went to Afghanistan in 2002, where I volunteered with two small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) staffed by Afghan women: widows, university students, teachers.

This is a personal story, and it's hard to tell because nobody knows how it will end. I first went to Afghanistan in 2002, where I volunteered with two small nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) staffed by Afghan women: widows, university students, teachers. I've gone back to Afghanistan to work with those women almost every year--except for part of 2010 and 2011, when I embedded with the US military instead, to learn more about its "mission" in the country. The military was so out of touch with the actual Afghanistan that I may as well have been on the moon.

I went back to Kabul again in January, eleven years after first meeting my Afghan colleagues, and more than a year since I had last seen them. I thought I would find them changed, and I did--but not as I had imagined. I was worried about their future. They're worried too, but they're also stronger and more determined than ever.

On my first morning back at the office, I walk into a staff meeting on "contingency planning." Just ahead looms 2014, when the next presidential election will be held (in April), as well as the departure of most American and foreign troops by year's end. My colleagues tell me about the results of a local poll. Of the Kabulis asked how "things" will be after 2014, 25 percent say "better," 25 percent say "the same" and 45 percent say "worse." (Anticipating hard times, 36,000 Afghans left the country in 2011, while an estimated 50,000 followed in 2012, most of them entering neighboring countries illegally by dangerous routes.) In addition, everyone says the government to come will be "even more conservative" than the ultraconservative government of President Hamid Karzai now in place. Although Karzai, like his "angry brothers" of the Taliban, is a Pashtun who keeps his wife at home, he has managed, with his colorful multiethnic costume and fluent English, to appear far more liberal than he is to the West. The next government, Afghans think, will drop the disguise and jettison women's rights just as the US State Department did in 2011 (when, as an anonymous official said, it dumped those "pet rocks" from its policy rucksack).

We sit together, talking, in the long shadow cast by these dire predictions. In the last few years, as President Obama looked for a way to end the war, some American-led women's organizations in Afghanistan turned hawkish. They argued that American forces are needed to protect Afghan women and the gains they've made during the last decade. I was on the other side of that argument, convinced by work in multiple conflict zones that war is not good for women. There was no evidence that the everyday problems of women in Afghanistan--poverty, religious tyranny, child marriage, sexual assault, enslavement, domestic abuse, confinement, death by childbirth--could be solved by armies. But there was no evidence either that these political, social and economic problems--involving questions of power, equality and human rights--could or would be fairly addressed by a government of men who thought much like their Taliban brothers. The much-publicized "gains" of women here owe more to the work of NGOs than to the Afghan government, while Karzai himself had done little to advance, and much to impede, women's progress.

With 2014 on the horizon, I wanted to learn from my colleagues--these smart, trustworthy old friends--what they believe they have gained in the last decade, and what they now stand to lose--or keep.

* * *

I find my questions already under discussion in this meeting on contingency planning. The heater isn't working--electricity is still intermittent at best--but we huddle around the table in our coats and shawls, wrapping our hands around cups of hot green tea. My friends are talking about the foundation of their work to end violence against women. Highly trained (and funded) over the years by their European parent organization, this Afghan NGO--which I agreed not to identify because of safety concerns--specializes in psychosocial counseling and legal representation for female survivors of violence, plus public advocacy for women's rights. From a staff of two in Kabul, when I joined in 2002, the organization has grown to employ about ninety people and to provide services in three major cities. A few years ago, it became an independent national NGO, run entirely by Afghan women. The women seated around the table easily made that transition, but now, as the ground shifts beneath them, they're looking for a place to stand.

"All these men!" one of the lawyers says. "They have all been put in charge of something. They have public offices, political parties, big money, private militias, secret alliances, bodyguards, passports, houses in Dubai, even their own TV channels. They control everything. And look at us! We do so much work, but we're not in charge of anything."

Another asks, "Why didn't America build some lasting structures for women into the government at the beginning?" It's a rhetorical question, but even so, it's painful to be reminded of the monumental international blunder that Afghans call "The Great Mistake": the Bush administration's decision to replace the Taliban regime with a like-minded government of America's old fundamentalist pals. Much of the essential work these women do might have been institutionalized from the start in the Ministry of Health or Education or Justice--but not in a government that has no place for women. Afghanistan's newly "liberated" women were consigned to a separate Ministry for Women's Affairs, the only ministry with merely advisory powers and, for many years, no telephone.

It's not that there weren't any women prepared to take on positions of responsibility. Women who remained in Kabul throughout the civil war and the Taliban regime knew very hard times; but before that, under communist rule in the 1980s, Kabul had been an island of safety in the midst of the Soviet war. Women, wearing Western clothes, had studied and worked--they were the majority of doctors, teachers and civil servants--and sent their children to school, just as they had during the long reign of the late king. Being "liberated women" was not a foreign concept to them. Nor was it foreign to men in their moderate and progressive families. For much of the past century, Afghan kings and presidents have denounced burqas and extremists alike, only to have this long, slow modernization reversed by Washington functionaries ignorant of history.

President Karzai has managed to maintain a near-perfect, decade-long record of excluding women from government. He holds the extraordinary undemocratic power to appoint all provincial and district governors and mayors in the country; since 2001, he has named one female governor, one female mayor and, just last month, for the very first time, a woman to head one of Afghanistan's 398 districts. His cabinet usually includes a token woman (the minister for women's affairs); sometimes two or even, at the moment, three. The international community prescribed quotas that did put women in the Afghan Parliament, but in numbers too small--27 percent of the lower house, 17 percent of the upper--to save them from intimidation or to override presidential decrees. Many are silenced by threats, and others vote as they are told by the warlords who sponsored their election, leaving a courageous group of activists to put their lives on the line by speaking up for women's rights. Years ago parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai, the mother of three girls, famously responded to the death threats by saying, "I would rather die for the dignity of women than die for nothing."

It is possible that American policy-makers simply failed to notice the remarkable absence of women in the Afghan government, since cabinets and Congresses in Washington are also prefabricated collections of men in suits. But the unavoidable result of this disgraceful record is that, as the United States prepares to leave Afghanistan, it will also be leaving Afghan women on their own again, much as George W. Bush did after he "freed" them--with only a flimsy, and perilous, attachment to public life.

Kabulis say the United States will leave behind nothing durable for ordinary Afghans. They say the Russians, by contrast, at least left behind large modern housing projects, until recently rated the best in the city. Now, with the economy contracting as businessmen and government ministers take their investments elsewhere, more Kabulis are falling into poverty, which means that more women are falling (or being pushed) into prostitution. The coveted apartments that the Soviets left to the Afghans have degraded on America's watch into brothels: my colleagues say there are now 123 of them in the Russian-built Macroyan apartments alone, with 5,000 women working as prostitutes across the city. Women in tattered burqas, trying not to fall that far, line the center of Kabul's busy streets, begging motorists for help. All of this means more work ahead for my colleagues in this NGO, if only they can keep the organization going.

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