a message to progressives on Afghanistan

A message to progressives on Afghanistan (Part 2): women’s rights

afghangirls

This post is part of a 5-part series responding to arguments made by thoughtful Democrats and progressives who are unsure about opposing President Obama’s plan for Afghanistan. You can read Part 1 on whether we need troops to provide security here.

Reason #2: The US needs to defeat the Taliban to protect human rights, and especially women’s rights.

This is a difficult issue to deal with, and I am as horrified as anyone in hearing stories about acid attacks on schoolgirls in Afghanistan. Many prominent women’s activists within Afghanistan have been clear that escalating militarily is not the path to greater women’s rights.  Kavita Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women stated, “In general, what happens when regions become highly militarized, and when there are ‘peace-keeping forces,’ militias, as well as foreign troops–which is NATO and the United States, primarily? In most parts of the world, highly militarized societies in almost every instance lead to bad results for women. The security of women is not improved and in many instances it actually becomes worse.” In response to the idea of sending more troops, she argues, “Yes Afghanistan needs troops–but it needs troops of doctors, troops of teachers, troops of Peace Corps volunteers, and troops of farmers to go and replant the fruit orchards.”

Rangina Hamidi, president of the first women-run business in Kandahar, recounts a conversation with a friend:

“And then she—surprisingly, she said, she said, ‘When Obama was being elected or elected to become president of the United States, there was hope in her family.’ And she said that ‘I had hoped that things might change’—and ‘things’ in terms of the military and political situation of Afghanistan, because she said, ‘We don’t want more killing to occur.’ But as Obama decided, obviously, you know, after being sworn in as president that he will send more troops, more troops translate to more killing here. And so, she was very unhappy about that decision.” Hamidi followed, “My personal recommendation, and that of many Afghans, is that the strategy about going forward with this war needs to change, for one, with a heavy focus and a critical focus on development.”

While women’s rights have improved in some ways since the fall of the Taliban, there is still cause for concern. Women are disproportionately affected due to death and injuries caused by US and NATO troops. Many women have been thrust into poverty with little support after losing a home and a family breadwinner in an air strike. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which has been organizing for women’s rights within Afghanistan since 1977, states:

“’War on terrorism’ has removed the Taliban, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. It will require a very different approach indeed for those evils to be eliminated, which is RAWA’s point. And in fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the US is ultimately replacing one fundamentalist regime with another.”

Hamid Karzai, the president brought to power largely through US support, recently signed a law legalizing rape within marriage and imposing harsh restrictions on women’s behavior within the Shiite population.

Sonali Kolhatkar of the Afghan Women’s Mission paints a similarly dire picture of women’s rights in Afghanistan since the invasion:

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.

The US has often used women’s rights as a justification for military conflict, resulting in a lot of rhetoric and little substantial progress. This is often grounded in an idea that the occupying forces know what is best for the women of the occupied land (with the “what” consisting mostly of some kind of military operation), rather than a concerted effort to integrate Afghan women into the political process. Dr. Masooda Jalal, the only women to run for the presidency of Afghanistan in 2004, argues that women are still not given a voice in what the future direction of Afghanistan. In an article based on an interview with her, Patricia DeGennaro writes:

As I write this, Brussels is hosting the largest international conference to date on Afghanistan and Afghan women are conspicuously missing.  It seems that international rhetoric for women does not translate into any vigorous action…

…Jalal speaks in many international circles about the corruption in the Afghan government and the perils of women.  She was one of the few women at the Bonn conference in December of 2001 and attended the Loya Jirga or grand council—people chosen to discuss the constitution and the Afghan presidency in 2002 and 2003.  Unfortunately taking up space does not always mean you are in the game.

According to Jalal, women were not consulted during the Loya Jirgas. More recently, they were not consulted about talking to the Taliban and they are not at the largest and most historical international conference helping this moment to plan a secure and prosperous future for their country, despite the U.S. rhetoric supporting women.

Jalal will tell you herself, “we were in the big tent during the Loya Jirga, but most of the deals where made in the small tents, behind the curtains, where women where not allowed to go.”  When she and others spoke up about this and other shenanigans that took place during the presidential election, the United States dismissed them.  I myself couldn’t help getting angry and then feeling ashamed.

The US is far more likely to have a positive impact on human rights and women’s rights by listening to people on the ground in Afghanistan and developing programs for reconstruction and aid under their guidance. “Democracy” is rarely imposed from the outside; the best hope
is an effort led by Afghan civil society, not a corrupt Afghan government or the US military.

Tomorrow I’ll post on Reason #3: “Terrorism is a legitimate threat and we need to eliminate it.”

Flickr photo courtesy of DickStock.

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