When the US began bombing Afghanistan on October 7 2001, the oppression of Afghan women was used as a justification for overthrowing the Taliban regime. Five weeks later America’s first lady, Laura Bush, stated triumphantly: “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
However, Amnesty International paints a rather different picture: “Two years after the ending of the Taliban regime, the international community and the Afghan transitional administration, led by President Hamid Karzai, have proved unable to protect women. The risk of rape and sexual violence by members of armed factions and former combatants is still high. Forced marriage, particularly of girl children, and violence against women in the family are widespread in many areas of the country.”
In truth, the situation of women in Afghanistan remains appalling. Though girls and women in Kabul, and some other cities, are free to go to school and have jobs, this is not the case in most parts of the country. In the western province of Herat, the warlord Ismail Khan imposes Taliban-like decrees. Many women have no access to education and are banned from working in foreign NGOs or UN offices, and there are hardly any women in government offices. Women cannot take a taxi or walk unless accompanied by a close male relative. If seen with men who are not close relatives, women can be arrested by the “special police” and forced to undergo a hospital examination to see if they have recently had sexual intercourse. Because of this continued oppression, every month a large number of girls commit suicide – many more than under the Taliban.
Women’s rights fare no better in northern and southern Afghanistan, which are under the control of the Northern Alliance. One international NGO worker told Amnesty International: “During the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh she would have been flogged; now she’s raped.”
Even in Kabul, where thousands of foreign troops are present, Afghan women do not feel safe, and many continue to wear the burka for protection. In some areas where girls’ education does exist, parents are afraid to allow their daughters to take advantage of it following the burning down of several girls’ schools. Girls have been abducted on the way to school and sexual assaults on children of both sexes are now commonplace, according to Human Rights Watch.
In spite of its rhetoric, the Karzai government actively pursues policies that are anti-women. Women cannot find jobs, and girls’ schools often lack the most basic materials, such as books and chairs. There is no legal protection for women, and the older legal systems prohibit them from getting help when they need it. Female singers are not allowed on Kabul television, and women’s songs are not played, while scenes in films of women not wearing the hijab are censored.
The Karzai government has established a women’s ministry just to throw dust in the eyes of the international community. In reality, this ministry has done nothing for women. There are complaints that money given to the women’s ministry by foreign NGOs has been taken by powerful warlords in the Karzai cabinet.
The “war on terror” toppled the Taliban regime, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism, which is the main cause of misery for Afghan women. In fact, by bringing the warlords back to power, the US has replaced one misogynist fundamentalist regime with another.
But then the US never did fight the Taliban to save Afghan women. As recently as 2000 the Bush administration gave the Taliban $43m as a reward for reducing the opium harvest. Now the US supports the Northern Alliance, which was responsible for killing more than 50,000 civilians during its bloody rule in the 1990s. Those in power today – men such as Karim Khalili, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Fahim, Yunus Qanooni, Mohaqiq and Abdullah – were those who imposed anti-women restrictions as soon as they took control in 1992 and started a reign of terror throughout Afghanistan. Thousands of women and girls were systematically raped by armed thugs, and many committed suicide to avoid being sexually assaulted by them.
But lack of women’s rights is not the only problem facing Afghanistan today. Neither opium cultivation nor warlordism and terrorism have been uprooted. There is no peace, stability or security. President Karzai is a prisoner within his own government, the nominal head of a regime in which former Northern Alliance commanders hold the real power. In such a climate, the results of the forthcoming elections in June can easily be predicted: the Northern Alliance will once again hijack the results to give legitimacy to its bloody rule.
In November 2001 Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, said: “The rights of women in Afghanistan will not be negotiable.” But the women of Afghanistan have felt with their whole bodies the dishonesty of such statements from US and British leaders – we know that they have already negotiated away women’s rights in Afghanistan by imposing the most treacherous warlords on the people. Their pretty speeches are made out of political expediency rather than genuine concern.
From 1992 to 2001 Afghan women were treated as cattle by all brands of fundamentalists, from jihadis to the Taliban. Some western writers have tried to suggest that this oppression has its roots in Afghan traditions and that it is disrespectful of “cultural difference” to criticise it. Yet Afghan women themselves are not silent victims. There is resistance, but you have to look for it, as any serious anti-fundamentalist group has to work semi-underground. The Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (Rawa), which was outlawed under the Taliban, still can’t open an office in Kabul. We still can’t distribute our magazine Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message) openly. Shopkeepers are still threatened with death for stocking our publications, and Rawa supporters have been tortured and imprisoned for distributing them. People who are caught reading our literature are still in danger.
Feminism does not need to be imported; it has already taken root in Afghanistan. Long before the US bombing, progressive organisations were trying to establish freedom, democracy, secularism and women’s rights. Then, western governments and media showed little interest in the plight of Afghan women. When, before September 11 2001, Rawa gave footage of the execution of its leader, Zarmeena, to the BBC, CNN, ABC and others, it was told that the footage was too shocking to broadcast. However, after September 11 these same media organisations aired the footage repeatedly. Similarly, some of Rawa’s photographs documenting the Taliban’s abuses of women were also used – without our permission. They were reproduced as flyers and dropped by American warplanes as they flew over Afghanistan.
This piece first appeared in New Internationalist magazine (www.newint.org)
Mariam Rawi, a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, is writing under a pseudonym www.rawa.org