Daily media reports over the case of Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman have revealed a sudden concern over Afghanistan’s repressive human rights environment. But routine human rights reports of the ongoing oppression of Afghan women, suppression of the media and underlying Western complicity have barely been noticed.
In the West, government officials, media pundits and right-wing commentators have expressed vocal concern over the life of one Afghan man who chose, 16 years ago, to convert from Islam to Christianity. Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Rahman’s arrest for apostasy (renunciation of faith), a crime that carries the death penalty was “beyond belief.” U.S. President George W. Bush said he was “deeply troubled” by the case. The New York Times opined that “the case is more than deeply troubling, it’s barbaric.”
These same officials, whose governments underwrite the Afghan government, were apparently so moved by Rahman’s situation that they pushed for President Hamid Karzai to have Rahman released. In what the Associated Press called “an unusual move,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice phoned Karzai to convey “in the strongest possible terms” her government’s wish for a “favorable resolution.” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also appealed to Karzai and got positive results.
Three days before Rahman was released, Harper said, “[Karzai] conveyed to me that we don’t have to worry about [Rahman’s execution. He] assured me that what’s alarmed most of us will be worked out quickly â€¦ in a way that fully respects religious rights, religious freedoms and human rights.” Not surprisingly, the case was dismissed on March 27 due to “insufficient evidence.
Prior to the dismissal, Bush boasted, “We have got influence in Afghanistan, and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values.” In other words, the Afghan courts are free to come to their own verdict, so long as the U.S. agrees with it. On CNN’s Late Edition, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., warned, “Let’s hope they make the right decision. If they don’t, I think there are going to be a great many problems.”
Behind Roberts’ words was an unmistakable threat that the United States and other Western governments would withdraw their support for the fragile Karzai government. Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values, sent an email to 250,000 supporters warning that Rahman’s execution would “result in a complete collapse in support for the war.” The New York Times echoed these sentiments: “What’s the point of the United States’ propping up the government of Afghanistan if it’s not even going to pretend to respect basic human rights?” The newspaper’s editors threatened, “If Afghanistan wants to return to the Taliban days, it can do so without the help of the United States.”
The implication is clear: By “liberating” Afghanistan, the Christian West now stakes a claim in its internal affairs. Recognizing this influence, vocal leaders have discovered a sudden interest in international law and universal values — but it is a piecemeal recognition, avoiding the systemic issues of human rights violations seen in Afghanistan on a daily basis. Before one applauds the outcome, it is important to understand that Rahman’s religious freedom case is a symptom of a much larger problem.
While Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins laments that “such a ‘trial’ is a flagrant violation of Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he does not cite Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right to education. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) reports that the number of educational facilities for women has actually been reduced in the past year. In southern Afghanistan, the United Nations reports about 300 girls’ schools were burned down in 2005. Nationwide, women’s literacy rates are half that of men. Some provinces report literacy rates of 3 percent for women.
For Afghanistan’s approximately 15 million women, “universal values” do not include women’s rights. A UNICEF report released last week warned of the grim statistics concerning Afghan women and children:
[A]n estimated 600 children under the age of 5 die every day in Afghanistan, mostly due to preventable illnesses, some 50 women die every day due to obstetric complications, less than half of primary school age girls attend classes, while a quarter of primary school age children undertake some form of work, and an estimated one-third of women are married before the age of 18.
In 2001, similar statistics were routinely reported as a justification for the war on Afghanistan and women’s “liberation.” Yet, five years later, the situation has scarcely improved.
The case of Abdul Rahman has drawn attention to Afghanistan’s judicial system, which has been in dire need of reform since it was set up at the end of 2001. But, other than Rahman’s case, most commentators have a meager understanding of how this system has affected the lives of Afghans, especially women, its greatest victims. Amnesty International notes that “the current criminal justice system is simply unwilling or unable to address issues of violence against women. At the moment (October 2003) it is more likely to violate the rights of women than to protect and uphold their rights (emphasis added).”
The main legal document of Afghanistan is the constitution, drafted and passed in early 2004 with the oversight of then U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. In March 2004, we warned of the constitution’s ambivalent stance toward women’s rights:
[P]ossibly negating any rights of women is the ominous inclusion of the supremacy of Islamic law in the constitution: “in Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” As if to underscore the threat this statement presents, the Chairman of the constitutional convention, â€¦ Sibghatullah Mojadidi, said to the women delegates at the convention, “Even God has not given you equal rights because under his decision two women are counted as equal to one man.”
Islamic law in the constitution was meant to appease extremist right-wing factions, including the Chief Justice Fazl Al Shinwari. Shinwari is a close ally of the fundamentalist warlord and U.S.-Saudi protege of the early 1990s Abdul-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, now a member of the Afghan parliament. Human Rights Watch reported that Shinwari and his deputy “do not appear to act independently, the first requirement of a judge, instead making political judgments in close collaboration with warlords like Sayyaf.”
Shinwari has taken full advantage of his position and the new constitution to appoint judges who share his extreme beliefs to the lower courts, and handing out misogynist decisions on cases involving women, particularly in family law. He refuses to appoint women to high court positions, saying, “If a woman becomes a top judge, then what would happen when she has a menstruation cycle once a month, and she cannot go to the mosque?”
Shinwari has banned cable television in Afghanistan, arrested journalists for blasphemy, and forced Women’s Affairs minister Sima Samar to resign her post after she was charged with blasphemy for making “irresponsible statements” criticizing Shari’a law. As with apostasy, the penalty for blasphemy is death. Yet, we hear no criticisms from the West regarding the court’s numerous medieval blasphemy accusations.
The consequences for women of such a repressive justice system have been dire. The AIHRC noted 150 cases of self-immolation among women in the western region of the country in 2005 alone. Women who burn themselves to death often do so as a result of forced marriages, which are sanctioned by extremist interpretations of Shari’a law and are occurring at an alarming rate. Cases of violence against women are also rising. A young woman named Gulbar in the Baghdis province was repeatedly abused by her husband, who finally set fire to her. While she attempts to recover from extreme burns covering 40 percent of her body, no steps have been taken by local authorities to hold her husband accountable.
In late 2005, the well-respected 25-year-old poet Nadia Anjuman was beaten by her husband and died of injuries. U.N. spokesperson Adrian Edwards condemned the killing: “The death of Nadia Anjuman â€¦ is indeed tragic and a great loss to Afghanistan. It needs to be investigated, and anyone found responsible needs to be dealt with in a proper court of law.”
The New York Times sarcastically commented that if Rahman was to be executed, “maybe Afghanistan should also return to stoning women to death for adultery.” Perhaps the Times will recall last spring, when 29-year-old Amina of Badakhshan province was stoned to death after being accused of adultery by her husband and convicted by local officials.There was no international outcry from the United States or other foreign countries and no attempts to get President Karzai to enforce universal human rights.
It is likely that, given the current atmosphere in Afghanistan, justice will not be served for Gulbar, Nadia Anjuman, Amina or the uncounted women who have been stifled by a judicial system that was designed to work against them. The complicit silence from Western media and government officials indicates that Bush’s “influence in Afghanistan” is not worth exercising to protect women’s rights.
Note that Bush administration officials have remained entirely silent on the fate of a brave Afghan woman named Malalai Joya. Joya is one of the youngest members of Afghanistan’s parliament and a fierce critic of U.S.-backed fundamentalist warlords. She has survived four assassination attempts and has received over 100 death threats. The only action the Karzai government has taken recently is to withdraw the security guards that she was previously provided.
In early 2005, the position of U.N. independent expert on human rights in Afghanistan, held by Cherif Bassiouni, was eliminated at the request of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Just before he was fired, Bassiouni had published a report describing “arbitrary arrest, illegal detentions and abuses committed by the United States-led coalition forces,” as well as activities by these forces which “fall under the internationally accepted definition of torture.”
Abdul Rahman’s case is not unique — it provides an example of the fear with which most ordinary Afghans, especially women, live. Even if one were to take seriously the Western concern for religious freedom, there appears to be less concern for the everyday violations of women’s humanity ensconced in the Afghan legal and political system, or for the criminal behavior of Washington’s own troops in Afghanistan. Most expressions of outrage at Rahman’s plight disregard the human rights violations for which the West is directly responsible and reveal an unstated contempt for the rights of women, the most common victims of the current Afghan justice system.
Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, and the authors of the forthcoming book, “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence” (Seven Stories, 2006).