So, given the desperate need of Afghanistan's women and the serious consequences worldwide, why aren't we doing more to help? One reason is the fallacious notion, common among coalition members, that Afghan "culture" does not allow for gender equality and that forcing the issue will undermine Western interests. Pat heard this openly from one coalition representative, who prefers to remain anonymous: "There is no point in pushing gender equality. It will only alienate them [Afghans]." Of course, "them" here refers only to men.
But decision-makers forget that culture is not fixed, but is highly mutable and dynamic. More than 30 years ago, Afghan women were attending universities, teaching, working as doctors, nurses, and professors. Far from being a black hole of gender apartheid, Afghanistan, though impoverished, was more progressive than many of its Muslim neighbors. Furthermore, many young Afghans are open to new ways of doing things. In 2009, hundreds of Afghan men and women bravely stood together in Kabul to protest Karzai's support for a new and oppressive Shiite family law. If Americans assume that all Afghan men are Neanderthals incapable of sympathizing with the plight of their sisters, they are wrong.
Another, more unmentionable reason may be the chauvinism that permeates Western military culture. U.S. military life, despite increasing female recruitment and even "female engagement teams," remains a bastion of masculinity, with little sensitivity toward questions of female rights. For military leadership and recruits alike, immured as they are in an almost exclusively male world, the complete absence of women from Afghanistan's streets and villages elicited no comment from the Marines who surrounded Pat, though she as a woman noticed it immediately.
And the ready availability of pornography on U.S. bases, coupled with seamier depictions of life in the West, not only damages prospects for gender equality but by extension, Western interests. As one young, well-educated 24-year-old Afghan male pointed out, "Your culture has no respect for women at all. Look at your pornography and the way you exploit women in ways that we can't even imagine. Do you call that progress?" Added another Afghan USAID programmer working in Gardez, a man in his 50s who is the father of three girls, "It would be better for the coalition if they could figure out a way to limit this kind of material."
We can do better -- much better.
The Obama administration must instill in all military personnel and senior diplomats the necessity of fully protecting women's rights. Key to that is educating them about how gender equality furthers Western interests and security.
The military should spend less time courting "moderate" Taliban and more time showing Afghan community leaders how gender equality -- including female access to family planning methods -- will result in healthier families, lower maternal and child death rates, poverty alleviation, and greater self-determination. Gender should be included as a component in all governance training and should be placed front and center in the upcoming "peace jirga" that will include the Taliban. Indeed, let half of the negotiating team representing the government and the coalition be female: yes, a full 50 percent.