in November 2009, in Helmand province's capital of Lashkar Gah, a group of
Afghan widows and divorcees met with Patricia, who had been commissioned to
write a series of success stories for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). All the women were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s but looked to be in their 60s. Until very
recently, none of them could work because they possessed no marketable skills,
could neither read nor write, and were at risk of being killed if they left
their homes. A number of women said that, before the program -- which focused
on tailoring and basic literacy -- their children used to weep at night from
prepared to leave, the women fluttered around her like moths, touching her
sleeves and speaking all at once. "What are they saying?" Pat asked the young
Pashto-speaking interpreter. "They are telling you to go back to your country
and to ask your people not to abandon them. The women of Afghanistan don't want
you to leave. They will quite literally die if the Taliban return," she said.
recent question-and-answer period at one of our universities, Brigham Young, a
student asked Gen. David Petraeus whether anyone thought to ask the women of
Afghanistan how they felt about U.S. hopes to incorporate "reformed" Taliban
into governance structures as the Americans leave.
avoiding the word "women," the general assured the questioning student that
only "moderate" Taliban would be eligible for such rehabilitation. Left
unaddressed was the definition of "moderate," which clearly depends on where
you sit: If you sit in a burqa, there is no such thing as a "moderate" Taliban.
might find it easy now to sidestep the question of what will happen to
Afghanistan's women once the "moderate" Taliban come back, but it's likely to
haunt him for a long time. Without the security of women there is no security --
and until we've done more to protect it, we have a moral and practical
obligation to stay in Afghanistan.
George W. Bush's administration interpreted the first post-invasion photos of
Afghan girls heading to school and of Afghan women unveiling their faces as
tangible evidence that conditions were improving in that benighted land. A few
months after the invasion, in his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush announced,
"The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan
were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school.
Today women are free and are part of Afghanistan's new government."
Americans strong-armed a handful of women into the loya jirga that then drafted the Afghan Constitution. They
strong-armed a quota for women in the Afghan national legislature -- something
that even American women are not treated to. U.S. troops built schools for
girls and pushed for women to be included in the local shuras, and USAID ripped a page from Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea and facilitated new
training and educational opportunities for women.
current administration, despite its female secretary of State and its new
Office of Global Women's Issues, appears to be ditching the women of
Afghanistan like a blind date gone bad. You have to go back 10 months to find
any sustained rhetoric from President Barack Obama about the importance of assuring the
security of women in Afghanistan. Since then, and especially since last year's
Afghan election, those fine words from a sitting president have all but
disappeared. Many of the fine actions are gone, too. Push local shuras into including women in 2002? Yes.
Push local shuras into including
women in 2010? Forget it.
difficult to understand why. Afghanistan is in crisis. The cynical policies
that characterized the early to mid-stages of the occupation have come home to
roost. President Hamid Karzai and his rogue's gallery of kleptocrats, human
rights abusers, and drug lords are hanging onto power even as Karzai declares
open season on the United Nations by accusing senior bureaucrats of organizing
the widespread voter fraud that consolidated his own hold on power.
meantime, women have taken a back seat to realpolitik and the exigencies of a coalition exit strategy. But their suffering is real, as Afghanistan's poverty
and chaos affect women possibly most of all. Maternal mortality in Afghanistan
still makes the world's top three list, nine years after the U.S. invasion,
resulting in a life expectancy for women of 46. In the countryside, Taliban
zealots spray acid into girls' faces for going to school -- and only 27 percent of
them do so in the first place. According to a recent survey by the U.N. Development Fund for Women, 87 percent
of Afghan women report being beaten on a regular basis.
In July of last year, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) issued a report that
represents the most stinging official condemnation of the Karzai
administration's abysmal track record on women to date. The report concluded,
"The current reality is that ... women are denied their most fundamental
human rights and risk further violence in the course of seeking justice for
crimes perpetrated against them." Last year Karzai pardoned well-connected
political thugs who -- before witnesses -- gang-raped a woman with a bayonet.
Her husband, who had battled for redress, was assassinated soon thereafter.
Women who dare to speak out against the widespread trampling of their rights
certain death while their murderers face 100 percent impunity.
warlords and mujahideen that make up the upper echelons of the Karzai
government, the issue of gender equality was always an unwanted appendage to U.S.
involvement -- but one that could easily be dispensed with through the
deployment of flowery speeches and the token appointment of a lone female
minister to the Ministry of Women's Affairs. Indeed, just before his recent
"election," Karzai felt secure enough to sign into law a series of repressive
measures designed to repeal what minimal gains women have made since the
eventually forced to back down over legislation that allows Shiite husbands to
rape their wives, Karzai successfully signed into law other legislation that
denies or severely limits women's rights to inherit, divorce, or have
guardianship of their own children. The Shiite
Personal Status Law also legalizes forced marriage and the rape of minors.
It allows men to exert almost total control over female relatives and offers
them the power to prohibit women's access to work, education, and health care
by denying them the right to leave their homes except for "legitimate"
purposes. Even Karzai's own wife -- a doctor whose skills are desperately
needed -- is strictly sequestered. And if this sounds bad, just wait until the
not just about women. Gender inequality not only affects girls and women, but
boys and men. In Afghanistan, because women are rarely able to leave the house,
very young boys are often forced to carry an unwarranted amount of financial
responsibility, something that limits their prospects as well.
it even just about Afghanistan. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in
March, "The subjugation of women is a threat to the national security of the
United States." On a geopolitical level, Valerie's research has found that
states with higher levels of violence against women are also less peaceful
internationally. Indeed, violence against women is a better predictor of bellicosity
than level of democracy, level of wealth, or presence of Islamic civilization.
In a 2010 study, Valerie, along with Brad Thayer, also found high levels of
gender inequality to be a strong aggravating factor in the development of
Islamic suicide terrorism.
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.
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
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
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."
do better -- much better.
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.
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.
must also be represented in the government. As Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador
at large for global women's issues, noted last summer, speaking of female
politicians in Afghanistan, "There is only one minister in the cabinet, and she
is powerless. There is a low percentage of women in the civil service. There is
only one female governor, in Bamiyan." Obama must insist on important changes for
women before we leave and make subsequent aid contingent upon maintenance of a
strong presence for women in the Afghan government.
yet, the coalition needs to support "regime change" through the building of
democratic institutions that will groom a moderate, educated middle class of
young women and men to eventually take over. Over two-thirds of the Afghan
population is under the age of 25, which is either a real opportunity for
social change -- if they are educated and given a chance to shape their society
in a progressive way -- or a major obstacle, if they find themselves without
jobs, unable to marry, and burdened with retrograde attitudes of what it means
to be male and female.
We must hold Afghanistan responsible
for its treaty obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of
Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace,
and security. Afghanistan signed CEDAW without reservations (the United States
interestingly, has not), and that means that it has committed to passing
whatever legislation is necessary to implement the wide-ranging principles of
gender equality enshrined in that treaty. This includes taking measures to ensure that women
enjoy the same basic human rights and fundamental freedoms as men, having in
place legal and judicial procedures to protect the rights of women, taking
measures to eliminate sexist discrimination, and lastly, submitting national
reports every four years to a U.N. advisory group of international experts, the
CEDAW Committee, to ensure transparency on what measures the country has taken
to implement the treaty's provisions.
Unanimously adopted in 2000, UNSC
the first time the Security Council recognized the disproportionate and unique
impact of armed conflict on women and stressed the importance of their equal
and full participation as active agents in peace and security.
Needless to say, women do not currently enjoy the same fundamental
freedoms as men, and indeed, with the passing of the Shiite family law, many
are worse off than they were before.
this, the coalition needs to stay in Afghanistan. Withdrawing at this critical
juncture would doom Afghanistan and the entire region to instability and
effectively consign one half of the population to premature death and an
existence not fit for animals.
creating a shameful American tradition of leaving women no better off (Afghanistan)
-- or even much worse off (Iraq) -- than before U.S. troops intervened. On the
basis of America's track record, women around the world should have no faith
that U.S. soldiers will improve their security. Despite Clinton's remarks on
the link between gender equality and security, on the ground Americans act as if
women's well-being, in the end, is not more than peripherally related to the
issue of peace. As we have seen, this view could not be more wrong. Verveer's benchmarks concerning Afghanistan are the
right ones: "Progress in Afghanistan must be measured not just in military
terms, but also in terms of social, political, and economic participation of
women in rebuilding Afghanistan and in the safeguarding of their human rights."
women are right to ask why we are sending their sons and daughters to fight and
die so that Afghan women can continue to be treated like an inferior subspecies
of humanity. When you break faith with Afghan women, you break faith with American
women. You also break faith with your reasons for being there in the first
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