When the US began bombing Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, the oppression of Afghan women was used as a justification to overthrow the Taliban regime. Five weeks later the US 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.’
But in a detailed report released on 6 October 2003 Amnesty International had a rather different picture to paint: ‘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. Armed local warlords have their own rules and governments which brutalize people – especially women.
In the western province of Herat warlord Ismail Khan imposes Taliban-like decrees. Many women still have no access to education, are banned from working in foreign NGOs or in UN offices, and there are hardly any women in government offices.
Women cannot ride a taxi or walk unaccompanied by a close male relative. Women seen with men who are not close relatives, can be arrested by the ‘special police’ and forced to undergo medical exams at a hospital to find out whether they have recently had sexual intercourse.
Because of their continued oppression, a large number of young girls commit suicide. Tens of self-immolation cases are reported every month in Herat city and its surrounding provinces. Indeed, the rate of suicide among women is much greater than it was under the Taliban.
Women’s rights fare no better in northern and southern Afghanistan under Northern Alliance (NA) commanders. 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, women do not feel safe and many continue to wear the burka for protection.
In some areas where girls’ education does exist, parents are too 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.1
In spite of its rhetoric, the Karzai Government actively pursues anti-women policies. Women cannot find jobs and girls’ schools often lack the most basic educational 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. Women singers are not allowed on Kabul TV and women’s songs are not played, while scenes of women without a hejab (head covering) are censored in films.
The Karzai Government has established a Women’s Ministry just to throw dust in the eyes of Afghan women and the international community. In reality this Ministry has done nothing for women. There are complaints that money donated to the ministry by foreign NGOs is grabbed by powerful warlords in the Karzai Cabinet.
The ‘war on terrorism’ has 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 Government 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 US Administration was giving the Taliban $43 million as a reward for reducing the opium harvest.
It is painful for us to hear Western leaders and media speak about the ‘liberation’ of Afghanistan when the US is lending generous support to the Northern Alliance (NA), brethren-in-creed of the Taliban.
The NA was responsible for killing more than 50,000 civilians during their bloody rule in the 1990s. The rulers of today – men such as Karim Khalili, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Fahim, Yunus Qanooni, Mohaqiq and Abdullah – were those who imposed the first anti-women restrictions as soon as they came to power in 1992 and started a reign of terror throughout Afghanistan.
Thousands of women and young girls were raped by armed thugs and many committed suicide to avoid being sexually assaulted by them. For good reason the British Independent newspaper referred to the NA as a ‘symbol of massacre, systematic rape and pillage from 1992-96’.2
But lack of women’s rights is not the only problem faced by Afghanistan today. Neither opium cultivation, warlordism nor terrorism have been uprooted. There is no peace, stability or security in the country. According to the British daily The Guardian, President Karzai ‘is a prisoner within his own government? who nominally heads a government in which former Northern Alliance commanders hold the real power.3
In such a climate the results of the forthcoming June 2004 elections can easily be predicted: the NA will once again hijack the results to give legitimacy to their bloody rule.
In November 2001 Colin Powell 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, because it is crystal clear that they have already negotiated women’s rights in Afghanistan by imposing the most treacherous warlords on the Afghan people. Their pretty speeches are made out of political expediency rather than genuine concern.
‘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’
We cannot forget the silence of the world with regard to the tragic abuse of women’s rights in Afghanistan for the past decade. From 1992 to 2001 Afghan women were treated as cattle by all brands of fundamentalists from Jehadis to Taliban. Meanwhile, Western governments and media showed no interest in their plight. Take the example of the footage of the execution of mother-of-seven Zarmeena in 1999, which RAWA made available to the BBC, CNN, ABC and others prior to 11 September 2001. We were told ‘as the footage is very shocking, Western viewers can’t bear it so we are sorry that we can’t air it’. However, after 11 September these same media channels aired the footage repeatedly. Similarly, some of RAWA’s photos documenting the Taliban’s abuses of women were also used (without our permission) in flyers dropped by US war planes over Afghanistan.
Some Western writers have tried to suggest that women’s oppression has its roots in our tradition and that it is disrespectful of ‘cultural difference’ to criticize it. They don’t seem to realize that, as with many other cultures, women’s oppression is the most despicable part of it, a part that is unworthy and must be discarded.
Strong and resisting
Yet Afghan women are not silent victims. There is resistance. Last year, strong voices of opposition against fundamentalists were heard from the women in the traditional Loya Jirga assembly. And the continued efforts of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) towards freedom, democracy, secularism and women’s rights prove that feminism has roots in Afghanistan.
But the climate of fear and terror has its impact on the resistance of women and the entire nation. Guns and threats are used to silence any voices of opposition. Consequently, any serious anti-fundamentalist group has to work semi-underground. RAWA still cannot open an office in Kabul and many of our projects inside Afghanistan bear no marks of RAWA.
We still cannot distribute our magazine Payam-e-Zan (Women’s Message) openly. A few months ago fighters associated with the NA raided a bookshop in Kabul where our publications were sold. They confiscated them and threatened the shopkeeper with death if the publications were ever seen in his shop again.
In a similar incident, NA fighters tortured and imprisoned a RAWA supporter who was caught copying one of our statements for distribution in a Kabul market. People who are caught reading our literature are still in danger. Today RAWA uses many different tactics to distribute our literature, and we warn our supporters to be careful.
Punishment for speaking out against the warlords is severe. When Human Rights Watch issued its report about the situation of human rights in Herat a few months ago, Ismail Khan ordered his security forces to trace and punish all those who gave them interviews.
Once the NA tighten their grip, there will be even more obstacles in the way of those campaigning for women’s rights and freedom in Afghanistan. Clearly the biggest of these is the presence of fundamentalism as a political and military force, for wherever there are fundamentalists, there will be hostility against women and their struggle for equal rights with men. Only in a society based on democracy and secularism can the rights of women be guaranteed. And in Afghanistan the fundamentalists who misuse religion and ancient tradition to oppress women still prevail.
The women of RAWA believe that education is power and Afghan women cannot fight for their rights as long as they are not equipped with this, the sharpest weapon against ignorance and fundamentalism. For this reason we have concentrated on organizing women in the legal and social sectors, and on increasing education and literacy among them. Armed with the weapons of education, Afghan women cannot continue to be ignored by any government in the country.
- Human Rights Watch, Killing You is a Very Easy Thing For Us, HRW Report, July 2003.
- The Independent, London, 14 November 2001.
- The Guardian, London, 31 July 2003.