An Anti-War Defence of Afghan Women
The issue of the Afghanistan war seems to be one that won’t go away. Despite Conservative attempts to co-opt public anger and frustration by waving the issue of helicopters and equipment in front of the cameras, there is no keeping away from the central question: why are we there?
As someone who has spent the past few weeks in the high street campaigning on the issue, it would appear that nobody – including many soon to be deployed soldiers – is quite sure; something echoed in the polls where a majority now support withdrawal. The result is that pro-war rhetoric has made the shift from a positive message of what British troops can achieve to the fear-mongering question of what will happen if they leave.
At the heart of this is the plight of Afghan women, who after centuries of silent oppression are suddenly championed by international governments and the Afghan constitution, which declares them equal to men in all “rights and duties before the law.” We’re told that we must remain for their sake, lest all of the gains be lost.
One could be forgiven for thinking, therefore, that under the international forces and the Karzai government a liberal philosophy of equality and liberty is blossoming. Yet even the briefest glance beyond the disingenuous rhetoric paints a very different picture.
So how have things advanced since 2002 when Dr Sima Samar, the then Minister in charge of women’s affairs, complained to Radio 4 from her office/living room that her ministry had been given “not a single dollar” from international donors?
Far from the picture painted by the government, we find a country of lawlessness, where 80% of the population still uses traditional dispute-resolution mechanisms rather than formal judicial channels, which are universally viewed as ineffective and corrupt. These are traditional mechanisms where female family members are regarded as currency to be traded back and forth to right wrongs done by male family members, and where a rape-victim may be forced into marriage with her rapist to protect family honour.
Yet they are little better than the official judicial channels they replace. The place of rape in the Afghan legal system is ambiguous, technically falling under ‘Zina’, a crime designed to combat adultery, and which, as a result, may lead to the imprisonment of the woman instead, making reporting of the crime an inherently risky business even from a legal perspective. This injustice is emphasised by the courts themselves, where women enjoy a very low standing, and which are widely recognised to have a strong bias in favour of men regardless of the evidence, taking conservative lines over even constitutionality. If we want to travel further down the line of the official system we can even find a case where all female inmates had to be transferred to a special female prison in Kabul to prevent the widespread sexual violence and abuse being orchestrated by the guards.
However, perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of taking any judicial path is the UN report (pdf) that the “overwhelming majority” of perpetrators gain immunity through links to military commanders, politicians, militia, or just by plain sexism. This is well demonstrated by one case where, after constant and heroic campaigning by a woman and her husband, three men were convicted of rape by the Supreme Court (allegedly at the order of a military commander, who was found innocent) and sentenced to thirteen years, only to have President Karzai pardon them. The woman’s husband was assassinated shortly afterwards.
With such low chances of success, and such danger, the majority of women choose not to report violence, sexual or otherwise, at all. It is little surprise then that self-immolation among women is so frequent and on the rise.
The problem is not only the horrific conditions that women find themselves in, but the fact that these conditions are eroding, not improving. Continued military conflict in the country puts women at severe risk, and the occupation forces have come under sustained criticism for encouraging women to take part in economic and political life while failing to provide them any protection as they do so, leading to a climate of terror and self-censorship.
The Afghan government itself is playing a more active role in this erosion of women’s rights. Twenty-three year old student Sayed Kambakhsh was made famous by The Independent after he was sentenced to death for downloading and distributing literature about women’s rights (the official crime being blasphemy), his sentence ultimately standing at 20 years imprisonment thanks to intense international pressure.
And then there’s the Shia Personal Status Law, which President Karzai signed in April. This is an act that directly contradicts the aforementioned constitution by legalizing marital rape, restricting freedom to leave the home, and allowing forced marriages, alongside many more articles that restrict and violate the human rights of Shia women.
It was this that led the Asia director of Human Rights Watch to conclude the now consensus view that “Karzai has made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in return for the support of fundamentalists in the August 20 election.”
And when everything is said and done this is what it comes down to. At the expense of the Afghan people the West and the Afghan government has found it expedient to empower the warlords and drug barons that have no interest women’s – or indeed, anyone’s – rights. How can international forces claim to be fighting for the women of Afghanistan while they continue to support their oppressors?
We’ve only scratched the surface here, but it quickly becomes apparent that any defence of the occupation on the basis of women’s liberation is a farce. Not only does the Afghan government’s apparatus fail to reach the vast majority of women, but even where it does it’s found to be misogynistic, corrupt, ineffective, and often downright dangerous. At the top the government prefers to play to the warlords and clerics, implementing laws that echo those the UK government claims the troops are there to protect Afghans from.