Home > Uncategorized > An Anti-War Defence of Afghan Women

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.

The issue of the Afghanistan war seems to be one that won’t go away. Despite Conservative attempts to co-opt the anger and frustration so clearly felt 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. 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.

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 a glance beyond the disingenuous rhetoric paints a horrifying picture.

So how have things advanced since 2002 when Dr Sima Samar, the 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”?

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 worse 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 from any perspective. This injustice is emphasised by the courts themselves, where women can enjoy a very low standing, and which are widely recognised to have a strong bias in favour of men regardless of the evidence. If we want to travel further down the line of the official system we 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 at the hands of the guards.

However, perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of taking any judicial path is the UN report that the “overwhelming majority” of perpetrators gain immunity, through links to military commanders, politicians, militia, or just by simple 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.

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.

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 and the constitution.

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. Rather than bringing order to the country by developing a real civil society, the West and the Afghan government has empowered the warlords and drug barons that have no interest women’s – or indeed, anyone’s – rights. Given this, how can we claim to be fighting for the women of Afghanistan if we continue to support their oppressors?

It quickly becomes apparent that any defence of the occupation on the basis of defending women’s rights 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 is 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 the exact clauses the UK government claims would befall women if they were to pull the troops out.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 21, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    This is bang on target. I’ve been itching to write about the situation with women in Afghanistan, and the justifications (or rather lack of) for continuing to keep troops there. As you say, the reality is that in order to make the limited military gains that they have, British and coalition forces are basically propping up an extremely reactionary government.

    The story you relate, of male prison guards orchestrating sexual attacks on women inmates makes my feel physically ill.

    Meanwhile on planet dipshit, various right-wing news outlets and blogs have been attacking Muslims in Britain for daring to suggest that they hope British soldiers get killed. One wonders whether these right-wing outlets have considered how hypocritical it is to denounce that with one hand and with the other to demand support for British troops; the same troops who are guilty of such atrocities as you mention by association.

    South Vietnam anyone?

  2. August 22, 2009 at 8:27 am

    Excellent column, Gordon.

    There’s also the issue that I doubt many, if any, military types argue that the avowed primary purpose for invasion/occupation – to get at Al Q and keep the West safe – is any way valid, even if it ever was.

  3. Robert
    August 22, 2009 at 11:32 am

    You cannot expect to change a country that has been like this for thousands of years. It might give the women an idea that they can have some freedom and it might well mean people will see the benefits of treating women as human.

    It will take tens of years you cannot change this country in eight years for god sake.

    Why are we fighting , well I thought it was to stop the killings, the women that we saw on TV getting her head cut off the children without hands for stealing bread, the statues the Tali ban blew up.

    sadly we see this as evil most Muslims in Afghanistan see it as a right a law and way of life.

    why are we at war now, I’ve no idea, it’s political and I’ve no idea of the politics.

  4. August 22, 2009 at 11:56 am

    Afghanistan has not remained the same for thousands of years – and it’s comments like that which essentially justify our being there. If they haven’t changed in thousands of years, or if their politics are really ‘medieval’, which is what the American Right like to say, then the corollary is that they need some helping along from the long arm of British and American democracies – the armed forces.

    Afghanistan, like any other country, has changed many times in those thousands of years. Not forty years ago, Afghanistan was experienced a revolution against a corrupt monarchy and government – and whilst the PDPA (local communist party) was hardly a beacon of democracy, it did pursue the secularisation of government and women’s rights. The Saur revolution of 1978 may have soured into the Soviet invasion – itself just as opportunistic as our own invasion – but it goes to show that Afghanis are just as concerned with the political concepts we’re familiar with.

    These are not the actions of the people in a nation that has not changed for ‘thousands of years’.

  5. Gordon Crawford
    August 22, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    As Dave rightly points out, Afghans are not the cartoonish ‘Islamofascist’ villains you paint them as. Indeed, in the not too distant past there were big gains for women. The problems stem not from something inherent to the “evil” Afghan people, but rather from the power structures that the west has spent decades supporting.

    The UN states that 1992-96, the period when the western backed Mujahedeen was at work, was “one of the darkest chapters in the history of Afghan women.” You look through the leaders of Afghanistan today and it is many of the same people. The problem is not that there hasn’t been enough time to change Afghanistan, but that those in power have no interest in doing so — and whether international troops remain there another one year, ten years or one hundred years, they still won’t have an interest in doing so.

    The abuse of women comes not from the ground up, but from the top down, epitomised by the Shia Personal Status Law that has just been brought in.

    Are there significant problems stemming from popular tradition and culture? Certainly. But at the same time the UN report I linked to makes the point that:

    “Each time Afghans have been consulted on the issue of justice, they have voted overwhelmingly for a just, free, fair and inclusive society.”

    And moreover that in a survey of 6,000:

    “75 per cent said that war criminals must be brought to justice, 40 per cent demanded the prosecution of notorious perpetrators of human rights abuses, and 90 per cent requested the removal of human rights violators from public office.”

    You can then read anything by Malalai Joya (such as the ‘warlords and drug baron’ link in my article), the female Afghan MP, and realise that this is one of the most popular MPs in Afghanistan among normal people.

    If the job was to stop the killings, well, turns out that dropping bombs isn’t a very good way of doing that. Potentially over 30,000 civilians have been killed so far in the name of a reactionary warlord government. So careful has the west been that in 2007 Karzai had to release a statement reminding them that “Afghan life is not cheap and it should not be treated as such.”

  1. August 26, 2009 at 7:43 am
  2. September 4, 2009 at 7:05 am

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