Women and the Afghan War

Afghan women never cease to be a topic of interest for the English-language media. Recently, Al Jazeera English has reported on a new documentary  on the assertiveness on the part of Afghan women against the stark gender inequality ingrained in the country’s political system. The particular story being discussed concerns a young 15 year old girl named Sahar Gul who was savagely abused by her in-laws after refusing to work in the sex trade to financially assist her family. It’s but the latest in a series of harrowing stories that dispel any cheery notion we may have had 10 years ago about the emancipatory potential of the US overthrow of the Taliban. What is interesting in this piece however is this comment towards the middle of the article:

“The fear is that with the 2014 departure of NATO troops drawing ever closer, the plight of Afghan women could actually worsen rather than improve. Whatever else they may be held responsible for, those forces have tried to use their leverage to promote and protect women’s rights. When they go, any gains made could be reversed. Also likely to decrease is the foreign aid that pays for schools and clinics that have changed many lives. Afghan women dread being abandoned again by the rest of the world, as they were during the Taliban era.” (Al Jazeera English May 13, 2012)

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the standard line about how a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan would spell immediate disaster for Afghanistan’s women, including their abandonment to a new reign of misogynistic terror under the Taliban. Far be it from me to defend the former Taliban government’s record on womens’ rights (which was horrifying) but what disturbs me about most of these discussions (including the one above) is the implication that somehow womens rights have significantly improved under the Karzai government and that whatever may be wrong with the NATO mission, it’s support for Afghan women lends it moral ground. Not only does this argument fall into the usual category of imperial fictions legitimized by humanitarianism, it masks the abysmal and draconian  record of the Karzai government in that same department. Even as Karzai promises to build a stable Afghanistan with equality for all, free from the pernicious domination of the Taliban, he has simultaneously surrounded himself with  ultra reactionary politicians and clerics, the appointment of which portend little better for gender equality in the country. This was evident from Karzai’s Chief Justice appointment for the Afghan Supreme Court, who is said to have recognized only two rights for Afghan women under the Constitution: 1.) The right to obey her husband and 2.) The right to pray, though not in the mosque. Since then, the court has backed other controversial laws, including one that could be read as legalizing marital rape. International outrage however, forced Afghan lawmakers to modify the language of the law. Women’s activists like Malalai Joya or groups such as the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) in particular criticize the easy collaboration between the US and Karzai for locking Afghan women deeper into a brutal network of control and abuse that leaves them with fewer opportunities for emancipation or self-improvement. But back to the topic at hand.

Conceding all of this, pro-war pundits still argue that Afghan women are marginally better off under the imperfect Karzai administration than under the Taliban and that a NATO withdrawal will see conditions for women deteriorate. But does the current NATO occupation necessarily improve things for women? So far, the war has cost thousands of lives (men, women and children), not to mention emboldening a resurgent Taliban to wage a deadly insurgency to retake the country from an occupation with increasingly little legitimacy among the people of the country. Increased support for the end of the NATO mission coupled with disastrous acts such as the recent massacre of 17 Afghan villagers by (supposedly) one US marine earlier this year can only boost support for the insurgents, making the fear of a NATO withdrawal a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the sense of the resulting increased gender inequality.

However, enough from me. These are probably rather stale arguments in the anti-war discourse but their pertinence is still as strong as ever, given the discussions in pieces as recent as the one from Al Jazeera English above. Therefore I welcome an open discussion about the NATO mission and gender equality in the country. How strong are current gains for women right now and do they require a prolonged western military presence in order to be viable?

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