The US and Britain used the oppression of Afghan women to justify their intervention. That's not how it's seen on the ground
October 12, 2004
By Natasha Walter
In the elections held in Afghanistan last weekend, many reporters concentrated on the extraordinary spectacle of women queueing, their blue burkas billowing, at the polling stations. George Bush also hit upon this as proof of the success of the American presence in Afghanistan. He stated that the first person to vote in the election was a 19-year-old woman, and commented that she was "voting in this election because the United States of America believes that freedom is the almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world".
Bush has frequently used his policy in Afghanistan as evidence of his commitment to women's rights, and as an attempt to woo women voters. Recently, Laura Bush spoke at an election rally at which women in the audience held placards saying, "W stands for women". She told her husband's supporters: "After years of being treated as virtual prisoners in their own homes by the Taliban, the women of Afghanistan are going back to work. And wasn't it wonderful to watch the Olympics and see that beautiful Afghan sprinter race in long pants and a T-shirt, exercising her new freedom."
It was wonderful, but it wasn't the whole story. If we listen to what Afghan women themselves are saying we glimpse a darker reality than politicians here or in the US would like to show us. Undoubtedly, the removal of the Taliban did improve the lot of many Afghan women, and I say that even though I opposed the war at the time. Many girls have gone to school, many women have gone to work. The sole female presidential candidate in the election, Massouda Jalal, can speak openly about building a society in which women have equality; and 40% of those who registered to vote in the election were women.
But the Americans and the British did not go into Afghanistan to defend women's rights, however eagerly our politicians sell that picture back to us. When I visited Afghanistan a couple of years ago, I was struck by the depth of anger against the old mujahideen commanders, and how passionately people, especially women, longed for them to face justice.
Instead, their power has been entrenched by the Americans' reliance on them as allies against the Taliban and al-Qaida. That horrifies not only western observers with access to Amnesty International reports, but also ordinary women who experienced, and still experience, their crimes. Sahar Saba, a spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a secular organisation still unable to work openly, told me last week: "People who should be on trial for their crimes are still in key positions in the government, so in such a situation speaking about democracy and women's rights is futile."
As is well known, the warlords - men such as Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed - have many of the same attitudes to women as the Taliban. Between Hope and Fear, a report just published by Human Rights Watch, provides a chilling reminder of what that means. These men are targeting women who take part in any political or development work. Even in Kabul, by far the safest and most open part of the country, one woman working at a women's organisation said, "Even entering the door of this office, that itself is a grave risk."
A woman from Kabul who went to a northern province to investigate why a women's centre had been forced to close down by local strongmen, received death threats and was forced to leave the country. Many of the women who spoke to Human Rights Watch are those who tried to participate in public life, but who have now dropped out in fear and despair.
One of the most depressing of many depressing tales in the report is the story of a women's organisation that was forced to close a project in the Panjshir region because a group of mullahs objected to it. The staff tried to go on despite threats by armed men, but in the end they gave up. "Nothing worked. We felt we had lost."
Even the figure of 40% of voters being female has been questioned by observers, who have noted multiple registration in some areas, while in others fewer than 10% of registered voters were women. Female reporters - able to talk to ordinary women, who are often prevented from talking to male outsiders - talked to many women who obtained cards but were prevented by the men in their families from going to vote.
It is a mistake to put too much store on the election in the lives of the women in Afghanistan. Its outcome is not in much doubt, but even after the election Afghan women will have to go on living in a society in which, beyond Kabul, power is still parcelled out between those brutal regional commanders.
Those female voices that do get heard are still calling for more funding for development and disarmament initiatives in Afghanistan, and the expansion of the UN-backed peacekeeping force in order to create a less threatening situation on the ground. But although our politicians like to use the tale of the women of Afghanistan as a selling point, their real energy and interest has moved on.
In a strange twist of logic, Tony Blair said at Labour's conference that the resistance in Iraq was led by "the same people who stopped Afghan girls going to school ... They are in Iraq for the very reason we should be." The idea that the occupation forces in Iraq are fighting the Taliban is nonsensical.
It is bizarre that the example of the needs of Afghan girls should be used not as a spur for redoubled humanitarian efforts in that country, but as a spur for the occupation of another country. Politicians in the west are keen to use the rhetoric of women's rights as a justification for their policies, and they are refusing to listen to women who say those policies are failing them.
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