Eye of the Beholder

July 20, 2009

Is the U.S. Committed to Afghan Women’s Rights?

Filed under: Reports — Tamer Mowafy @ 9:20 pm
Tags: , , , ,

On March 27th president Obama announced his administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In his remarks on the new strategy Obama has mentioned Afghan women just once:

a return to Taliban rule would condemn [the] country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people — especially women and girls”

Reading through the white paper issued by the Whitehouse on the new policy one can’t come across a single mention of the Afghan women. It seems fair enough to conclude that making sure that Afghanistan never returns to Taliban rule is the most that the United States is willing to commit itself to achieve in order to preserve and promote women’s rights.

In a press conference after a NATO meeting just a few days later, Obama was asked to provide his assessment of a law that was recently passed in Afghanistan. The law – as described by the reporter asking the question- “negates the need for sexual consent between married couples, tacitly approves child marriage, and restricts a woman’s right to leave the home”. The reporter went further to ask Obama whether he will condition future troops movements of the US to Afghanistan on the basis of this law being retracted or rewritten.

Answering the question Obama indeed stated that he thinks this law is abhorrent. He also ascertained that “the views of the administration have been, and will be, communicated to the Karzai government”. However, he has just made it clear that he wants the people to understand that “the first reason we are there is to root out al Qaeda so that they cannot attack members of the Alliance”.

Obama’s answer is no surprise. It is in a complete consistency with his administration’s formally declared policies. One should ask where the question the reporter asked is coming from.

Far from coming out of the blue, the belief that Americans have a commitment toward Afghan women and their rights is widely held by so many people. We are not talking about just ordinary people failing to understand the true objectives of the war. Howard Dean, a seasoned politician who served six terms as governor of the state of Vermont, believes that

“if we leave, women will experience the most extraordinary deprivations of any population on the face of the earth. I think we have some obligation to see if we can try and make this work. Not just for America and our security interests, but for the sake of women in Afghanistan and all around the globe”.

Melanee Verveer, Ambassador-at-large, who serves as the director of the Secretary of States’ office of global women’s affairs had a trip to Afghanistan on June 24th. Writing for the department of states official blog, she mentions that she went there

to learn firsthand what conditions are like for Afghan women today and to reaffirm our commitment to them”

Statements alluding to such a commitment go bake to as early as November 2001 when Laura Bush became the first First Lady who gave the President’s weekly radio address. In her historical speech Mrs. Bush spoke out against Taliban’s oppression of women and children. She also traveled to Afghanistan three times and served as honorary chair of the U.S. – Afghan Women’s council.

It is understandable then that many Americans believe that Afghan women’s rights have a place somewhere in the U.S. war agenda. In fact some feminists believed and continue to believe so. The Feminist Majority Foundation, a leading feminist NGO, has launched a “Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls”. The organization, however, was bitterly criticized and accused of:

“[lending] its good name and the good name of feminism in general to advocate for further troop escalation and war”.

This is how Sonali Kolhatkar, and Mariam Rawi put it in an article they co-authored. Kolhatkar, and Rawi are feminists and members of two different organizations involved in working with Afghan women. They based their accusation on the first objective, FMF has stated for its campaign that is “to expand peacekeeping forces”.

The authors had two arguments they think falsify the FMF objective. First “coalition troops are combat forces and are there to fight a war, not to preserve peace”. Second, “the tired claim that one of the chief objectives of the military occupation of Afghanistan is to liberate Afghan women is not only absurd, it is offensive”. To prove their points they offered some on ground facts that show that U.S. promotion of women’s rights in Afghanistan has yielded only cosmetic manifestations. On the other hand they stated their belief that “the biggest problems faced by Afghan women are not related to patriarchy. Their biggest problem is war”.

“More than 2,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2008. And disastrous air strikes like the one in Farah province in May that killed an estimated 120 people — many of them women and children — are pushing the death toll ever higher. Afghans who survive these attacks often flee to cities, where overcrowded refugee camps strain to accommodate them. Living in tents without food, water and often blankets, the mortality rate soars”.

The effect on these hardships on Afghan women is shown to be sever:

With a 1 in 55 chance of mothers surviving delivery, Afghanistan has been, and still, is the second most dangerous place for women to give birth”.

The plight of Afghan women is further highlighted by Malalai Joya, an MP of the Farah province.

Rates of abduction, gang rape, and domestic violence are as high as ever, and so is the number of women’s self-immolations and other forms of suicide. Tragically, women would rather set themselves on fire than endure the hell of life in our ‘liberated’ country”.

Joya goes on stating that

“A troop ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, and continued air strikes, will do nothing to help the liberation of Afghan women. The only thing it will do is increase the number of civilian casualties and increase the resistance to occupation”.

There are three points to conclude here. First, the U.S. administration has never formally claimed the promotion of Afghan women’s rights as one of the objectives of its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced by Obama’s administration leaves no place for any doubt that this is not going to change. Second, it is evident that a belief in such a commitment was however falsely promoted by the previous administration from day one. Current administration continues to use and vaguely support this belief for the purpose of gaining public support for the war. Third, and most important, the facts on the ground prove that contrary to the alleged commitment, the bombing, the invasion, the occupation, the continuing war, the air strikes, and last but not least the surge of military operations ordered by Obama, all contribute to Afghan women suffering a much worse hell of life.

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