November 15, 2008
The Canberra Times

Acidic reminder we’ve done nothing for Afghanistan’s girls

Twelve little Afghani girls have been staring down at me for the past four years. Staring with suspicion? Inquisitiveness? It’s hard to tell.

Clad in ill-fitting tunics, their photo has been hanging in my study since it first appeared on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald in 2004. The news story was about the pending election, in what we euphemistically called ”free” Afghanistan, and the photo was taken in the rural scrub north-east of Kabul. The reason I clipped and kept the photo is because I’ve never seen such a confronting bunch of little girls. Looking at them now, after all these years of our acquaintance, they still unnerve me.

They must be no more than 10 or 11 years old; although there are one or two littlies among them who are probably seven or eight. But most striking about this group is their aged weariness. These are worn-out, old women’s faces on the bodies of pre- pubescent girls. They seem to stare in judgment. And for good reason.

What have we in the West – members of NATO and allied forces in Afghanistan – done to ease the lives of these little girls? The answer is, very little. Wednesday’s acid attack on a group of schoolgirls in Kandahar is a reminder of that.

Two girls have been blinded and another four badly burned in an attack on a group of 15 girls on their way to school. It was swift and easy. A couple of armed men on motorbikes stopped and sprayed them with acid-filled bottles.

For the stunned girls the attack seemed to come out of nowhere. Bibi Athifa, one of the 14-year-old victims, now lying in hospital with her once-pretty face peeling away, whispered to a news reporter, ”Nobody warned us. Nobody threatened us. We don’t have any enemies.” But she does. Every girl in Afghanistan is a defenseless combatant in a war against women.

And that war is showing no sign of ending, or even slowing down, despite all the West’s talk of democracy and the overthrow of Taliban rule.

There is no doubt about the Taliban’s hatred of women. Under that despised regime they ranked alongside farm animals. Utterly powerless and dependent, women were mere chattels to be traded and used. They were enslaved in the house, kept uneducated and isolated.

So now the Taliban is supposedly out, and Western-led democracy is in, the war against women should be over. But it isn’t. Instead, it’s just more covert. And all nations with troops in Afghanistan are morally implicated. Including Australia.

We have helped support the formation of a government that has rewarded various warlords, drug barons, and their corrupt cronies, with positions of power. Naturally, they’ve taken their misogyny with them, all the way to the top.

The tribal and factional feuding and the growing strength of the Taliban – which, let’s not forget, were the friends of America during the Soviet occupation – has allowed the already devastated country to descend into near anarchy.

The commander of the British Forces is not the only one who now says the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. Leading US strategist, Dr Anthony Cordesman, this week repeated his call to ”stop bullshitting the American people” about Afghanistan.

Women have been given constitutional power and positions in parliament. But they have little or no protection to exercise that power. The death threats and murder of women in public positions continues. The head of Kandahar’s Women’s Department was assassinated on her way to work two years ago, not long after she started in the job. Female MPs regularly receive government letters warning them they may be targeted by a suicide bomber. But they are not offered any security or body guards. Such attacks are considered inevitable and apparently unstoppable. This is simply the plight of women in a country that still fails to regard them as deserving equals.

Afghanistan’s youngest female MP, Malalai Joya, has survived four assassination attempts. Shortly after visiting Australia last year, she was kicked out of parliament for been too outspoken about government corruption and critical of American complicity. But that hasn’t stopped Joya protesting that nothing has fundamentally changed for women in Afghanistan.

It’s ironic that George W. Bush used the plight of Afghani women as part of his justification for initiating military action in October 2001. Back then, when the Taliban was run out of Kabul, and the American flag flown again, Bush proclaimed ”Today, women are free.”

Yet, a few clicks in cyberspace will quickly dissuade anyone who believes that. Shocking images and video of Afghani woman who have been beaten, burned and disfigured in the name of family honour, or simply because they went to work, or school, are plentiful.

The war against women will continue to rage, yet this war isn’t being fought just by the Taliban.

A Taliban spokesman has denied that it was responsible for this week’s acid attack. We’ll never know, as the perpetrators won’t be caught.

Meanwhile, 1500 girls from the victims’ school stayed home yesterday. No doubt countless more around Kandahar will do the same. Anonymous leaflets are warning parents to keep their daughters inside.

As I stare at my bedraggled Afghani girls, and they stare back, I can’t help but wonder what a life hidden in fright must be like. And what of their future, these little girls with such weary eyes?

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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