August 22, 2009
The Canberra Times

Afghan women lose again

There is little that separates the joy and the pain. Within one short moment, that energetic life force that makes the people of Afghanistan so passionate and so engaging can suddenly give way to a flood of tears. It’s impossible not to cry with them.

Beneath the tough and courageous surface of just about every Afghan I’ve had the privilege to meet, is the heartbreak of loss. Each has known firsthand the brutality of sudden death. Yet a tremendous resilience and pride keeps them moving forward. But right now, an overwhelming convergence of greed and political expedience is shoving Afghanistan backwards.

On Wednesday, Australia’s diplomatic community gathered at the ANU to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Afghanistan’s independence – from British rule. To mark the moment, we raised our glasses to toast the Queen. If anyone noticed the irony they certainly didn’t show it. I just stared at my shoes.

But my heart went out to the ambassador, Amanullah Jayhoon, as he addressed the crowd. It wasn’t the anniversary that was on everyone’s mind. It was the very next day – Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial council elections. There was something poetic about Jayhoon’s words as he lamented that his home was once a “peaceful and beautiful country, not a ‘hell hole’. The people were poor, but generous, honest, proud and loved their freedom,” he said.

There was so much hope in that moment back in November 2001, when President George W. Bush thrust his chest at the TV cameras, just after the Taliban fled Kabul and the coalition tanks moved in. As the United States flag was raised again outside the American Embassy, Bush proclaimed, “Today the women of Afghanistan are free!” World leaders, including the then prime minister of Australia, John Howard, quickly joined the chorus declaring the liberation of Afghanistan’s women. Stories highlighting the inhumane brutality and degradation women were subjected to under Taliban rule swept the media. Even the usually demure Laura Bush, wife of George W., took to the talk-show circuit to proclaim the new “freedom” of the most oppressed women in the world. Quickly the plight of Afghanistan’s women and their desperate need for “freedom” became an international catch-cry, and a key justification for waging war in Afghanistan.

Now, eight years and countless billions of dollars later, the international community has quietly, conveniently, forgotten about that once-trumpeted issue. The so-called “liberation” of Afghanistan women no longer rates a mention at the international negotiating table. Not because the war against deeply rooted prejudices and female oppression has been won. But rather, because it’s been lost. Although the official election outcome is yet to be determined, the US-installed incumbent Hamid Karzai remains the presidential front-runner. Early on, Karzai – whose own wife remains one of Afghanistan’s “invisible women” – tried to present himself as a “moderate” on women’s issues. Nevertheless, when under pressure from the misogynist and influential forces of Shi’ite clerics, Karzai has chosen to ditch women’s freedoms in favour of votes, to save his increasingly shaky hold on power. In April, news that Karzai had approved a law which sanctioned rape within marriage caused an outrage among international women’s groups and human rights organisations. The Shi’ite Personal Status Law, which applies to between 15 and 20per cent of the population, gives fathers full custody of children; allows a husband to starve a wife who withholds sex; and bans women from leaving the house without permission. The law also provides men with immunity from rape charges if they agree to pay the victim’s family “blood money”. At the time President Barack Obama called the law “abhorrent”. Under pressure, President Karzai agreed to “review” the bill. That happened. Not surprisingly, little changed. And just before this week’s elections those “abhorrent” rules quietly, secretly, became law.

Just over a week ago Human Rights Watch got wind of what Karzai had done. It slammed the law as “an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out”. But Karzai needed the backing of the fundamentalist Shia clerics and the vote they command. He ignored the outrage and criticism. And so too did the international community’s powerbrokers.

Shamefully, the US-led coalition has been as good as silent on the official ratification of these disgusting laws. And how ironic is that? The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is reviving the very barbaric style of laws that we – along with Bush and Co – thought we were trying to defeat. No wonder we’re all confused about what we’re doing in Afghanistan.

Once again, Karzai and his cronies are reminding us that women’s freedoms are tradable and expendable. And yet didn’t we all applaud the Afghanistan constitution, introduced in 2004? Article 22 states that men and women “have equal rights and duties before the law”. Foolishly we believed that. The nonsense about women having a 25per cent quota of seats in Parliament did little more than install political puppets, or young and brash independents such as Malalai Joya, who have no chance of ever being heard above the rabble-raising and ruthless power plays that had her disqualified from Parliament.

The votes are still being counted, as money, arms and influence are traded. But we already know the outcome. The women of Afghanistan have lost. Again.

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

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