June 28, 2011
Sydney Morning Herald & The Age

Gains by Afghan women in peril if Taliban return to power

This column was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 June 2011

For Afghan women like Nahida*, a mother of four children – three to a Taliban father – Barack Obama last week delivered a painful and shocking blow. Like most women in Afghanistan, Nahida is terrified of a return to Taliban power.

Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, has already disturbed many with his solicitous reference to the Taliban as “my brothers”. Now US moves to allow the once-loathed enemy a seat at the negotiating table to figure out “a political settlement” have laid bare an alarming truth.

It appears that the Taliban have all but won. Across Afghanistan women are deeply afraid that the small gains they have made are about to be snatched away.

Before this war began, as a young, impoverished widow, Nahida felt the full force of Taliban brutality and their hatred of women when she was caught walking alone with her baby wrapped in the folds of her burqa.

The child was ripped from her and – in a perverse game – tossed around a circle of Taliban soldiers and eventually suspended from a post. Her pleas were laughed at. Throwing herself at their mercy, she was kicked, dragged through the streets of Kandahar, and eventually imprisoned in the home of a Taliban official. She endured unspeakable degradation as a sex slave, chained and beaten over several years, during which she had three more babies.

In 2004 Nahida escaped and found her way to an international NGO in Kabul, which is where I met her. Stories like hers, which underscore the pathological misogyny and inhumanity of the Taliban, were used to great effect when the US first sent troops into Afghanistan. The brutally enforced laws that kept all females under house arrest – banned from working, going to school or being seen in public – made international headlines.

Images of stonings and beatings shot through cyberspace. The ”women’s issue” played perfectly into the hands of governments in need of an emotional cause celebre to temper the general public’s moral anxiety about waging war. Very quickly the liberation of the women of Afghanistan became a loud rally cry.

Hours after the Taliban fled Kabul and the US flag was raised again outside the American embassy, President George Bush took to the airwaves and declared: “Today women are free.”

So what has happened? If the women of Afghanistan have truly been “liberated”, why is it that the Afghan Ministry of Women’s National Action Plan 2008-2018 opens with the words, “The women of Afghanistan are among the worst off in the world”?

Among them 1 million-plus women are widows with no regular income support. A startling 87 per cent of females remain illiterate. Girls are back at school, but they manage, on average, only seven years of education. A woman dies every 29 minutes from birth or pregnancy complications – 80 per cent of which are deemed preventable, if women received medical care.

In a statement of breathtaking compromise, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, says those Taliban now being invited to negotiate must agree to renounce violence, and support the Afghan constitution, which includes protections for women. But while Article 22 stipulates equal rights for women, Afghan laws continue to be framed with the sort of verbal gymnastics that give precedence to patriarchal and religious rule. Family law continues to be fraught with ambiguity, particularly surrounding the marriage of girls under the age of 16.

Back in 2005 Karzai signed a protocol promising to eliminate under-age and forced marriage by 2008. The following year I witnessed the bartering of brides as young as 14. One activist told me of a three-year-old being promised in marriage. According to the Ministry Of Women, more than half of all marriages are to girls under 16, and up to 80 per cent are forced.

In a show of appeasement to foreign donors, the Karzai government has readily signed and ratified numerous international treaties and conventions that pay lip service to the protection of women and girls. Karzai has even gone further than Australia in ratifying – without reservation – the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. But it has proven a hollow, meaningless gesture. Nations are required to regularly report their progress. Afghanistan’s first report was due seven years ago, and counting.

Perhaps one of the clearest indications of Karzai’s blatant duplicity when it comes to the rights of women was his secret signing of the Shiite Personal Status Law in 2009. Slammed as “barbaric” by Human Rights Watch, the law allows for rape in marriage, and permits a rapist to walk free if blood money is paid.

The annual Lowy Poll released yesterday showed majority support for the war had been lost on all but one argument: that after withdrawal, ”Afghan women might have their rights seriously violated by an extremist government”. But it barely rates a mention in the debate about whether to withdraw. One can only wonder if our leaders have forgotten why we hated the Taliban so much. Is there such thing as a “moderate” Taliban, as Obama has suggested? Can a deep hatred of women morph into a “moderate” one?

What hope is there for Nahida, or the rest of Afghanistan’s 15 million women, when Karzai ultimately does a deal with his “brothers” the Taliban? What happens when the troops are gone, the international donors pull out and the world is no longer watching?

If the current Afghan government cares so little about the status of women, we can be sure the Taliban will care even less.

No wonder Nahida has slipped back under her burqa and gone into hiding.

*not her real name.

Virginia Haussegger contributed a chapter to the book The Afghanistan Conflict and Australia's Role (MUP), released last week.

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