October 24, 2009
The Canberra Times & The National Times

The fight of their lives

Despite it being a long- distance call and a bad line, I can detect the frustration in her voice. “Women? No one listens to women.” Hamida Hussan* is a young Afghan woman from Kabul who has just spent four whirlwind days in Washington, DC speaking to congressmen and women, addressing conferences and lobbying whoever she can corner. She’s exhausted and sounds like she’s about to cry.

Just hours before our late night conversation, a suicide bomber killed 17 people outside the Indian embassy in Kabul. Most were civilians. Gruesome footage on the internet shows a passerby pulling a severed leg out from under a car. We both search news websites for more information and find nothing.

“A dog or cat dies in this country [the US] and they put it on TV,” she says in exasperation, “and yet no one knows or cares about these people killed today”.

I want to tell her that the problem is one of “compassion fatigue” – that the world has seen it all before. Instead, I just tell her I’m sorry.

Hussan is one of a growing band of gutsy, young Afghan women – mostly single, childless and in their 30s – who are doing everything in their power to try and ensure the international community doesn’t turn its back on Afghanistan. They are terrified that history is about to repeat itself and that Afghanistan will once again be abandoned. Talk of “targeted counter-insurgency” and the US “reducing its footprint” in Afghanistan, and negotiations with so called “moderate” Taliban, has them lobbying hard against troop withdrawal. This week the Australian National University hosted one of the most important talk-fests of recent times. Titled “The Afghanistan Conflict: Australia’s Role”, the conference brought together top-level government, military, academic and non-government organisation expertise, along with a few journalists. The goodwill towards Afghanistan was encouraging, but the pathway to peace remains utterly perplexing.

In the lead-up to addressing this conference, I’ve had many late night calls to women like Hamida, who are activists in Afghanistan, fighting to raise the status of women and build an understanding of human rights. “Until a few years ago, people here had never heard of human rights,” she says. Now the phrase has entered the Kabul lexicon, along with all those other buzz words like “gender mainstreaming”, “equality”, “women’s agency” and “civil society”.

But the words, just like the small gains made towards advancing women’s rights, are little more than “dead letters” – as one United Nations report so bluntly put it if they’re tossed around “in the absence of security and the rule of law”.

And this is what worries women most. Without a peaceful, secure environment, and without a government that can enforce the rule of law – which the current Government clearly can’t – all the words about women’s equality are hollow. All the new “equity” platitudes enshrined in the constitution, and the numerous gender targets and “action plans” agreed to by the Government will amount to nothing if the international community packs up and leaves before peace is secured. Every Afghan woman I have spoken to over the past month has spoken of a deep fear of “abandonment”.

“In eight years we have been standing on someone else’s feet,” says Wazhma Frogh, the 29-year-old director of Global Rights in Afghanistan. “Of course, if those feet pull out from under us now, we will fall over.” Wazhma says it hurts her to hear that the public in the US, Britain and Australia want their governments to pull troops out of Afghanistan. “Wasn’t this war about ‘the principle’? Don’t they care about human rights any more?”

Like many of her female colleagues, Wazhma believes women will be the first victims of the chaos and civil war that will ensue if troops withdraw in the near future. And they are in no doubt as to who will fill the power vacuum. “Look at all the international troops in Afghanistan, and yet still the Taliban is getting stronger ever day,” says Hamida.

The greatest fear about a return to Taliban control – be they ‘old’, ‘new’ or ‘moderate’ Taliban – is that women will inevitably be thrust back into the dark ages, again forced to submit to the most draconian rules and human rights abuses ever imposed on women anywhere in the world. It was only eight years ago that Afghan women couldn’t work, go to school, or leave their homes without permission and a male escort. Right now, it’s not only women’s rights and freedoms that are at stake. It’s their lives.

Until 2001, women like Hamida and Wazhma kept their activism well hidden. But the post-Taliban freedom has given rise to a growing movement of women who are politically active and visible. As such, they are sitting ducks if there is a return to lawless patriarchy. “They will not leave me alive for a minute,” says Wazhma. Most of the women I talk to know they are on assassination lists.

After I bid Hamida good night and suggest meeting up maybe early next year, she’s effusive. “Oh yes, great”. Then as an afterthought, “If I’m still alive.”

(* not her real name)

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

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