Gulf News, September 23, 2003

Apathy of Afghan women after Taliban

By Linda S. Heard

During a radio broadcast to the nation on November 17, 2001 US First Lady Laura Bush empathised with the plight of Afghan women struggling for freedom under the iron glove of the Taliban, and painted a far rosier future.

"Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment," she said, adding: "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

Just two days later, up popped Cherie Blair echoing the sentiments of Laura Bush in a patently politically orchestrated fashion.

"In Afghanistan if you wear nail polish, you could have your nails torn out," said the human rights barrister luridly, going on to point out that the burkha, above all, symbolised the oppression of women.

"The women in Afghanistan are entitled, as women in every country are, to have the same hopes and aspirations as ourselves and our daughters: for good education, a career outside the home, if they want one; the right to health care, and, of course, most importantly, the right for their voices to be heard," said Blair with justified passion.

Nobody can argue that these two influential women did not espouse noble sentiments but where are the voices of Mesdames Bush and Blair on this subject now, strangely silent over the past 22 months?

Perhaps Laura and Cherie are under the impression that the average Afghan woman under the "kindly" auspices of the US-dominated Karzai government are shopping in climate-controlled malls, sporting freshly coiffed hair and fuchsia talons after depositing their daughters at the local kindergarten.

Could it be that these privileged members of the First Wives' Club believe that the offices of Afghan lawyers, accountants and architects are bursting with new female recruits, sophisticated health care is readily available to all and that Hamid Karzai himself is surrounded by a coterie of female advisors? Hardly! The reality is very different as those two highflying wives and mothers are no doubt only too aware.

Let's take women in government. One of only two women members of the post-Taliban cabinet Dr. Sima Samar was accused of blasphemy and forced out of office almost before she had a chance to purchase a paperweight for her desk.

As for the burkha, a leading member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) recently told writer and filmmaker John Pilger: "During the Taliban we were living in a graveyard, but we were secure. The laws may have changed but women dare not leave their homes without the burkha, which we wear for our protection."

Healthcare? According to United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), millions of Afghan women and children continue to face major health and nutrition problems with maternal and infant mortality among the worst in the world. Indeed, one in four children fail to survive beyond their fifth birthday.

How about personal security? A report by Human Rights Watch, issued last July, warns that violence, political intimidation and attacks on women and girls are increasing.

"Human rights abuses in Afghanistan are being committed by gunmen and warlords who were propelled into power by the US and its coalition partners after the Taliban fell in 2001," said Brad Adams, Executive Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

The report, titled "Killing you is a very easy thing for us", documents how members of the army and police kidnap civilians and hold them to ransom in unofficial prisons, steal from private homes and often rape their occupants.

In many places "the atmosphere of violence, along with resurgent religious fundamentalism in parts of the country, is endangering the most important human rights improvement since the end of the Taliban - the ability of girls to return to school," states the report.

There's no giving even their male offspring a lift to school for the women of Herat, province of the warlord Ismail Khan, who are forbidden to drive and can be arrested merely for travelling with an unrelated male before being subjected to a humiliating "chastity test".

A New York-based women's organisation "Women for Afghan Women" announced on September 19 that "the US and the international community have failed to meet the promises made to Afghan women. Afghans are now seeing the worst violence since the overthrow of the Taliban, especially in the South".

The group, comprising Afghans and non-Afghans, maintain that only one per cent of the aid recently sought by the American president for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq will be used to benefit the Afghan people.

In the meantime, the dapper Afghan President Hamid Karzai is once again about to rattle his begging bowl in Washington before the movers and shakers, while according to the Kabul-based journalist Phil Reeves, the "Afghan elite seize land for mansions as the poor lose their homes".

"International reconstruction efforts proceed at a snail's pace in much of the countryside, but steady progress is being made on scores of palatial homes in the capital's most prestigious neighbourhood," says Reeves.

"The affair is an embarrassment for the 'transitional' government of Hamid Karzai, and for his chief sponsor, the US, which is keen to declare Afghanistan a success, particularly after the disaster in Iraq."

Even more of an embarrassment for Karzai and Bush is the continuing disappearance of public enemy number one Osama bin Laden and the fact that the Taliban has regrouped to the extent that its members are firmly ensconced in Barmal, 220 kilometres south of the capital.

With unprecedented audacity, Mullah Mohammed Omar - last seen disappearing into the sunset on the back of a motorbike - has now issued a press release to the effect that he has met with other Taliban leaders to push forward their campaign against US forces.

Now, if Laura and Cherie would like to quash accusations that their pretty speeches were made out of political expediency rather than genuine care, they might consider reaffirming their respective pledges to the Afghan woman at a time when the international spotlight has dimmed, and when their support is needed most.

Next time this cosy foursome are munching on burgers down at the ranch, it would behove Laura Bush to remind her spouse of his December 2001 declaration that the US will work hard to bring Afghan women "hope and help" and likewise Mrs. Blair, whose husband promised: "We will not walk away…"

The writer is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at

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