Le Monde diplomatique, March 2002
Free to die
"The US [Govt.] doesn't give a damn for women's rights in Afghanistan"
by CHRISTINE DELPHY
Sociologist, author of L'Ennemi principal. Penser le genre, Syllepse, Paris, 2001
"The American flag flies again over our embassy in Kabul the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes. Today women are free," thundered President George Bush in his State of the Union address on 29 January. So now we know. The "coalition against terrorism" went to war to liberate Afghan women. After the bombing, when Alliance troops entered Kabul, pictures of smiling women appeared in the press as though that was what the conflict was all about.
Strange reasoning. The mujahedin now restored to power by the allies are no better than the Taliban and reporters on the ground can no longer conceal the distrust felt by the people of Kabul and Jalalabad, a distrust based on experience. Between 1992 and 1996 Northern Alliance/United Front troops were responsible for massacres, for the gratuitous slaughter of wounded and captured men, for terrorising and robbing civilians. Now almost exactly the same thing is happening again. Afghanistan has returned to its tribal state and the warlords are threatening another civil war (1).
The United States doesn't give a damn for women's rights in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else. On the contrary, it has knowingly and deliberately sacrificed Afghan women to its own interests. What is the origin of the mujahedin? Back in 1978, even before the Soviet invasion, the tribal chiefs and religious authorities declared a holy war on Nur Mohammed Taraki's Marxist government, which had decreed that girls were to go to school and prohibited the levirat (2) and the sale of women. Never were there so many women doctors, teachers and lawyers as there were between 1978 and 1992.
The provisional government formed after the negotiations in Bonn includes two women, both exiles, one belonging to the Hizb-i-Wahdat or Islamic Unity Party and the other to the Parchami faction of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) accuses both of being parties of mercenaries and murderers. RAWA itself has been working with women refugees for six years, in particular to promote the education of girls. It opposed the Taliban but has nonetheless been loud in its condemnation of the bombing. It has joined other organisations in asking for an international force to protect the Afghan people against the "criminals of the Northern Alliance".
For the mujahedin, women's rights were well worth fighting against. The Soviet invasion added a patriotic dimension and the US lent its support on the principle that its enemy's enemies were its friends. The Americans knew the mujahedin wanted to bring women to heel, but they were willing allies against Moscow and that was what mattered.
The war continued after the Russians left - especially the war against the civilian population. Northern Alliance troops ransacked their homes and raped their women. Local chiefs stopped trucks every 50 kilometres and demanded money, and the corruption and chaos made it impossible to enforce sharia law. The ground was well prepared for the arrival of the Taliban, spiritual heirs to the mujahedin. They were equally anti-Communist and even more fundamentalist, and worthy candidates for aid from the US, which channelled money through Saudi Arabia into the madrasas (mosque schools) in Pakistan.
Has the US always fought for women's rights? No. Has it ever? No. On the contrary, it has trampled on them. Afghan women were defended by Marxist governments, and they were the friends of the US' enemy, so the women had to go to the wall. After all, human rights cannot be allowed to interfere with the pursuit of world domination. Women's rights are like Iraqi babies. Their death is the price paid for US power.
I campaigned for more than two years against the Taliban's treatment of Afghan women and, like feminists everywhere, I hope the present government will guarantee human rights for women. An improvement in their status could be one of the unexpected results of this war, a collateral bonus as it were. It is to be hoped so, but we must be realistic. Burhanuddin Rabbani, president of the government now recognised by the international community, belongs to Jamiat-i-Islami, the Islamic party that imposed sharia law in Kabul in 1992, the party whose troops under General Shah Masoud engaged in an orgy of rape and murder in 1995.
The provisional government formed after the negotiations in Bonn includes two women, both exiles, one belonging to the Hizb-i-Wahdat or Islamic Unity Party and the other to the Parchami faction of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) accuses both of being parties of mercenaries and murderers. RAWA itself has been working with women refugees for six years, in particular to promote the education of girls. It opposed the Taliban but has nonetheless been loud in its condemnation of the bombing. It has joined other organisations in asking for an international force to protect the Afghan people against the "criminals of the Northern Alliance" (3).
'The hejab will suffice'
Jamiat-i-Islami has made some concessions under international pressure. Judge them for yourselves. A week after the capture of Kabul, one of its spokesmen announced on BBC World - without going into detail - that the "restrictions" on women would be lifted and "the burqa would no longer be compulsory. The hejab would suffice". The hejab (or chador) would suffice. Can they be serious?
Even if a greater measure of freedom were to be won, would that make the war right? When it comes to human rights, the question is whether anything can be worse than war. At what point does war become the best option? To say that the war may be good for Afghan women is almost to say that it is better for them to die in the bombing, cold or starvation than to live under the Taliban. The West has decided that death is preferable to slavery - for Afghan women. This would be a truly heroic decision if Western lives, not those of Afghan women, were in the balance.
The cynical way in which the "liberation of Afghan women" has been used as a pretext shows the arrogance of the west in assuming the right to do as it will with the lives of others. That arrogance informs the Western attitude towards Afghan women and the attitude of rulers to their subjects.
Let us propose a simple rule of international, and individual, conduct: no one shall have the right to take decisions, especially heroic decisions, when others have to suffer the consequences. Only those who pay the price of war can say whether it is worth it. In this case, those who decided on war are not paying the price and those who are paying the price had no part in the decision. At present the women of Afghanistan are on the road, living in tents or camps, in their millions. There are a million more refugees outside the country than there were before the war and a million displaced persons in the country itself (4). Many may die and there is no guarantee that their sacrifice will win them any additional rights. Is it, in any case, proper to speak of sacrifice when they had no choice?
The allies should, in common decency, stop proclaiming that these women are being forced to endure all this suffering for their own good, and pretending that they are being denied the right to decide their own fate, even the right to live, in the name of freedom. But there is reason to fear that this theme is a real hit. There is a long list of countries to which the coalition against evil has vowed to bring good. And of course, any resemblance to past history (events too remote to mention) or colonial wars is pure coincidence.
Wars waged for purposes of control and exploitation will never advance human rights. This bombing in the name of civilisation has also consigned to oblivion many of the principles on which that civilisation prides itself. The allies, complicit first in the slaughter of Mazar-i-Sharif and other crimes (5) and now in the US manoeuvres, have disregarded the Geneva Conventions. The US is inventing new pseudo -legal categories, such as the "unlawful combatants" of Guantanamo Bay, who are not covered by any form of law - national or international, common law or the rules of war. The freedom of the individual, pride of our democracies, is a dead letter, international law mortally wounded, the great body of the United Nations in its death throes. Only genuine and peaceful cooperation between nations will advance human rights and that is not on the agenda. It is up to us to put it there.
(1) At the end of January, forces loyal to the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sharzai, were preparing to challenge warlord Ismal Khan for control of Herat, according to the governor's intelligence chief, Haji Gullalai, Globe and Mail, Toronto, 22 January 2002.
(2) The rule requiring a childless widow to marry her deceased husband's brother.
(3) See www.rawa.org, 10 December 2001.
(4) See the Human and Civil Rights Organisations' and Medecins sans frontieres' websites: www.hcr.org and www.msf.org.
(5) Robert Fisk, "We are the war criminals now", The Independent, London, 29 November 2001. See also the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International websites: www.hrw.org and www.amnesty.org.
Translated by Barbara Wilson