The Age, April 14, 2008
War without freedom
RAWA tried to tell us that Afghan women had already been "crushed and brutalised … under the chains and atrocities of the Northern Alliance fundamentalists".
AFGHANISTAN used to be our feel-good war. The regime really did turn out to have links with terrorists, and al-Qaeda suffered heavy losses there, at least until we invaded Iraq and breathed life into global terrorism. But above all, Afghanistan delivered the altruism of liberation long after similar ideals evaporated in the violent chaos of Iraq.
With the Taliban gone, and Hamid Karzai installed as President, freedom would be irrepressible. The people of Afghanistan would once more be enchanted by music and warmed by the glow of television.
RAWA Video Clip of self-immolations in Afghanistan
Most symbolic were the Afghan women. No more beatings, no more repression, and especially, no more burqas. They would march in the Taliban's wake towards the equality with which we endowed them.
So the troops went in, and we looked elsewhere. With Iraq in turmoil, Afghanistan became the forgotten war. Last month's fifth anniversary of the Iraqi invasion inspired a wave of reflective commentary. Scan the papers in early October 2006, the fifth anniversary of the Afghan war, and you'll find barely a trickle. Perhaps we just assumed all was well.
But it isn't. The Taliban is resurgent, and al-Qaeda is flourishing again. Just this week NATO said it would send significantly more troops in 2009.
And what of the women? There's news here, too, and it's not terribly inspiring.
A recent report by British-based women's rights group Womankind has concluded that Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Around 80% of women are affected by domestic violence; over 60% of marriages are forced, some of them between elderly men and girls as young as eight; half of Afghanistan's girls are married before the age of 16.
The parade of statistics is numbing, but it gets worse: so bad is the brutality that Afghan women are setting themselves on fire to escape it.
There have been some gains, mostly on paper. But Womankind's snapshot is explicit: "Seven years after the US and the UK 'freed' Afghan women from the oppressive Taliban regime … life is just as bad for most, and worse in some cases."
We have no right to be surprised about this. Certainly, the Taliban's resurgence has not helped, but the truth is that if we had bothered to familiarise ourselves with the experiences of Afghan women before we championed their cause, this would have been sadly predictable.
Indeed, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) — the organisation bravely responsible for bringing horrific images of Taliban brutality to the world — opposed the US-led invasion because it understood that their suffering was too complex and deeply rooted to be sheeted home to a singular villainous organism called the Taliban. It is the product of a nation ravaged by decades of war, with all the feudal social structures, entrenched poverty, illiteracy and corrosive brutality that this nurtures. Such dynamics cannot simply be excised militarily. The Taliban was a symptom as much as a cause.
RAWA tried to tell us that Afghan women had already been "crushed and brutalised … under the chains and atrocities of the Northern Alliance fundamentalists". That is probably an understatement. The Northern Alliance had killed 50,000 civilians during its rule in the 1990s, systematically raping thousands of women and girls and causing others to commit suicide.
During the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, men like Rabbani and Dostam turned Kabul into a pile of rubble, killing thousands of civilians. If they had been born in the Balkans, they and others like them would likely be sitting in a cell at the International Criminal Court in The Hague today. But in the Intercontinental, they adopted a manifesto calling for the abolishment of the presidential system and for the election of governors. In other words, they were urging nothing less than the overthrow of Karzai and the re-establishment of their former power as tribal chiefs and provincial warlords.
Spiegel, May 14, 2007
Yet it was the Northern Alliance that would be our proxies in Afghanistan. These were the good guys; our fellow liberators of Afghan women. We should not have been surprised when, soon after the invasion, an international NGO worker told Amnesty International that "during the Taliban era, if a woman went to market and showed an inch of flesh she would have been flogged; now she's raped".
That is the reality for the symbolic faces of this war: the women whose images and struggles we appropriated in our righteousness. But it is a reality we no longer acknowledge. Our mainstream political narrative begins with the Taliban's brutal misogyny and ends with our liberating venture. We imagine no prequels and sequels to this ghastly drama.
This exposes the political opportunism of so much pre-war benevolence. The unthinking construction of the Taliban as the singular source of Afghan misogyny was obviously misguided, but it was undoubtedly convenient. For a moment in 2001, Western foreign policy became a feminist enterprise. US President George Bush took action for these "women of cover", while then secretary of state Colin Powell assured us their rights "will not be negotiable". Even Laura Bush and Cherie Blair, very much in their capacity as women, spruiked extraordinarily for the war. That feminist zeal has since dimmed considerably.
Let us now admit the women of Afghanistan were used for their rhetorical potency. Now, their political utility is spent and so is our concern for them. Such cynical politicking was unnecessary. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Western governments had perfectly legitimate security grounds for taking action. Whatever your view of the war, that position at least had some integrity. But let us not pretend our political classes ever cared greatly for the people of Afghanistan. Whatever the soaring rhetoric, we did not truly have liberation on our minds.
Gender equality in Afghanistan is not ultimately about defeating the Taliban; it's about rebuilding civil society. Without investing heavily in women's health and education, and, most importantly, nurturing the rule of law, misogyny will flourish forever. That process will take decades, but if we are serious about improving the lives of Afghan women that is what it means, in Kevin Rudd's phrase, to be in it for the "long haul".
Waleed Aly is the author of People Like Us: how arrogance is dividing Islam and the West (Picador).
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