Afghan Women Remain Victims of Hope Unfulfilled
SUNDAY STAR, Sep.8, 2002
It's a small but deadly undertow in Afghanistan's tide of rising expectations.
Under the religio-psychotic Taliban, Afghan women inhabited a unique and living hell. Now the Taliban are forgotten, though not entirely gone. And yet, girls and young women in Herat, on Afghanistan's southwestern border with Iran, are drenching themselves in gasoline and setting lit matches to their clothes.
George Bush vowed a year ago to wreak vengeance on Osama bin Laden, destroy the al-Quaeda network, rebuild Afghanistan so that it would never again serve as a hatchery for insane mass murderers ---and, by George, to liberate the women. (Women's liberation has had many cynical and insincere allies, but George and Laura Bush must trump them all).
Despite all this, nine young women in Herat have, within the last year, tried to immolate themslves to escape from forced marriages. Four have died.
A 19 year old had time to explain, before she died of burns to 92 per cent of her body, that her family had sold her for $10,000 as a second wife to a 28 year old man. A 14 year old girl died the same way after being married off to a 60 year old man. Local authorities say they are baffled by the sudden storm of self-immolations. Why now? Under the vile Taliban, this didn't happen. Why despair now that there's hope? they ask. I think I know why: precisely because the hope has been so illusory. If Bush carries out his war on Iraq, we had better pray that he doesn't bungle the job as disastrously as he has in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is still undiscovered, the al-Quaeda network is said to be shipping vast amounts of gold to new hiding places, the country remains in ruins, the people face mass starvation, known criminals among the Northern Alliance are ensconced in government, and the situation of women has changed only marginally. One of the two women in cabinet, Dr. Sima Samar, has already been hounded from office by Islamic conservatives. The problem is that the Americans have never delivered on their promises. Last January, the U.S. promised a paltry $296 million in aid for the year --- but only $50 million of that was actually new money. The rest had already been pledged to ongoing projects. (Meanwhile, the U.S. spends $1 billion a month on 'Operation Enduring Freedom').
"You can't rebuild a country without roads, water, electricity, housing," said author and activist Sally Armstrong. Her recent book Veiled Threat, offers a vivid picture of Afghan women's struggles, based in part on Armstrong's frequent and daring visits to the country. "No government can possibly achieve stability without doing something for its people. The conservatives in government are constantly pressuring President Karzai. The chief justice himself is a fundamentalist, and just last month the court ordered that women's voices not be played on the radio," Armstrong said in an interview.
The media feasted on pictures of Afghan women in Kabul throwing off their burqas, and on the photogenic little girls grinning rapturously on their first day back at school. We all had a pleasant snapshot of triumphant liberation . before our attention drifted elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the life expectancy for Afghan women is 40 to 45 years; maternal mortality is probably the highest in the world. The U.N. says 70 per cent of Afghans suffer from malnutrition. Although almost half the girls in Kabul are attending school (and let me not minimize that wonderful victory), outside the capital the numbers fall to a puny 9 per cent. In a town west of Kabul, the local Taliban has just blown up a girls' school and vowed to kill any woman who goes to school or work.
It will take rivers of money and years of education to scrub away the toxic legacy of male domination in the Afghan culture. "Even now, you can hear five year old boys talking so horribly to their mothers, ordering them to be silent, to hide themselves, fetch this, do that," Armstrong said. The women barely have time or energy to resent such injustices (the swimming pool in Kabul, for example, recently re-opened for boys and men only) when merely keeping themselves and their children alive is an exhausting struggle.
The most remarkable thing I've learned about these women, from Armstrong and from dozens of international news accounts, is their gritty resolve to go to school. In story after story, I read of women who have never had so much as the freedom to leave their houses without male permission - and yet, in the teeth of continuing opposition from fathers, husbands, sons and mullahs, they are determined to get an education.
Because so many continue to wear the burqa (in self-protection from armed and fanatical men), it has been easy for outside observers to conclude that the Afghan women consented to their own subjugation. But the opposite is true. In self-preservation, they are grimly biding their time.
"I had to wait until my husband died before I was able to come to school," a 79 year old woman told a reporter as she clutched a grade one primer.
It's not so hard to imagine the despair of those young women in Herat, also facing decades of marital slavery. Death in the flames could seem preferrable to the bitterness of hope held out, and then snatched away.
It seems to me that this despair of the Afghans is a storm warning to Americans and their "enduring freedom".
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