For the US administration and the Karzai government Afghan women’s lives are utterly expendable. Anne McShane reports
Afghanistan is once again top of the US political and military agenda.
Barack Obama has promised withdrawal from Iraq, while beefing up forces in a war-torn and devastated Afghanistan. US troops will be increased by 21,000 this year. His recent speech in Strasbourg was focused mainly on drumming up Nato assistance with an ominous warning about the prospect of an al Qa’eda attack on Europe. Obama claimed: “The terrorists are still plotting. If there’s another al Qa’eda attack, it’s just as likely if not more so that it will be in Europe. This is a mission that tests whether nations can come together in the interests of common security.”1 There was a certain sense of déjà vu about this.
But in 2002 we were told that the threat was over. Witness George Bush’s triumphalism in his first state of the union address in 2002, welcoming Hamid Karzai as “the distinguished interim leader of a liberated Afghanistan”.2 Bush boasted that Operation Enduring Freedom had liberated the women of Afghanistan, who were now able to play a full and equal part in society. The Taliban had been defeated and al Qa’eda banished.
Today the reactionary Bush has gone, but his cohort Karzai remains in office. And far from presiding over a nation of peace and gender equality, Karzai has been shown to be capable of immense corruption and tyranny. He passed a law this April which codifies an even more oppressive treatment of women than under the Taliban. It legalises rape within marriage, stipulating that “obedience, readiness for intercourse and not leaving the house without the permission of the husband are the duties of the wife; violation of every one of them will mean disobedience to the husband”.3
Shia women are officially the only ones to be directly affected by this new law, which was secretly hatched by Karzai in an effort to secure votes from the leaders of Afghanistan’s minority Shia community in the August election. Misogynist control of women through the ‘regulation of family life’ is the policy of this reactionary stooge of US imperialism. But the law is bound to affect all women within Afghanistan, not just the 15% Shia population – which would be bad enough, of course. Customary and illegal practices are given more legitimacy. In particular child marriage is legalised – a phenomenon which is already a major problem, with 60% of girls forcibly married before the current legal age of 16.
The constitution formally states that men and women are equal. But despite some limited education for young girls, life is just as restrictive and dangerous as under the Taliban. Add to that the cruel irony of educating a young girl only to then force her into a subservient and loveless marriage at 14. This has created enormous despair among young Afghan women. Self-immolation, a practice of burning oneself as an act of suicide, has increasingly become an escape for young girls desperate for a way out.
The United Nations recently reported that levels of self-harm are increasing at a “notable and steady rate”. It further noted that the “predominant causes or precipitating events of self-immolation identified by survivors or contacts were various forms of oppression or violence towards women. Forced marriage or engagement during childhood was identified in almost one third of the cases.”4 One of the most disturbing findings was that “often self-immolation was said to have occurred after victims spoke out against or sought help in alleviating the violence to which they were subjected – but were ignored.”5
This last fact is the most disturbing. That the most rebellious of young Afghan women are driven to such an anguished act is simply unspeakable. It is a terrible reminder of the inadequacy of the left and the weakness of the working class movement. The photographs and personal stories of those young women who survived cannot fail to move anyone who sees them.
So, despite the constitution and various other conventions and protocols signed by Afghanistan since 2003, even the UN itself is forced to admit that “these commitments and efforts do not appear to be translating into safer and healthier conditions for Afghan women and girls”.6 These paper exercises are simply a cover for a society wracked by war and backwardness. A backwardness that US intervention has worsened, not alleviated.
Obama was deeply embarrassed by the publication of Karzai’s new legislation in the middle of his campaign for renewed support for the occupation. He dispatched Hillary Clinton to talk him into ameliorating the measures. For his part, Karzai responded to Clinton’s call for a ‘review’ by announcing that his justice ministry will establish whether the law flouts the constitution or sharia law. This is, of course, the same justice ministry that helped him to put together these repressive measures. Little change can be expected.
And the US is careful not to be seen to undermine the existing government too much. Obama is deeply aware in particular of the need to retain Shia support for Karzai’s re-election. He may not be the US president’s preference just at the moment – particularly given Obama’s ostensible concern with women’s rights. But the alternative could be far worse for the US administration. In truth women’s lives are utterly expendable.
We are reminded of the hypocrisy of the slogans of Operation Enduring Freedom with their promise that the 2001 invasion would liberate the women of Afghanistan. Instead it has widowed more than 1.5 million of them. Predictably widows have a pretty hard time of it in such a conservative society. Many have to turn to prostitution or begging on order to keep themselves and their children alive.
It should not surprise us that things have got this bad under the occupation. Imperialism presents the greatest danger to the masses of the world. But try telling that to sections of the left in 2002. There were plenty of arguments with members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty at demonstrations and meetings. We were consistently told by AWLers that women in the US were freer than women in Afghanistan – therefore the US occupation, even though the AWL ‘opposed’ it, might be expected to improve the lot of women there.
The opposite has come to pass. The imperialist invasion has brought devastation and further dehumanisation. It illustrates yet again that liberation can only come through the struggle of the masses themselves. Whatever gains American women have made are as a result of their own struggles against their state. The boasts of warmongers, whether Bush or Obama, that they are exporting democracy are nothing but a sickening cover for further enslavement. The abject plight of all the Afghan people, but especially the women, bears testimony to the need for principled solidarity.
Things were not always as bad as this. Afghan women are not born or naturally disposed to lives of wretched misery. Struggles throughout the 1960s and 70s gave birth to a social movement for democratic rights. In 1978 this culminated in a political revolution in the cities led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. While we have no illusions in the ‘official communist’ PDPA, the revolution did produce a positive change: for a brief period many women were able to lead relatively independent lives and gained access to education and employment. The revolution was destroyed by a combination of Soviet invasion and anti-Soviet mujahedin.
The Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (Rawa) was founded in 1978 and continues to exist and struggle today. It began as a campaign to extend women’s rights and during the Soviet occupation broadened its demands. It continued to campaign against the US-backed mujahedin, the Taliban and, of course, the present occupation. Today Rawa and female political activists lead extremely perilous lives, in constant danger of attack or even death from both the Taliban and pro-government extremists.
Intransigently, however, they continue to report and highlight the struggles. Rawa’s is an invaluable source of information and comment about life in Afghanistan. Its website states: “Freedom and democracy can’t be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values. Under the US-supported government, the sworn enemies of human rights, democracy and secularism have gripped their claws over our country and attempt to restore their religious fascism on our people.”7
The women of Afghanistan need our solidarity now. Just like his predecessor, Obama in truth cares nothing for women’s rights. He and his allies would gladly alibi Karzai’s repressive legislation, while trying to gloss over the actuality. The working class is the only force that can break this stranglehold and lead the fight for self-emancipation. Today our class must stand in solidarity with the masses in Afghanistan and bring hope to their struggles.
1. The Guardian April 4.