Category Archives: Women’s liberation

Communist University 2013


August 12-18, south London

Preparations for the Communist University, our annual school, are well advanced and the 2013 timetable features some outstanding speakers on key issues. The CPGB website will be regularly updated with tweaks to the timetable and profiles of our speakers, but here are a few who have confirmed so far and the subjects they will be addressing:

* Adam Hanieh is a lecturer in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is author ofCapitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States and a member of the editorial board of the journal, Historical Materialism. At our school, Adam will be speaking on ‘The political economy of the Muslim Brotherhood’ on Wednesday, August 14. For comrades’ interest, he opened on‘The capitalist crisis and the Arab Spring’ in November of last year at a gathering organised by the Kurdish Academic Forum.

* Hillel Ticktin is one of the leading Marxist political economists in the world. Originally from South Africa, he left the country to avoid arrest for political activism. After some time working for his PhD in the Soviet Union – where he again attracted the disapproval of the authorities – he began teaching at the University of Glasgow in 1965, and in 1973 he co-founded Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory, an independent, scholarly Marxist journal. Comrade Ticktin has been a regular atCommunist University over years and a frequent contributor to our paper. He will be presenting three sessions for us in August – ‘Capitalist crises and the causes’ (Wednesday, August 14), ‘Capitalism: terminal crisis or long term decline?’ (Thursday, August 15) and ‘Socialism or barbarism’ (Saturday, August 17).

* The left’s response to the global crisis of capitalism has been essentially Keynesian. So the title of our morning session on Friday, August 16 – ‘Does Keynesianism offer an alternative to austerity?’ – is apposite for all those who regard themselves as Marxists, or revolutionaries of some stripe. It is presented by the CPGB’s Mike Macnair, a member of the party’s leadership and a frequent contributor to the Weekly Worker. Mike has written and spoken on this subject in the past and it is clearly one that we need to keep returning to given the left’s stubborn insistence that this non-Marxist (actually anti-Marxist) politics is a supportable ‘alternative’ to capitalist austerity.

* OnTuesday, August 13 Mike Gonzalez will be discussing with Nick Rogers the question, ‘After Chavez: where next for the Bolivarian revolution?’ Mike has written widely on Latin America from the state capitalist perspective of the International Socialist tradition of Tony Cliff. (See his Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution). He is a historian, a prolific author and literary critic. For a time, he also was the professor of Latin American Studies in the Hispanics department of the University of Glasgow. He was videoed speaking on ‘The politics of water’ at a Socialist Workers Party (Ireland) event in November of last year.

*Yassamine Mather is an Iranian socialist in exile in Britain. Her political activities on the Iranian left started in 1980s Tehran and later in Kurdistan. In exile, she has been on the editorial board of the monthly journal Jahan and a member of the coordinating committee of Workers Left Unity Iran. She is also a member of the Centre for Socialist Theory and Movements (Glasgow University) and the deputy editor of the journalCritique. Since 2007 she has been active in Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI).She will be speaking in a debate on feminism(s) with Camilla Power.

*Camilla Power is a senior lecturer in evolutionary anthropology at the University of East London, with a particular interest in female coalitionary strategies, ritual and early human kinship. She uses modern Darwinian selfish-gene sexual selection theory to understand the origins of symbolic culture. She is a leading member of the Radical Anthropology Group and has spoken frequently at Communist University. She will be speaking in a debate on feminism(s) with Yassamine Mather.


Comrades attending Communist University for the first time often remark that its culture is very different to other left schools. For example, writing in the Weekly Worker Paul Demarty regrets the “cosy diplomatic speechifying” that generally characterises the annual Marxism school staged by the Socialist Workers Party. This flows from a tacit “diplomatic arrangement” between the event organisers and the ‘star’ non-SWP speakers – the “horse trading” consists of “the SWP granting the speaker a large and enthusiastic audience in central London. In return, the speaker offers the SWP an implicitendorsement of the image it wishes to project: a non-sectarian, unifying force on the radical left, offering up its resources to ‘build the movement’.”

Our school actually makes an effort to explore real differences between comrades, to give critical minorities the time and space to make their arguments and to challenge comrades’ pre-conceptions. We are genuinely out to educate, in other words – both ourselves and others. In the lead up to last year’s CU, we made this video with the CPGB’s national organiser, Mark Fischer, to give comrades a feel for the event.

For booking and venue details, go here. Main Communist University 2013 Index here.


Did the Russian Revolution really change that much for women?

A video from one of the Northern Communist Forums that the CPGB organises in Manchester. Anne McShane looks at what the Russian Revolution changed for women and talks about some of the lessons for today.

‘Islamic feminism’ and women’s emancipation

Yassamine Mather examines the reality of the continuing struggle against the Iranian regime’s oppression

On March 8, for the second time in a week, demonstrators gathered in the streets of Tehran and other major cities in Iran to protest against the regime – despite its attempts at suppression, its armed security forces, its tear gas and its arrests.

Thirty-two years ago, on March 8 1979, tens of thousands of Iranian women took part in the first major demonstration against the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran, following the forced imposition of the hijab. The women’s slogans were: “I say it every moment, I say it under torture: either death or freedom!” “Freedom is neither eastern nor western: it is universal!” “Death to censorship!” “In the dawn of freedom, the place of women is empty: revolution is meaningless without women’s freedom – we do not want the hijab!”

Since that day and for over 30 years hard-line fundamentalists have tried to impose their rules on Iranian women and youth. However, even these clerics agree that they face a cultural crisis. The majority of the youth and the women’s movement openly reject fundamentalist Islam, and the generation born after the Islamic regime came to power is amongst the most secular sections of Middle Eastern society, campaigning for the separation of religion from the state.

A lot has been written on the unprecedented increase in the political and academic activities of Iranian women over the last two decades, but it should be emphasised that the overwhelming majority of these activities have taken place despite the clerical regime, and often against it. The women’s movement is independent of the factional fighting inside the Islamic Republic and independent of the Islamic ideology which is the basis of the state. This movement has also been an anti-war movement, adamant in its opposition to US-style ‘women’s emancipation’, as witnessed in occupied Iraq and ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Most of the women who have taken an active part in this struggle do not consider themselves Islamist; quite the contrary.

Second class

There is no doubt that, with the exception of a minority of the middle and upper classes, Iranian women have traditionally suffered from patriarchal laws and practices both within the family and at work.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, however, the plight of Iranian women has worsened, the rigid imposition of the veil (hijab) has reinforced discrimination and prejudice against women. Many families refuse to send their daughters to high school. In higher education girls are discouraged or prevented by the state from studying or working in fields and activities considered ‘masculine’, such as engineering, mining, the judiciary … It is in opposition to the state that many women pursue such studies.

There is discrimination against women in sport and recreation. Participation in some sports is discouraged, and in recreation most facilities are rigidly segregated and rarely available to women. Many have called this a system of apartheid against women. The ministry of education in the Iranian government recently reported that 94% of schoolgirls were unfit, as they did not participate in sport or physical education.

The combination of enforced hijab wearing and segregation is used to limit women’s access to state education, sports and other facilities. In other words, the system is geared to institutionalise women’s confinement to the home. These policies facilitate the objective of turning women into second-class citizens.

As they become teenagers, girls are driven more and more into a world dominated and manipulated by their male relatives. They can be given away in legal marriage without their knowledge or consent while still in their childhood. The legal age of marriage for girls is nine.

Discriminatory Islamic laws govern the private and public life of women: they have to follow a very specific and restrictive set of dress codes – a full veil or complete headscarf and long overcoat are the only accepted forms of dress. The law discriminates against women in inheritance, giving them at most half of the share of their male counterparts. According to the laws of Hodud and Qessas (talion[1] and punishment) the life of a woman is worth half that of a man, with the implication that a man killing a woman and sentenced to death may only be executed if the victim’s family pays the murderer half of his death dues. Article 6 of this law states that the bereaved family has to pay the murderer’s family to get “Islamic justice” (a life for a life). Article 33 of the Hodud and Qessas states that women’s testimony is not valid in homicide cases unless it is supported by at least one male witness. According to Iran’s Islamic laws, women are considered generally unfit to be witnesses; their power of observation is considered half that of a man. And women have officially been considered too emotional and irrational to be judges.

Of course, in other religions equally anti-women rules and regulations are to be found. What differentiates Iran or US-occupied Iraq from other Islamic states, however, is that the Qur’an dictates civil and judicial law. In other words the basic democratic demand of separation of state and religion does not apply – quite the opposite.

Unequal marriage

Islamic marriage laws as applied in Iran are amongst the most repressive in the world in terms of discrimination against women. While men are allowed to marry up to four wives at a time in permanent marriage, plus an unlimited number of women in what is known as “temporary marriage” (siqeh), women who do not adhere to strict monogamy are considered criminal and may be brutally and savagely stoned to death in public. This legal Islamic punishment for extra-marital affairs is carried out regularly in Iran.

Men control the lives of their wives, their daughters and their unmarried sisters. In Islamic societies women need a male guardian throughout their lives, to give them legal permission to travel, to study, to marry, etc … As no consent is required for sexual relations inside marriage, wife-rape is common and even wife-beating is tolerated in the process (with a Qur’anic verse that legitimises wife-beating in the case of “disobedient women”). Abortion is illegal, but the rising number of terminations is testimony to its use as a form of contraception.

Until 1996, as far as divorce was concerned, the man had almost a free hand to divorce his wife, while the woman had only a limited recourse to the legal system. Even after reform of the laws regulating separation, a woman can only file for divorce in exceptional circumstances. The extent of this discrimination was best exemplified by reports recorded by the Iran Human Rights Working Group[2]: a court had taken 14 years to approve a divorce request from a woman who complained she was tortured by her husband. She was reporting new incidents of abuse every year. She had agreed to drop all financial demands against her husband, and finally had to contact Iran’s prosecutor-general directly (who reported that she “shivered violently” whenever her husband was mentioned) to get her divorce. In another case, the process took eight years.

The divorce law is also designed to punish recalcitrant women, bringing them poverty and destitution, and leading them to resort to unusual tactics in order to obtain minimum maintenance for their children. In most cases women have to forfeit financial claims in order to obtain divorce, even if the proceedings were initiated by the man. Iranian law states that a male child above the age of two and a female child over the age of seven must live with their father. Even the father’s father is given priority over the mother in custody matters.

In marriage, discrimination against women goes still further. A virgin woman (whatever her age) has no right to marry without her father’s consent (or her paternal grandfather’s, in the absence of the former). A Muslim woman has no right to marry a non-Muslim (a right her male counterparts have – with some limitations). And a divorced woman has to wait for a set period before remarriage (but there is no waiting period for a divorced male). These Islamic practices and laws have created a suitable environment for widespread abuses and atrocities against women.

Most women do not report incidents of rape outside marriage because the victim has more to lose. First she will be accused of bringing dishonour to her own family and in some cases might even be killed by family members. Second, she fears prosecution under the morality laws: the punishment for “unIslamic” behaviour is to be flogged or stoned to death, especially if a woman is judged by the court as being a willing partner.

While the laws of Hodud and Qessas prescribe “equal” punishments for men and women, it is women who suffer from these barbaric measures. A married man having an affair with an unmarried women can always claim they were “temporarily married”. But a woman in a parallel position has no such defence and would face the horror of death by stoning.

The discriminatory laws regarding women’s rights cover a wide range of areas in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, in addition to the anti-women labour laws and social policies. These have had devastating results, causing economic deprivation and the social isolation of women and their children. Iranian women have been fighting hard against these injustices, but have had very limited success in the face of the overwhelming power of the religious state and its many institutions.

Whatever interpretation of Islam we take, the Qur’an is quite specific that women who disobey their men may be beaten. Should we accept this on the pretext of respecting Islamic values, and in order to combat racism? To do so would be to ignore what has been done to secular women in Islamic societies – to women who choose not to obey the rules. In Tehran teenagers who do not abide by the full Islamic dress code (showing a fringe under their headscarf, for example) are regularly arrested, flogged and made to sign a statement saying they will cease to “behave as a prostitute”.

Secular resistance

Women have never forgotten that in the 1960s one of ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s main objections to the shah’s regime was that voting rights were given to women. While it is true that during that dictatorship the right to vote was meaningless, Khomeini objected in principle to a woman’s right to be elected or to elect.

One of the first demonstrations against the Islamic regime was the women’s demonstration of March 8 1979. Khomeini’s decree that women should cover their hair rallied women of many classes and backgrounds in a major show of opposition against the new regime. Since then women have constantly opposed the erosion of their social and political rights.

In return the Islamic clergy and its government have consistently used medieval morality laws to suppress women. Especially in urban areas, women have fought back in an ongoing struggle that is only now beginning to bear fruit, very often despite the array of Islamic women’s magazines and organisations. Inevitably some of the tolerated women’s journals, publications and institutions have tried to catch up with this movement. However, they are at best tailing it, doing too little, too late.

The history of women’s struggles in Iran goes back to the early years of the 20th century. Iranian women participated in the constitutional revolution (1906-11), they were active in the nationalist movement of the 1950s and throughout the shah’s repression, when they formed a large part of leftwing underground organisations, as well as the Mujahedin-e Khalgh resistance. Hundreds of thousands of women participated in the demonstrations against the shah’s dictatorship and no-one could have forced them back into the middle ages. Economic factors, the role of women in production and the development of productive forces have all played a part.

In the early years of the Islamic regime, Iranian women fought expulsion from the workplace through enforced redundancy, and they refused to adhere to the strict Islamic dress code. It took over 18 years for the more enlightened members of the regime to realise that it was impossible to keep the clock turned back. It is an insult to the courage and perseverance of Iranian women to label this long and complex struggle an Islamist movement, as the officially tolerated women’s magazines do.


In Shia Islam the most revered woman is the daughter of Mohammed, who died at the age of 18, having already given birth to three sons. Her short life symbolises the ideal woman. As a result, in Iran secular, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i and Zoroastrian women are all forced to wear the veil against their will. Their basic right to dress as they please is taken away because some Muslim men find it insulting to see non-veiled women.

Islamists claim that the veil, far from restricting women’s social activities plays a liberating role, as it maintains a woman’s ‘purity’. But most women know that the primary role of the hijab is to subjugate them, segregate them and classify non-veiled women as evil temptresses whose sole role on earth is to corrupt men. It is also argued that the veil, like a uniform, hides class differences. Anyone who has seen the elaborate veils in the affluent suburbs of Iranian cities, as opposed to the hijabs worn by working class women, can see how absurd such statements are.

Hammed Shahidian asserts: “Defenders of ‘Islamic feminism’ in the west have founded their arguments in cultural relativism – a dangerous precedent both for feminists and human rights activists.”[3] Indeed it is claimed that any attack on the veil is a form of western racism. One has to point out that combating racism has nothing to do with accepting double standards – women’s rights for white/western women; Islamic ‘rights’ for Muslim/eastern women.

The main problem for Islamist women and Islamist moderates is that the reinterpretation of Islamic ideas regarding women to show them in a progressive light is impossible within the framework of the Islamic state. Mohammed is the final prophet in the long line of prophets, his book is the most complete message from god. The Qur’an’s clear and explicit anti-women message cannot be changed. The current bitter struggle between the moderate and the conservative Islamists in Iran can either lead to the overthrow of the Islamic state or to a compromise with the conservatives at the expense of any ‘moderation’.

Islamists, however, have by no means a monopoly on Iranian culture. Twentieth century Iran was dominated by a strong secular/progressive, non-Islamic culture. Iranian women’s limited achievements against Islamic law, both under the rule of this regime and in the past, has its roots in this tradition. Yet defenders of ‘Islamic feminism’ write extensively on the relative freedom and status of women in Iran compared to women in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, as part of their defence of moderate, progressive Islam.

Here it is important to remind ourselves that in Iran’s contemporary history the level of development of the productive forces has played a far more significant role than ‘moderate’ Islam. Traditions of secular politics have also had a far more significant role to play. Islamist women in Iran, as part of the ‘reformist’ faction of a brutal dictatorship, will try to give some women better opportunities in education and government. They will try to improve family legislation, but within the limits of sharia law in all its anti-women facets.

Iran’s so-called ‘Islamic feminists’ are middle and upper class professional women in stable, traditional, family relationships. Many are immediate relatives of the highest-ranking clerics. They have no intention of challenging the religious state. As long as the basic demand for the separation of state and religion remains unfulfilled, as long as non-Muslim, Sunni and non-religious Iranians are considered second-class citizens, there can be no improvement in the plight of the majority of Iranian women.

Over the last few years, a minority of these Islamist women have taken up in a limited way some of the issues concerning women’s rights. Many have advocated minor reforms – too little, too late. These women are identified as political supporters of one of the factions of the Islamic regime (that of ex-presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani). They do not represent an independent women’s movement, but, on the contrary, form part of the ruling establishment and are considerably annoyed when western academics refer to them as feminists. The ‘reformist’ faction they belong to has not even challenged the medieval laws of Hodud and Qessas or the supreme rule of the religious guardian of the nation, the velaayat-e faghih. By contrast, the newspaper Zan, which dared to question the stoning to death of women, has faced enforced closure and bans. In other words, Islamist women are not feminist and feminist women are not Islamist. The term ‘Islamist feminist’, created by western academics, remains an abstract idea, as far as Iran is concerned.

Of course, arguments within Islam on issues regarding women’s rights are not new. For decades reformist Islamists have tried to present more moderate interpretations of Islamic laws and teaching. And, although it is true that over the last few years urban Iranian women have succeeded in asserting themselves and influencing aspects of their lives and the country’s politics, any improvement in their plight is due mainly to their perseverance and courage, and the tradition of struggle against dictatorship – despite the majority of Islamic clerics.

The defenders of so-called ‘Islamic feminism’ occasionally challenge us to define what we mean by progress, if we say it has not taken place in Iran thanks to their efforts. How about an end to the stoning of women for adultery, to the flogging of teenage girls for daring to show a fringe, to the Hezbollah’s practice of throwing paint at women who wear colourful scarves, to the segregation in hospitals, buses, schools and universities?

It is ironic that political correctness has discouraged many western liberals from challenging ‘Islamic feminism’. Iranian women, who are amongst the worst victims of Islamic fundamentalism, have no intention of following this trend and indeed over the last couple of years have stepped up the fight against the forced wearing of the hijab, for freedom and equality.

March 8 2011 saw a new generation taking up the same slogans.
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  1. Talion: law that criminals should receive as punishment precisely those injuries and damages they had inflicted upon their victims.
  3. H Shahidian Islamic feminism and feminist politics in Iran Springfield 2009.

March 8 protest

On International Women’s Day, women were at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic regime, writes Tina Becker

On International Women’s Day, around 100 people gathered outside the Iranian embassy in London to protest against the repression of women in Iran. Organised by the March 8 Women’s Organisation (Iran-Afghanistan), they heard a range of female speakers, who demanded an end to the Islamic regime.

No wonder that there was not a green scarf in sight. “Moussavi and his supporters are part of the Islamic regime. But we are with those women in Iran who want more than just a few reforms. We want the overthrow of the entire regime,” said Yassamine Mather, chair of Hands Off the People of Iran, which supported the event.

International Women’s Day, which was established on the initiative of Clara Zetkin and the Second International in 1910, has always focused not just on the suffering of women – but their fightback, too. And who can deny that women in Iran have to struggle against more enemies than most of us? Not only do they face the general patriarchal prejudices that all women do. They have also been at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic regime. After all, one of the first actions of the theocracy after the 1979 revolution was to force all women to wear the hijab.

But women also bear the main brunt of imperialist intervention in the country – be it in the form of sanctions or the threat of direct military intervention. “One just has to look at Iraq and Afghanistan to see how the rights of women have been rolled back since the occupation,” said Leila Parnia, the main organiser of the event.

Afghan woman MP lists ‘enemies’

The following report is from the BBC News website:

By Becky Branford
BBC News

Malalai Joya, file photo

Malalai Joya says she has survived five attempts on her life

Afghanistan’s people are trapped between powerful enemies, according to Malalai Joya, an outspoken member of the Afghan parliament.

Ms Joya named those “enemies” as Nato forces who bomb from the sky, the resurgent Islamists of the Taliban, and the country’s “warlords”.

Speaking to anti-war activists in London she insisted Afghans were capable of governing themselves.

But she dismissed next month’s presidential election as a “deception”.

Ms Joya technically remains an MP, but has been suspended since 2007, on charges of insulting the parliament after she compared it to a zoo.

She has been called “the bravest woman in Afghanistan”, and is well known for her opposition both to the Taliban and to the warlords who backed the American-led campaign to overthrow the Taliban in 2001.

She says she has survived five assassination attempts.

In her address to supporters of the UK’s Stop the War Coalition in London, Ms Joya was scathing about Nato operations in Afghanistan. She said the actions of Nato were serving only to further the misery of ordinary Afghan people.

She called for Western taxpayers not to support a situation which she said was causing the death of Afghan civilians and emboldening the Taliban.

She said that under the watch of Nato, drug production in the country had flourished – and that its proceeds were funding the Taliban.

‘No functioning democracy’

Ms Joya first came to prominence for a controversial speech to the National Assembly in 2003, when she denounced many of those present as “criminals”.

That resulted in her being physically assaulted inside the assembly hall.

Ms Joya has now written a book, Raising My Voice, the aim of which – she says – is to “open the eyes and minds of democratic people around the world”.

She says proceeds from the book will go to humanitarian projects in Afghanistan.

These include a medical clinic in Farah province where she used to work.

Despite her own rise within the Afghan electoral system, she says there is no functioning democracy in Afghanistan under current conditions.

Woman and election posters, Jalalabad, 22 July, 2009

The advancement of women is largely an illusion, says Ms Joya

“The election is a showcase for the US government to deceive people around the world,” she told the anti-war meeting in London.

“We have a proverb – an old donkey but a new saddle,” she added, to laughter from the audience.

“It’s not important who is voting, but who is counting the votes.”

She said her own case was indicative of the poor state of the democratic system in Afghanistan.

She pointed out that she had been barred from parliament, effectively shut out from the Afghan media, and was in constant danger – so much so that she needed to wear an all-encompassing burka when in public in Afghanistan, to hide her identity.

But at the same time, she said, many parliamentary seats were occupied by “criminal warlords” who should never have been allowed to stand for election in the first place.

And she said the advances claimed for women following the overthrow of the Taliban were largely illusory.

Only nations which liberate themselves can be free
Malalai Joya

Ms Joya was asked by a member of the audience if she thought Afghanistan would descend into civil war if Nato forces withdrew.

She insisted a civil war was already under way, and foreign troops were doing nothing to stop it.

“No nation can donate liberation to another nation,” Ms Joya said, to loud applause from the audience.

“Only nations which liberate themselves can be free.”

Come to Communist University 2009!


August 8-15, South London. Book Now!

Global economic crisis and Marx back in the mainstream press. Huge nationalisations and bailouts for the financial system. Millions in Europe and the US face layoffs, repossessions and poverty. Countries like Pakistan face total societal breakdown. Whatever the immediate dynamics of the global economic crisis, the type of capitalism we will face when the dust settles will be very different. Revolutionaries need to both think afresh as well as rediscover the healthy traditions of our movement. That’s what Communist University 2009 is all about – big answers for the big questions. Confirmed speakers thus far include:

  • Lars T Lih – Author of the excellent Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be done? in context
  • Hillel Ticktin – Editor of Critique
  • Boris Kargalitsky – Russian Marxist, author of Empire of the periphery: Russia and the world system
  • Moshe Machover – Israeli anti-Zionist and Matzpen founder
  • Lionel Sims – Author and member of the Radical Anthropology Group
  • Yassamine Mather – CPGB, exiled Iranian revolutionary
  • Mike Macnair – CPGB, author of Revolutionary Strategy
  • Jack Conrad – CPGB, author of Fantastic Reality: Marxism and the politics of religion
  • Jean-Michel Edwin – Marxist involved in the NPA in France

Click here for more information.

Afghanistan: new onslaught on women

afghanwomenFor 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.

afghanwarSo, 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.

afghandemorawaThe 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.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.