November 1, 2013
On November 18, 2001, Laura Bush gave her first radio address urging worldwide condemnation of the treatment of women in Afghanistan. She stated that the “fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”.
The plight of women and children in Afghanistan, the then-US First Lady said, was “a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control”.
Immediately after her speech, the State Department released an 11-page report on the Taliban’s “War Against Women”. The report said the “Taliban perpetrated egregious acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction and forced marriage”.
Waging war under the pretext of the “liberation of Afghan women” was certainly a potent selling point. There is little easier to sell than the idea of rescuing helpless women.
When the US illegally invaded Afghanistan in 2001 under the guise of a “War on Terror” (as if war is not terror), women had already been abused by the Taliban and other warlords had gone on for years before the US even batted an eyelid.
Women have long been the victims of a highly patriarchal and mostly tribalist society in Afghanistan. The Taliban are indeed inhumane. Laura Bush was not wrong to point out the systematic oppression of these women.
However, more than a decade has passed since this noble address. Can we say that women are substantively better off than they were in 2001?
They said: “27% of MPs are women (higher than the world average) and 5% of positions in the army and police force are filled by women.”
These achievements are not to be underestimated. However, women continue to be systematically marginalised, persecuted and oppressed.
Power dynamics from the home to the parliament remain largely unfavourable for women. The judicial and legislative systems have shown they are against women. President Hamid Karzai passed a “Rape Law” in 2009 allowing husbands to starve their wives if they refuse to obey their sexual demands.
The number of women and girls jailed for “moral crimes” (such as running away from home) has risen by 50% in just 18 months.
Oxfam and ActionAid’s statistics might ease the guilt of many, but they are not representative of Afghan women as a whole.
Ask a women in Wardak or Kandahar if she feels “liberated” by the Western intervention and she will look at you with bewilderment. The bells of freedom do not reverberate through Afghanistan.
About 87% of women continue to be illiterate. Up to 80% have faced forced marriages and life expectancy is 44 years.
Why don’t Oxfam or ActionAid publish these statistics? Or are they too telling of the failed war on Afghanistan? These figures expose Afghan women as the biggest losers of the war.
Laura Bush said it was the duty of the world to alleviate of the plight of women and children. Yet alleviate they did not. Today, one in four children die before they turn five and Afghanistan is still the worst place in the world for a woman to give birth.
In the autobiography of Malalai Joya, A Woman Among Warlords, the world-renowned Afghan feminist wrote: “We remain caged in our country, without access to justice and still ruled by women-hating criminals. Fundamentalists still preach that ‘a woman should be in her house or in the grave’.
“In most places, it is still not safe for a woman to appear in public uncovered, or to walk on the street without a male relative. Girls are sold into marriage. Rape goes unpunished.”
All the money, time and “noble” rhetoric did not manifest into reality for Afghan women. The Western world is still scared to admit it failed Afghan women.