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Afghan Women: Forgotten and Betrayed

By Bhumika Ghimire


For centuries Afghan women have been at the receiving end of religious bigotry, indifference and poverty. The persecution of women under the Taliban was just one chapter in a long history of violence and discrimination.

Between the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the Taliban's rise to power in 1996-97, the country was fought over by warring factions, including Mujaheddin, who first toppled the Soviet-backed government and then argued with each other.

Afghan society is highly patriarchal and great importance is placed on female sexual virtue. Well aware of this, fighters committed rapes and other sexual assaults against women as a means to dishonor their enemies and reduce the likelihood of military resistance.

As in all patriarchal societies women are treated as less than human, so in Afghanistan they became the spoils of war. In 1999 Amnesty International reported that between 1992 and 1995 military leaders appeared to condone rape as a reward for soldiers and as a method of intimidation.

Women committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of the soldiers and in one case documented by Amnesty International a father reportedly killed his daughter to prevent her from being abducted. It must be remembered that this was not simply the abuse of grown women, children were also affected. One woman told Amnesty International that her 13-year-old niece was dragged away by armed men in 1993. She said:

"They said their commander wanted her. They took her away. She was resisting and screaming, but they dragged her away. We were frightened that if we did anything we all would be killed. They would kill any girl who refused to go with them."

Like the Taliban after them, the warring factions aimed to deprive women of education and the right to work outside the home. However, as their power structure was less stable than that of the Taliban they were less successful in their implementation of this malicious policy.The international media largely ignored what was happening to women in Afghanistan because it was focused on the rising drug trade, and the Afghan civil war. It seems likely that the journalists simply took it for granted as just another consequence of war.

That beacon for freedom and democracy, the United States government, provided arms and financial assistance to the Mujaheddin but never tried to do anything to hold them accountable. There were no trials against those abusing women and girls; there were no calls to bring them to justice.

In March 2005 the new Afghan government delivered another blow to the long suffering women of Afghanistan by appointing General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the warlords who appeared to condone rape and other kinds of sexual violence as a weapon, as Chief of Staff of Afghanistan's armed forces. This shows that the culture of rewarding those who commit crimes against women is still present in Afghanistan.

If the General had permitted his troops to sexually assault all foreign nationals in Afghanistan, it is likely that he would not have been appointed. However, as it was "just" Afghan women, a blind eye has been turned.Of course, no history of the persecution of Afghan women is complete without mentioning the Taliban.

These religious zealots, who started out to clean Afghan society of vice and fill it with virtue, are now best known for their smuggling activities, ethnic cleansing and cowardly persecution of women. The Taliban started their campaign in Khandahar province in the south of Afghanistan in 1994.

Most of the men in the Taliban were trained in madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan, and they had strong backing from that country. In his book Taliban (p.183), author Ahmed Rashid talks about how in June 1998 the Pakistani Finance Ministry sanctioned 300 million rupees (US$ 6 million) as salary for the Taliban government in Kabul.

Pakistan was the first nation to recognize the Taliban government, and it never pressured the regime to stop hijacking Islam in order to score political gains. In Islamabad, female Afghan refugees were severely beaten when they held a protest rally against the Taliban's treatment of women. In October 1998, it was reported that Afghan journalist Najeeba Sara Bibi was shot at in Peshawar. The Pakistani government claimed that such attacks on Afghan campaigners for women's rights were isolated incidents.

Najeeba Sara Bibi had angered the Taliban government with her reporting on women's rights issues. The Taliban government had even sent her threatening letters with an official seal, under the name of then chief of Afghan Intelligence, Maulvi Muhammad Sarwar Mukhlis. The attackers were not apprehended.

In America the Clinton administration stayed silent on the treatment of women by the Taliban, until Hollywood got involved and embarrassed the government into taking action. The anti-Taliban movement became fashionable in 1999 when a huge rally was organized by feminists after the Oscars.

The American government could no longer afford to claim that everything was ok in Afghanistan. But by then the damage had been done. Thousands of women were prisoners in their own homes, many had died of hunger and disease, and many more had had their spirits irreparably damaged by the brutal Taliban mullahs.The international community reluctantly imposed limited sanctions against the Taliban government in 2000. One is forced to wonder what would have happened if the U.S. had not attacked Afghanistan after 9/11.

Would the Taliban still be there whipping women whose socks show a centimeter of flesh?Now the Taliban are no longer in power but the situation has not improved for Afghan women.

Reports by the BBC and other news agencies say that the Taliban are busy rearming and that they have stepped up their attacks against American and British troops. (BBC News, 2006) In the Taliban's village strongholds, women have not been fortunate enough to see the light of change, and even in cities women are still too scared to go out without their burqas.

Schools for girls have been attacked and set on fire to prevent them from learning. To make matters worse, Hamid Karzai's government has decided to revive the notorious Vice and Virtue department.

This is the same Vice and Virtue police who in the Taliban's time made women cover up from head to toe, whipped them if they stepped out of the house unaccompanied by a male relative, and stoned them to death if they were raped.

Fear has once again gripped the women of Afghanistan by the throat.
It seems that once again the largely male community of world leaders is choosing to ignore the dangers faced by women in Afghanistan.

The story of the suffering of Afghan women seems never ending. They have been betrayed by their neighbors, the world community and by their own people. After 9/11 they were celebrated across the world as a reason to fight for freedom. Now it seems that they are no longer fashionable and that the international community has largely forgotten them.

How sad it is that despite the new government and all the hype created by the media that women in Afghanistan are now "liberated," the situation hasn't changed much. Sure they are not whipped anymore for not wearing burqas, but they are still too scared to walk outside uncovered.

The criminals responsible for so many rapes and murders are walking on the streets, yet women are forced to give up their hopes for freedom and stay at home. You can see for yourself how bad the situation is just by visiting the Website of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

Among recent news items on the Website are stories of a 12-year-old girl being burned by her husband; girls denied schooling, child brides and women poets and journalists being killed. No amount of whitewashing by the U.S. and its allies can hide the fact that the situation has not changed for the women of Afghanistan.

If we had worked on removing fundamentalism rather than the fundamentalists maybe things would be better by now.

Further Reading:

Taliban by Ahmed Rashid
Veiled Courage by Cheryl Benard
Zoya's Story by Zoya with John Follain and Rita Cristofari

 

 

"This OhmyNews International (english.ohmynews.com) article is reprinted with permission."

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