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Has Washington Betrayed Afghan Women?
Mon, 21 Jun 2010 13:08:24 GMT
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By Tahereh Ghanaati

"The plight of women and children in Afghanistan is a matter of deliberate human cruelty, carried out by those who seek to intimidate and control…The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

First Lady, Laura Bush
November 2001

"The US and its allies invaded Afghanistan under the banner of women's rights. Today, the situation for women … is hell in most of the provinces. Killing a woman is as easy as killing a horse... all of this violence is increasing rapidly, even at historical levels … in the name of democracy, women's rights and human rights.

Malalai Joya, Afghan MP
November 2009

The thin, wavering glare of the kerosene lamp barely illuminated the mud brick walls of the squalid room. The corners lay in deep shadow. Shabnam, a 12-year-old bride of one year, had not been outside the walls of the hovel since her marriage. She rubbed her tear-stained face with one grubby fist. Her other hand hung swollen and useless at her side. Her 45-year-old husband had broken it, while beating her. Her nose was broken, as well. That had been done by her mother-in-law, who also beat her on a regular basis.

In the distance, the static of gunfire stitched the heavy darkness of the night. A few kilometers away, the Taliban and US military were engaged in a pitched battle.

Shabnam knew that the nearby fighting would worry her husband and he would take out his frustration on her with even more savage beatings. It had happened in the past. But she was not going to wait around for it to occur again. She could not endure another beating. She would escape via the only avenue left open to her. With her one good hand, she hefted up a can and sloshed herself with kerosene. She then took a piece of straw and held it to the lamp's flame. Once the straw had caught, she touched it to the edge of her ragged garment.

This sad tale has happened time and again in Afghanistan. It is still happening.

Nearly a decade has passed since the US invaded the Central Asia country in 'Operation Enduring Freedom,' the first phase of the War on Terror. A little over a month later, on November 18, 2001, First Lady Laura Bush, in a radio broadcast, condemned the Taliban's treatment of Afghan women, saying that the United States would see to it that those women were given their rights and made a viable part of Afghan society.

''Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: the brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists,'' she said.

At the same time, the US State Department released a report, which stated in part, "The Taliban regime began its systematic repression of all sectors of the population soon after taking control of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in 1996. The Taliban's war against women, however, is particularly appalling."

Despite the fact that Mrs. Bush's comments and the State Department report's observations were attempts to gain support for the war, they were completely true.

After seizing power in 1996, the Taliban imposed a set of Draconian rules upon women, depriving them of all human rights and reducing their status to that of social pariahs. Women were barred from the work force and deprived of an education. They were kept under virtual house arrest and were not allowed to leave their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. The windows of their homes had to be painted so no one could see them. They were not allowed to gather with other women for any festive occasions - even Islamic eids.

They were forced to marry whomever their fathers chose and their husbands purchased them in much the same way as a person in another part of the world would buy an animal. Once married, their husbands had complete control over their lives and could abuse them at will. They had no legal recourse. And in fact, it was wise for them to steer clear of the authorities, altogether. Any minor infringement of Taliban rules could result in brutal beatings, torture or even execution.

The United States said it was appalled by such treatment and announced that when it invaded Afghanistan, liberation of the country's women would be one of its primary objectives.

Almost nine years have passed since the 2001 invasion and one wonders if the lot of Afghan women has actually improved. Has Washington kept its promise? Have Afghan women actually been liberated?

According to Afghan MP Malalai Joya, they have not. In fact, she has called conditions for women in Afghanistan “a disaster and just as catastrophic as under the domination of the Taliban.” Joya maintains that in actuality, there has been little change and all the talk about the new freedoms women enjoy is nothing but window dressing.

Unfortunately, the statistics back Joya's observation. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, nearly 90 percent of Afghan women still suffer from domestic abuse. And a report by Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) states that 87 percent of Afghan women are still illiterate and only 30 percent of the girls in the country have access to education. Moreover, 70 to 80 percent still face forced marriages.

Thus, it appears that despite promises to the contrary, the United States has done little in the past nine years to alleviate the plight of Afghan women. A recent (June 10, 2010) report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) reveals that suicide among women is soaring in Afghanistan. The report mentions Dr. Sayed Naim Alemi, director of the regional hospital in Herat Province, who said that his hospital had handled 85 cases of attempted suicide within the past 6 months and that the number was twice what it had been in previous years. He told the group compiling the report that the most common method of suicide among Afghan women is self-immolation, in which the women douse themselves with kerosene and then set themselves ablaze.

Dr. Nasim Hamdard, vice-chairman of Kabul's Ibn-e Sina Emergency Hospital, concurs. In 2009, he revealed that within a 12-month period, his hospital had handled over 600 attempted suicides, the majority of which were women.

Afghan human rights advocate, Dr. Zakia Fazel believes he knows why so many women in his country try to kill themselves. "They burn themselves because they see no other option," he said. "The conditions for women haven't changed. They still suffer, and in some cases it is getting worse for them," he added.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the victims are women and girls, who had been forced (read that 'sold') into marriage - often with a man more than twice their age.

Many of these brides are victimized -- not only by their husbands, but by their in-laws, as well, who beat them, starve them and treat them as slaves. The women try to kill themselves when they feel they can no longer take the abuse.

Dr. Fazel maintains that most women, who attempt suicide, have been beaten and abused. "If they run away, they are eventually caught and sent back to their families and no one seems to care what happens to them after that," he explained. Thus, the women reason that suicide is the only way out of a life that has become a living hell.

Not only are Afghan women still being forced into abusive marriages, they are also, unbelievable as it may seem, still being bought and sold outright - as slaves.

In the Shinwar district of Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province, there are two markets, called 'Shadal' and 'Pikheh,' which specialize in selling one commodity -- women.

It should be stressed that the commerce conducted in these markets has nothing to do with 'bride prices' or 'dowries' or any other type of socially acceptable transactions relating to marriage. To the contrary, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission claims that in these markets, women, who are covered from head to foot with only their hands showing, are bought and sold - like cattle.

It might be mentioned that an article from The New York Times relates that a certain tribe (the tribe responsible for this trafficking) is one of the United States' key allies in Afghanistan.

And that brings us to a final point. Why hasn't the United States done something to help these women? According to an article from the Foreign Policy ezine, one reason is because US policymakers believe that pushing gender equality would alienate Washington's powerful Afghan allies (mainly reactionary warlords,) and that, in turn, would undermine Western interests.
In other words, helping Afghan women would be detrimental to US interests.

Malalai Joya also believes this to be the reason why the United States has reneged on its promise. In an address to a Galway Alliance Against War (GAAW) peace event, she said, "It is an open secret today that all terrorist groups from al- Qaeda to Taliban and the warlords of the N.A have been products of the US government; but the … policy of the US and (its) allies still continues and today they (the reactionary warlords) … have the upper hand .. and their tyranny against my people, and especially women, continues."

Therefore, Afghan women have been sidelined once again - and the country's society, as a whole, will be the poorer for it.
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