This post is by Diana Duarte.
For more than nine years, progressives have been locked in a narrow debate over US policy in Afghanistan centered on a question: does military intervention protect women’s rights? In this debate, we have operated within an artificial and limiting framework that insists on only two viable positions: those who support US military presence to guarantee women’s rights and those who would abandon Afghan women in their zeal to end the occupation.
Neither of these positions reflects the real complexity of the issue.
However, the terms of the discussion have not been set by progressives. From the beginning, the US administration justified its military invasion of Afghanistan under the banner of protecting women. As a result, we have been forced into opposing camps based on false premises, simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a “humanitarian intervention” narrative constructed and controlled by the US administration.
Meanwhile, the reality has diverged dramatically. It is clear that Afghan women’s rights are not a determining consideration on the table in US military and political decision-making. In April 2009, the AP reported a statement by Obama that indicated that “while improving conditions in Afghanistan is a commendable goal, people need to remember that the primary reason that U.S. troops are fighting there is to protect Americans from terrorist attacks.”
Furthermore, US military presence has not prevented massive human rights violations against women living under occupation. In June 2007, journalist Zakia Zaki was murdered in retribution for her radio programs highlighting women’s rights issues. The highest-ranking female police officer in Kandahar, Malalai Kakar, was assassinated in September 2008 for her work to protect women facing domestic violence. In recent years, girls attending school have been attacked with acid or have fallen ill as a result of poison gas.
These and other abuses have all occurred under the watch of the government of President Hamid Karzai, which is populated with warlords notorious for their human rights violations and which enjoys the legitimating support of the US. These were the voices allowed at the decision-making table. They used their power earlier this year in a vote to give themselves immunity for their past abuses and last year to introduce a law allowing a husband to deny his wife food should she refuse sex. Meanwhile, Afghan women’s rights activists who advanced a vision of a society built on respect for human rights have been either ignored or attacked.
Foreign military presence also generates new threats against women. As in countless other conflict situations across time and place, women suffer disproportionately from its effects. In Afghanistan, women have lost family members, homes, and livelihoods as a result of the night raids and drone attacks. Moreover, US military activity has allowed forces like the Taliban to derive legitimacy from their fight against the occupier—and their fundamentalist religious codes constrain women’s freedom of movement, access to education, ability to seek employment, and capacity to enjoy the full range of human rights.
Finally, the US has been willing to settle on the terms of the Afghan Constitution as a measure of women’s rights in upcoming peace talks. In fact, the Afghan Constitution contains no explicit or meaningful guarantees on women’s rights, including any prohibition on gender discrimination. Much has been made of the constitutional provision that women and men are equal before the law. However, this has not protected women from repressive interpretations of the Constitution. The Chief Justice of the Afghan Supreme Court is reported to have said that “women have two equal rights under the constitution; number one every woman has the right to obey her husband and two every woman has the right to pray, though not in the mosque, which is reserved to men.”
It is not only valid but also necessary to reject the conflation of support for Afghan women’s rights with support for the war. This conflation has obstructed our view of what alternatives may exist. It has blocked us from recognizing that perpetual war clamps down on the space that women have to build solutions for their future.
There is no clear or easy blueprint that will lead us to a solution. But if we are to chart this path, we must begin by recognizing the shared feminist principles that guide us. Ultimately, our vision and goals are the same: to find the most effective and lasting means to secure women’s human rights in Afghanistan. Where we differ is in our assessment of the best tactics to achieve that goal.
Yet, over decades, the global women’s movement has been built on values of collaboration and dialogue. These are the virtues that must serve as a guide for the conversation we must continue now about how best to support Afghan women in their struggle for their rights.
Diana Duarte, Media Coordinator, manages MADRE’s outreach to the media and runs the myMADRE blog. Diana also designs and implements media campaigns within MADRE’s program areas: peacebuilding, women’s health and combating violence against women, and economic and environmental justice. Before joining MADRE, she worked in policy analysis and communications at Africa Action, an Africa advocacy organization in Washington, DC.