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Women at Risk in Afghanistan

Author: Jennifer Seymour Whitaker
July 30, 2002
The Boston Globe

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Since Sept. 11, the US administration has repeatedly pledged its commitment to Afghan women. President Bush made the case strongly in his June commencement speech at West Point: "A thriving nation will respect the rights of women, because no society can prosper while denying opportunity to half its citizens." However, America's Afghan policy is, in effect, selling women out. The United States has fostered the increasing power of the Afghan warlords and provided only minimal support to the fledgling Afghan government. Moreover, it has opposed the expansion of the International Security Force, which could neutralize the power of those with guns and allow other voices to be heard.

A US- and UN-guided process helped ensure women a place at the table as ministers in the temporary Afghan administration and participants in the emergency grand council, or loya jirga, which met in Kabul in June. During that assembly, women demonstrated why Afghanistan needs them to create democracy. Though a scant 10 percent of those assembled, with no troops or guns at their disposal, female delegates challenged with unparalleled candor the misogynist warrior ethos of both the Taliban and the warlords now in power and said they were looking for a leader who would make human rights a priority.

The female presidential candidate, Massouda Jalal, injected a modicum of democracy into the process, lining up the necessary signatures to run as male candidates fell by the wayside. The women's urgent need for accountable government drew them together in a unity that bridged tribal and ethnic differences.

However, at the end of the day the men with guns had, with apparent US acquiescence, greatly increased their power within the Afghan administration and were escalating the intimidation of "dissenters." During the loya jirga, the Afghan defense minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Fahim, assailed the husband of Massouda Jalal for his wife's temerity in running for president. Accusations of blasphemy pursued Former Vice President Sima Samar, who was driven from her post as women's affairs minister.

Interim government ministers with civilian rather than military credentials were dismissed, Chief Justice Shinwari, who publicly upbraided Samar and has called for full support of Sharia, or Islamic law, was reappointed; and the majority of the Judicial Commission, responsible for reconciling Islamic principles with other legal traditions, are graduates of religious schools, called madrassas, with no further education.

Returning home from the loya jirga, many women faced the threat of violent backlash. Their joy at the promise of freedom and pride in finding a public voice conflicts with the fear of pervasive lawlessness. Taliban-style sexual policing still thrives in a number of places under the aegis of the US Northern Alliance partners as well as in former Taliban strongholds. Taliban pamphlets warn of reprisals for "spreading indecency and vulgarity" by "sending women to offices and daughters to schools." In much of the country outside of Kabul, the crossfire of rival factions has left women immensely vulnerable and victimized anew by a wave of rapes and other forms of sexual violence.

The US failure to support the Afghan administration materially or militarily has blighted early opportunities for women and the rule of law. While spending more than $2 billion a month on its pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and channeling money and technical assistance to local military leaders, the United States pledged only $2 million this year to help the Afghan administration build a national army. Most important, while anarchy grows, the United States has opposed the expansion of the international security force, essential for establishing national order outside of Kabul.

Rooting out Al Qaeda is an unquestioned American priority, but it falls far short of what we need to achieve in Afghanistan. To lay the groundwork for peace and reconstruction in the aftermath of the loya jirga, the United States must signal its commitment to the rule of law by pushing for the immediate deployment of international security force throughout Afghanistan. We will not measurably increase our security from terrorism unless we keep our promises to help win the peace - and to the participation of women of rebuilding their country.


Jennifer Seymour Whitaker is senior fellow and director of the Project on Women's Human Rights and US Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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