As the Taliban and NATO spring offensives grind on, many people’s perceptions of Afghanistan are pessimistic. Some say our Western efforts have changed nothing, so we will fail: The ongoing abuses against women, corruption, and warlordism are opening the door to the Taliban. Others say unless we change nothing, we will fail: Steps towards gender equality and democracy are disturbing a male-dominated, ultra-conservative society and reviving Taliban support.
These perspectives miss the real grounds for hope in Afghanistan: Afghans themselves are changing their society, with Afghan women playing a leading role. Despite the Taliban’s military revival, Afghan women have won broad support for their rights to study, work, and vote, largely gained since the Taliban’s 2001 ouster, and overwhelmingly reject their former oppressors. But, at the same time, Afghans are struggling to reconcile many of their Islamic traditions with the modern world, as the case of women also shows.
The stereotype of a tribal society resistant to all change does injustice to most Afghans, who want a society very different from that which the Taliban imposed. But applying unrealistic yardsticks to Afghanistan leaves us unable to see important changes taking place there. If we are to respect the Afghans’ reform consensus, we must support the incremental progress under way and accept their limits to change.
Surprising as it may seem, grassroots support for women’s rights — the antithesis of Taliban policy — is widespread in Afghanistan today. An ABC News survey of 1,036 Afghans last October found that 80 per cent accept women as members of parliament; 70 per cent of both sexes agree women should be able to work outside their home; and 88 per cent of the population supports education for girls. This is a sea-change from 20 years ago, when sending girls to Soviet-run schools generated widespread resistance. Indeed, opposition to girls’ education under the Soviet occupation was a rallying cry of the mujahadeen. Now, polls show that Afghans see lack of education as Afghan women’s biggest problem and the rights to work and study as women’s most important gains since the Taliban’s fall. Nor are women’s rights merely theoretical: 43 per cent of Afghan girls are in school now and one woman in seven has a job — while under the Taliban, females had little place in school or the workplace. Some 60 per cent of women also voted in the 2004 presidential election, and women won 26 per cent of parliamentary seats in 2005.
Afghans themselves are well aware of the changes: Four-fifths say women’s rights have improved since the Taliban fell, which is a major reason why a majority still says the country is headed in the right direction. In fact, when they are asked what democracy will bring them personally, women’s rights is a leading response.
Support for women’s rights is an important part of Afghanistan’s struggle to define its own democracy. It is also a powerful barrier to the return of the Taliban. Support for Taliban fighters, while limited among men, is almost non-existent among Afghan women, the ABC survey found. This should be no surprise. It is hard to imagine that Afghanistan’s women, who have the most to lose, would welcome a Taliban comeback. Indeed, as the military threat of the Taliban increased last year, polling found the group experiencing the greatest loss of confidence was young, urban women — those who had made the greatest gains from their new freedom. While Taliban violence, often targeting women and girls, is spreading fear, it is not winning converts. After attacks on 400 schools and 40 teachers in the past year, there are some districts where Taliban intimidation has virtually shut down girls’ education. But 96 per cent of Afghans say that attacks against teachers and schools are wrong.
Make no mistake: Afghanistan is still a very conservative society where tribal traditions, puritanical Islam, and gender inequalities run deep. Some 55 per cent of Afghans say a woman should wear a burka; half still won’t accept a woman singing on television; 60 per cent of men and women endorse arranged marriages; 60 per cent say women should not supervise male employees.
Forced marriages, male domination, and domestic violence are deeply-rooted problems, unlikely to be solved soon. Yet Afghans — men and women alike — spelled out what they want in the ABC poll: development and security. Their priorities are jobs, schools, electricity, roads, and health care. Asked about the presence of American, British, and Canadian troops, more than 70 per cent expressed gratitude for all of them. They do not want foreign economic or military aid scaled back; indeed, their goals cannot be met without more support from abroad.
In policy terms, this means that, however tempting, abandoning our social, economic, and military engagement with the Afghans would run against their wishes and our interests. But we must also understand that they, not we, are setting the pace of change. It is a mistake to expect them soon to meet the Western standards applied by some well-intentioned foreigners. We must be prepared, long term, to sustain efforts to help Afghans meet basic needs and defend themselves as they shape a society in their own image.
Of course, if we persevere, success in Afghanistan is likely to be partial at best. It will look less like paradise than like Pakistan: a violent, underdeveloped Pashtun tribal belt in the South and East, and corruption-plagued semi-normality elsewhere. Yet such a state would be many Afghans’ dream — while a Taliban comeback is their nightmare, as well as ours.
For our part, even as we must be realistic in our aims and humble about our role in Afghanistan, we should show no less commitment to its future than the country’s own women and men have. When an American TV producer recently visited a girls’ school the Taliban had burned down three times, he found their mothers and fathers rebuilding the school for a fourth time. There’s a lesson for us.
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