Afghan Women: Enduring American “Freedom”

Based on Conference Presentation at Afghan Women’s Mission Conference, October 2002. Published in Frontline Magazine (India), Z Magazine, and Foreign Policy in Focus

In January 2002, George W. Bush told us in his State of the Union address, “The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free …” Almost a year later (11 Oct 2002), Bush again congratulated himself: “We went into Afghanistan to free people, because we believe in freedom. We believe every life counts. Every life matters. So we’re helping people recover from living under years of tyranny and oppression. We’re helping Afghanistan claim its democratic future.” The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was called “Operation Enduring Freedom”. With all this talk of freedom, it is important to ask the question, how are Afghan women enduring American-style freedom? When we think of women’s rights in Afghanistan, we think of the imprisonment of the Burqa, the traditional Islamic head to foot covering that the Taliban forced women to wear. George Bush certainly seems to subscribe to this view. But many Afghan women wore the burqa before and after the Taliban. In the rural areas of Afghanistan, the majority of women covered themselves. Contrary to what President Bush would have us believe, the problems facing Afghan women run far deeper than clothing. Food security, access to healthcare, and safety from physical violence are key aspects of women’s rights that the US intervention has largely ignored or even jeopardized.

Coming Winter Brings Starvation

By November, Afghanistan’s harsh winter will return and thousands of Afghans, devastated by three years of drought and 23 years of war and civil unrest, will be facing winter and starvation. Take the Badghis province of Afghanistan for example — one of the poorest. Roughly 50 percent of Badghis’s approximately 400,000 population cannot obtain enough food this winter. Fatema, a resident of Bagdhis, doesn’t know how she will feed her six children this year. Her 15 year old son is the only one in the family who can earn any money and he does it by selling grass for fuel and food. Two months ago they were refugees, but they recently returned. They are among the millions of refugees that have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, the millions who have been counted as a measure of success by the U.N. of the U.S.’s Operation “Enduring Freedom” (World Vision, October 17th).

When George Bush promised us that Afghan women were free he assuaged our guilt as the bombs rained down on Afghanistan, picking off wedding parties, cutting off crucial winter aid routes, delaying spring plantings of wheat. According to Bush, at least women can now walk around without a burqa if they want. But what good is an uncovered face if it is starving to death? Women’s rights are human rights: survival is more important than clothing and survival has been the most difficult challenge facing women both before and after the U.S. action in Afghanistan..

Women’s Health Still in Crisis

A recent report released by the US-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) entitled “Maternal Mortality in Herat Province: The Need to Protect Women’s Rights”, said, “The rate of maternal mortality in a society is a critical indicator of the health and human rights status of women in a community.” The report documented 593 maternal deaths in every 100,000 live births, with the majority of the cases in rural areas. This maternal mortality rate is far worse than in all of the countries neighboring Afghanistan. The second worse neighboring country is Pakistan, with 200 deaths per 100,000 births. A researcher with PHR concluded, “What appears to be simply a public health catastrophe in Herat Province… speaks of the many years of denial and deprivation of women’s rights in Afghanistan.”

Today one of the most vulnerable groups of women in Afghanistan are widows. In Kabul alone there are an estimated 40,000 widows who have lost their husbands in the decades of war in Afghanistan. Nationwide, the number of widows is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, since about 1.5 million Afghans were killed during the ten year Soviet occupation and the cross fire from warlordism that followed in the early 1990s. “While the plight of Afghan widows has improved psychologically, the main problems of finding shelter, food and income remain thesame,” says Awadia Mohamed , the coordinator for CARE International in Afghanistan. “Indeed, in some cases they have worsened.” Widows have very limited access to food and health services despite the absence of the Taliban. In fact, “51 percent of widows surveyed reported being unwell, of whom 57.6 percent had fever, 13.6 percent had diarrhoea and 10 percent leishmaniasis wounds…Furthermore, calorie intake was insufficient, with most of the women and their children subsisting on little more than bread and tea, resulting in malnutrition problems and micronutrient deficiencies”. (“Afghanistan: Focus on the plight of widows”, IRIN, 21st October, 2002).

Hunger and lack of healthcare indicate the deprivation of the basic rights of mothers, daughters, and widows. Where are the media and their cameras now?

Warlords Threaten Security for Women

Article 3 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” If the right to survival is a fundamental principle of women’s rights, freedom from insecurity is another. But insecurity is a euphemism for war, for conflict, for more violence and bloodshed. Unfortunately, “territorial skirmishes between heavily armed warlords” (“Fighting breaks out in troubled eastern Afghan province”, AFP, October 17th) are all too common.

Practically speaking, since the Taliban fell and warlords of the past returned to their old fiefdoms, they resumed fighting one another, exactly what they were doing when the Taliban first came to power. According to Agence France-Presse, “Northern Afghanistan remains plagued by factional and ethnic rivalries despite loose allegiances between warlords controlling the area, most of whom have offered pledges of support to the central Afghan government.” (“Violence in northern Afghanistan deterring refugee returns: UN”, Agence France-Presse, 20th October, 2002). Such clashes are frequent and deadly, in the northern and eastern part of Afghanistan.

The media fail to report prominently that many of these warlords, now members of the Northern Alliance, were first empowered by the United States in the 1980s to repel the Soviet invasion, and then again during the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghansitan (RAWA) spelled out last year what empowering war lords will do for Afghanistan: “The Taliban and Al-Qaeda will be eliminated, but the existence of the NA [Northern Alliance] as a military force would shatter the joyful dream of the majority for an Afghanistan free from the odious chains of barbaric Taliban. The NA will horribly intensify the ethnic and religious conflicts and will never refrain to fan the fire of another brutal and endless civil war in order to retain in power.” (“RAWA’s appeal to the UN and World community”, November 13th, 2001). Rather than heed the words of RAWA and others,the U.S. engaged the services of the Northern Alliance, with the CIA paying warlords $100,000 each to gather armies (“Caught Off Guard, the CIA Fights to Catch Up,” Cloud, D. S., 15 April 2002, Wall Street Journal). Today, the three Vice Presidents of Afghanistan are all members of the Northern Alliance – General Mohammad Fahim, Karim Khalili and Haji Abdul Qadeer. And, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a former Mujahadeen warrior, is now Defense Minister of Afghanistan.

The Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who recieved a plaque of appreciation from US forces for help against the Taliban last year, can add ethnic cleansing to his achievements. Dostum’s troops recently forced 180 Pashtun families (people who are the same ethnicity as the Taliban), from villages in northern Afghanistan in early October. Some of the women said they had been raped by his men and had their homes looted. (“Pashtuns driven from northern Afghan villages”, 7th October, 2002, Reuters).

While Afghan women are desperate for security and for the International Security Armed Forces (ISAF) to be expanded from Kabul to all of Afghanistan, the U.S. continues to deny this. Even Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, a puppet of the U.S., has asked for the ISAF to be expanded to all of Afghanistan, so that warlords can be disarmed and a transition to peace can begin. Instead the U.S. has been focusing on training a national army of Afghans which is undermined by the fact that Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim himself has a private army of 18,000 men. (“Afghans ask: ‘Whose army is it?,'” David Buchbinder, 17th October, 2002, Christian Science Monitor). With the U.S. empowering warlords, and undermining the ISAF expansion, there is little hope for peace and security in the country. Afghan women will pay the highest price as they have always done.

Girls Schools Still Under Attack

In March of this year the Washington Post happily ran a story headlined “The Girls Are back in Afghan Schools”. One could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across America — the knowledge that our good war, meant to liberate Afghan women was working. But are the media reporting the recent spate of attacks against schools in Afghanistan? Schools have been burned down in Kandahar, Wardak and Sar-i-Pul. In the seventh incident in a series of attacks on girls’ schools in Afghanistan, gunmen forced a school in the Wardak province that served 1,300 girls to close. In recent weeks girls schools have been burned and bombed. (“UNICEF denounces violent attacks on schools in Afghanistan, 17th October, 2002, UN News Service).

“Saving” Afghan Women

It is crucial for us to understand that women’s rights are always politically manipulated by the powerful, to justify almost anything. In the late 70s, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and claimed to be saving Afghan women. Then, they began assassinating men who opposed the invasion, leaving thousands of women widowed. The U.S. backed Mujahadeen (many of whom now comprise the Northern Alliance) claimed to be saving women, from the “godless” communists. Then, they simply raped women, forced them into marriages, and tortured their husbands. The Taliban took over from the Mujahadeen, claiming to save Afghan women. Then they forced them to stay at home (for their own good), stop going to school, and be denied access to medical care. And finally, George Bush came riding on a white horse to save Afghan women. Perhaps it is time to rethink promises made by powerful men to save Afghan women.

Afghan women don’t need saving. They know perfectly well how to save themselves: the brave work of RAWA in the fields of education, health care, political agitation and demands for secularism, democracy and women’s rights, is a testament to this. The West does not hold a monopoly on these issues. What Afghan women need is for the U.S. to stop imposing freedom through bombs, stop backing human rights violators and warlords, and stop hindering the security forces from expanding to the rest of the country.

The struggle of Afghan women has been reduced here in the United States to a simplistic discussion about the Burqa. Don the burqa and you’re oppressed, take it off and, lo and behold, you’re free. But what does this really mean? It means that to constantly portray Afghan women as weak, covered up, defenseless, needing our help, makes us feel good about helping Afghan women, about saving them. To express solidarity with Afghan women, we need to understand what affects them, starting with what we are responsible for and have the power to change — the use of bombs and warlords as tools of US policy. We need to begin treating Afghan women with dignity and not reduce them to a piece of clothing. Afghan women’s rights are a crucial part of the equation of Afghanistan. One year later, it is clear that Afghan women are not “free” — they are simply enduring American freedom.

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